Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Spice and the City: Sofra and Penzey's Spices

I love spicy food. Not just fire-breathing hot that you can get at Sichuan Gourmet, but also the rich, layered tastes of good, well-flavored food. When I look at a menu, I am often drawn to detailed descriptions that include herbs, spices and complex side dishes. When Oleana first opened in Cambridge, it appealed to me as a restaurant that could focus on using local ingredients. But I was even more taken by their premise that spices didn't have to mask quality ingredients, but could instead draw on their strengths. And in fact, each meal I have had there has been wonderful. I prefer their appetizers and desserts (the baked Alaska is particularly memorable), as the range of tastes is so unique.

When I heard that Oleana's head chef and owner Ana Sortun and her pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick had opened Sofra, a small cafe/bakery in Belmont, I couldn't wait to go. And, with one day of vacation (the one day that my day care was actually open nor did I need to do the 10 million other errands that I never get around to doing), I headed over. The food was as good as I had hoped. I was particularly taken with the flatbreads. These are not the pizza knockoffs that are found throughout the suburbs. Instead, these are made of a thin, rich dough that is grilled on a Saj (an iron cooking vessel) and filled with incredible tastes. With the recommendation of the staff, I ordered one with squash, walnuts, sesame seeds and fresh mozzarella. It was fantastic. The dough was flaky and lightly grilled and reminded me of roti dough. The cheese was warm and oozing and was a perfect compliment to the sweet squash and nuts. While Chowhounders have critiqued Sofra for being expensive, I thought that $6.00 for the sandwich was quite reasonable considering the quality of the fillings, as well as the fact that it was substantial enough for lunch.

That being said, I had to try some of the other offerings! One unique option is the "mezze bar." For $9.00 you get scoops of any 5 dishes, accompanied by homemade bread and/or crackers. The selection is visually stunning (the second picture on this blog) and has the twists that Sortun is known for (if you look really closely at the photo you can see the choices for the day): beet tzitziki, carrot spread with her dukka seasonings, warm parsnip hummos, pureed celery root, etc. Finally, I took home a selection of the baked goods (the opening picture). Though they were also unusual (donuts with rose petals; quince paste in the cookies), overall they were too rich for my taste. My only critique of Sofra: the setting doesn't necessarily lend itself to a relaxing visit. Due in part to its popularity and its limited, though creative seating, it can be a competitive experience to find a seat (the kind accompanied by much glaring and aggressiveness to get a seat and pressure to eat and leave). In fact, I lingered by ordering a cup of fantastic hot chocolate. It was just a bit sweeter than that of Burdick's, but just as rich and sinful. Ah, the price to pay for a seat! Needless to say, it was a bit calmer at about 2:00 p.m. than at the height of lunch hour. On a more positive note, I was struck by the number of kids whose parents decided to use this as an opportune place to expand their food horizons. I hope to bring my sons some day...

My second stop of the day was for my other holiday indulgence. Until recently, cooking with spices meant a visit to the grocery store to pay a good deal of money for some bland spices. I frequented Christina's in Inman Square, Cambridge a few times, but was turned off by less-than helpful salespeople and the inability to actually smell the spices. Luckily (or in the case of my wallet, unluckily!), a friend introduced me to the absolute pleasure of Penzey's Spices in Arlington. Penzey's is a well-known mail order spice store, but nothing is like the experience of visiting there. Not only is the staff familiar with their offerings, not only can you get an extraordinary range of spices in different forms (French oregano whole or ground or Mexican oregano, e.g.), but you can smell each of the over 100 spices. Due to the quality of their spices and their high turnover, once you smell their Vietnamese cinnamon you realize how muted supermarket brands really are. And so far, each dish I have made recently has been improved simply by using their spices. (No, they are not paying me to say this! Though I would certainly not turn down a gift certificate from them : ) Needless to say my bounty includes everything from Sweet Hungarian Paprika to two types of cinnamon, Garam Masala, sweet curry powder, bay leaves that were so fresh that I immediately tossed out my old ones, etc. It is well worth the trip!

Sofra Bakery and Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Some Great Food Writing of 2008

This year, with the exception of the Food Writing series (discussed below) and a few other choice cookbooks, the majority of my cooking has leaned heavily on recipes drawn from the web. And although I have featured my favorite blogs on a sidebar below, I thought I would try to briefly sing their praises as I have come to rely on them so heavily for wonderful recipes, thoughtful writing and overall inspiration. With the exception of the Splendid Table, the websites are also distinguished by their gorgeous photography.

