Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Café Cuisine

I confess...when the semester is back in full swing and things are crazy, I sometimes subsist on cold cuts and/or sandwiches or strange combinations of leftovers from weekend cooking binges. And once in awhile, I even let someone do the cooking for me, although our restaurant pickin's are, sadly, quite slim in the greater Plattsburgh area. So when a new place pops up, it's always exciting, especially one that's only one teeny town over from me.

In early December, I was over at the feed store in Chazy, and I noticed a sign for a new cafe up at the train station, fittingly called The Station. I pulled up to the building only to be shoo'ed away by the owner who said that they weren't opening for a few days and to come back then! However, I didn't get back there until sometime the following month (when I was out of chicken and rabbit food once again!). So I decided to try again, and I am so happy that I did! The Station is a cute little place that's half cafe and half gift shop (not tacky, touristy things--nice things for Christmas, or baby showers, or weddings). And they have a coffee bar set up with several varieties of Green Mountain Coffee, so I suspect that The Station serves as an ersatz Starbucks for the good people of little Chazy. The tables are covered with old newspaper stories about the history of the train station and the town, and two of the booth tables were fashioned with doors from the original station. Their menu is all train-themed, too, like the All On Board Breakfast Sandwich, the Club Car Caesar or the Orient Express Salad, and sandwiches such as the Trackside Panini, the Whistletop, the Boxcar, and even some "Little Hobos" for the kids, including the Little Engineer or the Caboose. Oh, and my favorite thematic touch is when a train passes by (and the whole joint rumbles!), they give everyone a piece of candy! (It was a Hershey's Kiss when I was there.) Cute, eh?

I am also happy to report that my lunch at The Station was quite good. It's just soups, salads, and sandwiches, and as it was so cold the day I went, I opted for a steaming bowl of soup. I chose their house specialty which is always on the menu, Roasted Red Pepper and Smoked Gouda. Though a little on the salty side, man, was it good! It really hit the spot! As I was eating my delicious soup, they brought out a little tray of samples of couscous salad for people to try. Of course, the man at the table next to me was quite terrified of it until his luncheon companion explained that it was just itty-bitty pasta. (I think the foreign or even slightly vulgar-sounding name is off-putting to the townsfolk!) But I happily scarfed mine down, then promptly went up to the counter to order a full portion! However, this threw the employees into a bit of a tizzy, as it wasn't on the menu yet, so they didn't know how much to charge, and the owner had to be consulted, and it was a whole big to-do! But I finally got my cup of Moroccan-spiced couscous salad and enjoyed it immensely! So much so, I went home and did as I so often do and tried to replicate and improve on the dishes that I've had in restaurants.

I think I came up with something that is pretty close to being on par with their soup, but I daresay that my own version of the couscous salad was even better! In fact, the following weekend, my dear friend Vicky invited me to the co-op downtown for an event called a "Recipe Slam," which was basically a community potluck followed by an open mic scene with local aspiring poets and musicians. It was SUCH a great event--perfect for helping people to get out of the house in the dead of winter, shake off the cabin fever, and warm up to some good food and good people in their local community. Normally, I would bring a dessert to such an event, or perhaps one of my favorite potluck items, which is a crockpot full of Hawaiian/teriyaki meatballs (recipe from my friend Carey's mom). Usually those meatballs guarantee that I'll bring an empty crockpot home, but I am still psychologically scarred by the last time I took them to a potluck. I was in the play The Vagina Monologues a couple of years ago, and we had an initial cast meet-and-greet where everyone was supposed to bring a dish to share. Well, I brought the beloved meatballs...which turned out not to be so beloved to the cast of women who were largely an artsy, alternative, vegetarian crowd, as someone with more sense than I might have guessed. So I ended up eating meatballs for dinner for a week after that! I suspected that the same crunchy, veggie crowd would dominate the co-op event, and I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice! Thus, I decided to take my version of the Moroccan-spiced couscous salad, and I don't mean to brag too much, but it was a BIG hit! The coordinators of the event made a big fuss about how good it was (in front of everyone, to my delight and embarrassment), and the owner of one of our better local eateries downtown, the Adirondack Soup Kitchen, even came over to introduce himself and compliment me on my salad. Best of all, I took home an empty dish--the nicest potluck compliment of all!

Now I didn't try the green salads or any of the yummy-sounding sandwiches at The Station, but I certainly will in the future. I have only one criticism of the new cafe, but it's a big one. For a sweet finish to my fine lunch, I chose a piece of cheesecake from their pastry case. One bite told me all I needed to know--it was a pre-fab, frozen, industrial dessert. So when I had finished my lunch and was preparing to leave, I paused at the counter to compliment them on the soup and couscous salad, and I asked them which of their desserts were homemade so that I could try them another time. Well, the owner admitted that NONE of them were, and became very furtive about their origin, going so far as to tell me that it was a "secret" where they got their desserts. Meanwhile I'm thinking, um, you can KEEP your secret, lady! If I want a dessert of that caliber, I'll go buy myself a Sara Lee cheesecake or some other gem from the frozen foods section of any grocery store. So that's what The Station desperately needs, in my none-too-humble opinion--some HOMEMADE desserts! It doesn't have to be elaborate French pastries made from scratch or towering tortes with four fillings. But how hard is it to make some awesome cookies or a homey but delicious bundt cake of some sort? SHEESH!

