Friday, November 27, 2009

A FoodieMommy Thanksgiving

Although this was my third year hosting Thanksgiving, it was the first year that I had the honor/dutiful task of roasting the turkey. With friends and family joining us, I decided to use this as a year to try out some new recipes while sticking with those old standards. I am thankful for having a delicious meal with people that are so dear to me. Without people like them, the rest doesn't really matter.

So, what did we eat at our feast?

Pull Apart Rolls from the King Arthur website
"Touch of Grace" Biscuits from Orangette
A Perfect Turkey (and Gravy) from Simply Recipes
Simple Cranberry Sauce and Cranberry Sauce with orange zest, cinnamon and figs (inspired by Christine Koh at Boston Mamas)
Stuffing a la Pepperidge Farm Mix
Potatoes Mousseline from Barbara Lynch's cookbook, "Stir"
Pickled Beets from the Boston Globe
A Classic: Spinach Casserole a la Durkee Fried Onions
Port Poached Pears (From the book: Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker, Recipes for Entertaining)
Slow Poached Quince (made in a slow cooker) from Year of the Glutton
Rosy Poached Quince from David Lebovitz
Chocolate-Orange-Pecan Tart from Not Without Salt
My Brother's Delicious Apple Pies (crust from Jasper White's Cooking from New England)
Orange-Almond Cake from the James Beard Cookbook

The Verdict/The Keepers

Almost everything. We loved the biscuits and rolls. Both are best right out of the oven, but we still enjoyed them the next morning. The biscuits are a magical recipe in that it seems impossible that a pile of liquid could cook up into such unbelievably moist delights.
I use milk instead of cream to make them just a bit lighter. They are also perfect for cooking with children which helps to keep them involved with the meal.

The homemade stuffing won over the Pepperidge Farm. I skipped making my own bread, instead letting a loaf of "Stuffing Bread" from Roche Brother's sit out overnight to get stale. There was no clear winner among the potatoes. The yukon gold were earthy and buttery, while the russets were smooth from my using a potato ricer for the first time. (Chef Lynch calls a ricer an essential ingredient...and I now agree although it took more elbow grease than I thought. I bought mine for $20 at Bed, Bath and Beyond.)

The turkey was the best we have had. We started with a brined Bell and Evans turkey from Whole Foods. (I wasn't sure my side-by-side frig could accommodate the turkey). I stuffed it with a cut lemon, carrots and an onion used metal ties from a cooking store.
Elise from Simply Recipes included directions and pictures that made this so easy. Her secret: cook the turkey breast side down, while slowly decreasing the temperature from 400 to 225. My other key utensil: my meat thermometer that helped me to determine exactly when to remove it from the oven. The meat, both dark and white meat were as moist as you could hope for!
As for the one touched the poached fruit. Both of the quince were tasty, though I preferred the style with the cinnamon. I reduced the sauce to make a syrup. I am enjoying them for breakfast with yogurt. Though peeling and coring a quince was much more simple than websites indicated, I don't think the task involved will merit a return to next year's menu.
We were also ambivalent about the pecan tart. The top was perfect-neither too sweet or too cloying. The orange zest also added a subtle tweak that made it depart from typical pecan pies. However, I used a heavy hand with the bittersweet chocolate which made it too rich. The browned butter crust also didn't live up to my expectations. Next year: the same pecan pie recipe, without the chocolate (or much, much less) in a standard tart shell. I didn't like the orange-almond cake. The grainy texture and bitter taste put me off. However, my mother-in-law enjoyed it noting that it wasn't too sweet.

Finally a few tips for pulling a Thanksgiving off as a working parent. Cliched but true, it came down to organization. I did all my shopping the weekend before, storing the brussel sprouts and cauliflower in cold water to keep them fresh. (I had made the beets a week in advance as they needed to marinate.) Tuesday night I pre-prepped all the baked goods by putting dry ingredients in bowls and covering them with plastic wrap. Wednesday I made: the poached fruit, the pecan tart and the stuffing. Thursday morning I made the pull apart rolls. That left the oven free for the turkey. We also had the turkey done 1 1/2 hours before dinner so that the oven was free to heat up the stuffing and spinach casserole. The only last minute items were the roasted vegetables and the biscuits. The other key: wonderful friends and family who helped to cook and clean all night, avoiding the feeling of being overwhelmed the next morning by kitchen chaos.