I am definitely late to the wonderful world of podcasts (I have yet to get an I-Pod!) but the discovery of the Splendid Table (available free on I-Tunes) has helped me to understand what all the fuss is about. At any moment of my choosing (e.g. when organizing clothes in the basement), I can listen to this thoughtful, humorous and wonderful weekly radio show about all things food. The commentator, Lynne Rosetto Kasper hosts different chefs each week, as well as other food writers and travelers. I can always count on walking away with a recipe or too, some great new ideas while having passed a very enjoyable 45 minutes. (Now if only it would inspire me to go jogging!)

The Splendid Table website compiles many of the recipes that Lynne features on her show. They are easy, healthy and consistently delicious. The recipes are also flexible in that she identifies substitutions, ways to prepare recipes in advance and how to freeze them.

Orangette was my first food blog discovery, and it remains my favorite. Molly is a storyteller who intertwines her personal stories with great food and recipes. Many of my favorite recipes from the year come from her site (roasted cauliflower, Touch of Grace biscuits). In fact, she is such a fun writer (she always makes me smile as I read), that she was picked up by Bon Appetit!

I have recently come across 101cookbooks, but I can also count on this site for excellent vegetarian recipes that are particularly kid-friendly. While the site takes a while to load due to many ads (though I commend her for supporting herself) it is worth it. I have loved her recipe for split pea soup (made special with smoked paprika) and chickpea and noodle soup.

Smitten Kitchen is a new discovery, but after making really fantastic bagels, I think I am hooked. Just like 101Cookbooks, the photography is almost as good as the recipes. I also like the commentary, as well as the helpful comments of other bloggers.

The Wednesday Chef, like Smitten Kitchen, is also based out of New York, but it offers a more eclectic mix of simple and complex recipes. Again, Luisa Weiss is the type of talented food writer who mesmerizes me with her ability to both transmit the taste of a food and the experience of cooking through words...before I can even cook the recipe.

I became addicted to Chowhound when it first appeared years ago. When I rediscovered it this past winter, I realized how useful it can be: at its best it is like getting a group of friends together who all ate at the same restaurant and can tell you what (and what not) to order. I now try to use it when I am deciding where to eat (reading posts and posting my own inquiries) and for suggestions on what to eat. I actually am most fond of CH for introducing me (and others) to those little, local finds that aren't reviewed in the mainstream papers. Recently it has become even more ad-heavy (and a bit laborious to use) than it was, but for now that is the price to pay for some great recommendations.

I couldn't keep up with all the blogs I now read without the help of Google Reader. It makes skimming a few dozen blogs a snap, allowing me to star those I want to go back to. I recommend it to anyone.

Finally, I have always been a cookbook reader, often snuggling into bed with a few choice options next to me. But my other food writing discovery this year is the "Best Food Writing" series edited by Holly Hughes. These books are compilations of restaurant reviews, recipes and anecdotes written by people whose pleasure is food. I am working my way backwards (from 2007 to 2000) and have enjoyed each one.

I know there are so many other great food blogs and books out there and am always looking for more recommendations, so feel free to share!

Monday, December 15, 2008

The New England Aquarium and Chinatown Roast Meat

When my son was 1, we were so excited to go the New England Aquarium. My husband has had fish tanks his whole life and actually worked there for a few memorable months in his early 20s. Alas, Raphael wasn't quite ready for the dim lights and noise. Needless to say it was a quick trip.

However, when we went a few weeks ago (he is now 2 1/2) it was a completely different experience. He was entranced. He couldn't get enough of the penguins, loved the opportunities to press buttons, hear noises and hold a hermit crab. Our 10 month old, David, also spent a good deal of time staring at the fishes (and eating snack food from the comforts of his stroller!) The staff was kind to the kids and, at 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning there was plenty of room for him to explore (e.g. run up and down the ramp without knocking people over!) By the time the crowds rolled in at 11:00 he had almost had his fill of the penguins and Myrtle the enormous turtle. I appreciated the fact that teachers get in free with an MTA card and kids under 3 are free as well. Otherwise, it can definitely add up (though it is worth it in many ways.) Parking has also been a large expense, but we discovered an $11.00 lot at Rowe's Wharf. I am not sure if that is a Sunday special, but it made it that much easier, especially now that we have 2 kids in tow.

