Saturday, May 30, 2009

A True Treasure: Wasik's Cheese Shop, Wellesley

Every parent needs a treat. And not a Save-For-a-Lifetime kind of bonus, but a treat for making it through a week of 5:00 a.m. wake-ups and temper tantrums. For me, one of those treats has always been good cheese. And while we regularly have blocks of cheddar and mozzarella in our frig, they could always substitute for chewy cubes of plastic. So, as FoodieDaddy knows well, the way to my heart is a gift certificate to Wasik’s Cheese Shop in Wellesley.Recently, I had the fabulous opportunity to meet with Brian Wasik and he kindly offered to give me a  tutorial (with samples!) on cheese. The Wasik family has a genuine passion and knowledge about cheese. Steve Wasik opened the store in 1979 and today his son, Brian, still works there with his father, his brother, Brad and mother, Carol. The store is a treasure trove for foodies, filled with specialty foods including Poilane bread flown in from Paris, dozens of chocolates, jams, crackers, sauces, spices, teas, pasta, meats and more.But the centerpiece of the store is easily the cheese counter, framed by lists of cheeses and organized regionally. I love the brief descriptions that accompany the cheeses. But the best part of the store is the willingness of the staff to share both their knowledge and tastes of cheese. Wasik’s has a Cheers-like atmosphere as the family often greets regulars by name. For the rest of us, service is still personal, almost a matchmaking designed to pair your meal with their cheeses. The Wasiks are generous with samples, making it tempting to hang out for the afternoon.They offer a fantastic range of cheeses from Europe and the United States. Typically I get the small, smelly goat cheeses and crumbly, nutty pecorino. Other than that, though, my knowledge of cheese was limited to “smelly” and “not-so-smelly.”
Brian, a natural teacher, gave me an overview of the different families of cheeses, quickly adding the word “grana” or the granular texture of hard cheeses, as well as “soft-ripened” and “washed rind” to my vocabulary. The chance to not only hear about the cheese to but taste a Swiss Gruyere next to a French one was a bit like winning, if not the lottery, at least a local raffle!My favorites? The Brie de Lyon- buttery and sweet bore no resemblance to the grocery store versions with the same name. The fresh mozzarella was somehow more delicate, lighter and creamier than any I have had before. The Crotin de Poitos was a phenomenal goat cheese with flavor that filled my mouth. The Tilsit, a Havarti-style cheese, was gentle and fruity while the Parmesan had a nuttiness that contrasted with the almost crunchy texture. The Manouri, a sheep’s milk cheese tasted like a smooth, subtle, chewy feta. And though I am not a gruyere person, the Swiss gruyere made me think of oozing gratins and grilled cheese sandwiches.Brian is also a father to young children and he steered me towards two options for trying to move my kids beyond the world of string cheese. First, his two year old loves fresh goat cheese spread on bagels (Hello, who wouldn’t love that?), as well as using the Applekocher cheddar for mac and cheese. I confess, back at home, my finicky toddler wasn’t quite as sold on it, but my 15 month old couldn’t stop gobbling it up, nor could the adults who had the privilege to try it. While they don’t often formal cheese tastings in the store, they do occasionally offer them at restaurants (such as Blue Ginger.) Brian also will prepare a tasting for 12 to 20 people in someone’s home. But even if you can’t splurge on this with 11 of your closest friends, dropping in will still ensure you a chance to alter the idea that cheese is either American or cheddar and to walk out with a gem of a product.Beyond the personal service, what makes this store special are the other extras. First, the Wasiks have a cheese cellar in the basement where they finish the cheeses, to make sure they are perfectly ripened before making their way to the front of the store. They also cut each cheese to order, ensuring the freshest cheese each time. Finally, they take the time to explain how to both serve and store it.If you aren’t a cheese person, still make sure to visit. Get their fantastic chutney, which was first created by Carol and now comes in 3 varieties. You can also buy it mixed into cheese spreads, though I confess that I have simply blended the Yankee chutney with light sour cream and eaten it as a dip. Or try their Spiked Crackers for Stinky Cheeses (created by the Wasik family), if only for the fabulous name, though with whole wheat flour, cranberries and port wine they are delicious.

No matter what, the friendliness, warmth and kindness of the Wasik family will make you feel welcome, even if you are still prefer Velvetta to chevre.

Wasik's Cheese Shop, 61 Central Street, Wellesley MA 02482. 781-237-0916.

Friday, May 29, 2009

How Sweet Is the Balsamic Syrup?

