Michael Warren Thomas is often known as the Voice of the Finger Lakes. For 25 years his series of radio shows about food, wine and gardening have established him as an authority on the region’s restaurant, wine, agriculture and horticulture scene. He studied economics and political science at the University of Rochester and has lived in the city ever since. Michael is also one of the founding members of the Rochester Food Net, a collaborative effort of food-focused creatives living in Rochester. Archives of his shows, The Grapevine, Discover the Finger Lakes, For the Love of Food and Naturally Green, are available at Savor Life.com. We hope you enjoy his responses to our Frequently Asked Questions.
Edible Finger Lakes: What is the most interesting thing you always keep in your fridge?
Cheese isn’t necessarily interesting as you will see with most breakfast sandwiches, but local cheeses are really fascinating and delicious. At any one time, we’ll have 4 to 8 local cheeses in our refrigerator, usually sourced from Abundance Coop or directly from the cheeseries at the Brighton Farmers Market (East Hill Creamery, First Light Creamery). An alternative interesting item usually in our refrigerator is Smoked Tofu, made by Soy Boy in Rochester. Small amounts of this tofu can be grated into many different dishes, adding both flavor and protein.
EFL: What’s the last meal you cooked for yourself?
Tonight I cooked a new version of the ever-evolving vegetarian lasagna. It had a little ricotta, an egg, a small amount of spicy tomato sauce (1/3 jar), only two layers of pasta (Brown Rice pasta), and some mozzarella on top, but the real stars were the vegetables. There were layers of spaghetti squash, mashed potato squash (pure white on the outside, fairly white inside – that is the real name of it), fresh spinach, sweet potato, beets, and mushrooms. Sometimes I use a lasagna pasta made with lentils when I do a vegan edition.
EFL: What’s the one kitchen tool you couldn’t live without?
I couldn’t live without a pan, probably a fairly large one with high sides. You can use it like a frying pan but also make soup. I’ve threatened to create a YouTube series called One Pot Mike, because I’m rather infamous in our family for using one pot to cook a meal that usually takes multiple pots. I don’t really need a knife because I can just put things that need to be cut into the oven and cook them until I can scoop out the insides. We have a fire pit outside, so I don’t really need the stove or oven, but after doing a weekend of open hearth cooking at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in the Pioneer Cabin, I really do appreciate the gas range.
EFL: What’s the one food or beverage you couldn’t live without?
Good bread is the one thing I couldn’t live without (with peanut butter on it—Nunda Nut Butter, no salt crunchy version). There are some wonderful bread options right now, with Amazing Grains and Flour City Bread Company in the Rochester area. I love toast with butter and honey, bread pudding (savory or sweet), and most styles of bread. I also have fond memories of awesome bakeries that have closed, like Rudy’s Oven and Dragon Sweetie in the Southwedge, Normal Bread in Geneva (new bakery just opened in that space), and The Ravioli Shop in Rochester which had the best ever Ciabatta. Moral of this story is that you should patronize your favorite places as much as possible and tell everyone you know about them, because they probably won’t be around forever.
EFL: What was the first Finger Lakes wine/beer/spirit you ever tasted?
I think it was a Dr. Konstantin Frank Riesling back in the previous century, probably around 1986 when I visited the winery. I started my food show on the radio in 1996, and Dr. Frank was one of my first sponsors. I interviewed Willy Frank (Dr. Frank’s son) many times. His father was the researcher and Willy was an unstoppable marketing force. I regret that I never met Dr. Frank or Walter Taylor, so for many years I’ve been encouraging listeners to search out and meet the key people in the Finger Lakes wine industry. A good place to start is Evan Dawson’s book “Summer in a Glass.” Read the book and then go find those people. Unfortunately, Sam Argetsinger has passed away, but his chapter is especially fascinating.
EFL: If you could add one item to the Finger Lakes food shed that doesn’t grow here, what would it be?
I’ve eaten a locally grown banana, grown my own Saffron and Artichokes, tasted a delightful lemon from a tree at Gallea’s Florist & Greenhouses, had locally sourced limes made into Key Lime pie, and tasted locally grown coffee beans roasted and brewed by Java Joe (about 1/8 cup of coffee shared by 6 people). Beyond these exotic local items, we live in this amazing zone where it is cold enough to grow some of the best apples in the country and warm enough (near the lakes) to grow an astounding variety of vinifera grapes (Albariño to Zweigelt). How about tree ripened mangoes? I’ve had avocados right off a tree in California, but I’ve never had a tree-ripened mango.
EFL: What does it mean to you to be a part of the Finger Lakes food shed?
I believe that being part of a local food shed is a tremendous opportunity to explore what is grown and produced in our region. I’ve been focusing on eating local foods for over 20 years, and I’m still finding things that I’ve missed, things that I’ve forgotten about, and things that are brand new. Lately, I’ve been in search of the best cinnamon sugar donut, and if you haven’t had Schutt’s (Penfield), Kelley’s (Hilton), or Zarpentine’s (Hilton), you are missing some outstanding examples. While on my donut excursions I’ve seen some glorious fall countryside and intriguing architecture, but I’ve also been affected by collapsing barns and run down houses. Driving (by yourself or with your pod) is a wonderful socially distanced learning experience during this pandemic.
The FLX FAQs is a semi-regular column where we nose our way into the minds and kitchens of notable people in the Finger Lakes. Click here for more of The FLX FAQs.