A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Columbus, Ohio as a guest of Experience Columbus: A Diverse & Delicious Culinary Tour. In a whirlwind four-day trip we covered an incredible number of local attractions, beverage distillers and brewers, restaurants and artisan purveyors, meeting many of the people who are responsible for the vibrant farm-to-table scene in Columbus.
If I had to use one word to describe the Columbus food scene it would be Passionate. Everyone is dedicated to providing the best possible products and service, utilizing local, sustainable, organic, and natural products wherever possible. Their excitement was infectious and we found ourselves falling under the spell of their enthusiasm at every turn.
There are many people who believe that the center of the country is a wasteland where food is concerned. They think there is nothing but grits, chicken-fried steak and blueberry pie on every table. If you aren’t on one of the coasts, there is no high-quality food. Well folks, I am here to tell you that those thoughts couldn’t be farther from the truth. The meals I had in Columbus rivaled what I have had in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, minus the enormous price tags.
Very highly trained chefs are returning to their roots and bringing their skills back to their hometowns. With the challenging economy and people’s desire for comfort foods, more and more chefs are leaving the big cities in search of a more balanced lifestyle, a nice place to raise their families and a slower pace where they can focus on their passion for food without the pressure to climb the ladder beating them over the head every hour of the day.
In addition to the fine restaurants on every corner, we discovered many wonderful boutique food shops selling handmade pastries, ice creams, baked goods, and foods of all types. One morning we were taken to North Market, a fascinating compilation of vendors selling their homemade wares. There were people selling artisan breads and pastries, incredible sweetened Belgian waffles, stunning ravioli, gourmet coffees and teas, Asian, Indian and European specialty foods and some of the most remarkable spice blends I’ve ever seen. I easily could have spent an entire day wandering from stall to stall, but we only had an hour. We broke out into small groups, sharing bites as we nibbled our way through the market, trying to get as broad a sweep as we could in the time allotted. Before we knew it, it was time to head to our next destination.
The staff of Experience Columbus and Weirick Communications did a marvelous job of keeping us on schedule and shepherding us from place to place. They did it with a ready smile on their faces and extreme patience as we tended to wander away whenever something caught our eye. I think keeping us in line was probably about as challenging as herding a pack of feral cats, LOL! They also scheduled a lot of different types of experiences so that we came away with a broad sampling of life in Columbus.
Everywhere we went we saw locally produced goods being used to create new and interesting meals or products. Some of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams were made with Rockmill Brewery beers. Middle West Spirits vodkas and whiskey were featured in entrees at Restaurant Latitude 41. Watershed Gin was a main ingredient at several of the custom cocktails at M Restaurant. Each time we turned around there were local products being promoted and highlighted. We would all be a lot better off if this sense of camaraderie were more widespread. It was wonderful to watch and gave me a very warm feeling of the friendships that exist among these talented folks.
In addition to the new producers, we witnessed many examples of generational businesses – handed down from father to son with a quiet pride and dignity. One of these shops was Thurn’s Specialty Meats. Albert Thurn is the 4th generation of his family to run the shop. A somewhat shy man with a gentle smile, he took us through his warehouse, showing us the smoker and walk-in chillers, with example after example of how his family has been smoking meats since 1886.
Racks were laden with gorgeous sausages aging in the chillers. There were hams stacked in neat piles awaiting carving. Cervelats, a Geraman/Swiss-style sausage, were curing in the time-honored tradition. There is nothing hurried about Thurn’s. The locals stop to chat with the workers, exchanging stories as their orders are prepared. It reminded me of the types of shops that I used to go to with my mother when I was a child. Everyone was pleasant and courteous, happy to help you and proud of their work. If I lived in Columbus I would most certainly be a regular here.