Each time I reached in the pantry for spices, I knocked down about 5 bottles of really cheap balsamic vinegar. Then, after recent meals at Da Vinci and Nebo, I discovered the bliss that is balsamic syrup. Ridiculously simple to prepare, it tastes of citrus, acid and sweetness all blended together. On top of strawberries and ice cream (my own version of a Da Vinci sundae), it is a perfect dessert. Strewn on cheese it adds a sweetness with a bite.
I don't have a real recipe here, just a guide as to how I prepared it.

Balsamic Syrup
Get a very big pot. Pour in the vinegar. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and let it simmer until reduced by a half. (Note, the smell is really, really pungent!) Add brown sugar. I just kept adding it until the balsamic syrup was just sweet enough. At this point you can add rosemary and garlic for a more savory syrup to put on top of meat. I added ground coriander for a floral scent which was delicious with the berries. (Thanks to Chef Peppino of Da Vinci for this idea!) Simmer until it reduces further and is...well...syrupy.

Store in the refrigerator. It will get thicker as it chills.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mother's Day at Tower Hill Botanic Gardens, Boylston

Tower Hill Botanic Gardens is one of those gems that once you discover you will be amazed that you had waited so long to visit. Just 30 minutes west, it is both a beautiful spot with gorgeous views of Mount Wachusetts, an educational center and a delightful place to spend an afternoon, or even a day. Although Tower Hill isn't expensive ($10 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 18) and you can get passes at some libraries, on Mother's Day, moms were free. In addition, as children under 5 are always free, we were able to have a wonderful experience for very little money.When my sons and I take our daily afternoon walk, we always bring along a birding book for children. My 3 year old loves matching the birds he sees in the trees with those in his book and is gradually understanding that if you yell, yes, you will scare the birds away. At Tower Hill we had a chance to see some spectacular birds, particularly a red-winged blackbird (that looked infinitely more spectacular than it does in this photo!)Tower Hill is really about the gardens and with 132 acres to explore and multiple gardens to visit, you can stay busy just reading all the labels of the beautiful plants. And, while the vegetable gardens were just at their early stages, many of the flowering plants were in bloom. As my son and I have just created our first garden, I hope to come back with him to have someone teach us how to actually keep vegetables alive.In the colder months, their Orangerie, while much smaller than the garden in Providence, Rhode Island, was certainly a nice place to avoid the unbelievable winds that my fearful son was convinced would blow him away!There was also a lovely vernal pool where we looked for frogs and turtles. And, although this time we used our stroller to walk around with the one year old, in the future, we hope to return to this place to check out their hikes. Tower Hill Botanic Garden, 11 French Drive, Boylston. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday until 8 p.m. through August. 508-869-6111

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Ruby Wonder: Rhubarb Compote, Crumble and Cobbler

Fresh rhubarb makes an appearance in spring, though I was still able find some at a farmstand in July. (I know, I should just grow my own...someday) I have always felt limited by what I could do with it, until I discovered an incredibly easy (and bizarrely addictive) way to cook it. It is also a pale pink that I find oddly beautiful. Best of all, I recently learned that you can trim, clean and cut up the pieces and then freeze them to eat for months.
I often make a rhubarb compote: I simply clean and trim the ends, cut the rhubarb in small chunks (I cut the rhubarb length-wise first if the stalks are really big). I then throw the rhubarb in a glass pan with some sugar and water and simmer it for about 30 minutes until the rhubarb falls apart. I never remember how much sugar...I just keep tasting it until it is sweet enough. I sometimes add a chunk of ginger for a deliciously spicy background. The compote can stay chilled in the refrigerator and I find myself eating it plain with a spoon. It is also wonderful with yogurt or ice cream.

However, last week Smitten Kitchen published a recipe for rhubarb cobbler. While I have been too exhausted to cook (my 3 year old thinks 5 a.m. is an appropriate time for waking up AND having a tantrum!), I was intrigued by the use of cooked egg yolks in the dough, how simple it seemed and how delicious it sounded. So, I raced out to the supermarket and forked over a ridiculous amount of money for early rhubarb. (Russo's in Waterown is selling it for under $2.00 pound!)The recipe was so good that I made it twice in one week. The dough was tender and just sweet enough (apparently because of using the cooked yolks). The compote itself was tart, but not enough to make you pucker. And, as much as I hate to push finicky (read: expensive!) ingredients, the vanilla bean made it pretty phenomenal with the soft scent lingering in the syrup. (But feel free to skip it.) It was so good that FoodieDaddy, not a rhubarb fan, ate up his whole portion while I devoured mine for breakfast. He also loved that I baked some of the dough separately into scones.

