Sunday, August 30, 2009

Belkin Lookout Farm, Natick

I have always had ambivalent feelings about Belkin Lookout Farm. On the one hand I want to support a local and historic farm. On the other hand the prices have been not only almost prohibitively expensive, but I find it ridiculous when a place markets itself as "family friendly" but yet charges so much per person. However, ironically due to the current economic situation, a restructuring at Belkin may make it worth a look, especially if you take advantage of the specials that they are offering.

The farm, at over 180 acres, grows and sells an enormous range of fruit: cherries, strawberries, peaches, apples, Asian pears, pumpkins, plums and nectarines. However, what the farm also offers is a range of fun activities for young children.A visit costs $8.00/person for kids over 3 ($10 for weekends), however, there are a number of 50% off options and discounts if you check out their website first. For that price, you are first entitled to a train ride through the orchards. For my three year old, this was more than a highlight, and for us, it was full of pretty views.  You can pick apples, pears, peaches and other fruits for $2.50 a pound.After the trip through the orchards, we arrived at an enormous play area. To the dismay of many of my mommy and daddy friends, the petting zoo was eliminated for the summer, leaving a few goats to check out.  However, in September and October, it will be back with emus, donkeys and rabbits.My sons loved the big inflatable castle and the caterpillar tram that took them in a big circle. (No parents are allowed on so you get a great work out running after it!) The toddler and I also got lost in the maze...until he crawled out from under the maze, leaving me to find my way out!Avoid the overpriced hotdogs, hamburgers and gelato (at $4.00/serving it also adds up!) and bring your own snacks.

If you plan accordingly you can also take advantage of the special events. My son adored Magician Dave (who not only did great magic but had the quirkiest sense of humor for the adults.) At other times there is face painting and music.

So, at the end of the day, I am not going to say that this is the greatest value. But for the convenience it is novel way to spend a few hours. And, as my three year old later said, "I had aLinkgreat time there, mommy."  
Make sure you check the website first, to confirm hours, times and what is available for picking.

Belkin Lookout Farm, 89 Pleasant St Natick, MA 01760-5669 (508) 651-1539

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Return to Family Friendly Nights at Aura-Summer Special Events Style

As we walked along Boston Harbor towards Aura on Friday night, my 3 year old looked at me and said, "Mommy, you wear a nice dress and go out with daddy. But tonight, you are wearing a nice dress and me and David get to go with you and eat food with Chef Rachel and plant gardens. I love this, mommy!" My son loved his first experience at Family Friendly nights at Aura. He remembered the food (yummy chicken), the play space ("Can I play with trucks and legos, again, mommy?"), the other kids ("Will Ethan be there, mommy?"), the welcomeness of Chef Rachel Klein, and, of course, the dessert. We also had fond memories of having a delicious and elegant dinner while our children played nearby.

So, when Aura offered to treat our family to a chance to eat at Aura and check out one of the new approaches to Family dining. All summer, Aura has offered special events at the Family Friendly nights. In early July, author Mary Newell dePalma came to talk to the children, while later in the month, animal specialists from the Franklin Park Zoo brought animals along!

This past Friday was a chance to head up to the herb garden on the roof of Aura and to plant seeds with Chef Rachel Klein, herself. I had been curious about Chef Klein's approach to gardening since she told me about engaging her toddler in growing herbs. And, in fact, after a delicious meal, the kids headed up to the roof deck with parents and Chef Klein. She pointed out the amazing range of herbs (including 4 kinds of mint, lemon verbena, rosemary and more) that are growing in this lovely oasis. The children were given pots and taught how to plant seeds. Each child was able to plant basil, chard, squash or radishes. Chef Klein then showed the children how to pick herbs and gave them a chance to taste. My sons, for example, made faces at the intensity of the peppermint, but loved the herbal basil.

Back at the restaurant, the experience was as fun and delicious as we remembered. While our children played in the adjacent play space, with puzzles, balls, legos, trucks, dinosaurs, we shared a lychee martini from the Tamo bar and had a few precious minutes to peruse the menu.Clearly understanding how hungry toddlers can get, their food arrived quickly. Both of my children had the homemade chicken tenders that were served with sweet potato fries and spicy honey-mustard sauce. In fact, the tenders were so good that my husband and I also dove in. The portions were generous enough that it provided meal for 2 nights. I loved how the carrots and peas were served in a way that kept the integrity and taste of the summer vegetables while having them cooked just enough to be devoured by our 18 month old.Our food was sophisticated enough to feel like we were truly out for a special evening. I also appreciated how the entire meal took advantage of summer produce. We started with one of each appetizer. I enjoyed the spectacular "Scarlet Borscht" of red beets, smoked potatoes, sour cream and dill. It was redolent of spicy ginger and was a refreshing start to the meal. My husband loved his "Tomato Caprese" or a salad of roasted and fresh summer tomatoes, grilled Halloumi cheese, chickpeas and basil pesto. The earthy combination of chickpeas and pesto were a great summer starter with sweet tomatoes.
For a main dish, FoodieDaddy had the perfectly roasted salmon. It sat on a bed of parsnip puree and was topped with a chamomile beurre blanc. I loved the radish and grapefruit salad. Rachel Klein's combinations  often inspire me to try new ways of cooking at home. 
For my main dish, I enjoyed scallops.In a play on a tradition summer dinner, they were served with a range of heirloom tomatoes, a tarragon potato salad and a decadent creamed corn.

