Friday, September 30, 2011

The Silver Platter Reopens

Same pit beef, new fries 

The Silver Platter reopened this week and introduced their new menu. People are fickle about food, and the business lunch crowd tends to gravitate toward the convenient and immediate. So, The Silver Platter took a serious risk when they closed up shop for a full two weeks to revamp the menu. They are back in business this week, but it is not the same food cart.

The gourmet dishes at ridiculous prices that they built their following on are gone, profit margin being cited as the principle reason. This is understandable as we all wondered how they were able to sell seared scallops and lobster mac and cheese for $12. Gone, too, are the previous chef team - the head chef (who left several weeks before the temporary closing) and his assistant chef who was beginning to roll out items of his own creation. In their place, there are now two short order cooks and a menu that consists primarily of Baltimore's latest culinary trend - sliders.

The hot dog
The current menu offers the original pit beef and pulled pork in the smaller slider size, plus Cajun chicken, barbecue salmon and hot dogs, all served on a Martin's potato roll. The highly popular potato ribbons have been replaced with more standard food service fries, both potato and sweet potato. An order consists of two sliders or dogs with a side of fries and a soda or bottled water, all for $10 (except the hot dog, which was $6).

The small group of us regulars who went back to The Sliver Platter on its grand reopening were left unmoved. We tried the hot dog, the barbecue salmon and the pit beef. While the home made barbecue sauce for the pit beef was also gone (replaced with a super-sweet sauce from a bottle), the meat itself was still just as good as before. I ate it all but left the Martin's rolls behind. The hot dog was a standard hot dog, and, when asked how it was, its consumer merely shrugged. The salmon was first deemed "something I could have made at home". We all agreed that the old artistry was missing. Whether that is the new staff, the new menu, or both remains to be seen.
The barbecue salmon

And there is definitely some craftsmanship missing at this juncture. The Lobster Roll - a favorite from the old menu - made an appearance on Day 2 as a special. It was still a generous portion of lobster meat, but the salad was missing some of its former creaminess. And the grilled, buttered bread that it used to be served in was replaced with a Martin's hot dog bun, straight out of the bag. That being said, it takes time for a new kitchen staff to gel. This week, though, The Silver Platter has undeniably been having some growing pains.

Some of the other items from the previous menu will be rotated back through as specials, but, like the Lobster Roll, they may not be the same masterpieces we have come to know and love. Suggestions will also be solicited via their Facebook page. While I secretly wondered how long this would last, I'm hoping The Silver Platter grows beyond the new sliders concept in the weeks to come. The truck is outfitted with a smoker, and the pit beef is still a strong item. We're hoping they make more use of the smoker in their new conception and bring back some variety of ribs.
This week's Lobster Roll

There is no doubt that The Silver Platter will find its crowd. But reinventing yourself is difficult, especially for purveyors of food who rely on a crowd of familiar faces. After this first week, when many regulars shook their heads in bewilderment, their future in the Harbor East neighborhood seems a little uncertain. In an area with an overabundance of eateries, what can you offer the local crowd that others cannot? Previously, we got a gourmet food experience at a non-gourmet price. What will it be now?  With even the wine bar on the block selling sliders, it may be challenging in this neighborhood.

With his promotion of (and I suspect organizational involvement in) The Gathering food truck happy hours, it seems like the owner of The Silver Platter has something to offer the city.I'll be returning as the new menu develops.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth

Today I faced an unfortunate truth that I have been avoiding for weeks. My cupcake habit has gotten out of control. Sure, it started simply enough. A once-a-week visit to the IcedGems truck on Fridays for a superior deviation from my usually low-sugar diet. What's wrong with that? I thought.

Then I burned some vacation time in August by taking Fridays off. Anxiety set in every Friday afternoon, and I began seeking cupcakes close to home. I justified this in the name of research. I am a food blogger, after all, and it would be remiss of me to not be familiar with the local scene. But then, as slippery slopes go, I began frequenting these local bakeries at other times, not just Friday afternoons, especially Flavor Cupcakery which is located next door to our new favorite restaurant, Fiesta Grill. Who doesn't like a little cupcake after an enchilada platter? I reached a peak of sorts when I stopped by for not one, but six cupcakes last weekend, fully planning on premeditated cupcake deviance during the week.

