New York's Best Local Food, And Why You Should Eat It

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As a native of New York City, I often wonder what people from other places imagine the rest of my state to be like.  

Do they realize that roughly a quarter of its land is devoted to farming? Are they aware that it's number one in the nation in yogurt production and fourth in milk production? Can they fathom that within one hour of that awesome, gleaming city skyline exists an abundance of artisanal breweries, distilleries, and sprawling vineyards bottling luscious libations they'd undoubtedly assume originated in Oregon, Colorado, California, or abroad? (I bet you never guessed that New York has the second most distilleries of any state, and its home to more than 300 wineries spread across 50 of the state's 62 counties.)

If haters were jealous of New York Staters before, simply because they held the rights to the Big Apple, just think about how envious they'll be once word gets out about the agricultural revolution taking place in the other parts of the state.

The funny thing is, even New York City residents appear to be out of the loop regarding the bounty of offerings found in their own upstate "backyard," and that's why New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo was compelled to make a change. Faced with the challenge of boosting global (and local) awareness about New York's fabulous farm-to-table scene, Cuomo created the Taste NY initiative earlier this year to shine a spotlight on extraordinary edibles produced within his state.  

Part of Cuomo's $60 million campaign to boost statewide tourism and enliven the local economy, Taste NY organizes events across New York, including pop-ups at luxurious hotels, beer and wine tastings hosted by local breweries and wineries, and food-filled mixers that bring the best local chefs and restaurateurs together with farmers, growers, vintners/brewers/distillers, cheesemakers, and artisanal product producers in hopes of forging mutually beneficial relationships. (He even collaborated with the PGA on a golf event at Oak Hill Country Club.)  Literally working from the ground up, the initiative is steadily cultivating and expanding the state's stellar culinary reputation across the world, one piqued palate at a time.  

Two weekends ago, the governor let his message ring loud and proud at the first Taste NY Brunch, part of the New York City Wine & Food Festival. The governor and his friends, including participating celebrity chef Marc Murphy of Landmarc and Ditch Plains, put together an epicurean extravaganza that featured a live jazz ensemble and gastronomic gems representing every corner of the state.

Chef Damon Baehrel, who deserves an entire article devoted to his remarkable restaurant in Earlton, N.Y., is one New York chef who has always abided by the Taste NY philosophy (and long before it became an official movement). His 20-seat Basement Bistro requires reservations, and offers a farm-to-table experience unlike any other, in part because every ingredient is grown, cultivated, and harvested on Baehrel's Eden-like 12-acre property. Baehrel is tirelessly devoted to his craft, preparing everything from the flour to the cheeses, vinegars, pressed oils, butters, and... well, everything, from scratch. His commitment to quality craftsmanship is truly awe-inspiring, and his passion is clear from the moment you meet.  

For this brunch, Baehrel served a bite of bliss that was last-meal-before-you-die delicious, but requires a lengthy explanation: wild sycamore sap with staghorn sumac-brined and native pearwood-smoked salmon bacon, wild pickerelweed seed, and unripened green strawberry paste. Chef Baehrel showed The Daily Meal his stash of wild pickerelweed seeds (they're similar to sunflower seeds in scent), and explained that he harvested them with his bare hands as we unabashedly went back for seconds, thirds, and fourths of his superb salmon.

Long Island standouts Jewel Restaurant (chef Tom Schaudel) and Nick & Toni's (chef Joseph Realmuto) also brought their best bites to brunch, serving up pumpkin ravioli with Hudson Valley foie gras, apples, and sage, and buttermilk fried chicken on garden chive biscuits with house-cured pancetta red-eye gravy, respectively.  

From there, you could nosh on lavender Parisian gnocchi (not the potato kind; these are made with pâte à choux) with red wine-poached pear, blue cheese, and maple glaze from chef Orlando Rodriguez of Veraisons Restaurant at Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee, N.Y., and the otherworldly "Brunchilada," imagined by chef Brud Holland of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier in Elmira, N.Y. This heavenly breakfast burrito began with artisan bread spread with goat cheese and filled with scallion, Cheddar, breakfast sausage, and slices of apple and pear. Then, it was dipped in liquored egg batter, wrapped in hickory-smoked bacon, and baked until crispy. If that isn't enough to make you want to hire chef Holland to spoil you with brunch every weekend, he went all-in by crowning it with local maple syrup and fruit preserves. We wish we could have shared.

Even the city slickers were welcomed to show off their skills on this festive day. Chef Peter Hoffman of SoHo's Back Forty West brought popovers with scrambled eggs and smoked fish; chef Howard Kalachnikoff of Gramercy Tavern provided a Swiss chard, potato, and Cheddar frittata with aji dulce pepper jam; and New York City chef Liz Neumark of Great Performances and Sylvia's Table offered her butternut squash bread pudding with pickles. Even Marc Murphy represented with a farmer's frittata of his own, filled with local eggs, cheese, and vegetables, and served alongside a salad tossed with smoked oyster vinaigrette.

And we haven't even gotten to the booze.

Some of New York State's premier wines were flowing all afternoon, from the semi-sweet Red Cat from Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards & Winery (made from New York-grown red catawba grapes) and Dr. Konstantin Frank's dry riesling to pours from their Finger Lakes neighbors Wagner Vineyards, Pleasant Valley Wine Company,  Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, and Hosmer Winery.  Long Island's Bedell Cellars popped corks as well, and Brooklyn's NY Distilling Company mixed up gimlet cocktails featuring Dorothy Parker American Gin and Perry Tot's Navy Strength Gin.

It's no surprise that Governor Cuomo firmly believes that when people taste the ingredients, food and beverage products, and dishes from his state, they'll instantly be enamored by its magnitude of its greatness.  

Up next for Cuomo and his team is the Taste NY Harvest Fest at the New York State Fairgrounds in Geddes, N.Y. (outside Syracuse) on Saturday, Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 3 from noon until 5 p.m. (score tickets here).  Like other Taste NY events, this festival will give guests an opportunity to indulge in an array of Empire State eats: breads, cheeses, pickles, jams/jellies/marmalades, salsas, honeys, vinegars, and, of course, plenty of vino, suds, and spirits. Vendors include Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Ma Poole's Chutney, Merritt Estate Winery, Hungry Bear Farms, Roger's Rustic Rubs & Sauces, Adirondack Distilling Company, Three Brothers Wineries, Americana Vineyards, McCadam Cheese, Casa Larga Vineyards, Gianelli Sausage, Thousand Islands Winery, and F.X. Matt Brewing Company.

On top of that, a Taste NY store is coming to Grand Central Station in the near future (there are already stores along the New York State Thruway at rest stops), and more tasting events are in the works. Stay tuned to The Daily Meal to keep informed on what's next for this exciting movement.