I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten so much in such a short time span as I did on a recent press trip to Columbus, Ohio. One afternoon, I called Marion from the hotel, where we’d been delivered to briefly rest and attempt to digest the day’s many delicious meals and snacks. I told her, “I’m full as a tick, and in an hour, they’re taking us to dinner!”
Our group of 10 food writers came from as far away as San Francisco and Boston and from as close as Columbus itself. We were guests of Experience Columbus, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the city as a travel destination. Even as I arrived at the airport, Columbus was a blank slate for me. I’m sure many of my fellow travelers felt the same. We didn’t have any negative image of the city to be overcome; we had, well, no image. Our hosts said that was the challenge – and the opportunity – they face daily.
I know my focus here is supposed to be food, but let me start by saying my first impression is that people in Columbus are really, really nice. Friendly, not just cordial. And while they take great and justifiable pride in their city, it doesn’t come across in a boastful sort of way. They’re just genuinely pleased to share the city’s treasures with you.
And now, the food. Columbus, Ohio, is serious about it. This city of some 790,000 people (1.8 million if you count the whole metropolitan area) supports three local food magazines. We’re talking print here, and glossy at that. Slow Food Columbus, founded just three years ago, is the largest Slow Food chapter in Ohio.
Columbus is smack dab in the middle of Ohio’s rich farmland, and chefs and home cooks alike take full advantage of it. From the smallest storefront restaurants to the swellest, poshest nightspots, locally sourced and seasonal were the twin mantras, repeated again and again. In fact, Chef Dean James Max convinced the Columbus Renaissance Hotel, where his restaurant Latitude 41 is housed, to let him put a small rooftop garden next to the hotel pool deck. There, he and his team grow some of the vegetables and herbs for the daily changing menu.
I mentioned vast amounts of food in a short period of time. Here’s one day. Local is very much on the menu at Skillet in German Village too, where we started our first full day with bountiful breakfasts of “rustic urban food” – plus shared samples of unordered dishes the staff kept bringing out. After breakfast, we headed to the Franklin Park Conservatory, where we consumed no food, but saw a community garden shared by neighborhood residents and the working kitchen where the local member of our group, Rachel Tayse, teaches hands-on cooking classes. Next came Thurn’s Specialty Meats, a 118-year-old family business and Columbus tradition specializing in sausages, smoked meats and various sides. Of course, a too generous platter of their smoky, meaty treats was offered for our sampling. From there, we went straight – not kidding – to Katzinger’s Delicatessen for lunch. Katzinger’s is a full on deli experience, with shelves and cases chock full of amazing, fragrant wonders, but by now, we were pairing up to split sandwiches and sides, trying desperately to pace ourselves.
The trouble is, everything was just so delicious. Case in point was our next stop. We waddled a few blocks up the street to Pistacia Vera, a beautiful, airy patisserie where everything is scratch-made from loads of butter and sugar.
Finally, it really was time for dinner. We split into groups and headed for three of Columbus’s top ten restaurants. For my group, it was seats at the bar at Kihachi, where we watched Chef Michael Kimura prepare dish after authentic Japanese dish for us.
And that was one day, of two and a half days of glorious eating and drinking. Yeah, we often groaned and loosened belts between stops, but we hung in there. Unlike an earlier so-called food tour group who wimped out at one point and staged a food mutiny, refusing to eat any more and demanding to be taken back to the hotel.
But you’re probably wondering about this week’s recipes and what they have to do with Columbus. Our first night in town, we had dinner at Basi Italia, a cozy Victorian Village spot with an inviting courtyard out back. Co-owners Chef John Dornback and his wife Trish Gentile have created a welcoming neighborhood place that encourages lingering over food and wine. Their Italian- and Mediterranean-inspired menu changes seasonally to reflect what’s locally available.