Ok, so now the FoodieMommy Confession: I wouldn't be so willing to pay for parking if it wasn't for the 2 great food locations that await after an Aquarium visit: The North End and Chinatown. In the past we have gone to our absolute favorite North End sites: Maria's Pastry Shop for her incredible torrone (nougat), sfogliatelle (cheese filled sweet pastry) and her exquisite quaresimali (almond biscotti with a taste of cinnamon) and the original Pizzeria Regina for the best of the best pizza. (I admit that we haven't tried Ernesto's in East Boston which has its own set of devotees.) We really think it is best to eat at Regina's, the crust crisped to perfection in their 100 year old oven. The sauce is tangy and the rich, fresh mozzarella just adds to it all. It isn't great for toddlers and it is almost impossible for infants due to long waits and really tight booths, so if we are with the kids we will buy 2 pizzas, eat one for lunch and freeze one for later.

However, with our kids falling asleep, I decided to take out instead. And one of my other favorite spots is such a hole-in-the-wall that it is simply named "Best Bar B Q Restaurant." It is a Chinese roast meat take-out restaurant on the fringes of Chinatown. You can find it just next door to Hei Lei Moon at 88 Beach Street. The meat is already prepared, so as my husband double-parked (gasp), I was able to run in, chose, get it packed and pay in minutes. And, unlike the pizza, it was just as fabulous at home. The roast chicken is so moist and flavorful that once we got home, David and Raphael ate most of it. We loved the sweet soy sauce that accompanies it, though it is definitely rich. I am addicted to the roast pork-moist, sweet, with the scent of 5 spice powder. They also have a roast "pig" but that was not as sweet and a bit too heavy (and, well, porky) for me. It is all for less than $10.00.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Apples and Goats and Potbelly Pigs, Oh My! The Davis Farmland and Orchards Galore!

A few months ago, we found toddler heaven: The Davis Farmland in Sterling, Mass. I grew up in greater Boston, but somehow missed this place. The reality is that is a gem for children and parents. In essence it is a cross between an outdoor play space, a farm and the world's largest petting zoo. It is fun, family-friendly, educational, warm and welcoming.
They have kittens, rabbits, so many kinds of goats, cows, Vietnamese potbelly pigs, llamas, peacocks and more.

When you walk in you can buy some animal feed. (It isn't too pricey). My son loved the chance to feed the animals.
Rather than a zoo where the animals are at a distance, the workers will help to bring your child right up to the animal and to pet (or even brush them!) In fact, part of what made the place such a pleasure was the people who worked there. Most of the staff that walked around were their late teens. They were knowledgeable about the animals and were all friendly and fantastic with the kids.

I also loved how much space there was for Raphael to run around. We visited in October when it was about to close for the season but we got a peak at their sprinkler park that is apparently in full swing in the summer. I could see how a family could spend a full day here! There were other little touches that made it so parent friendly-a healthy menu at the cafe, bandaids and antiseptic solution throughout the space. There was also an area with push-cars, a playground, many family friendly bathrooms and a place for kids to paint their own faces.

It wasn't cheap, but as it was World Teacher day, I got in free (!) and I recently discovered that our local library has passes. So we will definitely return when Davis reopens in the spring.

For us, though, it wouldn't be a FoodieMommy outing without some great eats. And as it was the height of the fall, we made a few side trips. First we went to Nashoba Valley Winery to pick apples. To be honest, it was a bit too crowded for my taste and wine-tasting wasn't happening with the kids in tow. Though they had a great range of apples, a late summer hail storm meant that the apples were best for apple sauce due to all the bumps and bruises. However, the homemade caramel apple pictured at the beginning of this post was fantastic. And my sons loved picking and eating the apples.

Image above from Bolton Orchards
But the last stop brought the tastiest treats: at the Bolton Orchards I bought real (non- pasteurized) apple cider, apple dumplings and cider donuts. They were all phenomenal and all worth the wait.

A perfect fall outing. A bit late for this year, but plan now for the next!

It may not be Reginas, but it sure is closer

My husband and I adore the original Pizzeria Reginas in the North End in Boston. The crust is flavorful with a great balance of dough and crunch. The sauce has the right balance of acidity. Even the mozzarella is perfect. But Reginas is about 30 minutes away, is scarce on parking and long on lines. So unless there is the rare slice left in the freezer, we are more likely to go to the local Bertuccis.

