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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Food Gifts For The Holidays (And Any Other Time)

Order Great Food From These Places Any Time Of Year

The holidays are here and it's time for (trumpet fanfare) my first annual holiday food gift guide. To be honest, I'll probably list the same places for my second, third, and any subsequent holiday food gift guides, just because they're that good. And don't be stuck on the “holiday” aspect. You can order great food from these places any time of year, whether for gifts or just as a treat for yourself.

Bear in mind, these are not places I picked at random through an online search: these are quality producers I have actually visited and frequented and whose products I use myself. Most are artisans who carefully handcraft their goods. A couple are commercial manufacturers, but they produce a quality product that I appreciate and am happy to recommend.

Let's begin with chocolate.

Nestled up in the peaks of the Blue Ridge mountains near Asheville is the little town of Black Mountain, North Carolina. It's a great little vacation spot and a mecca for antique shoppers. It's also where Black Mountain Chocolate got its start. Their logo says “Crafted From The Bean,” and that's what makes Black Mountain Chocolate's chocolate so good. Black Mountain Chocolate is an Ecole Chocolat Certified Chocolate Maker. They start with fresh cocoa beans, which they roast, crack, winnow, and grind right there in their factory. Then they further hand craft all that chocolate goodness into a variety of finished products that include incredible small batch chocolate bars, chocolate treats like cocoa nib granola and chocolate pecan butter, and a unique drinking chocolate that is unlike any you've had before.

You can order online or you can visit the factory and kitchen and buy direct at the source. But don't plan a trip to Black Mountain just yet because they moved the whole shebang to Winston-Salem, North Carolina awhile back. The new digs are in the heart of the artsy district of downtown Winston-Salem at 732 N. Trade Street. You can call them at 336-293-4698. You can also follow them on Facebook or log on to http://www.blackmountainchocolate.com. I promise, once you've had Black Mountain Chocolate, you'll never eat another Hershey bar.

A day without bacon is like a day without joy. And no place on earth is more joyful than Madisonville, Tennessee, home to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams.

Allen Benton produces pork products par excellence. His eponymous country hams are, indeed, legendary, and he makes a prosciutto worthy of any Italian artisan. But it's Benton's bacon that makes the world beat a path to his door – literally. Allen's place is located on the outskirts of Madisonville, a hamlet just a little ways south of Knoxville and a stone's throw away from the Great Smoky Mountains. And I've never been in the place that I haven't found Allen chatting with somebody from California or Florida or Texas or New York. Or China. Or Australia. Seriously. There isn't a chef worth his Michelin star that doesn't drool over Benton's bacon and Allen's client list reads like a James Beard “Who's Who.” Besh, Brock, Chang, Colicchio, Keller – a veritable roll call of top chefs.

So, if the stuff's so great, why can't you run down to your local Kroger and buy a pound? Oh, it's not for a lack of effort on the part of national grocery chains. Several of them have approached Allen about distributing his product. But Allen makes bacon the way his grandparents made it back in Scott County, Virginia and if he were to sell out to Kroger, et.al., he'd have to change the way he makes his bacon, and he ain't about to do it. And, frankly, with dozens of world-renowned chefs buying the stuff in hundred-pound increments, he doesn't have to.

You can follow the path to Allen Benton's door at 2603 Highway 411 N. in Madisonville, Tennessee. Or you can call him at 423-442-5003. Or just go online at http://bentonscountryhams2.com and order the pinnacle of pork products for yourself.

Not too far up the road from Allen Benton's Madisonville smokehouse is the the town of Philadelphia, Tennessee. There's not a lot happening in Philadelphia, located just off I-75 on the way to or from Knoxville. It's kind of a quiet place. I mean, how much noise can 533 people make? But cows? Now that's a different story. The cows out on West Lee Highway at Sweetwater Valley Farm make a lot of noise – and some the best cheese you'll ever eat.