What caught my eye on the specials chalkboard was braised pork cheeks served over a mound of sweet potatoes and Swiss chard (and perhaps kale). As we slide into fall, winter greens and sweet potatoes come into their own. And pork plays so well with sweet and savory flavors. Around me, everyone exclaimed as they devoured their main courses (we were so innocent and underfed that first night). But I secretly knew I had won the prize.
The three recipes below – Braised Pork Chops with Sage, Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Swiss Chard with Garlic – are not an attempt to recreate my meal at Basi Italia. Rather, I just took the three basic elements and ran with them. Individually, each of these dishes is delicious. Together, they’re a whole other level of delicious. Especially the sweet potatoes and the Swiss chard – the sweet potatoes, their sweetness ever so slightly enhanced with maple syrup interacting with salt, do something amazing when they share a fork with the garlicky chard.
One last Columbus note: Dang. There’s so much I didn’t cover here. For more pictures and less verbosity about eating and drinking your way through town, take a look at my slide show on the USA Character Approved Blog, which should be up on Thursday. And keep checking back here at Blue Kitchen. I think there’s at least another post I need to do.
Braised Pork Chops with Sage
2 bone-in 1-1/4-inch thick pork chops, about 1/2-pound each
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage (or 1 teaspoon dried)
3/4 cup reduced sodium chicken broth
3/4 cup dry white wine
Pat pork chops dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat a large lidded skillet over medium-high flame. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan and sear chops for about 5 minutes on one side, until nicely browned. Turn chops and reduce heat to medium; cook for about 4 minutes, then transfer chops to a plate. No need to tent with foil – they’ll go back into the pan to finish.
Add more oil to the pan if needed (it probably won’t be) and cook the onion until just getting tender, 3 minutes or so. Stir often to avoid burning or overly browning. Add garlic and sage to pan and cook, stirring, until just fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add broth, then wine to the pan, scraping up any browned bits, and bring liquid to a boil. Return chops to pan, cover and reduce heat to low. Braise chops for about 10 minutes. Plate chops with Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Sautéed Swiss Chard with Garlic (recipes follow).
A quick note: Save the braising liquid for a future use – it is delicious.
Mashed Sweet Potatoes
2 medium sweet potatoes, about 1 pound total
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon maple syrup
Peel and cube sweet potatoes. Cover with cold water in a pot by an inch or so. Season with salt and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium and cook until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and return sweet potatoes to hot pot. Cut butter into slices and add to pot. Mash potatoes with a hand masher. Stir in syrup and taste. Season with salt, tasting as you go, until the sweetness of the potatoes and syrup and the salt achieve a nice balance. (You’ll know when this happens – the salt will actually bring the sweetness forward.)
Potatoes can be made before cooking the chops or the Swiss chard. Keep on the stovetop, covered, for up to an hour. Gently reheat before serving.
Sautéed Swiss Chard with Garlic
1 bunch Swiss chard (a pound or a little less)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large clove garlic, minced
Clean and prepare the chard. Don’t you just hate recipes that say “1 bunch” of this or “a handful” of that? I do. Sorry. I had a little less than a pound of Swiss chard when I started. After rinsing it, cutting away the stems and slicing the leaves, I ended up with about 8 ounces of chard to cook. That’s your goal.
Rinse each leaf under cold running water. Shake off excess water, but don’t dry the leaves – that extra water will help cook the chard and make it juicy and tender. With a sharp knife, slice along both sides of the center rib. Stack and slice the leaf halves crosswise into 1-inch strips; with really large leaves, you may wish to cut those strips in half. Some recipes have you save the ribs and cook them too. I was lazy here, and they became compost fodder.
Heat a large, heavy, lidded pot over medium flame; a Dutch oven will work well. It may look like it won’t hold all the chard, but this stuff cooks down like crazy – don’t worry. Add oil and butter to pot, swirling to combine as butter melts. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Start adding chard to the pot, a generous handful at a time, tossing to coat with oil. As it begins to wilt, add more. Season with salt as you go along, tossing each new handful to incorporate it into the mix.
Cover pot, reduce heat to low and cook until chard is tender, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve immediately over sweet potatoes.