The Leftovers

Turkey Congee from Steamy Kitchen-a delicious and different take on using the leftover turkey bones.

Potato Bread from A Year in Bread-a wonderful and easy use of leftover mashed potatoes. Delicious for grilled cheese, french toast or slathered with jam.

The Websites that Helped

King Arthur-an excellent site for baked goods of all sorts from scones to pizzas to whole grain rolls.
Orangette-though Molly hasn't posted as often since she opened her own restaurant in Seattle, her collection of recipes is part of my essential collection.
Simply Recipes-this website is fast becoming one of my favorites. Elise shares pictures and recipes from her family. The recipes are not pretentious but just taste so good and are easy to prepare, particularly due to her clear directions.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Feast of Taiwanese Food at JoJo TaiPei, Allston

JoJo Taipei is exactly the type of restaurant I love to discover. Inexpensive, casual, warm, friendly, and, best of all, serving food that you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. For me, the chance to eat there came with a bonus. A Taiwanese friend came and chose all the foods we ordered. She kept us informed about how the dish is served in Taiwan, where and when we would eat it if we lived there, and what was actually in each of the wonderful morsels that we ate. I am very unfamiliar with Taiwanese food. So, one of the best aspects of this (besides her lovely company), was that it would have been unlikely that I ordered many of the dishes that we did based on the menu descriptions. Thus, the evening became an introduction to a cuisine and culture, in addition to a great foodie find.

JoJo Taipei doesn't have a liquor license, so we began with one of their herbal teas. The rose and dark plum was fruity and almost achingly sweet, but I appreciated this in contrast to some of our spicy dishes.

Next, the owner kindly presented us with a tray of cold dishes: pigs ear, lotus root and spicy bamboo shoots. Together they were a great starter. The pig's ear was chewy, gelatinous and tasted of sesame oil.
The bamboo shoots were so spicy that they brought tears to my eyes. The sweetness and vinegar of the lotus roots helped to sooth them.

One of my favorites of the evening is listed on the menu as "JoJo Mini Bun." These are also called soup dumplings or XiaoLongBao.
They look like your typical homemade dumpling. Yet you need to eat these carefully because they are filled with delicious pork and broth! To eat them, begin by putting a bit of the ginger-soy-vinegar sauce on your spoon.
Then, carefully take a little bite on the side of the dumpling, letting the soup inside drain into your spoon. Now, take a bite of the soup, dumpling and sauce all at once. Heaven! These must be eaten hot so try to eat them at JoJo Taipei (rather than taking them out.) This dish, which cost $6.99 could easily be a light meal for one person.

We had a completely different type of dumpling: Szcheuan Chao-Show. These were little thin pieces of dough wrapped around pork. They sat in a spicy sauce. I liked them, but prefer the more flavorful version at Sichuan Garden in Framingham.

I could have eaten platefuls of the green bean dish called "Sauteed Green Beans." These perfectly cooked beans were fantastic.
I knew they had a unique flavor and found out that they are sauteed with garlic, scallions and preserved cabbage. The taste was salty without being overpowering. They were just as addictive eaten cold the next day.

The oyster pancake was a wonderful omelet of sorts. Eggs were beaten with tapioca flour giving the omelet a delicious chewy and tender texture.
The oysters tasted a bit strong for me, but the sweet and spicy sauce made it impossible to stop nibbling.

Luckily I paused long enough to eat the absolutely delicious "Bamboo Cap Rice Pudding."
I assumed this was a sweet dessert, but what arrived was my version of comfort food: sticky rice infused with the scent and slices of mushrooms. It was also topped with the same red sauce. It was just as good heated up the next day.