The billboards along I-75 read, “Cheese. Cows. Wows!” And I heartily agree with the “wows” part. Well....I agree about the cheese and the cows, too, but “wow” is all you can say once you've been there. Sweetwater Valley Farm produces award-winning cheeses, which, although produced in a modern, state-of-the-art facility, preserve the fine art and craft of making cheese in a traditional, old-fashioned farmstead manner. The folks at Sweetwater Valley Farm control the entire process from cow to consumer in order to create the highest quality cheddar cheese available on the market today. Colby, mild cheddar, sharp cheddar, smoked cheddar, and a variety of flavored cheddars like salsa cheddar, tomato-herb cheddar, and roasted garlic pepper cheddar are just the beginning.

Like Benton's bacon, you can't buy Sweetwater Valley Farm cheese in the grocery store. And probably for the same reasons. But you can stop by the farm at 17988 W. Lee Highway in Philadelphia, you can call them at 865-458-9192 or toll free at 877-862-4332, or you can check them out online at http://www.sweetwatervalley.com. Any way you slice it, Sweetwater Valley Farm's cheese will make you say “wow!”

While we're on the subject of cheese, let's scoot on over to North Carolina where Ashe County Cheese is among the most popular tourist attractions in the state. Originally started by Kraft in the 1930s as part of the company's efforts to consolidate several small cheese plants in the area, the facility has undergone many changes over the years. It is currently under the ownership of an award-winning Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, producing everything from old style cheddar daisy wheels to a wide variety of cheeses and butter, including its original Sienna cheese, its many flavored cheeses, and its newest variety, Juusto cheese – a mild Scandinavian cheese. Cheese curds are a Wisconsin staple and Ashe County Cheese has 'em. They also have a delicious Mountain Gouda and a couple of varieties of hard to find hoop cheese, a traditional cheese made only from milk.

Ashe County cheese products are available at several specialty shops and farmers markets in North Carolina. The best place to go, though, is right to the source. They have a huge showroom in West Jefferson, North Carolina and they make cheese several days a week, so don't be surprised to find a tour bus parked out front at 106 E. Main Street. Of course, if West Jefferson is not exactly on your way home, you can call them at 336-246-2501 or visit online at http://www.ashecountycheese.com.

And what's cheese without bread? La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina is an amazing place. It's a little bit of France transplanted to a growing community in The Triangle area that also includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. French-trained Maitre Boulanger (Master Baker) and James Beard Award semifinalist Lionel Vatinet produces bread that will change your perception of bread, especially if all you've ever had for reference is awful store-bought stuff. I've baked all my own breads for many years, and Lionel's stunningly beautiful and delicious loaves of pure ambrosia simply make me weep. Rustic Italian, Pain de Mie, Ciabatta, and Challah are just a few of the fantastic breads you'll discover. And that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all the wonderful cakes, cookies, tarts, and other delectable baked goods made fresh every day.

Unfortunately, all these goodies are fresh, wholesome, and natural, made with only the finest ingredients, most locally sourced, and are completely preservative free. That means if you live in California, say, and want a loaf boxed up and sent to your door......it probably ain't gonna happen. Most of La Farm's awesome products are only available in store. They also sell to a variety of Raleigh-area Whole Foods stores and farmers markets. BUT.....don't despair: La Farm does offer a limited selection of breads in a sampler that is available for delivery. They also have a signature gift basket and a variety of mixes and other products available for shipment as gifts. (Of course, if you order them and don't give them to anybody, who's to know?)

When I'm in the area, I will literally go a hundred miles out of my way to stop in Cary and stock up at La Farm. It doesn't hurt that they also have a great little cafe on premises that serves fabulous fare made from the fruits of their labors. It's all located in the Preston Corners Shopping Center at 4248 NW Cary Parkway in Cary. Call them at 919-657-0657 or check them out at https://www.lafarmbakery.com.

