Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another Easy Meal: Pasta Bolognese (Meat Sauce for the toddler set!)

I am always looking for great meals that fit the following: easy to cook, easy to freeze, healthy and tasty and, of course, something we can all eat. This recipe for Bolognese Sauce meets those requirements. It is just delicious and couldn't be much more simple. It also uses the kind of ingredients that you tend to have around the house. Finally, I have made it with ground chicken and it is still quite good.

This recipe is adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan and is reprinted on a variety of websites.

Bolognese Meat Sauce

Makes about 2 cups. One of the best parts of this sauce is that if you don't have the 3 or 4 hours it takes to cook, you can turn off the heat whenever you need to leave and simply turn it back on as long as you finish cooking that same day. This sauce keeps in the refrigerator for 3 days and can be frozen, too.

The mirepoix mixture from Trader Joe's is great if you don't have the time to chop the onions, celery and carrots.


1 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped carrot
3/4 pound ground beef
Black pepper
1 cup milk (Hazan uses whole but I use 1 %)
Whole nutmeg for grating
1 cup dry white wine [I used red]
1 1/2 cups canned chopped tomatoes, with their juice

1. Put the oil, butter, and chopped onion in a heavy-bottomed pot and turn the heat to medium. Cook and stir until the onion is translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring to coat the vegetables with fat.

2. Add the meat, a large pinch of salt, and some freshly ground pepper. Break the meat up with a fork, stir well, and cook until the meat has lost its raw color.

3. Reduce the heat to low, add the milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it bubbles away completely (this took quite a while). Stir in about 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg.

4. Add the wine and let it simmer away (on a very low temperature). When the wine has evaporated, stir in the tomatoes. When they begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours (Hazan says more is better), stirring from time to time. If the sauce begins to dry out, add 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary to keep it from sticking. At the end, there should be no water left, and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste for salt.

5. Toss with cooked, drained pasta and serve freshly grated cheese at the table.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Better than Broadway: Craigie on Main, Kitchenside

I will admit that my husband and I watch both Top Chef and Iron Chef. Silly drama, perhaps, but we also get drawn into the idea watching people create dishes and meals in minutes. It is, though, still TV, created by producers (not chefs). So, for me, our recent meal at Craigie on Main was memorable for two reasons: a fantastic meal and a real-life opportunity to observe a restaurant kitchen (and great chef) at work.
I had eaten at the Craigie Street Bistro on 3 other memorable occasions. In fact, I dare to say that Craigie and Salts are the first restaurants that come to my head for anniversary and birthday meals. Craigie on Main opened up in November, ironically across the street from Salts, in Central Square, Cambridge. Given the opportunity to design their own restaurant, chef-owner Tony Maws chose to add a bar area with its own menu, and a set of 4 seats that are directly located against an open kitchen, in addition to the regular dining room. From our vantage point a chef needs to be both humble and confident to be willing to seat customers so close to the action. Or, as Tony Maws put it to us last week, “It is like a dinner party at our house each night.” What can I say? For me, this is as exciting and interesting as it gets. I can see, though, that kitchenside wouldn’t be for every couple. It is hard to sustain a conversation when you are watching chefs prepare each dish in such detail. And, realistically, not everyone wants to see a cook criticized by another chef while they are trying to create perfect dishes....It would be great, though, for a blind date as there is always something distracting to discuss or for couples like us who view this as just great entertainment combined with a wonderful meal. And, you can always have a fabulous meal at Craigie on Main without sitting right at the kitchen level.

The service was great. The meal was great. If there was ever a question about the level of attention to detail of each element on a plate, sitting here at Craigie eliminates it as you watch each item prepared. My incredible sashimi appetizer took a full 4 minutes for one sous-chef to plate. and that doesn’t include prep work before the restaurant opened.

Our meal began with an amuse bouche of trout with a homemade potato chip. It was delicious. Next, my husband got a fabulous bargain. For $38.00 he had a 3 course meal. It started with salad of frisee, watercress, endive with a Banyuls-walnut vinaigrette. It was crisp, fresh and nicely balanced. Next, he had a slow-roasted chicken with a 3 bean ragout and jerusalem-artichoke puree. The chicken was moist and the skin was crisp. It included a delicious dessert (more to come later).