Over the ensuing weeks since the cupcake habit grew in August, my clothing has been getting a little snug. Still, I persisted in the myth that all was well and that I could get away with such behavior. I've been avoiding mirrors. (One of my favorite habits is to look at myself in the mirror and poke my soft spots to jiggle the fat. This may sound absurd and self-loathing to those who have never done it, but as a formerly overweight person and member of Weight Watchers, I know just how out of hand I can get - having gotten there not just once but twice - and this practice, while not endorse by Weight Watchers, actually keeps me in the healthy eating/healthy weight area. When I stop doing it, I am inevitably in Weight Gain Denial, where I can remain for months while accumulating an extra  20, 30 even 40 lbs, so this is a good thing for me to do. Really.) This weekend I pulled on a pair of jeans that fit comfortably about a month ago. And pulled and pulled and pulled. I held my breath to get them zipped and despaired at the muffin top (cupcake top?) that spilled over the waistline.

OK, so it's actually only been 7 lbs. But, supposedly that is a full clothing size. So, today I eat my last cupcake. It is - appropriately enough - carrot cake. And even though it is riddled with coconut, I am savoring every little bite, letting the dense cream cheese frosting melt in my mouth, because I know it will be a while before I can do this again.

 Farewell Flavor Cupcakery and IcedGems. We've had a pretty good run. Please know that my absence is because your products are just too good. I'll see you again when I can fit into those jeans.

What about the farewell cupcake?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Almost Paradise: Harford County is Knocking on Wegman's Door

The Flower Shop: 2 words - holy shit

The conventional wisdom around Harford County is that the opening of a New York-based Wegman's Market out here was long blocked by the Klein family, founders of what was once the largest local chain of grocery stores in the area. There is no supporting evidence that this blogger is privy to, but as the Internet has shown us over the last decade, just because it is unsubstantiated gossip doesn't necessarily mean it is not true. And, adding fuel to this suburban legend is the coincidental fact that shortly after the Kleins went into partnership with Pennsylvania discount grocer Shop Rite and re-branded their grocery empire, ground was broken on a Wegman's in Abingdon.

Pre-cut veggies
One tour through the store will let you know why the Klein family may have been concerned, but will also reveal that Klein's, even in the hay day of its previous generation of owners, is not in the same category as Wegman's - not even close.

I had previously visited the Wegman's in nearby Hunt Valley and had some idea of what we were all in for when the store opened. But nothing prepared me for the sheer pandemonium that has been unfolding over the course of this week. One of my friends was there on Sunday, September 18, when the store first opened and almost lost her mother in the roiling crowd. I arrived on Tuesday and was impressed by the police presence in the parking lot, there to enforce the common sense laws of right-of-way, obeying traffic signs and only parking where indicated that the more excited shoppers had clearly forgotten. Once inside the store, I joined the mob and threw all caution to the wind.

A nice selection of bread
This will be tested at a later date
I stopped in to pick up a couple of things to do a little price checking against Wal-Mart and also get the lay of the land. Which I did accomplish. However, there was just so much stuff, and good stuff that I actually want, and without my counterpart there to anchor me, I honestly got a little silly. In addition to the couple of items we actually needed, I came out of there with things I never find anywhere - red bean ice cream, shumai, Earl Grey tea with bergemont (the oil, not the flavoring) - you get the picture. While in my gut I was sure I had saved a ton of money (and my heart went along with this), a receipt-to-receipt bottom-line comparison was out of the question.

Of the regular items I bought, some where more expensive (Simply Lemonade - $0.50 more), some were less expensive (Barbara's Organic Peanut Butter Puffins - $2.00 cheaper with the shopper card) and some were about the same (Wegman's coffee - $0.25 more but also a larger bag). Plus they have all my favorite things - coconut water, Red Zinger tea,  and a very nice bakery to say the least. I picked up a Red Velvet cake roll that was a little roll of heaven and will naturally be going back for the carrot cake.