Recently, in an attempt to save money and to increase the likelihood my toddler would eat more foods if he kept cooking with me, Raphael and I began to make pizza. And so far, we haven't stopped. It meets all the great requirements for a meal: inexpensive, quick, easy, tasty and very, very fun.

We have tried dough from Trader Joe's and Russos in Newton. We also made our own. All were good, but so far, ironically, nothing beats the dough from Bertuccis. (I had no idea you could just walk in and buy it until recently. They will even sell you dough that is stretched out, but then you miss some of the silliness as you toss it in the air pretending to sing in Italian. Raphael thinks that is hysterically funny and little David just grins away at us.)

I am still trying to perfect the toppings. Again Trader Joe's sells a decent pizza sauce, but I hope to start making and freezing our own soon. I used shredded cheese from Stop and Shop but as it tasted a bit like melted plastic, I will go for a higher quality brand next time, though Trader Joe's low fat version was fine.

My main suggestion, though, is to splurge for a pizza stone. It is very inexpensive and is available at most cooking stores, Bed and Bath, Crate and Barrel, etc. It makes an enormous difference in the quality of the crust. It doesn't replace the 100 year old oven at Regina's, but it helps to add heat to the oven, crispness to the crust and it cooks the pizza very quickly. The key is also to put it on the lowest rack of the oven at the highest temperature your oven and stone can tolerate. I find that 450 works best. Definately preheat the oven for at least 30 minutes in advance-just enough time to get out the ingredients and create your pizza.

So far I have found it is easiest to give Raphael his own little bit of dough, but for the most part, I make the crusts, spreading them on a pizza peel covered with a bit of cornmeal. Raphael's job, that he relishes dearly, is to spread the sauce and the cheese.

I put it in the oven and literally minutes later it is done, ready to eat and delicious.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cooking In When You Can't Eat Out

I have always loved Chinese food. Well, let me clarify. I have always loved good Chinese food. I am not a fan of the heavily fried chicken coated in layers of overly-sweetened gloppy sauce. This doesn't mean I am a snob looking for a fancy restaurant. If anything, I prefer the hole-in-the-wall authentic type of place. So, before children, and even occasionally since, my husband and I would head down to Chinatown, spend a while looking for parking and then indulge in tremendous amounts of food, bringing home the extras in boxes to eat for a few days.

Having young children has made the venture more challenging for 2 main reasons: the drive is too long and, the more somber reality: Raphael's peanut allergy makes it virtually impossible for us to eat at Chinese (or Thai or Vietnamese) restaurants with him.

We feel incredibly lucky to have discovered 2 of our favorite restaurants in our backyard: Sichuan Gourmet and E.O. Noodle in Framingham. For the most part this means that my husband and I can indulge in lunch together while I am on maternity leave or we can take out, using paper plates and plastic utensils to prevent R. from having any contact with peanuts.

But the future is more complicated: I don't want to dangle delicious foods in front of my son while insisting that he can't eat them! So, I anticipate that if his allergy lasts, I will turn to cooking my own Chinese food on a more frequent basis, trying to adapt recipes to meet his needs (no peanuts), that of my husband (who doesn't eat pork or like spicy foods) and my own (I don't fry foods to save a few calories for dessert!)

The reality is that I not only enjoy cooking Chinese food, but I enjoy the pleasure of learning about China, Chinese history and Chinese cuisine. Three of my favorite books on Chinese food have all been by Fuschia Dunlop. She was one of the first non-Chinese to be allowed to train at a cooking institute in Sichuan and has spent significant time studying Chinese cooking. Her biography, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper is fascinating in learning about the transformation of China in the 1990s and the complexity of Chinese cooking. However, her book on Sichuan cookery, Land of Plenty, is just fantastic. She teaches about China, Sichuan and Sichuanese cooking. She addresses topics from how to cut vegetables to how the Chinese appreciate the texture of ingredients. In addition, her recipes are wonderful. They do require a trip to the Super 88 or CMart, but once you have the ingredients on hand, they are easily doable. However, as they are authentic, they rely heavily on pork, frying and spicy peppers. Unfortunately, then, by the time I have adapted the recipes to meet all of our needs, they lose a significant amount of the essence of the recipe.

