You’re in good Company in Haddam

A side of Greek vegetable salad and roasted potatoes with pesto rounded out the evening's menu of of burgers and wine. (Marisa Nadolny)
A side of Greek vegetable salad and roasted potatoes with pesto rounded out the evening's menu of of burgers and wine. (Marisa Nadolny)

While I take a certain pride in my frequent patronage of local businesses that offer prepared foods, I often wonder if I'm missing out on the (arguable) joys of cooking.

When the weather takes a turn for the hell-hot-humid, I suffer from no such self-doubt. I will smugly consult my ever-expanding map of prepared-food destinations, pick one of the many available in the region, and skip off to the shop with no worries about slaving over a hot stove (or grill, or toaster oven).

Among my regular meal-to-go stops is The Cooking Company in Haddam, one of the region's hidden gems in the Connecticut River Valley with a long menu of prepared entrees, sandwiches, fresh salads (savory, veggie and fruit), baked goods, desserts, and all kinds of treats from local vendors. You might be familiar with Cooking Co.'s Killingworth or Middletown stores, but the Haddam location is an easy hop off Route 9 from my evening commute and just a short distance from the Goodspeed Opera House and numerous adorable shops across the East Haddam Bridge.

On a recent (hot) evening, all I could think about was CC's Chunky (and cold) Gazpacho ($3.95 for a 12-ounce container). This seasonal special is just that, thanks to excellent tomatoes and the refreshing, cool crunch of finely chopped cucumber. CC's gazpacho is loaded with additional semi-pureed veggies and a goodly dose of garlic, but what they call "chunky" on the label presents as a silky, palatable and well-blended mixture of the season's bounty. It is among the best I’ve tasted.

The soup spurred us on to our main dish for the night, a Tomato, Pea, and Parmesan Risotto ($10.95), selected from the meals-to-go case. My household has sampled a few other risotto entrees by CC, and we had every reason to expect this one to be as outstanding as the others. However, we can put this one in the "good not great" category, and the "good" rating mostly comes from the strong Parmesan cheese flavor throughout. We got a little sense of the tomatoes within, but they weren't strong enough to come out and play with the pungent Parm. The peas provided a playful texture pop, but they didn't lend the flavor that we anticipated to the overall mix. Still, the rice was properly prepared (moist, with just a little bit of toothiness), and the serving size rendered about four servings.

We won't quibble though, because we liked the risotto well enough, and we loved the sesame noodles we paired with it ($8.50 a pound). Where some folks prepare sesame noodles in a thicker base of peanut, CC lightens things up a bit with a lighter, less pasty, less peanut-heavy mixture. You'll still get peanut flavor, but it's balanced by a vinegary zing with a slight kick of heat. Shreds of green and red peppers, scallions, and pieces of peanuts add extra texture to the noodle base, and the result is a tasty, nuanced dish.

Now, if you get nothing else at Cooking Company, go for one of the sweets available every day. Take your pick of cookies, cheesecakes, brownies, bread puddings, and more, and it's probable you will be a satisfied customer. Make sure to check out the displays of baked goods beyond the refrigerated case of them; otherwise you'll miss yummy tidbits like the Cinnamon Swirl Croissants ($2.50), a less-sweet treat that's a fine companion to a cup of coffee (Ashlawn Farm brews available, too). The croissant itself is a well-made vehicle for the abundant, sticky ribbons of cinnamon within — neither too buttery nor too sweet. Even better, cinnamon swirls aren't tooth-achingly sweet, with the starring warming spice doing most of the heavy lifting.

But if sweet is what you seek, then by all means try a slice of the Tres Leches Cake ($4.50). Each slice sits in a pool of milky, sweet syrup, and the cake itself is saturated in the same. Top it all off with some whipped cream (and a slice of strawberry), and your sweet tooth should be well satisfied. What's excellent about the cake is that the topping is less sweet than the cake below, so it brings a cooling, purely creamy layer to the dish that balances out the sweet factor. The combination is somehow refreshing and not cloying, and absolutely delicious.

As you know, the hot weather continued and with it my CC research. This time I was looking for some side dishes to go with the burgers my husband grandly offered to grill up, despite the humidity. We needed to cool down, so I picked out some Greek vegetable salad ($9/pound) and roasted potatoes with pesto ($8.50/pound), which we served cold with great results. Of course, when you've got roasted red potatoes (cut into cubes) dressed in an oily mix of spices and pesto, there isn't much that can go wrong. For what it's worth, the pesto/oil mix, though dense and generously applied, offered just the right herbal note without becoming a garlic bomb, once again lending a cooling effect to the spuds.

And if you want to convince yourself burger night is a healthy choice, the Greek veggie salad will help. The lovely mixture of tomatoes, sweet peppers, pepperoncini, black olives and cubes of feta in a simple dressing will ensure you've gotten at least one serving of veggies in for the day, and your belly will probably thank you for that.

Speaking of thankful bellies, ours can recommend the Spice-Rubbed Pork with Apricot Mustard BBQ Sauce ($8.95) entrée. From the excellent rub (perhaps a mix of paprika, black pepper, and/or cayenne) that’s smoky sweet with the slightest kick to the fabulously tender cuts of lean roasted pork, this dish is a winner. Where I initially wondered if the apricot sauce would be too sweet in this context, we learned that it complements and extends the warm, spicy flavor of the rub, and the mustard within adds a touch of pungent depth. After a dinner for two, we still had leftovers, which we turned into delicious, even more flavorful sandwiches the next day.

So, listen, the heat isn’t letting up anytime soon. Yes, there are joys to experience in cooking up summer’s specialties yourself, but we’re well equipped in this region to let someone else prepare them during the dog days to come — and at Cooking Company, you’re in good hands.

The Cooking Company's spice-rubbed pork with apricot mustard BBQ sauce (Marisa Nadolny)
The Cooking Company's spice-rubbed pork with apricot mustard BBQ sauce (Marisa Nadolny)

If you go

The Cooking Company

1610 Saybrook Road, Haddam

(860) 345-8008

http://thecookingco.com

Cuisine: "Fresh prepared food," per the menu, including sandwiches, soups, salads, entrees to go, desserts and more surprises depending on the day

Atmosphere: Charming and spacious, with a farmhouse feel. Attractive displays of gourmet grocery items and local crafts and treats; large seating area ensures plenty of space for those who prefer not to eat and run.

Service: Helpful and courteous

Prices: Fair for the quality and typical portion size; fresh salads, from pasta to veggie, start at about $7.50/pound; prepared entrees average around $10; sandwiches tend to start at $7.75.

Hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sundays.

Reservations: N/A

Credit cards: Accepted

Handicapped access: While the interior is pretty roomy, access is a little tricky. Those who need a ramp or a stairless entry (there is one to access the front door and one to cross the threshold) must follow a path on the right side of the building (if facing the main entry) that leads to another entrance without steps.

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