FORAGING FOR RAMPS

Keith D. – Director of F&B (and Forager Extraordinaire)

I first came upon wild ramps when I lived in the mountains near Bradford Pennsylvania, in a small town called Smethport. In the early spring, you can drive down the street and see signs posted for “Ham and Leek Dinner” fundraisers for the local fire halls and churches.  Being new to the area, I asked my friends about this and they seemed shocked I have never heard of such dinners.  Up in the mountains, the people are much more connected to the outdoors so foraging comes naturally and is passed down to the next generation.

As I looked further into what these leeks were, I found they were actually wild ramps. In the mountains, they are picked much younger that what you can find in the specialty markets today.  Even when all of the snow has not melted, my friends go out to known areas and look for small green buds poking out from the ground.  They pick a large basket and then take them home, clean them, and process them in different ways.  When picked this young, the ramps are only about 2 inches long, and are much stronger/potent that when mature.  The taste is something like strong garlic & onion, and is actually hot like horseradish.  When consumed raw, the oils are secreted through the skin similar to garlic, and can actually give off an odor that is only unique to ramps.

ramps2
Ramps for sale at a popular store.  

ramps3Ramps that I foraged.

For my purpose, I pick them just as they develop their leaves, which look similar to broad tulip leaves but not as firm.  With leeks being one of the first things one forages for in the spring, they can be easy to spot (just like chives) since they are one of the few early green leaves to sprout.

RAMPS (Allium tricoccum), or wild leeks, usually occur at higher elevations in eastern North America in the mountains from Georgia to Canada, where foraging for them is a popular activity throughout this range. They are widely celebrated by thousands of ramp lovers who attend ramp festivals each spring.  As with anything you forage, you need to be sure you pick and identify the correct plant. The deadly lily-of-the-valley looks very similar to a ramp, but does not have the pungent garlic/onion odor.

For more information:

http://theforagerpress.com/fieldguide/aprilfd.htm

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/24/what-are-ramps_n_7128438.html

TIME FOR MOREL HUNTING

Keith D – Director of F&B

The anticipation for the first morels of the year is as high as any sports championship, at least for a forager.  After being cooped up all winter, and the last hunt some 4 or 5 months ago, the adrenaline really begins to flow as the season approaches.  Morels are the first edible mushroom of the season.  I have been checking the web using a few of the seasonal morel maps that let you know where other foragers are finding morels.  Click here for more info: http://morelhunters.com/index.php/

The maps helps, but what is happening in my area can be completely different.  I have to consider the factors for this year. Temperature; the Maryland winter was mild, and spring appeared to come a little earlier this year.  So the morels have the potential to be on the early side, but ultimately the ground temperature needs to be in the low 50’s for the morels to start to sprout.  Moisture; we have had a good base of moisture, from the early year snows to some good rain, averaging slightly higher rainfall year to date.  But the issue is that the last 2 weeks, we only received a few light rains, so the ground is dry.  I saw today that there is a fire weather warning, which is never good when looking for mushrooms, since high moisture is key.  Nature’s signs; what are the woods telling me? I look for the trees start to bloom, and when the dogwood and apple trees bloom, it is time to go and walk.

After a few warm and beautiful days, I had to go out and walk and look for myself.  There are several types of morels, with blacks (Morchella elata) coming early and yellows (Morchella esculenta) later in the season. And the season… it typically is about 3 weeks, but can be as short as 2 weeks and last as long as a month.  It all depends upon the temperature and moisture factors.

So when I go out in search of morels, where do I go and where do I Iook?  Morels actually can grow just about everywhere, from your back yard to the forest. I am lucky that there are plenty of places that I can go walk in the woods, but the where to look is much tougher. I keep a log of when and where I find the morels, and even draw maps of certain areas, since past honey holes usually keep producing.  I start with finding an area that has the correct plants and trees that morels like.  Yes, morels are symbiotic with certain plants, and in Maryland, they usually grow around Tulip Poplars and mixed hard woods.  In New York where I used to live, it was near pine, so you need to look for patterns in your area which helps to narrow down the amount of miles you may need to walk. Also, I look for ground cover.  Too little means probably dry soil and not enough light.  Too much cover and you won’t find the mushrooms.  In dryer years, low lands near small creeks are prime spots, with skunk cabbage, Jack in the pulpit, wild violets, and may apple plants (podophyllum) a few of the plants that grow in good areas. So yes, having knowledge of the plants that grow in your area, especially trees are important.