Finally, this time I grated some nutmeg and powdered ginger on top after it was cooked (FoodieDaddy is also not a ginger fan). Next time I will grate some fresh ginger directly into the rhubarb to add a hint of spice.

On a rhubarb roll, I also tried the Rhubarb Crumble published on the Smitten Kitchen site a few years ago. If anything, it was easier, not quite as fabulous, but certainly great for an end-of-a-long-day kind of dessert.
Both desserts lend themselves well to being great for guests. Prepare the toppings and clean the rhubarb. It takes minutes to toss the rhubarb with sugar, cover it with topping and pop the crumble or crisp in the oven.

Rhubarb Cobbler Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

For dough
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon half and half

For rhubarb
2 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 6 cups)
1/2 cup sugar
2-inch piece of vanilla bean, split lengthwise, pulp scraped
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon sugar

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, egg yolks, and salt. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the flour resembles coarse meal. Add 2/3 cup of cream and pulse until the dough comes together. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently pat it together.

Form the dough into 2-inch balls, then flatten them slightly into thick rounds. Chill for 20 minutes (and up to 2 hours). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put the rhubarb in a shallow 21/2- quart casserole dish and toss with sugar, vanilla, and cornstarch. Allow to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Arrange the biscuit rounds on top, leaving about an inch between them. Brush the biscuits with half and half and sprinkle with sugar. Bake the cobbler until the rhubarb is bubbling and the biscuits are golden brown, about 40 to 45 minutes.

If you have any extra biscuit dough, just lay them on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper or foil. Put them in the oven at 350 for about 25 minutes. (I just put them on a toaster tray, right in the oven next to the cobbler.)

Rhubarb Crumble adapted from Smitten Kitchen

For the topping:

1 1/3 cup flour (I used half white whole wheat flour to pretend this was healthy)
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons sugar
Zest of one lemon (optional but it adds a nice flavor)
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted

For the filling:
2 cups rhubarb, chopped into 1-inch pieces
Juice of one lemon
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt

1. Heat oven to 375°F. Prepare topping: In a mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugars and lemon zest and add the melted butter. Mix until small and large clumps form. Refrigerate until needed.

2. Prepare filling: Toss rhubarb, lemon juice, sugar, cornstarch and a pinch of salt in a 9 inch pie plate or 2 quart pan.

3. Remove topping from refrigerator and cover fruit thickly and evenly with topping. Place dish on a baking sheet, and bake until crumble topping is golden brown in places and fruit is bubbling beneath, about 40 to 50 minutes.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The First of Many Visits: Oishii Too, Sudbury

I think there needs to be a celebration dance for those moments when we discover a fantastic restaurant in Metrowest. It isn't to say that great independently owned places don't exist out here, but they tend to be hidden, known to a few people who are lucky enough to know about them. Oishii Too in Sudbury is one of those places. Right off Route 20, near the borders of Framingham, Natick and Wayland is this absolute gem of a restaurant. The food is excellent and the owner and chef, Chef Kung, will warmly welcome you and immediately make you feel as though you stumbled into his home.

Oishii in Chestnut Hill has long been one of my favorite restaurants, as well as my favorite for sushi. But the wait could often be daunting. Oishii in Sudbury is a bit bigger (Oishii in Chestnut Hill consists of a sushi bar with only 2 small tables), but the food is just as good. And as my husband doesn't (gasp!) eat sushi, he was thrilled to discover that the cooked items are also stellar.

The food is Japanese, but Chef Kung has put his own twist on many of the dishes with unique elements, and special flavors. In fact, the titles never quite do justice to the dishes. My husband began with "grilled eggplant." What arrived was a salad of beautiful greens with perfectly grilled eggplant. On top was a light dressing. The eggplant was creamy with no hint of bitterness.

I enjoyed a squid salad. The squid was sliced thinly and served with a sweet ginger sauce. It was light and had a great balance between a bite without being too chewy. I don't normally order squid but I couldn't stop eating this version.

One of the highlights of the evening was the "Unagi Nuta." Broiled eel lay on top of finely sliced cucumber and was topped with sterling caviar. This dish is a perfect example of the food here. The eel was cooked perfectly-just a taste of sweetness, almost caramelized on the outside. The fish was so moist and the caviar provided both a contrast of texture (a pop) and taste (a subtle saltiness.) What was as impressive was the four types of seaweed that added to the flavor. Topping it all was a thin wasabi sauce that helped to clear my sinuses.

