Thursday, June 23, 2005

If you found yourself in Valparaiso on Tuesday...

...You would know this county seat of Porter, Indiana offers not one but two places that offer Serrano ham. In fact one could get a full blown Spanish meal at Don Quiote, whose owner, I learned has inhabited Valparaiso for 20 years but has also opened a shop importing Spanish goods. Valparaiso is also a town where one could get a bottle of Montalcino de Brunelo at the corner drug store, cupcakes with towering spirals of real buttercream, and visit more than a few espresso parlors. It was tropical night at Old Style Inn, with all that implies, but it should be noted that if one wanted to skip the pu-pu platters, there was genuine Northern Indiana fare there like buttered perch and pan fried blue gills. Still, if one wanted to really taste the taste of Valparaiso, one would skip all of the above and head a mile or so east of town to the Strongbow Inn.

Strongbow Inn was at one time, really an inn or at least a motel with a restaurant or at least a turkey farm with a motel and a restaurant. One inspired the other which inspired the other. Still, over time, the restaurant has won the attention of the third generation of family owners.

Say chicken at the Strongbow Inn and they cringe the way witches and wizards cringe at the expression of Lord Voldemort. If you organize your existence around turkey, you stomach no mention of her squatter cousin. And if you organize your existence around turkey, you sell not just year round turkey dinners, you sell turkey soup, turkey pate, turkey pies, turkey wings and turkey legs. You get cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and bread dressing and gravy because these things go with turkey. You can, of course, jump ranks, and have chautebriand for two. I have never known nor seen anyone visit the right side of the menu, the evil non-turkey side.

I cannot vouch for the turkey pate. I can say everything else is satisfying in exactly the way it should. As a food writer might say, it is a true expression of its locale. I can also nip around the edges. The gravy is mostly just there, a moistener but not at all interesting or robust. The noodles for the soup are so clearly and visually homemade, and they have that toothsomeness that I love in homemade noodles, but they are also a bit mushy. The crust for the turkey pie lacks the structure or crispness of crusts made with butter or lard, but that does not mean it lacks for flavor. The potatoes are real as that implies but a bit on the bland side too. The house rolls are yeasty and soft, not at all like white bread. Luckily they require no lubrication because I'm not a lover of the margarine served along side. I must confess that my favorite thing at Strongbow is actually their salad dressing. The house dressing, a mysteriously simple garlic vinaigrette with crumbled blue cheese, is gosh darn nearly the best salad dressing I know. Lest you think I am overly critical, I will tell you that I'd be happy to return to Strongbow Inn next time I'm in Valparaiso on a Tuesday.

Strongbow Inn
2405 E. US 30
Valparaiso, IN 46383
Dick Durbin should have checked with Erik Zorn First.

Sane advice.
Third Market
Oak Park Farmer's Market June 8, 2005

Thursday, Thursday, there was a time when I tried to report on the market as soon as I got home. Let me just say that certain members of my family did not appreciate a detour in the middle of an otherwise busy weekend, so I am left to blog the market when I get around to it. Luckily, I have the steeltrap memories of the Chowhounditas to remember what we bought.

Strawberries. This was another week of strawberries. Nicholl's Farms gave out tastes of about six varieties of strawberries. We liked the intensity of Noreastener, but as we were taking samples from the last available pint, we did not want a short stack. We settled on two: Idea and Sparkle. Idea had a distinct and strong undertone of funk, what sophisticates call plummy, what realists call barnyard and what those without subtly say, tastes a bit like sh*t. But of course, all in a good way. Complex. Special. The guy at Nicholl's said they were considered the closest to the wild strawberries of France. Sparkle were much opposite. Super-sweet like bubble gum but with enough nuance that they did not seem cloying.

While strawberries dominated the market, the first sweet cherries appeared at a couple of vendors. Fresh local cherries sing the way cherries trucked in from long distances cannot, but the first of the year are less than juicy, harbingers for what will come. Otherwise, pretty much more of the same, a lot of lettuces and related greens, snow peas, sugar snaps, shelling peas, rhubarb, spring onions. I should report that Nicholl's Farms had a few small containers of fresh red currents, perhaps to show they can then because there is a real market for fresh currents. The first crops of fresh flowers gave the market a much fuller look.

The bad news of the market: I spoke too soon on the faux vendors. Buried in the plant shop at the Southeast corner of the market is the dreaded supermarket produce. I guess it makes people feel good about buying consumer level stuff at a farmer's market, but these buyers are really not supporting the Farmer's Market. The good news: The donuts were better than last week, a real nice crisp crust against a light and fresh inside. I do note that we got to the market much later this week, after 9 AM, and the donut line was huge. I wonder, however, if the donuts get better as the day progresses. Maybe the oil gets seasoned?

See you next week.