I decided to choose a selection of appetizers. My first dish was just fantastic: A salad of Kona Kampachi Sashimi with avocado, sake-braised iceberg, whitefish roe, oroblanco and shiso. The oroblanco (a type of vinegar) added acidity and balance. The fish was fresh and meltingly soft.

Next, Crispy Fried Maine Smelts with pickled peppers and long beans, and squid ink anchoiade. The smelts, tasting similar to a light white fish, were perfectly fried and salted. The pickled vegetables were almost addictive in their unusual taste. But it was the squid ink that was most surprising-it was sweet and was a great interplay for the salinity of the rest of the dish. As Tony Maws is known for his use of pork and pig, I chose Organic Farro, Boudin Noir and Country Sausage Risotto with Forest Mushrooms, Poached Egg and Shallot puree. It was rich and, for me, almost overwhelming. Truth be told, I really don't eat sausage, so I can't be a fair judge of this. I enjoyed the mushrooms and the egg, but I can't say I will order it again.

We also tried their "duck fat fried potatoes" which were good...but not quite as memorable as I imagined.
Our dessert was pretty perfect. As part of my husband's prix-fixe, you get whatever the chef thinks works in the moment. We had our eyes on this all evening (literally as the dessert station was right in front of us!): Mocha Mille Feuille with homemade graham crackers, cocoa wafer and walnut coulis. What is missing from the picture is the fact that the chocolate mousse was piped onto the crackers seconds before the dish is served so that the crispness of the cracker was preserved. Overall it was rich without being too sweet. The walnut coulis was just delicious. We literally devoured this (is it acceptable to lick a plate at a restaurant?)

But the meal wasn't over. We were served two additional special treats: a duo of panna cotta: one enhanced with lemon peel and the other with jasmine. Both were subtle, creamy and light. Finally, a small demi-tasse of rich, warm hot chocolate enhanced with ancho chili powder and cardamom. Perfect for a night when the snow was pouring down.

Craigie On Main on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An Easy Meal for Everyone: Vegetarian Chili with 4

A vacation offers so many great moments with little guys. My youngest son, at 10 months is starting to say, "nana" for food (which means he says it A LOT) and "mama" when he sees me. My older son made the leap to a "big boy bed" and in addition to a great trip to the Children's Museum, we took a snow walk, cooked real bagels (from Smitten Kitchen) and had many playdates.

However, I hit my cooking and cleaning limit. With much ambivalence I had been cooking multiple dishes at each meal (FoodieDaddy doesn't like hot and spicy food, Raphael can't eat eggs or nuts and David can't eat dairy or eggs). Raphael has been a little guy for a variety of reasons since he was born, and in an effort to help him to grow, I was catering to his desire for a frequent meal of chicken nuggets more than I like to admit. But after a week of this, I decided that it was time to draw the line-for his sake and mine.

And the reality is that I think my expectations for him have been too low. With guidance from Ellyn Satter's This Child of Mine, our daycare provider and a good friend, I compromised: I will make what he wants for breakfast (99% of the time that is cinnamon raisin toast with cream cheese) and lunch (the nuggets), but I would make one dinner a night. And though I would make sure that he liked at least one element of the meal (e.g rice, noodles, bread, potatoes), the hope would be that he would be more willing to eat what the adults were eating if that was the main choice. Knowing how much and how well he now eats the rest of the day alleviated my concern for his nutrition, while the stress reduction from not cooking 3 meals at dinner would help all of us.

So, the first meal was a total success. Having recently returned from Penzey's Spices in Arlington I had a nice amount of their chili powder. I started by sauteing one onion on medium heat for about 7 to 8 minutes until lightly brown. (The trick is to resist the temptation to frequently stir. Letting the onions sit helps them to brown and get more flavor.) So, into the slow cooker, I put the onions and a pound of pigeon peas (I could have used white cannellini, black or kidney beans) that I had soaked and cooked in the slow cooker the day before (canned beans would work just as well, though they can be a bit mushy). Finally, I put in 2 14 ounce cans of Muir Glen Fire-Roasted chopped tomatoes and about 1 tablespoon of chili powder. I turned the slow cooker to low and cooked it for about 6 to 7 hours.