So, for most of my Chinese cooking, I have been turning instead to Nina Simonds. She has written a number of books on Chinese cooking, often with the goal of making it not only simple, but healthy. Her recipes are light on oil, most of the ingredients are easily attainable at any grocery store and while flavorful, they can be put together in a reasonable amount of time.

Recently I created an adaptation of Simonds' Tofu-Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut Sauce in her book China Express. The list of ingredients for the sauce may look long, but once you have them in the house, you will want to make this over and over. In addition, most of the ingredients (e.g. rice wine) are staples for good Chinese and Japanese cooking. Finally, I altered this so Raphael could still eat it by substituting sunflower butter for the peanut butter (which, for the record, is just delicious and is available at Trader Joe's).

Chinese Chicken Salad with Not-Spicy Not-Peanut Sauce

1 cooked Rotisserie chicken, cut into small pieces
1 thinly sliced cucumber
1 bag of thin noodles, cooked and chilled (spaghetti works well here)

Sesame-Sunflower or Peanut Butter Dressing

1 Tbs minced garlic
1/2 T minced ginger
1/4 cup sunflower butter (you could use peanut here)
2 Tbs sesame paste (I prefer Chinese, but you could also use tahini)
2 1/2 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 1/2 T rice wine
2 T Chinese black vinegar
1 1/2 T sugar
3 T water
And for those who like it spicy: Chinese spicy oil and/or ground sichuan peppers

Mix the ingredients together and serve over the noodles, chicken and cucumbers.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Date Night 3: Salts

(the photo above is from Salts' website)

One of the best meals I have had was at Salts in Cambridge in July of 2007, just after the chef, Gabriel Bremer, was acknowledged as a great chef by Food and Wine Magazine. Although I hesitated in returning to the same restaurant for my birthday dinner, memories of the place brought us back.

We were not disappointed. Our pleasure began with phone calls to make reservations. Analia Verolo is one of the kindest, most considerate hosts I have encountered. As an example, she called us at 7:30 to say that a table would be available at 8 (earlier than our 8:30 reservation) because she knew we wanted a table at an earlier time. Once we arrived her warmth settled us and made us feel truly welcome to the restaurant. The space itself is small (just about 15 tables) and elegant without being pretentious. From the moment I walked in, I left my “mommy world” behind and could just enjoy the meal.

Although so many possibilities tempted us as we reviewed the menu, we decided to once again have the Tasting Menu. Although it is described as a chance for the chef to create small versions of 5 courses, by the end of the evening we had eaten 8 (!) fabulous dishes. Needless to say I was full for the rest of the weekend.

What struck me again this visit was the preparation and artistry that goes into each course. As only a distracted mother would do, I left my camera at home, so I can’t do justice to the beauty of each dish. (The photo at top is from the Salts’ website.) But each element is clearly crafted over time and thoughtfully put down on each dish. And the reality is that each plate tasted as glorious as it looked.

I also appreciated how many of the items were from the Salt’s farm (owned by Gabriel Bremer’s father and located in New Hampshire), especially when the vegetables were so delicious even on a chilly November night.

I have listed each item below, using the original Salt’s description with extra details from my memory.

1. Amuse bouche of cauliflower soup with crushed cashews and raisins. This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The soup was comforting and smooth, but the cashews added a wonderful contrast.

2. Heirloom beet and artichoke salad with toasted almond, preserved lemon, wild honey, and homemade farmers cheese. It included beet “paper” and amaranth micro greens. This was a nice starter and a nice twist on the ubiquitous beet salad. The Marcona almonds added a great saltiness and texture.

3. Truffle poached Pacific Sturgeon with heirloom potato gnocchi, pickled beets,
black truffle "caviar", and creme fraiche dill emulsion. It came with celery leaf microgreens. My husband loved this riff on a Slavic dish. It was perfumed with the truffle oil and was moist and flavorful.

4. Ballotine of free range Chicken with Salts farm honey roasted sunchokes,
baby carrots, artichokes, and candied lemon. This is one of Salt’s signature dishes and it is just delicious, capturing the essence of chicken with the most incredible crispy chicken skin. I particularly enjoyed the candied lemon peel which was a nice twist on lemon juice itself.

5. Painted Hills beef Sirloin with Salts farm heirloom potatoes, foraged grand trumpet mushrooms, and roasted onion soubise. This was served with Salts signature selection of salts (this time from Australia, France and Hawaii). The beef was moist, lean and wonderful. It was not as complex a dish as the others, and I am not sure I am a new fan of the trumpet mushrooms, but the meat was lovely.

