Even though it meant a 45-minute drive in the pouring rain, I made the pilgrimage to Poughkeepsie last night for the magazine’s Best of Hudson Valley party. It’s always a pleasure to see my old colleagues, of course, but I have to admit that the real lure was sampling what the winning chefs and restaurants were dishing up. I rarely enjoy potluck dinners, but this is one occasion when I graze haphazardly and enjoy it, eating a bite of dessert first, followed by something savory (like the rich, tender osso bucco from Ship Lantern Inn), then another sweet thing (anyone who likes marzipan will love the almond crescent from The Bakery in New Paltz).
One surprise was a delicate tuna sashimi from Hudson’s Ribs and Fish, a restaurant I associate with more hearty cooking, and there were countless other tasty morsels. A standout for me was from Jerry and Susan Crocker of Montgomery’s Backyard Bistro, who were dispensing a super-tasty savory panna cotta with minced tomato and micro greens, topped with bite-sized strips of intensely flavored lamb bacon. They served it in the most elegant little square plastic molds, too, with silver (plastic) spoons. Very classy disposables. Jerry Crocker is a local-ingredient chef: the panna cotta was made with goat cheese from Sprout Creek Farm, the tomato came from Blooming Hill Farm and the greens from Late Bloomer Farm.
But Crocker makes that terrific lamb bacon himself, using pieces from the belly that usually end up in the bin, he says. He cures the meat for 10 days in rosemary, garlic and salt, then smokes it for about 15 or 20 minutes. “Lamb really takes to the smoke,” he adds. “I tried doing it for longer and it tasted like an ash tray — the first experiment was a disaster.” After it’s smoked, the meat gets finished in a 200-degree convection oven for about an hour. “Then, while it’s still warm, you peel off the little skin membrane, chill it, and slice it,” he says, as if the whole procedure is simplicity itself. Right now, Crocker’s using strips of lamb bacon to top his take on a classic spinach salad made with sage-grilled quail eggs and a warm, apple-olive oil dressing. Doesn’t it sound delicious?
As for the liquid part of the evening: I enjoyed the Blue Moon pale ale that Manhattan Beer Distributors dispensed with a slice of orange in the bottom. And Arlington Wines was pouring a really nice Prosecco: Bellussi extra-dry, which sells in their store for about $17. That reminds me: I have Arlington to thank for introducing me years ago to the best inexpensive faux Champagne: a French sparkling wine called Comte de Gascon. Bollinger it ain’t, but it’s fermented in the bottle in the Champagne method, it’s dry, it’s light, and it’s a fraction of the price — I’ve found it for as little as $8 a bottle. Cheers!