Another of my favorites was the Jo Jo Beef Noodle Soup. My friend explained that the beef is cooked in a pressure cooker to make it tender.
I loved the beef, the spicy, savory, gingery broth and the chewy noodles. Again, this dish alone could be a meal for one person and cost just $8.99.

We shared another soup. It was listed on the menu as "Flunder (sic) Fish Fillet with Fresh Chili Pepper and Sour Cabbage." I assumed it would be fish with a spicy red chili sauce.
What arrived was a soup based of light fish broth. It was filled with chunks of flounder, mushrooms and sour cabbage. While my friends enjoyed it and called it "restorative," for me it was more of an acquired taste.

We all enjoyed the "Pancake Scallion Beef." These consisted of flaky scallion pancakes wrapped around beef and sweet hoisin sauce.
We enjoyed them hot and then cold for lunch the next day.

Another dish that will make me return again and again was the "Three Cup Chicken." Jo Jo Taipei offers this dish with a variety of proteins, from tofu to cuttlefish to duck tongue! Each one is simmered with sesame oil, rice wine, water, garlic, ginger and sugar.
This simplistic sounding mixture caramelizes the chicken creating a savory, nutty and completely addictive dish. I know that my kids would love this.

Finally, our last main dish was "Eggplant with Garlic Sauce."
It was gorgeous to look and was very tasty, though I have had other versions that are a bit more flavorful.

We ended with another dessert that was not on most menus: grass jelly soup.
This thick, black porridge tasted earthy, nutty and a bit like jellied dark tea. Again, it had tapioca and read beans. I liked ending the meal with a dessert that wasn't too sweet, but I am not sure I would have it again.

That being said, I will be back so many times to this wonderful restaurant. Despite ordering so much, we barely touched the breadth of dishes. My friend recommended the Dan Zai noodles, while Chowhounders had highlighted the Singapore noodles and the Sugar Cane Chicken. And just as we finished our meal, we noticed two other delicious looking dishes: salted chicken and Chinese Squash, a vegetable dish that made my friend sigh with adoration.

And, if you go, I encourage you to comment here and share other dishes that you loved!

Jo Jo Taipei, 103 Brighton Ave, Allston, 617-254-8889

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Toraya, Arlington

Toraya in Arlington is one of those places that I would have driven right by had it not been for the endless source of positive reviews on Chowhound. A minimalistic sign outside is the only sense that in this tiny restaurant (with just 26 seats), is a Japanese restaurant. Perhaps, though, due to these accolades, the couple behind me waited for over an hour on a Saturday at 1:00 to sit down. As I was alone, I was able to quickly sit at the little sushi bar.

In fact, sushi is the centerpiece here. The waitress recommended chirashi sushi as the best way to try a variety of the chef’s best. What arrived was a generous portion of fish: included 2 to 3 pieces of shrimp, tamago, tuna, sea bass, fluke, sea trout, crabstick, salmon, eel, octopus, mackerel. This was served over a bed of delicious sushi rice. It wasn’t fancy, but the portion was certainly filling and with a bowl of miso soup it cost just $11.50.

Each white fish tasted so different, ranging from smoky to delicate. The salmon melted in my mouth. The tamago (egg omelet) was sweet with the sharpness of the wasabi.

Any questions anyone would have about the freshness of the fish was apparent as the chef and owner, Mr. Toraya, was literally fileting fish as I watched. Many other customers ordered the lunch specials in a bento box. The variety was impressive and cost under $14.00. It is also family friendly as I was one of the only people with children.

Would I drive out to Arlington just for Toraya...No? I admit that I am too big a fan of Oishii Sudbury. But if I am in the area, it was a treat.

Toraya Japanese Restaurant
890 Massachusetts Ave
Arlington, MA 02474
(781) 641-7477

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bambara at the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge

One taste of Chef Jay Silva's sweet potatoes at the Eat, Drink and Be Fair event and I was intrigued enough to learn more about his cooking at Bambara in Cambridge. So, when an invitation appeared in my "In-Box" to try out his restaurant, I happily agreed.