6. Date semi-freddo/parfait; apple sorbet, apple/white chocolate mousse and a sugar cookie sable. This was fantastic. The apple sorbet tasted of the most delicious apple pie…without the pie. It wasn’t too sweet and was a nice transition from the beef.

7. "Chocolate Truffle" with texture cashew, coffee gelée, apricot, and cashew curry ice cream. This sounds odd, but was one of the best dishes I have ever had. The curry ice cream completed changed the taste of the truffle. The subtle spicing smoothed the richness of the truffle while bringing out the depth of the chocolate itself.

8. Mulberry pate a fruit and a macadamia nut and curry chocolate truffle. We ate this at home…we were just too full!

Salts on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Unassuming Noodle Haven: E O Noodle, Framingham

I have mentioned EO Noodle a number of times in this blog, but I thought it was time to do it justice. A very small and modest spot on Route 9 in Framingham, it is defined by its lack of pretentiousness. In fact, I think "charming" might be the best word to describe the atmosphere. The outside is so minimalist and the curtains so often pulled that a friend insisted they had closed. No. It is still open daily. Inside it is painted salmon with bright garish flowers on the wall. There are just a few tables and today, for example, my cup was chipped.

The menu never seems quite accurate. FoodieDaddy's sesame chicken was neither stir fried nor spicy as the menu noted. So, it is good to ask questions.

There is also only one main server. He is also the same man that answers the phone. And he is also the owner and cook. When it is busy, expect him to be abrupt, but when it is quieter, he will start up a conversation and even crack a smile. His gruff manner masks a very considerate man: when he realized FoodieDaddy wasn't going to eat a side order of soup (too spicy), he brought him another.

Clearly, we don't go there for atmosphere. We go there for the food and for the special touches that we have only found in Chinatown or at much higher end restaurants. For example, the spicy sauce on the tables is home made. And it is so, so good. Layered with flavor, simply calling it "hot" doesn't do it cover how delicious it is. The home made wontons (which are offered with pork or vegetable or to my husband's delight, chicken) are individually made. They are tender, moist and flavorful but also comforting. You can have them with any of 3 sauces (Dan Dan, a peanut sauce; a ginger sauce or a spicy soy sauce) and if you are very nice, you might even get 2.

My husband raves about the Mongolian style barbecue. Again, it is definitely not barbecued and I am not convinced they eat this in Mongolia. But it is incredibly well seasoned stir fry with chicken that is so soft it almost melts in the mouth. It is served with a great helping of vegetables and just enough sauce. You can have it with rice, but we always choose the noodles.

In fact, besides the addictive wontons, we really go there for the noodles. They offer 2 types of homemade noodles, thin and thick, and both are fantastic. They are tender, but yet have a bite. The Dan Dan noodles come with sliced cucumber, steamed spinach and just enough sauce. The sauce tastes of sesame seeds and soy, with barely any garlic and just a hint of peanuts. The "Meat Noodles" are made chicken while the "Peking Meat" noodles have pork. The "Meat Noodles" is one of my favorites: again, lightly cooked ground chicken in an incredibly flavorful sauce served over the homemade noodles.

I have also had the roast duck noodle soup which consisted of a large bowl of deeply flavored stock with fried shallots and large pieces of duck. I appreciated that when we took out the broth, the duck and the noodles were all packaged separately so they wouldn't be soggy at home. Again, another great touch. The Szechuan Spicy Beef Noodle Soup was very good, though it definitely wasn't spicy enough for my taste.

The place isn't perfect-sometimes the sauces can be a bit heavy or the noodles can be so covered in sauce that it is hard to enjoy them. (In the future I plan to ask them to always pack the noodles separate from the toppings.) But the prices are reasonable, the parking is easier than a trip to Chinatown and the noodles are always so, so good. Finally, since the portions are so generous, any trip to E.O. Noodle guarantees us a second meal the next day (and 2 less meals we have to cook!)

Eonoodle on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

FoodieMommy Eats a Food Court! The Super 88 Food Court

I have always had ambivalent feelings about taking my toddler to restaurants. On the one hand, I want to expose him to the pleasures of eating out while giving him the chance to learn how to behave at someone else's table. However, although I know a few great kid-friendly restaurants and I always arrive prepared (with a bag full of non-messy crafts and lots of food he will definitely eat), there is always the sense of anxiety that makes it difficult to fully enjoy the meal.

