01/21/2013 07:27 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2013

Upstate New York: Good Food Is A Small Town Value

When we travel upstate on occasional Fridays, we usually leave about 6 p.m., sit on the West Side Highway for 20 minutes -- if we're lucky -- cross the GW Bridge, navigate the Palisades Parkway and the NYS Thruway to Saugerties. We then stop in Cairo at the grocery store where a recording on the PA system repeatedly announces that their customers have donated over $80,000 for the Hurricane Irene victims -- a lot of money for this part of rural upstate.

Although Irene was more than a year ago, the store continues to ask everyone to give another dollar because the storm continues to wreak economic havoc. We stock up on local cheese and apples -- a local baker who made incredible biscotti out of her kitchen no longer does so, to the despair of my husband -- and then drive on to Freehold.

A little hamlet, Freehold comes alive at night with a corner store, corner pub and right next to the bridge over the creek, Ruby's Hotel. Ruby's isn't exactly a hotel, although it once was, and Frank Giorgini has re-done two bedrooms. Ruby's is a restaurant recreated in an ice cream parlor, bar and dining room with charming fixtures and furniture straight from the '40s. Anna Sporer is the chef and also a teacher at the Culinary Institute in NYC to which she travels several days a week. Her husband Frank is the bartender and a ceramicist whose work is on several subway station walls in NYC and whose udo clay instruments decorate the window sills of the front dining room. Frank and Anna live in an old farmhouse a few miles west where Anna's vegetable garden supplies the dining room.

On Fridays and Saturdays in the winter, and also Thursdays in the summer, they open Ruby's from 5-10 p.m. Anna reigns in her chef's pants, pajama top, colorful socks and bandana head band. Although she only occasionally comes out of the kitchen, when she does, she puts your plates down in front of you and scoots back into the kitchen. The local wait staff is often working their way through Russell Sage College in Troy and sometimes has to study instead of waitress. The quiet boy who worked as the dish washer through high school, has now gone off to St. John's to study biochemistry; Anna insisted he have good grades to work at Ruby's. His younger sister is now in his place.

Ruby's has such personality, I keep forgetting to mention the food, and it is definitely worth mentioning. As soon as we walk in the door, my glass of cabernet and my husband's local beer from Crossroads in Athens, NY are on the table and Frank is asking about the traffic and our week. The menu is on a large white board which the waitress props on a chair and we ponder which favorite to have, or which new items to try.

In the summer everything tastes even better fresh from Anna's garden. She cans tomatoes for the winter and was making sauerkraut from her cabbage a few weeks ago. The cobb salad is terrific with large pieces of organic bacon, avocado, a poached egg, Anna's garden lettuce. The crispy Thai spring rolls have a piquant sauce with thin green onions; country gazpacho soup is perfectly spiced with roasted corn, Anna's tomatoes and beans. In the winter the clams in pecorino sauce are something one prays will be on the menu when walking in from the cold. Crispy salmon in a broth with asparagus and green onion is delicious and soothing. We usually sit under the Obama HOPE poster, listen to the other regulars talk at the bar, anticipate the food and feel the week fall away.