The iPhone takes a tumble
I returned on Thursday night after my workout to pick up a little dinner from their highly reputable cafe section. Located directly across the street from the Y I frequent, this could easily spell disaster for my recalcitrant waistline if only they were a little more impressive in this area. I hit the sushi and the dim sum with fairly mediocre results. The selection was amazing, as was the presentation (pictured below). But the actual flavor was lacking - it really did taste like Chinese buffet food sitting under heat lamps on a steam table. Which is exactly what it is. If that's what you're looking for - great. But at $8.49/lb there are certainly better deals in town. And with Wok To Go just a few miles away, there is much better quality.

While I can see myself going down this path fairly often while Gareth is in his certification class on Thursdays, it will be out of a mixture of convenience and laziness and not out of any real desire for their food. In all fairness, I will try it a few more times as they also have Indian, American comfort, and soup. I'll write back if these are any better.

Overall, I am very happy to have a Wegman's in the neighborhood. With recipe planners and cooking technique videos on their website, plus the amazing variety of their grocery offerings, I am a convert and a true fan. There are also deals to be found and an awesome selection of grocery items and produce. I'll leave the hot bars for the harried hoi polloi. With so much fresh food in the offerings, why bother with anything else?

Sushi bar
Dim Sum Go-Go

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mmmm Mmmm Good

Probably my greatest flaw as a foodie and would-be expert on what to eat is my undying love of Campbell's condensed tomato soup, especially in the autumn. As soon as the temperature dips below 70, soup's on. I'm more reliable with the season's first can of soup than I am with getting the furnace serviced. It's the first sign that summer is over, and I feel it in my core.

Here's how I make it:

  • Reconstitute the soup with half water, half milk (or 3/4 water, 1/4 cream)
  • Dice up some fresh tomatoes and onion or leek. Simmer these with the soup and add some pepper (white, red or both).
  • Mince some fresh herbs, or muddle dried herbs with a mortar and pestle and add to the soup as it approaches done-ness.
  • Grate some cheese directly into the bottom of your soup bowl.
  • Ladle the soup on top of the cheese, and add a dollop of sour cream if you like.
  • Serve with a crust of crusty French or sourdough bread.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My So-Called Lunch

When you get used to eating lunch at the same place, enjoying the same menu of favorites, and then suddenly they are closed, it's like losing your best friend or soemthing, you know?

Brian Krakow
This week the whole social order was thrust into full upheaval when The Silver Platter shut down to redo their menu. When the familiar silver truck was missing from the lot on Center Street, we panicked. At lunch time, we wandered aimlessly through Harbor East looking for something good to eat for a reasonable price. Many people gave up and brown bagged it. I decided to return to some of my old haunts. Here is a rundown of my lunches this week.

Monday: Whole Foods Salad Bar
Healthy and not too expensive, this has remained a staple of my weekly lunch routine even with more tempting options. It is sensible and reliable and, at $7.99/lb, not too expensive if you avoid the heavier items. The bar offers spinach, chopped romaine, and mixed greens. One side has staples like cut vegetables and assorted dressings. The other side has pre-made combos like artichoke and tomatoes, Asian slaw, and marinated root vegetables. This week, I got the fried chicken salad over spinach with cherry tomatoes, grated carrots, celery and bleu cheese. It came out to about $6.50, mostly due to the chicken salad, made up of breaded chicken breast cut into bite-sized chunks, cheddar cheese and tomatoes in a creamy dressing. I felt like I had made a responsible choice, both dietarily and fiscally.

Rickie Vasquez
Tuesday: Curbside Cafe
This relatively new addition to my lunch routine is parked outside my building every Tuesday and draws a reliable crowd who just fall short of chanting "Taco Tuesday" once breakfast has worn off in anticipation of lunch. The menu has a definte Latino influence with a standard selection of burritos and sides like beans and rice or fried plantains. But these gals play it a little funky by adding a corn and mango salsa and my new favorite - the curried chickpea and potato burrito. I get mine in a bowl with letttuce, tomatoes, cheese, the aforementioned corn mango salsa and sour cream (this is what one of them recommended, and she was right). The curry is spicy and works with the slightly sweet mango salsa. And even with the lack of meat, it is very filling and keeps me satisfied through the afternoon without feeling like a boulder. This week I also got a side of plantains with salt and pepper (they also come with Adobo or curry) for a total of $6.50.

