2010 Cochon 555: Our Prince of Porc Still Reigns

Providence Chef Matt Jennings takes home the prize from the Boston Cochon 555 for his Pig Mac.

On paper, Cochon 555 sounds like a divine night — five talented chefs create five pork dishes each while five vineyards provide a selection of accompanying wines. In reality, it felt a bit more like a mess hall as hoards of people in a tight space competed for a sliver of a table to set their plates while they stood and ate their food — that is, after they’d waited in line for fifteen minutes to get that mini-plate of food.

Why do I have the funny feeling that most of these people's tickets were comped?

Of course, the food is the star attraction here. Geoff thought that the cured porks and homemade hams were top-notch — my particular favorite was the pork jerky from Clink. Pulled pork sandwiches and a pork consommé were tasty but nothing new; more impressive was Toro’s pork skin chili (delicious despite how it sounds). Some of the dishes seemed rushed in the face of demanding crowds — Clink’s steamed pork dumplings needed a bit more steam and Craigie on Main’s pork skin wrap was slopped together making for too fatty of a bite. Ultimately Providence Chef Matt Jennings took home the prize for his perfectly conceived Pig Mac with a side of salt and vinegar fried pork skins and a pork rice crispy treat (also delicious despite how it sounds).

I did find the voting method quite odd for an event of this stature. Rather than one ballot per person, they use the “honor system” leaving piles of cards by the ballot box. That may work in Massachusetts, folks, but here in Rhode Island, corruption is a pastime. Nevertheless, I voted for Matt’s Pig Mac (once) and so did Geoff, and it wasn’t only because we wanted Rhode Island to win, but because it was actually the best. And because he kept it simple, he was able to keep up with the demand and prevent long lines at his table.

So here’s to our very own Prince of Porc for his well-deserved second year reign.

Cochon 555
2010 Competitors:
Tony Maws – Craigie on Main
Jamie Bissonette – Toro
Matthew Jennings – Farmstead
Barry Maiden – Hungry Mother
Joseph Margate – Clink

South Kingston Winter Farmers’ Market

A variety of crunchy apples from Hill Orchards are available year-round at the market.

Next weekend will be the final weekend for the South Kingston Winter Farmers’ Market. A down-home version of the Pawtucket Winter Farmers’ Market, the South Kingston Winter Farmers’ Market features a modest selection of farms, but certainly enough to buy the wintertime basics — eggs, root vegetables, lettuces, apples, jams, sausages, cheeses, meats — and even a few potted herbs and flowers for building your garden. On our visit, we only had about $25 in cash which didn’t seem like much, but it stretched pretty far, enough to buy some homemade johnny cakes, pizza strips from Palmieri’s Bakery, eight apples from Hill Orchards, a bag of spring lettuce, some popcorn and even some homemade shea butter lotion for $15.

You can't go wrong with fresh, local eggs.

Despite the fact that I actually saw snow fall on Friday, spring has technically arrived, and in just a few short months, we’ll be coming upon the summer markets season with several dozen to choose from across the state. But I will miss the winter markets a bit. I’ve loved discovering such incredible bounty from our local farms in the midst of winter — from baby pea greens to tasty crisp carrots. As for the snow, that I won’t miss at all.

South Kingston Winter Farmers’ Market
Saturdays 10 am -2 pm through April 4, 2010
Peacedale Mill Complex
1425 Kingstown Rd
South Kingston, RI

For a list of all farmers’ markets in Rhode Island, view Farm Fresh RI.

Rue de L’Espoir: Perfect Popovers

Note: Sadly, Rue de L’Espoir has closed.

A basket of homemade popovers and cinnamon buns awaits you when you arrive.

Although Rue de L’Espoir has received mixed reviews, I was surprised to see no one mentioned what I believe may be their show-stopper: homemade popovers.

I haven’t visited for dinner yet (too many restaurants, too little time) but on our latest brunch outing I found Rue de L’Espoir offers a nice brunch in a cozy atmosphere.  Admittedly it’s not perfect — the omelets, for example, had too much brown on them to be considered a proper French omelet.  And although the pancakes were tasty, they were no match for my personal favorite.  But they served homemade corn muffins with raspberry jam, fresh cinnamon rolls, and, most importantly, deliciously light and airy homemade popovers.

If you’ve never eaten a popover, you may not appreciate the significance of my finding amazing popovers.  When made correctly, it’s basically a giant cream puff without the cream.  And if, like me, you’ve never attempted to make a popover, you might not realize just how difficult it is to achieve a dough that yields a golden brown crust atop a few layers of soft dough covering mostly a giant pocket of air.  But I know a good thing when I eat it, and the popovers at Rue De L’Espoir will not disappoint.