My husband doesn't typically use words like "divine" but it was the one he chose to describe his grilled Chilean Sea Bass. Again, it was more complex than the description hints at. The fish was tender and meaty without being too rich. But what made the dish special were the fried shallots and ginger that sat on top. Eaten in one bite, the shallots added a nutty, toasty taste to the white fish.

I tried an assortment of sushi. First, I had Oishii Too's version of my favorite: chopped toro (fatty tuna) with caviar(pictured at the top of the post.) The colors were dramatic as the ruby red toro was set off by the golden caviar and the microgreens. The fish couldn't have been more fresh. This was the spicy version and although at times tears came to my eyes, the sweet sauce tamed it slightly. Next time I will go for the mild version to better appreciate the meatiness of the tuna.

Next, Chef Kung highlighted two of his special sushi rolls. The first was titled "Crispy Saki Maki." This consisted of delicious slices of tender salmon draped over tobiko, cucumber and tempura flakes. The roll was coated with, of all things, a passion fruit-mango sauce! The tempura added crunch and texture, with the sauce adding sweetness.Finally, the other unique roll of the night was Koori Ookawa Maki. This roll had tobiko, cucumber and hokigai (red clam) and was topped with blue fin tuna. The hokigai was just chewy enough and the wasabi sauce was sharp.

I loved the creativity and presentation of these rolls, but I look forward to enjoying more of the simple sushi next time. The fish was so good and at times the sauces masked the flavor.

Saving one of our favorites for the end was black sesame ice cream flown in from Japan. It had the nuttiness of peanut butter without the richness (or, if our peanut-allergic son had been there, fear of an allergy attack!)

I am suspicious of "bargain" sushi. To get top quality fish is almost impossible without paying. And, no, Oishii Too isn't cheap. However, the prices are comparable to any decent sushi restaurant: sushi rolls range from $5.00 to $13.00, about $8.00 to $13.00 for appetizers, and $15.00 (noodle dishes) to $30.00 (the Chilean Sea Bass). However, they also offer lunch box specials for around $14.00. What struck me as we dined at Oishii Too, is that clearly many people return over and over. I heard Chef Kung, more than once, personally greeting each of his customers-both by name and by memory of their favorite dishes.

This time,Chef Kung treated us to a wonderful meal. But, in the future, when I do want sushi, along with thoughtful attention to detail as well as the kindness of Chef Kung, this is where we will head.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fabulous Cupcakes for Everyone

When I tell people that the cupcakes they are about to eat are egg-free, the reaction is usually one of skepticism. However, once they are devoured, the most common comment has been that the cupcakes are so moist and, in fact, without the egg, are much lighter than other cupcakes. As my son has an egg-allergy, we find ourselves making these often to eat at home and to bring to other birthday parties. One of the best parts of cooking without eggs, is the fact that licking the beaters and spoon is completely safe, and of course, fun!

For any child or adult with food allergies or for vegan friends these are a great find. But they really are delicious enough for anyone. In other words, a parent of an allergic child could happily bring these in to a classroom of kids (and adults!) The cupcakes themselves come from our standard for egg-free cooking: Bakin' Without Eggs by Rosemarie Emro (and which you will need to buy to get the recipe lest I upset the copyright lawyers. And, no: I really don't work for her publishing company!) Emro uses applesauce, yogurt and seltzer to add moistness without using eggs.

The reality is that you now can buy egg-free cupcakes at some supermarkets, but they are typically quite expensive and are dry. These cupcakes can be whipped up in minutes, and I have made it even easier by setting aside the dry ingredients the night ahead. They are best the day they are cooked, but they usually don't last very long. Finally, I found a delicious and easy frosting in the Joy of Cooking, but at Whole Food's Supermarket we sampled another vegan frosting-made from blending avocados with powdered sugar. I can't say the taste was as good as buttercream, but it is a nice alternative for a non-dairy frosting.

However, in the meantime, here is another great vegan recipe (good for when kids haven't yet had dairy, for people with food allergies, etc.). Created by a mom of a food-allergic son, it isn't quite as rich (no sour cream!), but you are more likely to have all the ingredients in the house.