Bambara is a perfect place for a "date night" for a few reasons. First, it is the apex of convenience. I suspect that like us, most parents have no time to actually shop. So the fact that it is literally attached to the Cambridgeside Galleria can make it a bonus to have a great meal after buying some clothes or gifts. When we arrived on a night with driving rain, we also were thankful for the inexpensive parking garage that makes it simple to find parking in Cambridge.

The restaurant itself has the potential to be pretentious and clubby. It is anything but. Instead, the modern furniture and warm service from our waiter, Mustafa, made us feel welcome.
The curved and plush booth was a romantic twist for my birthday meal, while a chance to have dessert by the open kitchen gave us a chance to chat with Chef Silva.

Mustafa helped to steer us towards drinks that are on their "Cocktails for a Cure" Menu. The Grapefruit Spritzer was crisp and refreshing while the Orange Blossom Fizz had a flowery taste from the St. Germain. We closed the night with a "Morning Daiquiri," which tasted better than the description of rum mixed with orange marmalade!

The Chef treated us to tasting portions of a number of the dishes to give us a sense of his cooking. While he trained at the Newbury College's Culinary Program, he cooked at both the Ritz and Pho Republique. So, he has both French and Asian influences on the menu. Yet he also calls his food "Contemporary American". What I noticed was a menu that had a nice balance of meat, fish and vegetarian options, as well as both small and more substantial options.

We started with two different appetizers. My husband had arancini filled with short ribs.
These risotto balls had the soothing comfort of meatloaf and were a substantial starter.
I enjoyed the arugula salad that was topped with spiced walnuts and fried goat cheese. It was gooey, rich and delicious.

Next, I enjoyed the lobster sliders. These also came with a delicious side of greens.
The buttery rolls could have been a light meal in themselves. What I enjoyed most was the fact that the lobster was warm and wasn't coated with mayonnaise.

Next, my husband had a tasting portion of the pumpkin risotto.
This was a dish that has potential. The pumpkin flesh and seeds added contrast and depth.
However, the balsamic was too acidic for this dish and marred the more soothing flavors. I tried another fall speciality: a spicy squash bisque with coconut milk. Tasting of curry in a bowl, it was warming and filling.
Next, I had the weakest dish of the night: tuna tartare. Perhaps I have been spoiled by other versions, but this would have been stronger if the tuna was chopped less finely (e.g. diced to retain the texture) and with less of the binder.
The best tuna tartare are the most simple, letting the meatiness of the tuna shine through.

However, my husband's main dish was a true success.
First, the skirt steak was cooked perfectly and the accompanying sauce added, rather than detracted from the dish. We couldn't stop eating the "frites."
These french fries are cooked in fresh oil in their own fryer. This means that they were clean and crisp. Yet they were also fried with fresh rosemary, adding a subtle pine to the dish. The slow roasted tomatoes that were served on the side were so good, that they could be the centerpiece of another dish.

My main dish had 3 good elements. The scallops, perhaps due to the Chef's French training, were seared perfectly.
The smoked tomatoes still tasted of summer, despite it being November. The pulled pork was rich and would have been delicious on its own, in say, a pork slider. I never grasped these parts together. Together they lost what made each one good enough on its own.

We ended the meal with two treats. First, we sat aside the open kitchen, giving us a chance to talk with Chef Silva.
We also enjoyed a decadently rich and sweet date cake (or pudding.) The vanilla ice cream from Christina's was as heavenly on its own as it was melting on top of the toffee like dessert.

After a few hours there, we were well fed and relaxed: a perfect feeling at the end of a long week.