The solution? The Super 88 Food Court at 1095 Commonwealth Ave in Allston. First there is free parking. Sometimes you need to circle a bit, but you can almost always find a spot. Next, there is a huge area for sitting, so toddlers can easily roam and you don't have to worry about the noise factor. Finally, the incredible range of delicious (and affordable!) foods means that every member of the family can have dishes that meet their individual tastes while trying something new.

My favorites: First and foremost, Pho Viet.

Their beef soup is spicy and flavorful. I love that they always give you a few fresh herbs to put on top yourself. Their Banh Mi or grilled meat sandwiches are the epitome of a dish that is more than the sum of its parts. The fresh crunchy roll holds freshly grilled meat, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, peppers and a fabulous sauce. All for, drum roll please, $3.50! My favorite, though, is their homemade soy milk. It is as different from what you buy at the grocery store as real mac and cheese is to the boxed versions. It is light, incredibly flavorful and just sweetened enough. It cuts the spicy dishes, but is refreshing at the same time. I love it hot and cold.

Next, the Misono Grill for Korean specialties. This is owned by the same family who owns Apgujung in Newton Center. I particularly like the chap chae (sauteed clear sweet potato noodles and a sauce of soy sauce and sesame oil.)

I always go to the Dim Sum Chef. (The photographs at the top of this post are of their custard steam buns and shrimp har gao.) Honestly, it isn't up to the same caliber as Gitlo's down the street, but the parking is certainly easier and it is very, very good. I love that they have a photographic menu so you can see each item you are ordering, and that almost all items have a vegetarian equivalent. For example, they have vegetarian pork buns. Their steamed buns are moist, but I was most taken with the chicken and black mushroom on steamed rice. The portion was enormous and it had a subtle curry flavor. My husband loves the vegetarian rice noodles.

Kantin is the main Chinese food stall and is unique for its fantastic range of Chinese entrees, from congee to chow foon. You can get more standard Americanized Chinese food (chicken and broccoli) or more authentic dishes such as spicy salted tofu. The roast meats aren't as good as those I have had in Chinatown, but again, the convenience can't be beat.

Finally, I have had a few delicious dishes from Wisteria which offers Taiwanese food. They offer rice bowls that are wonderful.
Currently there is also an Indian food and Thai food, as well as frozen yogurt and bubble (tapioca) tea stalls. I haven't frequented those as often, but they are popular.

The Food Court is fun, it is easy, it is cheap, it is tasty and most of all, it is a place for kids to run around. Not sure it gets much better than that!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Rediscovering a Friend: The Victory Garden Cookbook

I have been known to read cookbooks to bed. I snuggle in, pull up the covers and with the same excitement that others read a new magazine or a great novel, I eagerly anticipate each recipe. I try to keep my buying to a minimum, especially now that I get so many of my recipes from the web. But there is one cookbook that I find myself returning to over and over. It is not glamorous. It is not sophisticated and it is definitely not low-fat. I can't even tell you when I bought the Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash, and in fact, my edition is from 1982. But I love it for many reasons. I can always count on simple, delicious recipes for an enormous range of vegetables. I also appreciate how Morash explains how to clean, store and cook each item in clear language. Since we have relied on getting our produce solely from the Dover Farm CSA this summer and fall, I have found myself facing a large number of less than familiar veggies. So, I have frequently picked up her book to help me decide how to cook fresh edamame, for great ways to prepare radishes and for new uses for shallots.

When Raphael and I returned home from the Dover CSA with leeks and celery root this week, I knew I could find some great recipes to prepare. I am not going to try to persuade you to try the celery root vinaigrette or the baked celery root for that matter. Neither were bad, but it seemed more like I was just tasting celery in potato form.

However, the two leek dishes were much more successful. First, I made a pasta omelet of sorts. Raphael loves his pasta, so I try to make a significant portion about once a week. I refrigerate the rest and serve it to him at least twice. However, I often end up with leftover pasta. One of my new staple dishes is to briefly reheat the pasta in a pan , then pour scrambled eggs over and cooked for a few more minutes over medium heat. This time I sauteed leeks first and then added the pasta and eggs.

It was delicious warm, as well as chilled the next day.

