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.