You can find just about any kind of meat you want here. They have the standard ham, roast beef, corned beef, turkey and salami of course, but you can also get some more unusual meats. They also offer tongue, knockwurst, liverwurst, braunschweiger, pepper loaf, “real” bologna, head cheese, blood sausages, tasso, thuringer, and a whole slew of brats. I will be placing an order soon for a variety – the hard part will be figuring out what to order first. Thurn’s is going to be on my speed dial!
In an effort to keep us from exploding with too much food, we also got to visit some of Columbus’ non-food shops and attractions. The Franklin Park Conservatory had stunning glass works by Dale Chihouly and a lovely botanical garden that gave us a moment to breathe in the wonderful aromas of freshly turned earth and tropical plants. Their exhibit, “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” was eye-opening. They went around the world photographing families from various countries surrounded by a week’s worth of food. It was fascinating to see the types of foods each family eats, how much or how little of it is fresh vs. packaged, and the changing ratios of meats to vegetables to baked goods in each group.
We spent a few moments perusing the myriad of rooms of floor-to-ceiling books at the Book Loft, did a little shopping at a wonderful shop called Substance and got to make our own custom-scented candles at The Candle Shop. We met one of the most fascinating people in the men’s washroom at the Westin Hotel – yes you heard me right. His “office” is in the men’s restroom and he is the world’s only certified shoe artist. Carey is a real character who takes great pride in his work. You can send him your leather shoes or purses and he will return them to a high shine that lasts for a very long time. I am tempted to send him a few of my leather bags. I know he would make them look like they were brand new with his talents.
Just in case you thought savory items were the only thing on the menu, we also were lucky to hit a few dessert shops and bakeries along the way. Pistacia Vera is a pristine dessert boutique that would be perfectly at home on 5th Avenue in New York City. In the tradition of any great French bakery, the workers all wear uniforms that despite all the baking they were doing the day we were there, were still clean and white. The shop is quite spacious, with plenty of tables for people to sit and enjoy the array of pastries with a cup of coffee or tea. We had just eaten lunch down the street which was a good thing or I would have eaten my weight in pastries and cookies. The macarons alone would have kept me sated for the next year and I would be one happy camper if I could eat their croissants every single day.
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams are renown in the area and rapidly gaining popularity across the nation. And no wonder when you hear Jeni speak about her love of ice cream and the creative process of coming up with new flavor combinations. We were lucky to have an audience with her and got to sample many of her most popular flavors. Tray after tray arrived and we all dove in with spoons flashing to try each one. Each was incredibly creamy and smooth with the butterfat coating your tongue in the most delightful way. I can see why people wait forever in lines that snake around the building to buy her ice creams.
Jeni believes that you can only truly manage quality if you know the cows the milk is coming from and how they are treated. She hunted until she found someone with the same philosophy of humane treatment and works closely with Snowville Creamery who use pasture-based, grass-grazing methods. Cows evolved to eat grass and when they are left to live life the natural way, they produce a purer, truer tasting milk. Snowville uses very little processing, believing that milk is perfect just the way it comes from the cow. Because they do not homogenize the milk, the cream naturally rises to the top just the way it did when I was a girl. They pasteurize at the lowest possible legal temperature so that their milk tastes sweet, clean and delicious.
When you start with such high quality milk and cream, it is no wonder that Jeni is making a name for herself as one of this country’s best ice cream producers. I shared one of the recipes from her cookbook last week for Chocolate Monday, her dark chocolate ice cream which is heavenly. If you have a chance, buy “Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home” so you can try your own hand at making her fun and interesting flavors.
And that brings us to today’s Chocolate Monday offering. Sugardaddy’s Sumptuous Sweeties is one honey of a store! Mark Ballard and Tom Finney came up with the brilliantly simple concept of a store that sells only brownies and blondies. Affectionately known as Brunettes and Blondes, Mark and Tom have hit on a gold mine. Spend a little time with them and it is like taking a course in how to start a small business and turn it into a major player. The whole shop is decorated in bright pink and you can’t help but smile when you walk in the door. They proudly exhibit a sign that tells everyone how they beat Bobby Flay at a Throwdown on the Food Network and they were chosen by Ellen Degeneres as one of the featured snacks for her guests while they wait in her Green Room.