Bambara, 25 Edwin H. Land Blvd (the Hotel Marlowe), Cambridge, 617-868-4444

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sweet Basil, Needham

Sweet Basil in Needham is probably one of the most common responses to the question, "What is a great place to eat in the suburbs?" And, in fact, when we were recently choosing a restaurant for my in-laws 50th wedding anniversary (!), over and over, people responded, "Sweet Basil." I had only been there once, 4 years ago. What I remembered was, yes, good food, but also long, long lines as they don't take reservations. And, when you are paying a babysitter, long lines can mean extra cost. Since that time, Sweet Basil doubled in size. But we also got enough tips to figure out how to navigate the wait. Finally, my mom was our wonderful (and free!) babysitter.

We arrived at 5:30 and had no wait at all. We were instantly taken by the kindness of chef and owner, Dave Becker and hostess/girlfriend/photographer, Nina Gallant.
We also were charmed by the little details of the restaurant: the little metal bucket that held the champagne we bought for the occassion (it is BYOB), the occassionally chipped plates, the open kitchen and flowers that were set up around the room.

We were immediately served the wonderful bread and scoop of homemade pesto while Nina helped direct us towards some delicious starters. Nina generously gave us a sample of the fried calamari. They were crisp and light, and the spicy marinara was so good that my father-in-law ate it up with the bread.
The wontons filled with shitakes and avocado were also tasty and set on a bed of salad and served with pineapple salsa.
However, my favorite was the filo wrapped gouda. The gouda oozed out of the crisp sheets, and onto the bread underneath. The dressing, made of balsamic vinegar and truffle oil, added an earthy taste.
Dried apricots and fresh strawberries put another layer of sweetness, without being cloying. Each of these appetizers, priced under $10.00 could easily be a light main dish.

A few points about the main dishes: the portions are enormous and can easily feed two people or one person for two meals. The titles are also deceptive in that a seemingly simple dish is often more complex. Take the homemade cheese ravioli with marinara.
One taste of the sauce made it clear that it was unique. And, in fact, Nina explained that before each portion is served, the chef toasts garlic that is then added to the marinara, along with ample amounts of fresh parsley and basil. These touches are what make this place so good.

My in-laws loved their veal marsala, noting that it was tender and flavorful.
The sauce is made with both marsala wine, port and dried fruit for balance and sweetness. The generous portion was served with pasta on the side.

My seafood stew was delicious. The sauce created from saffron and fennel.

It is normally served with potatoes, but I asked for fresh pasta instead. If you are so lucky, I highly recommend this as the pasta was not only delicious, but was a perfect foil for the sauce.

Sweet Basil doesn't offer desserts. The reality is that you will most likely be too full. But if you still have room, you can head to Abbott's Frozen Custard right next door or gelato down the street.

A few last points. If you do end up waiting in line, it is a congenial atmosphere and you might be lucky enough to be handed a few appetizers by Dave Becker himself. If you enjoy the food enough, you can also purchase the Sweet Basil cookbook (with photographs by Nina Gallant). Finally, and perhaps most importantly-bring cash and, if you are so inclined, drinks. There is a 5.00 fee for the bottle, which still is substantially less than other places.

Sweet Basil, 942 Great Plain Ave, Needham, 781-444-9600

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Best of Many Worlds: The New Rod Dee

I have often extolled the virtues of Rod Dee in Brookline. In fact, my write up of the original Rod Dee was one of my first blog posts. I'd go so far as to say that, along with Pho Viet's, it is my favorite restaurants. The food is so flavorful and complex.

They offer authentic Thai dishes that you would be hard pressed to find in many other restaurants. And it is all offered for a reasonable price. Yet, while I was willing to make the 25 minute trek for such good food, the lack of seating at the original Rod Dee made it difficult to eat at as a family (or even to count on for a date night with my husband.) Thankfully, another location opened in Washington Square at 1671 Beacon Street, just down the street from the other Beacon Street location. This location, titled the "New Rod Dee", offers much more seating and tables! (Unfortunately their 3rd location in the Fenway burned down in and is closed indefinitely.)