The first walk of the season can be 30 minutes, or take all day if time allows.  I usually know within 5 minutes if the day will be fruitful.  And this year was just like that.  I took my son who is 11 out with me so we could cover more ground, and we were rewarded within 3 minutes of walking with a medium morel poking out from under a leaf.  Yes, the season is here! But it is early yet, with the prime time here in Maryland the last week of April and the first week of May.  We walked this are near a small stream and found about 40 morels, mostly small ones but still delicious.  And then we moved to my next spot, and found nothing, and another spot, and again found nothing. See, that is the way it is with foraging for mushrooms, it is hit and miss.  The last two spots were dryer that the first, so that is my story that I am sticking to.  All in all, we walked just under 2 hours, 6000 steps according to my Fitbit, and had a wonderful father-son day.  On the way driving home, we stopped by an open farm field and watch a wild turkey strutting, trying to find a mate.

morel1

It must be said that even though these mushrooms look unique, there is a close look alike that is highly toxic. That is the way it is with most species of mushrooms.  If you know what to look for, it’s not an issue, but if you haven’t been trained, it could end badly.  Never eat something that you “think” is good; you need to be 100% sure. As I’ll talk about in later issues, there are plenty of fun ways to learn the art of mushrooming.

Yes, the season is here; time to look for morels, so more adventures to come….

ADVENTURES IN ICE

Sheila C – April 12, 2016

Anytime you’ve ever been in a kitchen – banquet facility or otherwise – you would probably expect to see items such as sauce pans, baking sheets, a range, tongs, spatulas, knifes, whisks, and the list goes on…

Probably one of the last items you would ever expect to see would be a chainsaw.  And my guess is if you were to see a chainsaw, your gut reaction (much like mine) would be to run…FAST.  Though I doubt we will ever see these become a common place item found in kitchens across America, this just so happens to be a very common tool in the kitchen at the Crowne Plaza Reading.

After the initial confused look appears on our guest’s face when we share that with them – it is inevitably followed by a cautious “Why?”

Executive Chef Timothy Twiford is known for a number of things in Reading, PA – one of which being his amazing ice sculptures.

“Chef Tim” has mastered this technique over the years and not only offers these to in-house functions, but has also participates in ice sculpting competitions around the area. Whether it’s a gala, wedding, corporate function or baby shower – Chef Tim will create an ice sculpture just as unique as your event.

The process is quite the sight to see.  From the initial stages of a large hunk of ice (or “blank canvas” as he refers to it) being brought into a section of the kitchen to the first roar of the chainsaw – Chef Tim will work with a logo, image or picture in recreating it in ice form.

Whether it’s creating a very memorable baby shower for a soon-to-be mom:

Or “WOW-ing” a local partner with their logo:

Or thinking completely outside the box with a Shrimp Luge for a large event:

Ice sculptures allow us to really set ourselves and our property above the rest.  So next time you see that chainsaw sitting on the counter top next to the sink – look around and make sure you are at the Crowne Plaza Reading – then, take a breath, rest easy and be ready to be amazed.

sheila5

ONE PLATE AT A TIME

Sheila C. – April 10, 2016

Have you ever attended a large catering function of say 300 guests?  What about 500?  Heck, let’s get crazy and say 700 – yes, 700 guests.  Guessing a good number of you have attended something of that magnitude, or know someone who has.  Maybe it was a gala for a very special date night, a ball to support your favorite non-profit, a dinner at a trade show, or maybe even a company holiday party.  Regardless of the occasion, hopefully you had a great experience.

If your property is anything like the Crowne Plaza Reading, you were probably in awe of how quickly 700 meals can be served…and seamlessly.  Can you imagine?  How can one person possibly prep, cook, and plate that many meals in a matter of minutes?  Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret… you know the saying “it takes a village”… in the hotel industry it takes 4 sous chefs, 3 engineers, 3 sales managers, 2 banquet servers, and an Executive Chef to pull that off.

Plate by plate we scoop the potatoes, place the meat, lay the veggies, garnish the sides, and do one last inspection before sending the meal out to you!  This modern day culinary assembly line, or Plate-Up Line as we know it, is possibly the single most intense, exhausting and rewarding 1-2 hours of a heavy catering day.  From that first plate that rolls down the line, to the last one that passes by sets of tired hands – those two plates are the most important dishes of the day.  And when all is said and done, we will take the first and last plate and compare them.  Are the veggies still laying at 40 degrees?  Is the chicken still pointing to the left?  Did we remember to clean the sides of the plate for any stray garnish?  Do the plates look identical?

Details, little details, are what great Chefs, great meals, and great hotels are made of.  Though you may now know the behind the scenes secret, I’d still say it’s a little bit of magic.