Sharon Cherski
Wednesday: Harbor East Deli
By mid-week, I was really feeling kind of lost and turned to an old comfort food from my childhood - the bologna and mayonaise sandwich. Harbor East Deli does make a good sandwich, and I've had this one from them in the past - bologna on white with lettuce, tomato, mayo and swiss. It's a little pricey at $6.50 but is a quite the meaty sandwich, so I always feel like I'm getting what I pay for. I ate half for lunch with a sadly over priced Cesar salad ($5.99 for chopped romaine, grated parmesean, and a packet of Ken's Steakhouse dressing), making for a total of $14.50. When the 3:30 doldrums rolled around, I ate the second half and was well-fuled for the evening's cardio workout. Even though bologna isn't really part of my current dietary regimine, I retain a certain weakness for it, and when I choose to indulge, I rarely regret it.

Jordan Catalano
Thursday: Legg Mason Cafeteria
The Legg Mason Cafeteria is open to the public, and for this we are eternally grateful. They entertain the international financial crowd, so you know the on-site dining is better than at most offices. This week they had a duck lunch on the menu - roasted duck breast with sage risotto, garlic green beans and a fig compote. I saw that item listed for Thursday's lunch when I checked their menu earlier in the week and was gastronomically counting down the days. As good as it was to think about eating duck for lunch, the reality fell just slightly short. The duck had a nice irony taste, and the green beans were cooked to perfection. The risotto, though.....It was strongly flavored and salty and just no good on its own. Even when I mixed in some of the fig compote, the risotto was still overpowering. Which only goes to show that sometimes the thought of something is better than the reality. Other than that, it was a lovely lunch. Coming in at $9.50, it was the deal of the week.
Rayanne Graff

Friday: Ra Sushi
I can't remember the first time I had a Bento box, but I do know that it has always felt natural for me. My particular eating habits are well-suited for it. I gravitate toward eating my food in sections - first the veg, then the meat, etc. And even though I know there is something a little overt about Ra Sushi - a little trendy and less than authentic - I really like their bento box. It's one of the most genuine items on a menu that features things like the Viva Las Vegas roll ("Kani kama crab and cream cheese rolled in rice and seaweed, lightly tempura battered and topped with spicy tuna, kani kama crab mix & sliced lotus root; finished with a sweet eel sauce and spinach tempura bits"). Yeah. My bento came with an egg roll, a gyoza, slaw in one corner and a green salad in the other, and four shrimp tempura on a bed of rice. Even with the presence of so many deep-fried items, it was not greasy. Plus the rice was sticky enough to eat with chopsticks. It wasn't outstanding, but it felt familiar and good and just what I wanted. And that's a lot of food for $9.00.

And, of course there was a cupcake from IcedGems. Today I tried their new Hot Chocolate, and it tasted true to its namesake - a light chocolate flavor topped with a marshmallow icing that gave me heart palpatations. Despite my cupcake dalliances in August, I remain loyal to IcedGems for creations like this.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Little Taste of History

The Dallam family has been dairy farming since the 1700's, making Broom's Bloom one of those wonderful historical artifacts of Harford County that predate the American Revolution. The dairy has been modernized as times have changed over the last three centuries. The most recent addition consists of large solar panels on the barn and over the farm store where they sell local meats and cheeses along with their milk and home made ice cream. They also serve the best lunches in the area.

Broom's Bloom serves a standard variety of soups, sandwiches and quiches that are all made fresh out of real (and usually local) ingredients. Their cream of crab soup is the best in the state, including much fancier bisques I've had at more upscale establishments. Leave it to 9th-generation dairy farmers to understand a cream soup, it is consistently perfect - never scalded or scorched or separated and always seasoned with a light hand to let the flavor of blue crab dominate.

They also offer three lunch specials that are variations on soup/salad/sandwich combos that include a very small ice cream for desert. My favorite is The Dairymaid's Delight: a cup of soup, a plate of cheese and seasonal fruit, and a choice of a cornbread muffin or buttermilk biscuit. I'm usually partial to the cornbread, which is moist with a golden crust and just a touch of sweetness.

Tonight they were out of the cream of crab, which provided me with the opportunity to try something new. One of tonight's soups was the intriguing Southern Comfort - tomato soup with peppers, shrimp and sausage served over grits. The tomato stock was smooth and a little creamy and tasted like fresh tomatoes. The peppers and sausage were sparse which prevented them from overpowering the tomato. My cup had two nice-sized shrimp and about two fingers of grits at the bottom. I ate the shrimp first and then scooped the grits up from the bottom through the stock. While it seems like an unlikely combination, it was actually quite delicious and made me glad that they were out of my usual..

