story and photos by James P. Hughes
A beautiful Finger Lakes cookbook arrived in the mail on my birthday, a thoughtful gift from our son. I immediately began to leaf through it – cooking and all things related to our extraordinary region rank high on my favorites list. Page after page presented mouth-watering recipes, often enhanced with engaging facts about their Finger Lakes connections.
Unfortunately for me, cookbook recipes present a problem. Preparing fine fare requires excessive patience, numerous ingredients and specific directions. My style of cooking is quite the opposite: see what we have available, then combine and create with a dash of this and a splash of that. Voila!
A Culinary Challenge
In our household, the true cook is my wife. Ethel is a virtuoso of vegetables, maestro of meats and designer of delectable desserts. Truly enjoying this cookbook would require her personal touch along with key characteristics I lack, preciseness and persistence among them. I threw down the gauntlet, presenting Ethel with a bold challenge: choose a range of recipes from the new cookbook, rely on a myriad of Finger Lakes products and serve them all within a calendar day. Taken aback, but with a grin and a shrug, she graciously accepted the task.
The Quest Begins
After careful cookbook scrutiny, recipes were selected. Keeping a keen eye to local bounty, we compiled an extensive list of needed ingredients. Fertile soil and unique geology have contributed to the Finger Lakes Region’s ever-growing reputation for seasonal agricultural variety. Its stature began centuries ago with the Iroquois and their spiritual sustainers of life, the “Three Sisters” – corn, beans, and squash. From dairy and grains to fruits, meats and vegetables, the region’s heritage of fresh, tasty food runs the gamut from the traditional to the unique.
Scouring community farmer’s markets or roadside stands for seasonal favorites is satisfying and fun. Pick sweet corn from a wooden bin. Select a huge cabbage from the back of a flatbed truck. Choose and pluck apples from a local orchard.
Specialty shops market maple syrup, cheeses, salad dressings, milled flours and more, all with local origins. Broad vineyards surround more than 100 regional wineries. Certainly a bottle or two of vintage (often award-winning) wine can enhance any epicurean adventure.
A Buckwheat Breakfast and Beyond!
Target day arrived. Recipes had been chosen, and in some cases “mixed and matched” to take advantage of favorite items and personal tastes. Staying true to our goal of choosing and using an array of fine regional ingredients, Ethel led off the day with a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes with butter and pure maple syrup, topped with fresh raspberries. With the addition of locally made maple sausage links and a side dish of fresh peaches and berries, the day was off to a good start.
After a hearty breakfast – and with dinner yet to come – a light soup and salad lunch fit the bill. Choosing a variety of our collected fixings and elements of several recipes from the gift cookbook, Ethel created a hearty soup. Let’s call it… “Seasonal Chowder.” Fresh local strawberries topped a companion salad of baby spinach, red onion and crumbled blue cheese.
Dinner – With a Dash of History and Tradition!
Items were selected for a modest dinner, and one with clear local roots. The star of the meal would be Cornell Chicken, a simple barbequed dish conceived by Cornell University professor Robert Baker (also the creator of “chicken nuggets”) over a half century ago. Tender and tangy, Cornell Chicken features a unique marinade with several key ingredients, perhaps most importantly apple-cider vinegar.
Appropriate side dishes completed the dinner plate. Corn, beans, and squash (the legendary Three Sisters) were roasted, a tribute to native Iroquois tradition. Crusty salt potatoes were added, a regional favorite dating to the 19th-century Syracuse salt industry, when workers tossed fresh spuds into boiling brine for a quick and tasty lunch. Honey-buttermilk biscuits (drizzled with extra honey) and a glass of Finger Lakes wine topped off the humble spread.
For a dessert with Finger Lakes roots, what could be more apporpriate than grape pie? Sweet and zesty, the iconic confection traces its origin to the Ontario County village of Naples, the self-proclaimed “Grape Pie Capital of the World.”
Create an Adventure
For her valiant culinary efforts, a few days later I treated Ethel to meals at two of our favorite farm-to-table restaurants. For breakfast, our choice was a rustic spot with cozy booths, great food and an adjoining shop featuring a wide array of local products. The dinner option, another favorite eatery, also specializes in outstanding regional fare. A large New York wall map proudly pinpoints locations where their key local foodstuffs are acquired.
For this modest paean to regional cookery, I’ve purposefully avoided noting specific cookbook titles, detailed recipes and restaurant names. Availability of those sources and creative “takes” on the variety and heritage of great Finger Lakes food are widespread and almost unlimited. The next steps are simple: Do a bit of research, create your own culinary adventure – then just appreciate and enjoy.