I DIP, YOU DIP, WE DIP

Sheila C. – April 8, 2016

Mom always said, “don’t play with your food”…but sometimes, you just need to fondue.  Whether chocolate, cheese, or an Asian hot-pot style – known as Fondue Bourguignon where meat is cooked in oil or broth – fondue stations offer a fun, interactive element to any dining experience.

Often associated with a trend made popular in the 1960’s, D’Artagnan online references “fondue-ing” as dating all the way back to 17th century Switzerland!  Though the original purpose of fondue has been debated, in the 60’s we saw this style of cooking come to life as it embraced a “sense of informality and community”.  In recent years, this cooking concept has been making a strong comeback.  Today, there’s even a restaurant chain whose sole identity is based around the concept of rolling up your sleeves and playing with your food!

Today, life is busy – and family time isn’t always the easiest to come by.  So, why not resurrect this hands-on approach to your next dinner or banquet experience and create some memories sure to last longer than that chocolate covered marshmallow you are probably thinking about right now.

Here’s a few fun fondue ideas to get you started: http://tipnut.com/fondue-guide/

THE SWEET, SUITE LIFE

Sheila C – April 9, 2016

Well hello there my foodie friends!  Another day, another blog post – you know the drill!  Today we will be switching gears, and satisfying that pesky sweet tooth we can’t help but LOVE!

Working in a hotel with your very own Executive Chef is one thing; working in a hotel with your very own Pastry Chef is another!!  Let me introduce you to Chef Chris Polk of the Crowne Plaza Reading…

Chef Chris has become not only a face of the hotel, but also a game-changer when it comes to creating truly memorable events.

From his Award-winning Apple Pie,to his signature shooters -Chef Chris never disappoints.

Be sure to keep your eyes and ears open, as Chef Chris will be opening his very own pastry studio at the Crowne this Spring!  A perfect way to watch, taste, learn and indulge your way through your next date night/girls night/”whatever excuse you want to use” night!

So next time you are at the Crowne, be sure to say hello to Chef Chris – your taste buds will thank you!

CHRIS POLK

YES, THE COCKTAIL DOES HAVE ITS OWN HOUR!

 

Dana C. – April 7, 2016

While the American’s were busy fighting prohibition in the 1920’s, the Brit’s were busy moving the clock back.   Perhaps not so surprisingly from the country that invented the Gin and Tonic.

You see, while everyone was busy working their office jobs in Gatsby-esque London, the leisurely British aristocracy did not.  Yes, some were writers, and may have worked “from home”, but most British aristocracy did no such thing.   There was afternoon tea and crumpets, to keep you satisfied until dinner served at 7:00 PM.

There were also the young British men that would take a young lady out for dinner.  He would take this young lady to dinner, soften her with wine, and then while thinking about taking her back to his flat, she would remember they were invited to a party, and could not disappoint.  The gentleman graciously agreed, and off to the party they would go.  Once you have arrived at said party, the time is 9:00 PM, perfect British social hour.  The party hosts are also serving alcohol, and two hours later, a gentleman takes his date home, only to say “Good Evening”.

The wealthy British realized what they really needed was a socially acceptable reason to start drinking earlier.  They were not finding tea a great way to end a long day (who would?).  What they were looking for was about ninety minutes, at which alcohol was served, but not much food.  The leisurely, wealthy British found this to be a great way to end the day, and soon realized it wasn’t bad for business either.  Regardless of your social status, inebriation is very democratic, so barriers broke down, Inhibitions were diluted, and deals were made.  Drinking at the dinner table was acceptable, but not the place to do business or let one’s inhibitions become diluted.

Well…. It did not take long for this to reach American Aristocracy, and by the 1950’s almost every man in America would come home from a long day at work, and reach for his high ball glass with a few ice cubes, and something to pour that would take the edge off.

History really isn’t about where it originated, but how we honor and carry it today, and in our present lives.  So…. Cheers!  Enjoy your cocktail at the end of a long day, and relax.

Classic Manhattan Cocktail: https://youtu.be/Ympaj7FNtw8

Classic Margarita: https://youtu.be/fabiy2ftO0I

I hope to explore the art of the cocktail and its traditions in all forms in this blog, and I hope you’ll join me for the ride.

 

 

Spring…a New Beginning

Keith D:

So in my last blog I talked about my passion as a Forager and that with spring here it is time for me to get to the woods.  One of the other things that spring brings is planning what I will grow this year, both at home but also at the hotel I work, the Christiana Hilton in Newark Delaware.