This was my first visit in the evening, and my cheese cubes were served with pineapple chunks instead of the usual orchard-fresh apples, peaches, pears, and berries that have accompanied my many lunches.

Gareth ordered The Cowman's Repast: A bowl of soup, half a sandwich, and a very small ice cream. He got his usual Maryland crab soup and paired it with half a tuna salad sandwich. The nice thing about a sandwich at Broom's Bloom is the unmistakable freshness of a tomato that was allowed to ripen on the vine before it was picked and then only traveled a few hundred feet before it was sliced for the sandwich. It is worth pulling the thick slices out of your sandwich and eating them plain. The tuna salad is also better than most with a light touch on the mayonnaise and a little hard-boiled egg mixed in.

We both ordered Andes Mint ice cream, mine in a bowl, his in a sugar cone. They also offer regular cake cones and waffle cones. You can upgrade to a sundae for just a little bit more. All their ice creams are very smooth and creamy, even flavors like graham cracker and cake batter. Their variety runs the gamut from these kid-friendly flavors to more traditional vanilla and caramel cashew. Flavors change daily and can be found on their Facebook page.

The Dallams are as much a part of Harford County as our historic Quaker meeting houses, stone walls and embankments, and Revolutionary War battle sites. They participate in several local farmer's markets and sell the meat, eggs and breads produced by other local farms. Their country store and lunch counter are the latest in a long history of community involvement as the Dallams continue to help shape Harford County. Broom's Bloom is located on Rt 543 less than a mile off of 1-95 between Riverside and Bel Air.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Mary Cooks: Salad Nicoise

Salad Niciose is a bit of a trick. There's a lot of bitter in there and not much opportunity to introduce anything sweet to balance it out. And, unlike tossed or chopped salads, it is made of a number of separate pieces that are then assembled on the plate providing little opportunity to taste the whole until it is on the table. With power restored and my counterpart working on the larger task of tree removal, I knew it was my turn in the kitchen, and Salad Nicoise came out.

There is some variation in Salad Nicoise, but it is important to remember the key ingredients are fresh (not canned) tuna, hard boiled egg, marinated potatoes, and a vinaigrette dressing. After that, there are choices: green beans or asparagus, olives or capers, hard cheese or bleu cheese. I've also seen tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, and even palm and artichoke hearts.

I went for a more fundamental approach. Honestly, I haven't had to cook in about five years, so I felt that simple would be better and did not try for anything fancy like mushrooms or artichoke. Also, there was no fresh tuna available. As the culinary odds are typically against me, I did not want to make matters worse with canned tuna, so I substituted another firm, somewhat oily fish in its place. In the end, my Salad Nicoise consisted of:

  • Romaine lettuce
  • Asparagus sauteed in butter and lemon juice
  • Goya Spanish olives, sliced
  • Hard boiled egg, sliced
  • Red potatoes lightly marinaded in Champagne vinegar, sliced
  • Soft goat cheese crumbles
  • Oven baked trout
  • Vinaigrette consisting of lemon juice, grape seed oil, Champagne vinegar, basil, oregano, celery seed, garlic powder, white and red pepper, mustard seed, and a little honey

Overall, it was fairly well-received. Despite performing hard labor for several hours, Gareth is not one to drop a compliment where it doesn't belong. Each of the parts were well-executed, and the trout was a workable substitute for the tuna. Even so, I fell into the two traps cited above and received suggestions in avoiding them in the future:

A Little Sugar Goes a Long Way: Recommendations for improvement included repeated mention of this adage. The question is - how? What opportunities present itself in a salad? One suggestion was to use orange juice and sugar in the dressing instead of lemon juice and honey. A little red bell pepper also adds some sweetness, more so than the tomatoes I purchased and intended to add.