Finally, dessert. They were both good, though the names were more memorable than the dishes themselves. The first, an apricot bar with decadent creme fraiche ice cream and honey coulis. The second: a Valrhona chocolate brownie with coconut ice cream and caramelized Rice Krispies!

As I noted in my first write-up of the Family Friendly nights, a 3 course meal for adults costs about $30 a person, while the children's meals are $7 (which includes one side dish.) So, for $70.oo, it is a great alternative for a nice night as a family or when you can't get a babysitter.

Family Friendly nights take place each Friday from 5:30 to 8:00. For more information (including the schedule of upcoming special events and the current menu) you can check out their schedule of special events or the main Aura site.

Aura at the Seaport Hotel, 1 Seaport Lane, 617-385-4300
Tamo Bar at the Seaport Hotel, 1 Seaport Lane, 617-385-4315

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Mystic Aquarium, Connecticut

There is so much to enjoy at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut. First, so much of the aquarium is outdoors. In fact, I would recommend trying to go on a sunny day, as it adds a whole dimension to the aquarium that is often missing at others. You can stroll through a marsh trek and view turtles, huge tadpoles, fish and frogs. You can see seals, sea lions, penguins and whales-all outdoors. It makes the aquarium feel larger than its actual size and very open.
However, one of the other great features is that you can also view the elegant and beautiful beluga whales, penguins, seals and sea lions through glass windows, as you stroll below the ground level. Seeing them above and below ground gives you the sense of peeking into their world.There is also a sting ray touch pool, where you can watch the rays swim and for an additional fee, feed them. We just watched them glide by.

Underneath the sting ray exhibit is a huge array of fish, turtles, seahorse, sea anemones, sharks (!) and jellyfish in the indoor exhibits. You can meander from case to case and watch the animals swim around. There is also a small area for children to touch crabs and snails.

Another of our favorite parts of the visit was the sea lion and seal show. Included in your visit, despite the fact that our littlest one insisted on calling them “puppies”, both boys were completely entranced.

The aquarium also has other exhibits, such as a marine mammal observatory, a bird exhibit (which we skipped as it is $5 extra a person), and a look at Dr. Ballard’s expedition.

In advance of the visit, it may be worth reading Curious George Goes to the Aquarium as it based on the Mystic Aquarium. Our son has asked me to read it about 10 times since we went.

We are appreciative that the Whaler's Inn gave us tickets to check out the Aquarium. When we return, as an aquarium ticket is good for 3 days, I plan to stay overnight in Mystic and combining this with a visit to the outstanding Mystic Seaport. You can buy a Mystic Pass card that gets you into both the Aquarium and the Seaport. Click here for more info. Or you can just buy Aquarium tickets right at the front door.

Mystic Aquarium, 75 Greenmanville Ave, Mystic 1-860-572-5955

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inside Out Peach Pie (Without the Crust)

I like peach pie. But I always find myself devouring the inside and then passing the crust of to FoodieDaddy. So, when I threw some tart peaches on the grill I was thrilled to discover that not only did the grill sweeten the peaches as they caramelized, but it tasted just like a peach pie. Sprinkled with a bit of sugar and ground cinnamon or nutmeg and topped with ice cream, it is a perfect (and phenomenally easy) summertime dessert. Alternatively, you can also grill an avocado. Then chop up the peaches and avocado and mix them with chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro for a twist on savory salsa.

Grilled Peaches

As many peaches as you can eat, washed, cut in half and pitted (but not peeled)
Melted butter

Heat grill on high. Brush cut side of peaches lightly with butter. Places peaches cut side down. Grill for about 5 minutes on high. Rotate about 90 degrees for cool looking grill marks. Grill another 5 minutes. Flip over and grill for another 5 minutes if you want them to be really soft and tender. Take off heat and (optional) sprinkle with sugar and spices. Eat warm with ice cream or chilled for breakfast.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Atlantic Spice Company, Truro

The Atlantic Spice Company in Truro, MA is one of those places that is such a treat to discover. In an unassuming building on the corner of Route 6 and Route 6 A on the Outer Cape, lies a treasure trove for foodies. While I had periodically heard about this place, I had no idea about a few things. First, the scope of items you can buy is pretty impressive. There are gadgets galore, spice containers in all shapes and sizes, and cooking utensils that you suddenly realize you have to have. The selection of spices was distinguished by glorious scents (a sure sign of freshness) and unbelievably low prices. I bought an enormous bag of spicy cinnamon sticks for $2.50!  I also got some vanilla beans that were more "vanilly" than any others I have bought.  They have everything from coriander seed to fennel to multiple types of salt. (I bought French sea salt for $2.50 and have used it every day since!)  They also carry spice mixes, like a chili powder that I will try with beans once a chill sets in.  According to one of the men who works at the Spice Company, the vast majority of the store's business is wholesale. In fact, they ship out over 1 ton of products a day. This means that they can charge particularly reasonable prices for the lucky few who make it out to the store. In addition, they have unusual grains (red and black quinoa, for example), essential oils ranging from spearmint to lavender, everything you need for making potpourri, all types of teas and helpful service. The good news if you can't make it to the store itself, is they have a detailed website, so no matter where you are, you can discover the joys of the store.