From Divvies Bakery in Connecticut

Makes 1 dozen

  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 cups water


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake liners; set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together oil, vinegar, vanilla, and water until well combined. Add flour mixture to the mixer and mix until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as necessary. Batter should look and feel more watery than normal cake batters.
  4. Pour batter into prepared muffin tin, filling each cup 1/2 to 3/4 full. Transfer to oven and bake, rotating pan halfway through cooking, until a cake tester inserted into the center of one of the cupcakes comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.
  5. Immediately remove cupcakes from muffin tin and transfer to a wire rack. Let cool completely before frosting.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Taste of the North End in Needham: Spiga

Tucked 50 feet off of Needham Street (behind a D'Angelos, ironically!), is an Italian restaurant with food so good that it will make you question ever driving into the North End again. Better, still, the prices are reasonable enough that you don't have to save all year to enjoy it. Spiga in Needham had been open for 1 1/2 years when the owners decided they needed a change. So, they reopened on April 15th, having upgraded the restaurant and, more importantly the menu. (Be aware that the website is still being updated, but they are happy to fax you a menu.) In charge of the food is executive chef, Marisa Iocco. And she is what makes this place so special. Born in Orsogna, Italy, she has been head chef at a number of Boston restaurants. Her attention to detail in the food, the quality of ingredients and the absolute simplicity of some dishes is what makes this food stand out. Everything is made fresh here-bread, pastas, mozzarella and a good deal of it is cooked in the 800 degree wood burning oven.Spiga has two identities. Lunch, from 11 to 3, is more casual. You order at the counter and can choose from paninis, salads, pastas and pizza. This option is definitely the best bet if you want to bring the kids as it is informal and if you are lucky with the weather, you can sit outside on the patio. Although they don't have a children's menu, the restaurant was happy to bring us a plate of the best noodles I have ever eaten. The pizza was also fantastic (and enjoyed by at least one of the toddlers). My friend and I devoured the two other dishes. First we had the best lasagna I have ever eaten (also pictured at the top of this post). Instead of noodles drowning in cheese, it consisted of the thinnest slices of eggplant and zucchini, touched with homemade tomato sauce, a small amount of cheese and fresh noodles. I could taste each ingredient as opposed to a heavy mass of pasta.

We also loved our sandwich. This version had thin sliced prosciutto, arugula, Parmesan and just enough oil to moisten it.

Now the confession: I loved our lunch so much that I returned with my husband for dinner...the same day! (We were treated by Spiga to lunch, but not to dinner.) And, quite honestly, it was just as good. At dinner, linens are put on the tables and once inside you can almost convince yourself that you are in Italy, or at least the North End (without the hassle of parking!).This time we started with two fantastic appetizers. First, an unforgettable "Flan of parmigiano reggiano with celery chutney and peperoncino scented olive oil" (pictured at the top of the post.) What this meant was a small fried souffle that was incredibly light with the bite of Parmesan. The celery chutney was sweet and tart-balancing the cheese. We inhaled this. I enjoyed a salad of cold octopus with homemade potato and celery sticks, assorted olives and lemon sea salt. So often salads are overdressed. This one was just dusted with enough vinegar to let the flavors be bright and fresh. It was light enough that I didn't feel too full for the main dishes.

Next was an extraordinary dish (they split it between the two of us) of homemade agnolotti. I was struck by how thin the pasta was, letting the sweet lobster meat dominate. It was served with a creamy saffron scented bechamel and piles of shrimp and crabmeat.

My husband couldn't rave enough about his veal. It was listed as a "veal costata" and it was seared before being roasted in the oven. This meant it was crisp and golden brown on the outside, but meltingly tender inside. I wasn't a fan of the "asparagus-parmiganio tart" on the side. It was freezing cold and tasteless. Ironically, the blanched asparagus on top, though, were green, crisp and pretty close to perfect.

I had a wonderful assortment of seafood. Each item was cooked to perfection. It was a very good sized serving of lobster, clams, mussels, cod and scallops served over risotto. The liquid was a mixture of the freshest tomatoes with a touch of wine and fresh parsley.

I thought the desserts were the weak spot on the menu, however, my husband enjoyed them. First we had an Italian cheesecake made with marscapone cheese from Italy and served with stewed cherries. It was much lighter and less sweet than other cheesecakes I have had and I might have enjoyed it more if I wasn't so full. We also tried the bread pudding. I thought it was fine, but as my mother would say, "it wasn't worth the calories." That being said, FoodieDaddy ate it up, noting that it was creamy and rich.

So, my recommendations: try to go to lunch for a great deal. The portions are good enough for two light meals and prices average about $10.00. Or, splurge for dinner: appetizers are around $11.00, pastas are under $20.00 and the main dishes average $25.00. It would be easy enough to share a pasta and an appetizer, or just go and enjoy a main dish. Not only is this babysitter-worthy, but parking is easy and the quality and care of the food will make you glad you went.