Instead of the standard squares, they cut their baked goods into 3-inch circles which are then packaged in clear plastic tubes that show the beautiful treats. Everything has a clean, simple pink and brown color scheme and nothing goes to waste. The crispy edges of the pans are turned into bags of brownie or blondie “biscotti” and the pieces between the circles become “Spare Change.” I was very impressed and wished I could have spent a few hours talking with them about marketing strategies for The Heritage Cook!
Today’s recipes showcase ways that you can serve Sugardaddy’s treats at your own home. If you live in the Columbus area you can stop in the shop and take some home or if you are like me, you can order them on-line. Set out a bunch of brownies and blondies in a variety of flavors, provide several types of ice cream and an assortment of toppings and then let everyone make their own sundaes. With the holidays coming up, this would be a really fun party idea.
Come back tomorrow for the next installment of The Artisans of Columbus … and have a Happy Chocolate Monday!
Note: These photographs were taken with my iPhone.
Sugardaddy’s Brownie and Blondie Dessert Bar
Sugardaddy’s, Columbus, Ohio
Start with your choice of Sugardaddy’s famous brownies and/or blondies, aka brunettes and blondes! You can order them Here. Then let your guests choose their favorite additions. Or you can quarter the Sumptuous Sweeties and use them to dip into chocolate fondue. Here are some suggestions…
Ice Cream Recommendations
The Classics The Adventuresome
Banana Coffee Banana Rum Ginger
Butter Pecan Mint Chip Burnt Honey Goat Cheese
Chocolate Mocha Chili Pepper Salty Caramel
Chocolate Chip Strawberry Five Spice Merlot Raspberry
Coconut Vanilla Bean Fried Cinnamon Peach Bourbon
Whole Mint Leaves
Chopped, Sliced and Whole Nuts
Shaved or Curled Chocolate
Berries, Sliced Peaches, Diced Pineapple
Dried and Sliced Fruits
Sugardaddy’s Melted Chocolate Sauce (recipe follows)
Ideas for Fondue Dipping Ingredients
Sugardaddy’s Dark Chocolate Fondue (recipe follows)
Sugardaddy’s White Chocolate Fondue (recipe follows)
Dried Apricots and Papaya Strips
Fresh, Sliced Apples*, Diced Pineapple, Citrus Wedges and Seedless Grapes
Strawberries with Stems
* Rub the sliced apples and bananas with lemon, lime or pineapple juice to prevent them from browning.
- 1 lb bittersweet chocolate, chopped finely
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup corn syrup
- 2 cups heavy cream
- Pinch of salt
- Place chocolate in a heatproof bowl; set aside.
- In a saucepan, combine the butter, corn syrup and cream. Bring to a boil. Pour over chocolate. Let sit for 3 to 4 minutes. Stir until smooth. Add salt. Serve warm.
- Dark Chocolate Fondue
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream, divided
- 1 lb dark bittersweet chocolate, chopped
- 2 tbsp Amaretto or Kahula liqueur (optional)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped nuts such as walnuts or almonds (optional)
- White Chocolate Fondue
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream, divided
- 1 lb white chocolate bars or chips, chopped
- 2 tbsp Frangelico or Grand Marnier liqueur (optional)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped hazelnuts or almonds (optional)
- Heat 3/4 cup of the cream in a heavy non-reactive saucepan or in a double boiler over moderate heat until the cream comes to a simmer. There will be little bubbles around the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate or white chocolate. Let it stand 3 minutes to soften, then whisk until smooth.
- Stir in the liqueur and/or nuts and transfer to a fondue pot or set the mixing bowl on a rack above a lit votive or tea candle. If fondue becomes too thick, stir in reserved 1/4 cup cream, 1 tbsp at a time until it reaches the desired consistency.