On a Tuesday evening in June the Ithaca College A&EC was buzzing with excitement. Ithaca’s annual Taste of the Nation event had drawn over 75 local food and beverage producers and vendors up to the South Hill space. The participants ranged from brick-and-mortar restaurants to intrepid caterers to a variety of the Finger Lakes’ popular wineries, all offering unlimited unique bites and sips to event guests. It was a veritable smorgasbord of local food – talk about a foodie heaven!
As much as we love good food for good food’s sake, Taste of the Nation’s bountiful buffet was organized for an altruistic purpose: to benefit No Kid Hungry’s campaign to end child hunger in America by ensuring all children get the healthy food they need, every day. One in six children struggle with hunger in the U.S., and summer is often the hungriest time of the year since many children lose access to school meals. To that end, Ithaca’s Taste of the Nation proceeds benefited local organizations the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Ithaca Fresh Snack Program, and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Healthy Food For All.
We were overjoyed to participate in a wonderful evening of good food and good will, and took the opportunity to connect with local food producers and vendors all night long! We kept a record of everything we ate and just had to share the bites that impressed us the most. Keep reading for our Top 5 Bites from Ithaca’s Taste of the Nation!
5: Rhubarb Chutney and Lively Run Goat Cheese on Wide Awake Bakery Baguette
Rhubarb is technically a vegetable, but it’s legally considered a fruit because it is most often cooked the way fruits are cooked. Strange, right? The stalks can be eaten raw, but they are incredibly tart, so rhubarb is most often cooked or baked with a generous serving of sugar – in pies, as jam, or in a tart.
Tina Podkaminer and Katie Rehner, home caterers extraordinaire with Word of Mouth Catering, really focus their catering around seasonal ingredients – especially those grown in their own garden! Rhubarb’s prime season is April to June, so we were lucky enough to enjoy some of the last rhubarb of the year – in chutney form! Their rhubarb chutney is made with vinegar, garlic, and ginger, and cooked a few days in advance to allow the flavors to really settle. While Tina recommends it on pork, at Taste of the Nation they took a simpler approach and served it on local Lively Run Dairy goat cheese and a baguette from local bakery Wide Awake Bread. Simple, in this case, meant a delicious trio of sweet, tart, and savory!
4: Blackened Shrimp with a Blood Orange Reduction and White Bean Purée on Crostini
Blackening is a well-established cooking technique, most often used to prepare seafood, which involves drenching the fish in butter and covering with a thick mixture of herbs and spices before cooking in a skillet at a very high temperature. It usually results in a very strong flavor (how could it not, with all those spices?!) and is most often seen in Cajun cuisine – which made Taverna Banfi’s Italian take a pleasant variation!
Taverna Banfi is the signature restaurant of Cornell University’s illustrious Statler Hotel, and their featured bite was crostini topped with a white bean puree and blackened shrimp, finished with a blood orange balsamic reduction. It was a masterful blend of textures, with the shrimp perfectly cooked and a delicate crunch to the crostini. The blood orange balsamic reduction (with balsamic vinegar from our friends at F. Oliver’s Oils and Vinegars, of course) was an especially nice touch, since it added a sweetness that complemented the strong blackened flavor well.
3: Homemade Hibiscus Marshmallows
Most of us are familiar with marshmallows: a fluffy, cylindrical, sugar-based dessert perfect in hot chocolate or roasted over a fire. While the ingredients are rather straightforward (sugar, water, and gelatin are the basics) the process to make marshmallows is rather intensive, and involves whipping that mixture into a spongy consistency – something which can take almost 10 minutes to accomplish! A factory assembly line could churn these out easily, but knowing how much loving labor goes into homemade marshmallows surely makes them taste that much better than StayPuff.
Audra Bartlett, founder of Wild Flour Baked Goods, has put a new spin on her homemade marshmallows by infusing them with hibiscus. She is often motivated to use local herbs and flowers in her baked goods, which led her to try this iconic flower. Not only does it result in a lovely lavender color, but the combination of its citrus-floral flavor is very unique.
2: Porkbelly Bao Bun with Sake Quick Pickles and Shio Ramen Broth
Bao Buns are a reigning street food trend right now, popping up in food trucks, catering menus, and at sit-down restaurants across the world. They have their roots as baozi – colloquially referred to as “the Bao” – a Chinese steamed bun filled with meat, vegetables, or both! What sets them apart is the unique bread: mantou is a bread made by steaming a batter of white milled flour, yeast, and water – instead of baking it! This results the a remarkably soft and fluffy texture that Bao are known for.
Northstar Public House, located in Ithaca’s idyllic Fall Creek neighborhood, made an appearance during the VIP Champagne Social with their take on the Bao: A Porkbelly Bao Bun topped with sake pickles, and served with shio ramen broth. When we inquired about how the sake pickles were made, Executive Chef Frank explained that they use a quick pickling process that uses the negative pressure of a vacuum to collapse the cucumber’s cell walls, which lets the water out and allows the sake and mirin (both Japanese rice wines) to absorb right away. We found the Bao Bun was very flavorful on its own, but when enjoyed with the shio ramen broth “french dip” style it moved to another level.
1: Choo Chee Scallops: wild diver scallops in red curry sauce with sweet peppers and kaffir lime leaves
Choo Chee curry is a traditional Thai dish that uses red curry paste as the flavor base, coconut cream for fragrance, and is always paired with seafood. The seafood can be cooked using whichever method the chef desires and then the Choo Chee curry is poured on top and finished with sweet peppers and kaffir lime leaves.
Taste of Thai Express, located in Ithaca’s West End, is known for delicious and affordable Thai cuisine. While salmon is the most popular protein for this dish, the chef strategically chose wild diver scallops for this “shooter”-style bite to make it easier for Taste of the Nation guests to enjoy while mingling! And enjoy we did; the scallops were gently sauteed before being individually portioned out, and they were tender and perfectly cooked! Their subtle briny sweetness was a perfect compliment to the bold and spicy Choo Chee curry in which they swam. A sliver of sweet pepper gave a hint of crunch to round out the texture. If this ever becomes a regular menu item, we at Ithaca is Foodies will certainly be ordering it often.
Narrowing down this list was a true challenge, because by the end we were in a hazy state of post-meal satisfaction. Honorable mentions go to:
~ZaZa Cucina’s Prosciutto Meatball Sliders (veal, pork, prosciutto, and beef paired with the “Cadillac” of cheeses grana panada) which can be found at ZaZa’s during their weekly Friday Happy Hour
~Ithaca Coffee Company’s chocolate shortbread cookies with sea salted caramel french buttercream, cocoa nibs, and raspberries which can be found at their taverns in the form of a cookie sandwich (less the raspberries)
~and How Sweet It Is’ bite-size apple butter macarons (a gluten free almond flour macaron with apple butter filling) which can be enjoyed full-size at their dessert cafe in Trumansburg.
We’d like to say we were astounded by the creativity of all the chefs and bakers at Taste of the Nation, but that would be a lie – because we already know how capable and talented our local food purveyors truly are! What do you think – did this list leave you hungry? You won’t find all these chefs in the same place until next year’s Taste of the Nation event, but in the mean time they can all be found at their respective establishments serving up quality and creative local cuisine.