This past Sunday, I had the honor to serve as one of the three judges for Lehigh Valley Harvest, the annual Buy Fresh Buy Local event, which was held at the Lutron headquarters is Coopersburg. Admittedly, a corporate headquarters initially seemed like a strange location for the event but Lutron was the presenting patron and its headquarters is situated along a winding country road. I half-expected a pumpkin patch to pop up somewhere along the way. But I digress. I arrived a few minutes before noon so I could get my clipboard and start wandering around in search of the best dishes. The set-up encompassed two floors of one of Lutron's buildings. Where to start? So much deliciousness, so little time. The voting process required me to rate the dishes from a dozen or so restaurants on a scale of 1 to 5 using the following criteria: creativity, taste, presentation, and use of local foods. In some cases this was a little tricky, because some restaurants offered more than one item to sample and judge, so one had to average the experience. Before I get into the details and tell you my favorites, I'll tell you who won what, because you wanna know, right?
First prize went to Glasbern Inn, with its take on a German staple: kielbasa and sauerkraut. In the hands of chef Yianni Arhontoulis and sous chef Joseph Hammer, this means housemade kielbasa, cippolini aigre-doux, pumpernickel crumble, house fermented sauerkraut. The first two components were sourced right from the Glasbern and the latter two from 14-Acre Farm in Jim Thorpe. For top honors, chefs take home $100 and the trophy; for the record, this is the Glasbern's second straight win. It's hard to get more local than a restaurant's own farm. I enjoyed this; it was a great balance of flavors and there wasn't too much happening to distract you from what it was, at its core—pig and cabbage. Leaving out something pumpernickel would have been sacrilege. I might have preferred a pumpernickel crostini to better keep the concept together, and I mean that literally.
The 2nd place prize went to Bolete, with its hand-held spin on chicken and biscuits. Picture homemade biscuits with a chicken croquette, mustard gravy, red mustard greens, and housemade bread and butter pickles. The provenance of ingredients? Buttermilk from Keepsake Farm, chicken from Happy Farm, greens from Liberty Gardens, pickles courtesy of Teprovich Farms. Perhaps owners Lee Chizmar and Erin Shea need someone to drop off a 40-pound sack of local flour at their Bethlehem restaurant and they should be able to match Glasbern ingredient-for-ingredient next year. (If it were that easy!) This felt like a very apt combination for a Sunday afternoon; it was like a deconstructed, gussied up brunch item. I just wish that my sample hadn't been ice cold; I know the incorrect temperature inhibited my sensory experience of the dish. I could taste its potential greatness lurking in the chemical change that heat brings.
Finally, 3rd place (and the people's choice award) went to Curious Goods at the Bake Oven Inn, Germansville, which gets top honors in my book for having such a great name that makes you, well, curious. Chef Mark Muszynski and general manager wife Catherine were on hand, and they put together something that encompassed breakfast, lunch, dinner all rolled into one. Imagine a pumpkin bread french toast topped with smoked duck and apple ragu, with a drizzle made from Fegley's Devious Pumpkin Ale—and a little bit of brown sugar. The pumpkins came from Just Kiddin' Around Farm (Germansville), duck from Pekin' Paradise (Hamburg), and apples from County Line Orchard. It was hearty and filling, even in a sample. If you ate it first, you might not have been able to eat another thing. I'm not kidding.
Maybe it's the encroaching fall weather, or maybe it's my constantly refining palate, but I found myself most enjoying the dishes that were either comfort-based and somewhat hearty, or more complex and surprising. I realize this may seem to contradict itself, but please bear with me. I was surprised by the subtle tang of pumpkin ale in the mousse adorning the Old Heathen brownies that Leaf was serving. Delicate slices of cucumber were spritzed with German white wine and nestled against a pumpkin wasabi mousse resting in a sweet potato chip served by Zach Pelliccio from Flow in Jim Thorpe. The dish contained its fair share of locally sourced ingredients, and the wasabi revealed itself a few second later without completely clearing your sinuses. I enjoyed the complexity at work here; creating layers like that requires some skills. And if you know me, you know I love Molinari's, so it should come as no surprise to read me saying that the chicken liver crostini was straightforward and flavorful, but I was surprised that chef Mike Joyce and his sous Erik Hoffman held back with just one offering. I will forgive them, though: it's the restaurant's first year in operation and first appearance at the festival. There's always next year. Also, they surprised on another level: they came with their own Frank Sinatra soundtrack. Naturally.
At the other end of the spectrum, you might find the outstanding "Farewell to Summer" corn and roasted tomato soup with barley from Cafe Santosha. This soup killed it; it was hot, delicious, post-equinox food to help ease your dosha into the next season. People, I wanted to pour some of this into quart containers and stick it in my freezer so I could transcend the snow on the ground and eat this in January. This soup typified late summer, using up the last gasps of tomatoes, corn and so forth. It wouldn't make sense in August. The crostini it was served with was just a bonus. My experience also shows why Cafe Santosha has a serious reputation as a serious purveyor of seriously amazing soup. Yeah, I just repeated myself, but that's for emphasis. See how good that looks?!?!
While we are talking about soup, the south Indian sweet potato curry soup from Honey Underground/Balasia/Wendy Landiak was really well balanced; it was sweet with just enough heat.
What else caught my attention? I didn't have much time to explore the special rooms devoted to cheese and apples. Someone please knock out a wall and let us eat both at the same time next year with pairings; and while we're at it, let's include pears, too. With the veggie room, too, this has the making of a full-fledged crudite-themed celebration. I was also happy to see local wineries on hand, too. I had to laugh when someone from Weyerbacher (probably a sales rep, they've seemingly got tons of 'em now) asked me, "Are you familiar with our beers?" Why, yes. If I had a link to the Lehigh Valley Style story I wrote in fall 2010 about beer in the Valley I could drop it in here. But perhaps more significantly, the thought of Imperial Pumpkin Ale helped get me through the very difficult latter part of my pregnancy, four years ago.
What these foods have in common, whether we're talking about kielbasa or soup or brownies or chicken and biscuits or pumpkin wasabi mousse, is a sense of surprise and authenticity. When you call a soup a "farewell to summer," it better damned well taste like it. And if you're going to pair pumpkin and wasabi, you better know what you're doing with it. And beer in baking? Well, chocolate and stout is obvious, but the puff of pumpkin mousse on top of the brownie was a smart pairing, but a surprise because you could only taste the beer at the end—it was an aftertaste but certainly not an afterthought. And on and on and on.
We have food purveyors here in the Lehigh Valley who respect ingredients and try to the best possible culinary job with them. And luckily, those ingredients just happen to be ones you can buy fresh and buy locally.