Rue De L’Espoir
99 Hope Street
Providence, RI

Renaissance Gymnastics Academy

2013 NOTE: I can no longer recommend Renaissance Gymnastics Academy due to their poor make-up policy. After paying $72/month in lessons for gymnastics, they canceled two due to snow and one due to February vacation–so that comes to $72 for a 55 minute class. Although they promised a make-up class, they never came through with one.  There are plenty of better places to take gymnastics I’ve discovered — like Aim High Academy which has locations in East Greenwich, RI and Johnston, RI.

Madeline jumps out some extra energy on the trampoline.

During the winter, I decided to sign up Madeline for gymnastics classes to expend all that extra energy she seems to have (too bad it’s not transferable).  So on the advice of some other parents, I decided to try a free trial class at the Renaissance Gymnastics Academy in East Providence.  I figured she’d do a few somersaults, jump around a bit, and have a blast.

As it turns out, it’s even better.  Her teacher Joanna sets up a structured routine (different for each class) that keeps the kids moving constantly and changing activities quickly.  For the Little Tykes program, activities might include an obstacle courses for the kids, some practice hanging from the horizontal bar, and donkey kicks on the trampoline.  The gym itself boasts an impressive array of equipment including several trampolines, balance beams, bars, mats, and the favorite — a large pit filled with foam cubes that the kids jump into and climb out of.

In addition to their classes, the gym is open to the public ($10/child) at scheduled times for Open Play (children walking to age 5) and Open Gym (ages 6 and up).

Renaissance Gymnastics Academy
885 Waterman Avenue
East Providence, RI

Farmstead: Lunch, Dinner and Gourmet Shopping

June 2014: Farmstead has been sold and will no longer be run by Chef Matt Jennings

Although there’s an official restaurant next door, diners are even happy to sit at the “cheese bar” for a meal at Farmstead.

I love any restaurant where the waitress asks, “Do you want the bacon with that?” and she’s talking about dessert. But what’s most impressive is that at Farmstead the bacon actually works in the dessert.  Especially since, as everyone knows, bacon is a health food.

I first discovered Farmstead’s gourmet store where they make superb sandwiches with local ingredients and sell an impressive array of cheeses, in-house cured meats and New England gourmet goods.  This array of items provides the backdrop for Farmstead which is usually enough to get me salivating.

It’s quite popular especially on weekends, but worth waiting for (even if it did take way more than the 45 minutes the hostess promised on one Saturday night visit). During the week or if you come early, though, you might just slide quickly into one of their precious few tables and enjoy expertly subtle flavors packed into a range of dishes that would satisfy both gourmands (seared vermont chicken livers) and more timid foodies (virginia ham & brie cheese sandwich). It may be hard to resist their meat and cheese boards, but it’s easy to fill up on those so my advice is to order a selection of the little plates to share as well as one larger plate and save the meats and cheeses to take home with you. Of course, I don’t follow that advice. But maybe you can.

It’s clear that Chefs Matt Jennings and Kate Jennings and their team have a passion for well-crafted fresh food made with locally-sourced ingredients, and the results are indisputable.  Next weekend, Chef Matt and his team will return to defend his last year’s win of the Cochon 555 competition, which you can attend this Sunday, March 28 in Boston.  Let’s hope as he says, Farmstead and Providence can keep “bragging rights” after the competition which sets five chefs (the other four are from Boston) against each other in the competition.  Providence may not beat Boston in many ways, but it’d sure be nice to continue to claim “Prince of Porc.” [Ed. note: Jennings did, in fact, win that year’s Cochon 555].

Farmstead, Inc.
184-188 Wayland Avenue
Providence, RI 02906

Cochon 555
Boston competition on March 28, 2010

A Maple Sugaring Tour: Parker Woodland Wildlife Refuge & Chepachet Farms

The "Sugar House" at Chepachet Farms.

It didn’t start off well — it was raining, and we were late.  It got even worse when we arrived at the Audubon Society in Bristol only to realize that we had misread — the maple sugaring tour took place at the Parker Woodland Wildlife Refuge in Coventry, which was on the other side of the state.  Luckily Rhode Island isn’t that big, and luckily, the Audubon Society made space for us on the tour later in the morning.

We arrived at their house tucked in the woods to a breakfast spread of Dunkin’ Donuts muffins and doughnuts slathered with their homemade maple glaze and some pancakes to taste their maple syrup.  Then we followed our tour guide outside in the rain to learn about the Native American’s discovery of maple syrup and its rise to the sweet necessity we now know and love.   The program also demystified how to discern a sugar maple tree (forked branches, twin buds, color and shape of the leaves) and how to tap trees and produce your own syrup.