The Sum of the Parts Do Not Always Equal a Whole Without Proper Seasoning: While each of the required components was well prepared on its own, they did not have the required commonality to make them truly feel like a single dish. This is a more complicated issue for me as I thought my approach would address this. I used similar seasonings on everything - white pepper, Kosher salt, Champagne vinegar, lemon juice. I left the hard boiled egg and the marinated potatoes unseasoned, though. This may have left an unintended gap that prevented this dish from coming together. A little mustard seed and paprika on the eggs and some salt on the potatoes will definitely be in play the next go round.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

How Much Take Out Can One Foodie Take?

We felt it as much as we heard it. The thunderous cracking of ancient limbs as the oak tree landed with enough force to shake the yard. Lights that had been flickering since the wind rose  blinked out, and all the electronic whines and hums and blinks were cut off. Silence and darkness fell across the neighborhood, and all we could hear was the wind and the rain beating against the house.

We awoke on Sunday with the sun. Power was out throughout the area, right along Churchville Road and into Bel Air. Nothing was open between the Aberdeen Wawa on Rt 40 and the Bel Air Double T Diner about 10 miles due west on Rt 24. We got breakfast across the street from the Double T at Einstein Bros Bagels, a young but highly efficient staff (the oldest looking no more than 25) handling the overflow from the Double T with a cheerful professionalism that was greatly appreciated and eased some of the initial dread of a potentially long power outage. Thus began our week of dining out.

Don't get me wrong. I do count myself among the lucky.  This summer's roof repairs held fast throughout the hurricane. There was no need for FEMA or the Red Cross where I live. There was no flooding in my area, no structural damage, at least nothing that extended beyond my own home. When that big oak tree came down, we knew it took a wire down with it. We called BGE on Sunday, and they had a crew there on Monday to assess the damages. The downed wire was attached to a utility pole, which the oak tree had snapped in two. That's all anyone could agree on, though. BGE replaced the pole but labeled it "Private" and claimed they could not work on the damaged line running from the pole underground to my home. A private electrician came out and said that the set up was not in compliance with current county regulations and they would need a permit to perform any work. And so on, until, after several calls to BGE, an older technical appeared late Friday night and hooked us back up.

As our week of take out progressed, each day began with the hope that this would be the day that everyone figured out how to turn our lights back on but ended in a restaurant eating burgers, tacos, any variety of things but nothing that actually felt like dinner.

We hit the newly discovered Fiesta Grill a couple of times. These were the best meals we had, and they appear to be consistently above the bar, not only for Mexican food, but for restaurants in the area as a whole. We also hit the Five Guys, a favorite that by week's end had lost all of its appeal. When left to my own devices on Tuesday night, I wandered into the Rogers House Tavern in Havre de Grace, a little hole-in-the-wall that looks to mostly cater to a loyal crowd of regulars. They welcomed me in and served me the best grilled ham and cheese I've had in a long time. And, of course, there was a lunch at the Laurrapin Grille and a special thanks to Chris Gengenbach who continues to make the place feel warm and inviting. When he saw me wander in, dazed and baffled and unwashed, he greeted me with a genuine smile and offered me a drink.

So, my experience with Hurricane Irene resulted in minor inconvenience for about a week with some residual headache still to come. Sure, I wanted the lights back. I wanted a hot shower and running water. But mostly what I wanted was a home-cooked meal, and to eat in my own dining room. Something about the inability to do these simple things created a greater sense of dislocation than not having any lights. Without the nightly ritual of cooking dinner, eating together (whether in animated chatter, irritable bickering or comfortable silence) and then cleaning up the kitchen, I felt lost, frustrated, depressed. And then the acid reflux kicked in.

By Friday, after a late lunch at Five Guys, I decided I was done. Confident that we would have at least a temporary hook up within 24 hours, I popped a multi-vitamin and did not mention food again. And The Fates smiled down upon us, sending us a technician knowledgeable in old farm electrical systems who firmly believed that the utility company is responsible for getting the power to the home, even if some farmer put up his own private pole 70-some odd years ago.

The power is back on. The refrigerator is cleaned out and ready to be restocked. While Gareth is cutting up the tree today and may be too tired to cook tonight, just knowing that we can fend for ourselves again is a comfort.

Additional thanks go to Juan for letting us use his shower, to my in-laws in Aberdeen for the same and for joining us for dinner, to Jim for helping us remove the big ass tree, to anyone who worked directly with me on Wednesday when I felt that all hope was lost, and to my employer for allowing me time off to get this mess sorted out.