At dinner, I served the chili with mozzarella and Cheddar and some warmed tortillas. David is a huge fan of beans and loved it, as did Foodie Daddy. And Raphael ate it all up, mostly by wrapping the beans in the tortillas and calling it a "Bearito". I added some ground ancho chili powder from Penzey's for some extra flavor and kick. Overall it was easy, inexpensive, healthy and fed us all for a few days.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Return to Chez Henri

Porter Square in Cambridge is charming in so many ways. It is a gorgeous place to walk with beautiful Victorians, narrow streets and, for children, wonderful parks to play in. The stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard Square and Porter Square offers an amazing range of food feasts ranging from Korean at Seoul Food (the owners are as kind and charming as the food is delicious) to Ethiopian at Addis Red Sea, as well as Indian, Mexican, American and Chinese. (One of my favorite snacks was the chicken wontons with a vinegary cabbage slaw from the ridiculously named "Wok and Roll.") The Japanese mini-mall at the old Sears building has decent sushi, flavorful udon, donburi bowls and hearty curry dishes, too.

But during the years I lived in Cambridge, Chez Henri was a restaurant I could count on for consistently having good food, a nice atmosphere and flavor combinations that took it beyond standard bistro fair. So, after a babysitting exchange was set in place with a friend (I highly recommend this) and a $50.00 gift certificate in hand (part of a donation to NPR/WBUR), FoodieDaddy and I set out for Chez Henri.

I would love to report that it was as good as I remembered...And, in fact, in some ways it was quite nice. The familiarity of the decor, which hadn't changed much in the last 5 years, was comforting. And the fact that some of the dishes were simply twists on what I remembered made it easier to order and have confidence that the food would be good.

I had the ceviche and it was as layered with flavors as I had hoped (and craved-they really make a nice ceviche). This time it consisted of red snapper, octopus and shrimp mixed with lime and slivers of mango. It was tart and sweet with the mango balancing the acid of the citrus. The shrimp were "cooked" perfectly and the snapper was good, though a bit mushy. It was served with plantain chips which were cold and were calling out for some spice, or at least salt.

My husband's starter was a much greater success. It was a celery root and salisfy cream soup, served with a white truffle "crema" and shimenji mushrooms. It was warm, comforting, flavorful and perfect for a very cold night. The truffle added an earthy flavor to the dish and the celery hearts on top made the soup interesting in taste and aesthetics.

I chose an odd dish with my ceviche. Often I order multiple appetizers preferring little tastes to a main dish. And yet I ordered fois gras despite my political objections (I won't eat veal and was a long-time vegetarian) nor the fact that I really don't love it. In fact, this will be the last time I order it. The menu description was just so intriguing: "Hudson Valley Fois Gras, petit plantain Belgian waffle and pink peppercorn maple syrup." The fois gras was rich and did go well with the sweetness of the syrup. But I never got beyond the discomfort of eating the fois gras, nor the oddness of having breakfast with liver...Overall the sweetness dominated the dish.

My husband's main dish was more of a success. It consisted of braised beef short ribs and a hanger steak served with a red wine reduction and my favorite dish of the evening-a heavenly manchego root vegetable gratin. I could have eaten that alone. And in many ways it did represent the best of the restaurant: layers of parsnip and turnip providing a sweetness that melted into the fruity and very creamy cheese. The steak was cooked well, though I found the sauce to be a bit salty. My husband loved the ribs.

There were a few disappointments. I wasn't a fan of the bread, the dessert or the service. I recognize that I may be picky here, but the bread was cold (barely room temperature) and just seemed to be tossed into a basket. It was fine but it was very dense and heavy. Perhaps, though, it was the fact that even how it was put on the table seemed to be an afterthought. And the reality is that overall, although the hostess was certainly helpful and kind (giving us advice on parking, for example), even with a half-empty restaurant, I kept feeling as though our questions were bothering the waiter. For example, when my husband asked about the steak, the waiter said, "Well, it is steak. What would you like to know?" Snarky with a smile is one thing. But when we are paying decent money for a meal, it would be nice to have some warmth with our service.