Inside the "Sugar House" at Chepachet Farms, the tree sap boils down into maple syrup.

Our tour ended back inside where we could taste test the real thing against Aunt Jemima’s.  As a pancake connoisseur, this happens to be one of my areas of expertise — the phony stuff has a stickier, stringier consistency and, in fact, has little maple flavor.  Also inside, Chepachet Farms had setup a stand for visitors to sample and purchase their homemade goods — a sweet maple salad dressing, a crunchy maple peanut brittle, maple-flavored popcorn, and, of course, maple syrup.  Learning a bit about the Chepachet Farms operation, we decided to drive there immediately.  After a bit of hunting around in the rain, we came across their “Sugar House” which is open to the public for a view of the sap boiling furiously in a wood-burning metal tub at a temperature of over 200 degrees.  In their farm operation, they gather up to 500 gallons of sap daily which they boil down to 12 gallons of maple syrup.  If you come during the season, you can literally buy syrup that’s been bottled that morning and is still warm, but if you can’t make it out, you can also order their syrup online.

See a list of Rhode Island farms that produce maple syrup at Farm Fresh RI. Or, go ahead, try this at home.  Here’s a handy guide on How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Maple Syrup.

Chepachet Farms
Their “Sugar House” is open to the public — call ahead for times.
226 Tourtellot Hill Road
Chepachet, RI 02814

Audubon Society of Rhode Island
Locations throughout RI
Annual Maple Sugaring at Parker Woodland Wildlife Refuge
Maple Valley Road, Coventry, RI

The Duck & Bunny: A Snuggery

The Duck and Bunny posts their cupcake menu daily.

When I spotted the silhouette sign of The Duck & Bunny hanging along Wickenden Street, I decided to stop in as soon as I could.  Today, I discovered the dollhouse charm that lay within — gray and white striped walls, glass chandeliers, white tufted seats.  They serve a selection of tea sandwiches (cucumber with herb butter, turkey with dried cranberry, tuna with apple, sundried tomato cream, and smoked salmon with dill cream) along with mini cupcakes on a tiered cake stand. Even the list of beers on tap (which includes Dogfish Head) rests within a little white Victorian frame.  The husband-and-wife proprietors, Daniel and Jessica Becker call their café/teahouse/bar/restaurant a “snuggery.” And thanks to Jessica Becker’s elegant design, it works — whether you sit at their Parisian marble tables or a few chairs by the fire or some stools along the bar.

A carrot cupcake.

Since we had already eaten (delicious) Cambodian soup at Angkor across the street, we had to save the savory dishes for another day. Instead we ordered a few cupcakes to try — Carrot, Peanut Butter Chocolate Truffle, and Date-Nut Spice, along with some teas, a “drinking chocolate” for Madeline, and an espresso for Geoff. The soft cakes pack some rich flavor and come in both mini and regular sizes.

Although The Duck & Bunny only opened five weeks ago, nearly every seat was filled when we arrived. The earnest waitstaff struggled to keep up with the clearly unexpected demand, but they had a sense of humor about it — and I’m certainly willing to give them a few extra weeks to smooth out the service. Especially since I need to try those tea sandwiches…

Duck & Bunny
312 Wickenden Street
Providence, RI

A tea service steeps behind the almond poundcakes.

Juniper Frozen Yogurt

July 2014 Update:I am sad to report that Juniper has closed.

Pure white — you can’t beat a small original with nothing on it.

No, it’s not Pinkberry. Still, Juniper Frozen Yogurt whips up some tasty, tangy frozen yogurt in two flavors — original and blueberry — satisfying that urge (which I seem to get quite often) for soft serve. (See my related obsession with Frosty Freez).

Madeline likes it. Although, to be fair, she’s not very picky.

If you somehow missed the tangy frozen yogurt craze, I do believe you are missing out. Obviously, I consider myself an expert having tried Pinkberry, Red Mango, and any imitators. If you don’t believe me, see Madeline and me pictured at BoYo’s debut last year in The Boston Globe (photo number three). Long gone are the days when frozen yogurt tries to guise as ice cream; now it embraces its tartness.

As for Juniper, I do wish they’d alternate flavors the way Boston’s Berryline does since I’ve long since tired of their blueberry. But I’m content enough with a small original with no toppings to keep coming back. And with it being organic and nonfat, it’s guilt-free, as long as you don’t mind the damage to your wallet once you’re addicted.

Juniper Frozen Yogurt
229 Thayer Street
Providence, RI