“Sweet In Every Sense Since 1947,” Kilwins Chocolate Kitchen is known for its rich and creamy ice cream. And if you've never had it, there aren't enough “o”s in “good” to really describe it. But there's so much more to Kilwins – fortunate since ordering ice cream by mail is an “iffy” proposition. Headquartered in Michigan, there are Kilwins stores all over the place; there's probably one near you. I've got two of them within an hour's drive. But just in case, they also do a brisk mail order business, bringing some of the best chocolates, fudges, caramel corn, brittles, and toffees you've ever put in your mouth right to your door. There are shipping restrictions on some of their more perishable products, so maybe a Kilwins gift card might be a good idea. As I said, there are stores all over the place. A bunch of them are in “touristy”places like the aforementioned Black Mountain, North Carolina, Blowing Rock, North Carolina, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Branson, Missouri, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and on just about every street corner in Florida. But there are a lot of them in “regular” locations, too. Besides the ice cream, I'm a big fan of the caramel corn, but there's not a single thing in the inventory that I wouldn't gladly make that hour's drive to get. Really. Check 'em out at https://www.kilwins.com.


While we're on the topic of snacks, I would be terribly remiss if I failed to mention a couple of my all-time favorite snack sources. I never met a potato chip I didn't like, but I really love Utz Potato Chips. Utz chips are at home in Hanover, Pennsylvania but they are found in homes all along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Georgia. And beyond, thanks to a burgeoning mail order business.

I like Utz chips for the full potato flavor and light texture, but the thing I most appreciate is the comparative lack of sodium. At 95 mg, Utz chips have about half the sodium of almost every other chip on the market. (There's 170 mg in Lays.) In fact, after years of enjoying the natural potato taste of Utz, I find other chips way too salty.

Of course, Utz is more than just potato chips. They have a full line of snack products – pretzels, cheese balls, potato sticks, and much more. My wife is particularly partial to their popcorn. Last time we were in Hanover, we stopped at the Utz Factory Store and stocked up on our favorites. But you don't have to make a pilgrimage to Pennsylvania to enjoy Utz in your home. Just head to http://utzsnacks.com and order to your heart's content. But if you do happen to be in Hanover – say you've just visited nearby Hershey or Gettysburg – pop in to 861 Carlisle Street and prepare to be delighted.

One more, and it's mostly a nostalgia entry. As a kid growing up just north of Chicago, my love of potato chips was nurtured by Jays. As the slogan says, “Can't Stop Eating 'Em.” And that's been true for more than 80 years. In those pre-Internet ordering days, Jay's chips were only available in or near the Chicago area, so I lost touch with my first love when I moved out of Chicagoland around age 10. I'd stock up from time to time on visits back home, but, alas, they were a fleeting pleasure. Until the World Wide Web made all things possible. And that includes having Jays signature Jays Potato Chips, Jays Ridges Potato Chips, Jays Waves Potato Chips, Jays Kettle Cooked Potato Chips, and a full line of other snacks like shoestring potato sticks (my other favorite), pork rinds, corn chips and cheese puffs delivered right to my door. And again, my wife is addicted to their popcorn, marketed under the O-KE-DOKE label.

Sadly, the Jays products that I knew and loved as a child, the ones made by the Japp family at a manufacturing plant in the Windy City, are gone now, absorbed into a larger snack conglomerate and distributed as a subsidiary of Snyder's of Hanover. On the bright side, I stumbled upon some Jays chips recently and found that, even though that nostalgic “hometown” element is gone, the folks at Snyders – coincidentally also based in Hanover, Pennsylvania – have done a fine job of retaining the character of the product so it remains largely as it was when I experienced my first blush of crispy potato infatuation. Happily, even today I “Can't Stop Eating 'Em,” and I would encourage you to eat some, too. Find Jays products online at http://www.snyderslance.com/branddetails/brandjays.

Happy Holidays! And if you happen to be reading this in June, remember it's never too early to plan for the future.

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