Therefore, I am saddened to report that my homeland is still devoid of excellent baked goods. For those, one must travel north to the magnificent European-style bakeries of Montreal, or perhaps to the Green Mountain State across Lake Champlain where Vicky and I went on a shopping excursion and to see The Reader a couple of weeks ago (great flick, by the bye!). After our movie, we made a detour to the Fresh Market, on the advice of my friends, the Padulas. I still had fond memories of the pistachio cookie that I sampled at their house on Christmas Eve that came from the Fresh Market's bakery. Working my way around the fine little market, I loaded my basket up with several interesting condiments (my weakness), a lovely maple cheddar and zesty pepperoni that were both smoked in Vermont, and some house-made cornichons, among other tasty things. And of course, from the bakery side of the house, I bought some of the pistachio meringues, but I was also lured by the sirens' song of something they called "Bees' Knees," which was a bar cookie with a shortbread base and a honey-walnut topping. It reminded me a lot of the wonderful walnut torte that my pal Domenica makes, and I felt sure that I could replicate it at home (I definitely can't afford to pay $2.25 a cookie, though I understand that walnuts have become astronomically pricey these days!). I found the perfect recipe on a site called Local Cravings, and actually, I liked these better than Fresh Market's--the shortbread had a better texture, and the topping has more nuts. Truly, these may be my new favorite thing in the whole world!

So if you want to sample some of this "cafe cuisine" at home, give the following recipes a try:

Roasted Red Pepper and Smoked Gouda Soup
(Source: Adapted from
Bryan Woolley)

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
8 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 pounds roasted red bell peppers (jarred), cut into chunks
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes (preferably, fire-roasted)
4 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon black pepper
big pinch of red pepper flakes
2 cups smoked Gouda cheese, grated
1/2 cup half-and-half
salt to taste

1. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until softened. Add garlic and cook another minute.
2. Add peppers, tomatoes (and liquid), basil, thyme, oregano, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Sauté for about five minutes or until fragrant.
3. Add chicken stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least ten minutes.
4. Puree soup, add smoked Gouda cheese, half-and-half, and season with salt. Continue cooking until Gouda cheese is completely dissolved.
5. Serve and enjoy!

Moroccan Couscous Salad

2 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
1/2 pound Israeli (large-grained) couscous (about 1 1/4 cups)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
juice of half a lemon (1 or 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
pinch of cayenne (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
good of pinch salt (to taste)
1 15.5-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained
4 scallions/green onions, sliced (or 1/2 of a small onion)
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 bunch Italian parsley, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
sliced, toasted almonds—to garnish

In a medium saucepan, bring vegetable stock to a boil. Add the couscous, bring back to a boil, cover and simmer for ten minutes. In the meantime, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, honey, and spices in a large bowl. Add the cooked couscous, garbanzo beans, onion, carrot, garlic, and raisins, and stir everything together gently. Mix in the chopped parsley, then taste to correct the seasonings.

Can be served room temperature or chilled. Garnish with sliced, toasted almonds.

Honey-Walnut Bars, aka "Bees' Knees"
(Source: Adapted from
Local Cravings)

Heat oven to 350º and line a 9x13" baking pan with foil. Spray the foil with nonstick spray or oil it well. (I just sprayed my dish, and the bars came out easily once they'd cooled.)

2 cups flour
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup corn starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter

Cut butter into the dry ingredients until well mixed. Press into a buttered 9x13" baking dish. Freeze for 15 minutes. Bake the crust 15-20 minutes, until the edges are golden (mine took 20-25 minutes). While the crust bakes, make the topping.

2/3 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablepoons cream or milk

1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups whole walnuts, roughly chopped

Mix all topping ingredients except the walnuts together in a large bowl. When well combined, add walnuts and stir again. Pour over the top of the hot crust, spreading as well as possible with a spatula. When it bakes, the melting honey and sugar will disburse evenly, so just make sure the nuts are spread nicely. Bake an additional 20 (mine took 25) minutes, until the top is bubbly and caramelized. Cool 15 minutes, then cut into squares and let cool completely.


Natalie said...

Soup is good food! I will have to try this soup recipe, it looks and sounds so good. I am all about the soup in the winter.

Just the Right Size said...

Oh man...that cous cous salad is calling my name baby!

BTW, the Honey Wheat Harvest Grains Bread was WONDERFUL! Thank you for posting about it! I wrote a post about it on my blog.

Randi said...

I can so relate to your story. Everytime a new place opens, we try it, only to be sadly dissapointed. Hey, maybe you can do some baking for the cafe? They would be SOOOO lukcy to have you : )

Anonymous said...

How many servings did the soup make?