Better Than Bad

After the better part of the week away in Rhode Island–Providence and Newport–it felt mighty good to get home. Something I realize more and more is how dependent I have become on the garden; even lazy weeknight phone-ins often rely on a dozen or so vegetables in various forms. Now the Biggest Little has a burgeoning local food scene, and I’ve eaten at two of the better restaurants in Providence: New Rivers and La Laiterie. (New Rivers was on a previous trip). There’s some very good work being done on several fronts to create a viable and sustainable local food economy; hell, even my alma mater RISD is now sourcing a significant portion of their cafeteria food locally, and using an innovative delivery system to make it feasible.

But the exigencies of travel and meetings and hanging a show and generally being away from home meant that too much of the food I ate was subpar. This was no leisurely gastronomic tour; this was a business trip. There was a bad burger, a good burger, a dozen decent oysters, and one excellent meal at La Laiterie, but there was also some awful road food and too much bad coffee and a salad that deserved a tribunal at the Hague. And there was some food that was fine, but that in the aggregate just sort of dragged the average down so that when I got home I felt thoroughly out of sorts, if also somewhat accomplished. There’s nothing quite like home cooking.

One spot I tried was the Better Burger Company on Thayer Street, a few blocks from where I stayed and right at the end of the strip that functions as the commercial center of Brown’s campus. It has all the right ideas: optional organic beef, whole wheat buns, interesting sounding toppings available. But they seem not to season their burgers with anything at all, including salt. And you have to pump ketchup and mustard into tiny little plastic cups, which I hate. And the large fries (fried in olive oil, which, hooray) were a meager little bouquet of mediocrity. They haven’t been open for long, so there’s hope, but it’s going to take a better burger than the Better Burger to give Ronald any agita. College demographics notwithstanding, self-righteousness is not a condiment. The food has to be good.

It’s doubly annoying because back when I lived there I hated Domino’s so much (both for the owner’s politics and the wretched, awful, disgusting “food”) that I had an idea for a college-town alternative using organic ingredients and actual cheese and similar radical notions like advertising that overtly boasted of donations to specific pro-choice and environmental type groups. Like Ben and Jerry’s, but for pizza. And I still believe it would have been (and would still be) a gold mine. Somebody please take this idea and make it happen. And do the better burger thing better while you’re at it.

So my first dinner back was a whole lot of garden with some turkey on top. I cut a red cabbage and chiffonaded the outer leaves, saving the head for another time. I cooked them with a few cubes of pork stock, white wine, and salt until they got semi-tender (they could have used more time). I took this pile, plus a few other things, and made them all into a nice, tender ragout with minimal seasonings; I wanted it to be all about the garden. That tiny zucchini will be the last one for this year; the leaves are drooping with cold damage and they’re headed for the compost. The fingerling potatoes were practically jumping out of the ground; they did well and it’s time to get the fork out and start excavating their brethren in earnest.

I seasoned some ground turkey with minced herbs and garlic and added a spoon of duck fat to compensate for the inexcusable leanness of the meat, and browned them in still more duck fat. I put the ragout in the center of a pile of cabbage and topped it with meatballs and nasturtium flowers, which are also soon to be finished. It wasn’t fancy, and honestly it wasn’t particularly memorable. But it did contain about 29 servings of vegetables, all über-local and organic. And it tasted like home.

2 comments to Better Than Bad

  • El

    We call going away from home “going off the res” (as in reservation) and yeah, it’s always bad, unless we’re going somewhere known for food, like NYC…but then there’s travel time to consider. Tom just got back from a few days on a gig in Tulsa, where he ate quite well, but…it helps to have a heaping tall salad for his first meal back on the res.

    I don’t remember college as being a particularly food-friendly experience…and I don’t remember really giving a damn. Seems you fine-tuned your skillz quite young.

  • Peter

    Travel is hard when it’s not leisurely and surrounded by decent restaurants.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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