Honestly, he was a bit more relaxed by dessert, but unfortunately that is where the meal went flat. The "banana cream tart in a macadamia crust with dark chocolate and coconut" was also presented nicely (the top picture) but it was served cold. While I recognize that a cream tart needs to be kept cool, a cold pudding and tart is just not good. However, it didn't help the fact that the crust was almost tasteless. I barely tasted macadamia. Here salt would have helped bring out the flavor tremendously. Finally, I never found the dark chocolate. It wasn't a bad just wasn't very good. ("Not worth the calories," as my mother would say.)

So...I think this will be my last visit. While it was decent, there are too many other great new finds that I am hoping to try out (Garden at the Cellar, Ten Tables and Hungry Mother, e.g.) and too few nights that we can afford a babysitter!

Chez Henri on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Cookies and Creations: The Boston Children's Museum and Flour Bakery

I have fond memories of visiting the Children's Museum as a kid. I remember it as a place to run around, to make big bubbles and to leave with dozens of craft ideas after having spent way too much money at their "recycling center". Unlike the Aquarium, Raphael has enjoyed each of our 3 visits. However, by taking him once every 8 to 12 months, I have been able to watch him grow and have more fun each time. From my end, I have learned how to park, to visit at off hours and, most importantly, where to eat!

In terms of parking, about 2 blocks behind the Museum, on Farnsworth Street, is a decent lot that has validated parking. On a rare occassion, I have also found metered spots a few blocks away. To avoid crowds (and when the museum is crowded it is a total nightmare) once we went, no kidding, during a hurricane. This time it was December 24th so most people where out shopping. But I do think that arriving at opening time and just keeping the visit limited to a few hours may help to avoid the chaos, too. The musuem isn't particularly inexpensive, so I try to take advantage of library passes that reduce the price to $2.00 a person.
They have renovated the museum, so there is more room in the hallways. Each time I am impressed with the setting (great view from the elevator!). There isn't as much room to run around as there is at the Museum of Science, but there are so many rooms to play: to climb on construction equipment; to play with balls and tubes; to play basketball; to create music; to make bubbles; to play with different construction toys; to explore a Japanese house; to check out the set of Arthur and to play many different imagination games. There is a also a great area for babies which I took advantage of when Raphael was about 1.

This time we were also in luck as they were having a "Paper Festival." So, on each floor there were about 2 different projects (already set up with NO cleaning!) that Raphael could take part in. Even better was the fact that each project was designed so simply that any adult could recreate it at home with recycled paper. We walked away with a Japanese lantern, a "tree", snowflakes, paper dolls, Chinese New Year cards, a 3 D snowman and a whirligig.

We made a double pit-stop, before and after the museum, at one of my absolute Boston favorites: Flour. For years we frequented the site in the South End, but now there is another location, just opposite the parking garage. Flour's food is not cheap, but it is also labor intensive, using the best ingredients. And this means that the baked goods are simply fantastic. A perfect example is their oh-so-common-sounding "egg sandwich." What this means is you get a delicious freshly baked roll with an egg. It also comes with fresh greens, sundried tomatoes, cheddar, the best bacon (or ham) and a dijon-mayonnaise sauce. It is a heavenly combination of tastes and textures. And lest you think that this place isn't
"family friendly", they have healthy and delicious salads, warm soups, incredible sandwiches ranging from pb and j to curried tuna with apples.

Their other baked goods (from scones to muffins to homemade PopTarts and Oreos) are pretty fabulous, too. I enjoy their dark chocolate cookie (bittersweet and decadent) and their "vegan" chocolate cake which is both light and rich. This time we tried a new cookie and again, with the huge chunks of pecans, dark chocolate, fresh oatmeal and coconut I understood why it simply isn't cheap. But it is so worth it.

No visit is complete, though, without me buying at least 1/2 a loaf of their focaccia. The name seems to be a misnomer as it nothing like any focaccia that I have had. And if anyone has any idea how to make this, do let me know! I know it is vegan and is made with olive oil, but has a fine crumb and an incredible texture that is as fabulous slathered with Nutella as it is covered with cheese and pressed into paninis. It is never as good as that first day, but when we can't typically get out to Flour, having it in our freezer is about as good as it gets. And, in fact, it is so good, that my son was content to eat that (with some clementines for a some-what well-balanced lunch.)