One of the first things I do is review my notebook for comments from last year.  I keep a kind of diary of my foraging and also what I planted and what did great, and then the not so great.  This helps me to craft my lists and start my planning.  I will start to buy my seeds from the many catalogs I have been receiving, and also look for anything new that I might want to try.  A tip for one of the fun things; plant at least one new item and see how it does.  How did it grow, how did it taste, did you use it, will it make the list for next year?? For a list of Catalogs, http://www.carnegielibrary.org/research/homegarden/gardening/catalogs.html

Since it is now early April, the local garden stores have already started carrying some of the more cold hardy plants, (and some not so hardy.) At home, I usually start with parsley as my only herb for now, and a number of the great selections of lettuce.  I bought and planted my lettuce 2 weeks ago, and even with a few cold spells when I did cover it, they are thriving and will be ready to start picking this week.

As you can see, my home garden is actually a container garden on my porch.  Very handy, few weeds, and even less pests. The picture shows that I have 6 different types of greens .

At work, things are a little different.  I have been growing several herbs for the past few years, and each year I add a few more, or add more of the items we use the most.  I know that I just don’t have the time or space to plant enough for the number of people we serve.  We are a busy place and serve thousands of meals each month.  But what I am able to do is to supplement the not to frequent items we use, and then use what we grow on special meals, such as our Chef’s Table.  There is nothing like having a meal specially prepared by our Chef Robert using the fresh herbs for our garden that we just picked.  There is no substitution for quality and freshness! Oh, by the way, sometimes one of my foraged items ends up on the Chefs Table too.

chef_bob

For the Hilton Garden, I usually make a trek up to the Amish towns near Lancaster Pa. sometime late April and buy all of our herbs that are already started in pots.  The selections are just about endless, and really doesn’t cost all that much.  So, with the trip coming up, there will be more to come….

 

THE AMERICAN SPIRIT

David L.:  April 4, 2016
For the last decade and a half, I have spent a majority of my time studying, drinking and selling alcohol.  During my first trip to Spain, studying wine and brandy opened my eyes to a world I had never known existed.  I had no idea that you could make a living in a variety of ways all connected to wine and spirits.  While my first love will always be wine, I have found many other spirits which have fascinated and intrigued me…the processes by which they are made, the laws which govern those processes, the aromas and flavors that are unique to each spirit and the history connected to these things have been  intertwined with my evolution in the Food & Beverage industry. shutterstock_275680961

I have chosen bourbon to be my first topic of discussion.  While all bourbons are whiskeys not all whiskeys are bourbon.  Bourbon similar to Scotch is a specific type of Whiskey.  Bourbon style whiskey can be made anywhere in the world,  however, it is only classified as “bourbon” when it is produced in the United States. In 1964 the United States Congress declared bourbon to be a “distinctive product of the United States.  Contrary to popular belief bourbon is not limited to production in Kentucky, though it is thought to have originated there, it can be made anywhere in the United States so long as it is made from 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels.  According to Amy Stewart in her book “The Drunken Botanist” on page 45 “Bourbon is an American -made corn based whiskey aged in new charred oak barrels.  Must contain at least 51% corn.  Straight bourbon is aged for at least two years, with no added color, flavor or other spirits.  Blended bourbon must contain 51% straight bourbon, but may also contain added color, flavor or other spirits.”

As to the origin of the name bourbon there is much debate and while many believe the name originated from Bourbon County, Kentucky,  the more popular belief now             becomes from historian Michael Veach who is quoted in an article from “The Smithsonian” titled “Where Bourbon Really Got Its Name and More Tips on America’s Native Spirit” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/where-bourbon-really-got-its-name-and-more-tips-on-americas-native-spirit-145879/#F3QjLcpiz6UkM0cg.99 .  Veach states “the name evolved in New Orleans after two men known as the Tarascon brothers arrived to Louisville from south of Cognac, France, and began shipping local whiskey down the Ohio River to Louisiana’s bustling port city. “They knew that if Kentuckians put their whiskey into charred barrels they could sell it to New Orleans’ residents, who would like it because it tastes more like cognac or ‘French brandy’,” says Veach. In the 19th century, New Orleans entertainment district was Bourbon Street, as it is today. “People starting asking for ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,’” he says, “which eventually became ‘that bourbon whiskey.”

Here is a link to the website Under The Label that boasts “The Best Bourbons for Under $100” http://whiskey.underthelabel.com/stories/5886/best-bourbons-under-100-cheap-quality-whiskey

So, whether you are sitting on your porch or your favorite bar or restaurant next time give our own American Spirit a chance.