Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Short Foodie Exploration of Ithaca, New York

Every year my girlfriends and I plan an escape weekend to leave motherhood, wifery and jobs behind and just enjoy each others' company. We shop, eat out, sight see, and most importantly, reconnect with each other back at the hotel room accompanied by a bottle or two of red wine and a bucket of nail polish for our pampering pedicures. Over the years we've watched our friend Laura race in the New York City and Philadelphia marathons, shopped at outlet malls, gotten roped into judging a costume contest at a Mystery Weekend and attended a crafts fair in Vermont. We are lucky to have our super-organized friend Lisa make all the arrangements and are always amazed at how she pulls it off without procrastinating. Without her, I'm sure we'd have only escaped once or twice instead of the dozen junkets we've attended.

This year we planned our annual retreat in Ithaca, New York, a funky college town set among beautiful steep hills and 19th century homes at the southern tip of the Finger Lakes region. We arrived Friday evening and left Sunday morning and managed to pack in a lot of fun into our 48 hour pass. We ate out, shopped for crafts and clothes in Ithaca Commons, tooled around the Farmer's Market and Cornell Campus, attended an elegant opening at the Henry F. Johnson Museum of Art and, of course, squeezed in a lot of chatter and laughter. Here's a view of the gorgeous and steep hills of the western campus at Cornell to give you some idea of the terrain in this area of New York State.

We all arrived in Ithaca in the evening last Friday and after a round of hugs we made a reservation for our group of ten at Viva Taqueria at the corner of State and Aurora Streets in the downtown area. Whistles were wet with a round of Margaritas while we waited for our table and we enjoyed the Mexican folk art and friendly ambiance of the wait staff. I don't have to eat gluten-free (husband Dan is the celiac) so I joined the majority of our group in feasting on a Chicken Mole Burrito that was tasty and beautiful with its white and brown sauce adornment. Numerous entrees were vegetarian or could be made vegan on the Viva Taqueria menu. Our bill was amazingly inexpensive as an added bonus. Drinks excluded, but with the tip, we each dined out for a mere $14.

The next morning was all about the Ithaca Farmer's Market, located in an open-ended, wooden trussed structure that ended in a beautiful dock on Cayuga Lake. We all purchased goodies to pass around and had a smorgasbord of crepes, muffins, Chinese stir-fries and of course, chocolate. After an enjoyable "drive by", I settled on some Cambodian food, as I don't ever think it is too early to dine on spicy stuff. I got a wokked-up to order batch of Me Ka Tang, with flat noodles, tofu, spicy chili sauce, Chinese cabbage and garlic, which warmed me and my fellow samplers from the inside out. Perfect!

There were great crafts about, and two of my buddies snapped up felted hats to warm their heads on this chilly, drizzly morning. There were wonderful leather crafts, pottery, silk-screened clothing and photographers at every turn and we all came away with a holiday gift or two. I had a nice chat with a young man at the Bellwether Cidery booth about the various types of hard cider he had for sale. I fancied the still varieties, or those without carbonation, and will report back in a future blog post about the two bottles I brought back as a souvenir for my imbiber of gluten-free spirits.

Several of our party opted for the prehistoric looking stalks of Brussels Sprouts and my friend Laura carried a gorgeous bouquet of red, orange and yellow carrots that she couldn't resist toting around all day like a Veggie Ms. America. I was delighted to find some garlic for planting at the artful vegetable counter of Muddy Fingers Farm and the young gent manning the station was kind enough to permit a photo of his beautiful vegetables. Those would be two of my mischievous friends mugging in the background which I didn't notice when I took this shot.

Dan and I planted the bag of garlic this past weekend and are looking forward to our first garlic harvest next summer. I also used one of the garlic bulbs for cooking and while it is a similar size to the garlic I get at the supermarket, each clove was about three times as fat and made a lovely garlicky shrimp scampi the other night.

I searched in vain for some gluten-free bakery items in my reconnaissance and found none, so I would have to say that this was my only negative comment about this lovely farmer's market. Surely this is a niche that could use filling. The Ithaca Farmers Market is open on Saturdays from 10 am to 3pm through December at Steamboat Landing and open many more days and hours during the growing season.

Afterwards, our party of ten split up into two groups: one was into shopping at the array of shops in the downtown Ithaca Commons and the other was headed by our Cornell alumni buddy Anne, who wanted to stomp around her alma mater. Parking on the Cornell Campus is tight, so I would recommend taking the frequent shuttle buses to get there, particularly if there is a Big Red football game going on, as we found out the hard way.

This public university graduate was very impressed with her first visit to an Ivy League school. The Gothic architecture of the western campus was just beautiful. We toured the library and Student Union and marveled at the murals, woodwork and Hogwarts ambiance. Anne was interested in checking out her old engineering haunts at the other end of the Cornell campus, peppered with less architecturally-interesting Sixties buildings and we managed to sneak into a Stem Cell Symposium, where the bolder members of our group helped themselves to refreshments while the others tried to look like scientists and scanned the handouts and displays. One interesting tidbit about Cornell that Anne told us was that well-mannered dogs are allowed to attend classes as per an unusual endowment by a caninophile alumnus, which explains the large friendly dogs population we encountered.

I nipped into Autumn Leaves Bookstore for a couple of quick purchases before going back to our downtown hotel room to doll up for Saturday evening's festivities. We began with a swingin' art opening at the I.M. Pei-designed Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art back at Cornell. We had spied a flyer about that night's event during our campus wanderings, so we duded up and had a blast at the opening of an exhibit of 19th century Japanese prints, serenaded by a jazz quartet and helping ourselves to free nibbles of marinated olives and artichokes, cheese, and fruit.

By group vote, we had decided on Madeline's for dinner, although I was sad to miss vegetarian icon, the Moosewood Restaurant, having cooked from their various cookbooks over many years. Madeline's was wonderful, however, and we wined and dined ourselves over the course of two hours, capping off a terrific dinner with bits of each other's desserts. Dessert was mandatory, as Madeline's big selection of elegant sweets made on premises by their full-time pastry chef beckoned to us from its prominently feature glass case.

We had to leave the next morning to make our way back to our various homes in New York and Pennsylvania, but this trip was a delight from start to finish and I am anxious to come back to Ithaca with my family for a holiday sometime soon.


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Arlene Delloro said...

What a fun weekend! I, too, would have voted for the Moosewood Restaurant. I have to hunt for my copy of the first cookbook; haven't seen it in years.

Maria Verivaki said...

thanks for taking us on the trip - i rarely get a chance to leave the family, but recently when i did this (i went to athens and met up with laurie from medcookingalaska), i felt like a whole new person again.

i love teh photo of the brussel sprouts - we dont grow them here, nor can we buy them here unless we go to a german supermarket chain which has an outlet here - and it's mainly foreigners who buy them anyway!