But the highlight was from the Victory Garden book. Titled, "Leek and Barley Soup" the original recipe calls a double step of cooking barley and for 1 cup of cream. As I am still trying to work off the post-partum pounds, I skipped the cream and the finished soup was still deliciously thick and rich. As for the barley, I cooked it with chicken stock in the rice cooker and it was chewy and perfectly cooked. I then simply sauteed leeks, shallots, onion and carrot in butter and olive oil on medium heat until they had softened. Raphael then helped me to use an immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot. He also enjoyed adding the barley and stirring until it was mixed in. Overall the soup was a wonderful fall soup-creamy and textured with the barley. It also reheated beautifully at work the next day. I couldn't quite persuade Raphael to eat it, but my husband loved it...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

From An Amazing Batida to Zany Zebras: The Franklin Park Zoo and El Oriental de Cuba

The weather was perfect for an outing this weekend, so we headed off to the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. And because any trip must be accompanied by great food, we were barely down the driveway before my husband asked, "So, where are we going for lunch?" And, I confess, I spent a good deal of time at the zoo pondering that question.

But first, the Zoo. Like many toddlers, my son loves animals. He has animal figures, animal pajamas, animal stories and he sings endless versions of "Do the Monkey" by the Wiggles. So when he recently asked to go to the zoo, we were more than happy to take him.

Although the Franklin Park Zoo is hardly an undiscovered paradise, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn't go until I was in my early 30s. However, it is fast becoming a favorite. First, it is amazing to actually get face to face with ostriches, kangaroos, wildebeest, giraffes, prairie dogs, tamarins, snakes, gorillas, lions, tigers, jaguars and ponies all in one day. As zoos go, this is also a particularly clean one and while not perfect, it certainly has the semblance that the animals are well taken care for. As my toddler is at that amazing place where he is curious about everything, it was a joy to watch him stare at and ask about each animal. But what I also love is the space for him to run and to just be a kid. They have a small area for young children to get closer to the animals, a farm with a petting area, a carousel and a park with climbing structures. The volunteers are knowledgeable and you can easily spend the day just learning from the people and information that is there. Finally, I appreciate, deeply, the diversity of the people who come there to enjoy the open space and fun experience. As an added bonus, it is also half price on the first weekend of each month!

You could easily spend a day there, especially if you brought a picnic. There is also the adjacent Franklin Park or nearby Arnold Arboretum to explore. And the Zoo itself does have food options but they range the gamut of hot dogs to reheated Uno's pizza.

So, by 1:00, I was still torn between Poppa B's in Dorchester (amazing fried chicken and cornbread), Piccos (pizza and ice cream in the South End) and, one of our favorites-El Oriental de Cuba. Realizing that Oriental was only about 10 minutes away, we headed there.
El Oriental is a pretty perfect restaurant-incredibly friendly servers, good prices and big portions of absolutely delicious food. Each time I have also been struck by how welcoming the atmosphere is to children, as well. The last time we were there, after asking about 2 dishes, the server actually brought us a taste to make sure that we and our son would enjoy it!

We always start with a batida, which is essentially a milk shake. They come in great flavors-from mango to guava to my favorite, passion fruit. This time we tried blackberry. It was tangy and delicious. No matter how caffeinated I am, I can never resist the cafe con leche-deep espresso with sweet, rich milk. As for the dishes-although they are known for their cuban sandwiches, I can return again and again for the chicken fricassee. Essentially cuban chicken stew, it is comfort food at its best. The chicken is falling off the bone tender. It comes with wonderful potatoes that absorb the delicious sauce. You get two choices with most main dishes. First, you will be asked if you want white rice or yellow. Do not, do not pass on the yellow. It is fantastic-full of tender pigeon peas (like, mild black beans), tomatoes and carrots. You will also need to choose between sweet maduros or fried tostones. My recommendation: get two main dishes and get one portion of each so you don't have to make such a hard choice in the first place.

This time we also decided to try the "fried chicken." Take any image of batter dipped chicken out of your head. Instead, as FoodieDaddy put it, the dish was more similar to boneless Chinese chicken wings...Cuban style! Pictured at the top of this post, these little bits were salty but also tender and addictive.

We have tried a few other dishes. I can't say I am quite as fond of the ropa vieja (shredded steak in a tomato based sauce) but it is definitely popular among friends. My son ordered a burger, but then promptly spent the meal inhaling the fried plantain chips, the maduros and all the pigeon peas to my complete delight. El Oriental de Cuba on Urbanspoon