Make sure to go to either Rod Dee (rather than ordering off the take-out menu) as each day there are wonderful desserts and appetizers that are served at the counter, such as sweet roti and fresh shrimp rolls.The other reason to order directly at Rod Dee (rather than the take out menu) is due to the hand-written menu behind the counter. While the other dishes (the ones on the English take-out menu) are very good, on the hand-written menu you will find the true Thai dishes. I go further, though, and often ask the staff about options that are not on the English menus. In fact, that is how I discovered a phenomenal chicken dish. At first glance it looked like steamed chicken next to some white rice. However, the chicken was incredibly moist. But the rice was heaven: the chicken had cooked on the rice, permeating the rice with the most delicious taste and smell. To take the dish one step further was one of their amazing sauces. This must have at least 10 different ingredients. It is simultaneously sweet, garlicy, sour, spicy-just amazing. (Ironically, I recently discovered that it you can only get it at the original Rod Dee and just on Thursday.)

The "Roast Pork Thai Style" (listed on the speciality menu) consisted of sweet pork served with sticky rice. The best part was another complex sauce that was served on the side. I also tried the green papaya salad. Be aware that it comes filled with little dried shrimp and is spicier than versions I have had elsewhere.

I have had the Pad Kee Mao many times, and have always loved the crisp vegetables and spicy broccoli, with the contrast of the basil. Pad See Ew is another fabulous noodle dish, with thick rice noodles, broccoli and meat. It is a great option for people that don't enjoy spicy foods.

Asking for recommendations from the staff led me to try "Steamed Roast Pork". What arrived was a plate of tender pork on a plate of rice and covered with sweet sauce. On the side was a boiled egg and a vinegary hot sauce. Mixed together the combination was heavenly. The egg, an unexpected enjoyment, adding a creamy texture.

Under the "Special Rice Plates" is another great dish. Kao Nar Ped, or roasted duck, was similiar in that it sat on a bed of rice, served with a egg and greens. The aroma of five spice powder made the whole dish smell wonderful. While the duck was a bit overcooked, the sauce, a black sweet sauce, was wonderful with the rice.

Another favorite is the Boat Noodle Soup. I love it more for the wonderful broth, than the meatballs. I also recently had a version with big slices of roast pork (along with other porky items) and rolled fresh rice noodles. Again, the broth was full and scented with cilantro. A new favorite soup is the steamed duck with black mushroom. It consisted of homemade broth that was redolent of anise. On top was layered tender roast duck, cilantro, scallions and fried shallots all on a bed of noodles.I ordered the "spicy crispy chicken" and quickly understood why it is one of the most popular on the menu. The chicken is fried and then sauteed with green and red pepper slices.
It is then topped with Thai basil and coated in a sweet sauce. It has precisely that complexity of flavors and textures that defines the best Thai food: spicy, sweet, salty, crunchy, tender.

On another trip, the staff recommended the spicy Pat Pong. It consisted of slivers of bamboo shoots and red peppers with ground chicken, basil and string beans. It was coated in a nose tingling spicy sauce that begged to be followed with gulps of the sweet Thai iced tea.It was cooked at such a high heat that the beans were still crisp while retaining a smoky, earthy char. Another excellent spicy dish is Spicy Pad Thai, with thin rice noodles, peanuts and chilis.
I usually skip the appetizers to save room for the main dishes, but on a recent visit a friend ordered the flaky scallion pancakes:
Next time I may have to try the Bangkok fried rice which consists of 1/2 a marinated chicken with a huge helping of shrimp fried rice or the grilled roast pork that is marinated in a number of spices.

Whichever Rod Dee you choose, I can guarantee a fantastic meal. Or, if like me, you intentionally order enough that people next to you ask, "Is that just for you?", enough meals for a few days. Last point, though, BRING CASH. They don't take credit cards which just keeps the prices lower.

The "New Rod Dee" 1671 Beacon Street Brookline, MA 02445 (617) 738-1455
The other/original "Rod Dee" 1430 Beacon Street Brookline, MA 02446 (617) 738-4977