The Atlantic Spice Company, 2 Shore Road, North Truro, MA 1-800-316-765

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Feast for the Eyes and Mouth, Sweet Alternatives Cakes, Cookies and More

If a picture is worth many words, one glance at the cakes made by Linda Brudz at Sweet Alternatives may make it clear why I was so quickly taken with her artistry. (For that reason, all photos on this post are from Sweet Alternatives. I could never do justice with my lack of photographic ability!) We met at a community event and exchanged cards. When I looked at her website, I was impressed by the beauty of her cakes and her training as a pastry chef. I wasn’t the only one that was struck by her ability: one of her cakes is currently featured on the cover of Boston Weddings magazine! Especially for foodies, the taste of a cake is as important as how it looks. Linda was kind enough to make my family and friends a range of samples to taste. Our egg-allergic children loved her vegan cupcakes. The adults loved the whimsical taste of the rootbeer frosting! She also made us a sweet dulce de leche filled chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream.

My favorite was the gorgeous and moist lemon cake. It was filled with a lemon-cream cheese buttercream, as well as fresh raspberries and blueberries. I have high standards for lemon cakes, and this one was delicious. In fact, each friend who was lucky enough to come over while it was still around agreed.

Linda makes a wide range of cakes, so you will have to e-mail her to get the full list. But some examples of her regular cakes include (in addition to the standard yellow, white and chocolate) champagne spongecake, hazelnut, white chocolate, and carrot. She also makes many fillings from mango mousse to lime curd or whoopee pie cream! And, in addition to the root beer cream you can enjoy her buttercreams in flavors such as lime, almond and white chocolate. One of her most popular combinations is champagne cake with strawberry mousse and vanilla buttercream. Most importantly, she will work with clients to create a unique look.
For people with dietary restrictions, Sweet Alternatives can also make vegan and gluten-free cakes and cupcakes. For busy parents, this local option can be a great choice when the school year begins and cupcakes are standard classroom fare. In addition, Sweet Alternatives makes a range of lovely cookies and "edible confections."Finally, Linda Brudz of Sweet Alternatives is also giving back to the community. Natick residents get a special discount for 2009 while also contributing to the Natick Family Network (a fantastic community organization!)

It is always a thrill to feature local people doing great things. Linda Brudz, of Sweet Alternatives, is one of those people.

Sweet Alternatives,
Linda Brudz, 617-820-7670

Saturday, August 15, 2009

One More Day to Get Yourself To The Verrill Farm Tomato and Corn Festival

The Verrill Farm Tomato and Corn Festival is one of the highlights of the summer for us. First, it is a chance to support one of our favorite farms. We also love the opportunity to taste so many types of incredible vegetables. Finally, it gives our children another glimpse at produce right from the source. We went today (Saturday, August 15th) and got there just as it opened at 12:00. Pony rides were already set up and the lovely Monandock Bluegrass Band was in full swing. (That is Steve Verrill speaking to the crowd in front of the band.)
For $8.00 a person ($4 for kids under 10), you get to try as many of the tomatoes and types of corn as you want. Luckily there are tents to provide shady spots for eating tomatoes. We loved comparing acidity, sweetness, texture and color of each tomato. My sons just loved eating them. The corn came in over 5 varieties so you can compare the simplicity of the pure white, as well as the sweetness of others. You also get a plateful of samples of the prepared foods that are made each day. We enjoyed gazpacho, tomato and mozzarella salad, fabulous zucchini-corn pancakes, corn polenta, tomato risotto (that my 18 month old devoured) and my favorite, a corn soup with just a hint of spice. If for some reason you are still hungry, they are grilling up hot dogs and hamburgers, too. We headed into the store because, as any reader of this blog knows, I can't resist their scones. Today they had maple-walnut, raspberry-white chocolate and mixed berry. I also bought 4 varieties of beautiful eggplants.

The Festival will still be on tomorrow, Sunday, August 16th, from 12 to 4. A few suggestions-go early before the crowds. If it is still sunny, it is worth bringing a sun umbrella, a picnic blanket and water bottles in case you can't get under the tent. And go hungry!

Last bit of info: be aware that Verrill Farm has plenty of tomatoes in a range of colors and types to try. Unfortunately, the weather this season has been so tough that Verrill only has enough tomatoes for tasting. So we will return next week to stock up on tomatoes for sauce, salads and soups.

Verrill Farm Tomato and Corn Festival, 11 Wheeler Road · Concord, MA 01742 · Tel 978-369-4494