Monday, May 31, 2010

Our Summer "Cooking School": Momofuku, Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, Zuni Cafe Cookbook and Thomas Keller Galore

I love my day job as a middle school teacher. I do. But truth be told, if I was given a scholarship and a way to support my family for a year while I interned at a great restaurant like Hugo's in Portland, Craigie on Main or Salts in Cambridge, or Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, I would go. In a heart beat. But no one has yet made the offer.

Luckily, though, I have found a friend who gets this dream. And it is a friend who is a teacher, meaning we both have the summer off. And while neither of us are big fans of a certain blogger who cooked her way through cookbooks, we both got the idea that certain cookbooks are culinary schools of sorts. So, after some debating, we deciding that we wanted to spend the summer improving our skills, particularly of French techniques and Chinese cooking. I had recently bought Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin Lei-Fo, which was precisely the kind of book we wanted to find. Set up as a cooking course, it is a complex and rich book, full of Yin Lei-Fo's directives.

Kiersten, my co-cook, had just bought the Momofuku cookbook. As soon as I started reading it I was in love with David Chang's tongue in cheek writing, as well his sophisticated and savvy sense of food. So, that quickly became our second book.

We struggled more with the French side. We are both huge fans of Molly Wizenberg of the blog Orangette, and her book, A Homemade Life. She often refers to Judy Rogers's Zuni Cafe Cookbook, so we knew that had to be another choice. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook offers precise, time consuming recipes that are perfect with a summer off, but many of her ingredients are expensive so we knew that we couldn't lean on it too heavily. Kiersten owns Thomas Keller's books, so we added them as well. And sure, the obvious choice is Julia, but her books didn't quite get us where we wanted to be.

Our goal is not to cook all the recipes. We aren't going for an award or blog style. It is simply to become better cooks, to learn more about the rich world of cooking, to have fun and of course, to eat well.

So, over the next few months, you will see and read about our attempts. My hope is that by including photographs, especially of the ingredients, their recipes will be that much less intimidating. Feel free to chime in with other books or recipes to try. And in the meantime, friends-make sure and be hungry when you stop by!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Exploring SOWA: A Trifecta of Great Grocery Stores

As much as I loved checking out the SOWA arts fair, let's be honest here, I really went for the great food in the SOWA (South of Washington Street) area. In a few block radius are 3 of my favorite grocery stores, and they couldn't be more different from one another.
South End Fromaggio is my hand's down favorite for gourmet products in Boston. I never get bored of checking out the speciality meats, jams, honey, cheeses and beans from around the world. Each item is the best of its kind, and they are priced accordingly. That being said, I got a delicious package of sardines from Spain for only $3.95. I also made a delicious dinner of some slices of Serrano ham, Surrey Farms Berkshire Bacon and some Italian Robiola cheese for under $20.
I haven't yet had a chance to cook up my Rancho Gordo beans, but I know they will be as tasty as everything else I can buy here. Finally, the knowledgeable staff alone makes this Fromaggios worth a visit.

Next door is another gem: The Syrian Grocery Importing Company. This store is packed full of products from the Mediterranean. You can find a range of olive oils, vinegars, olives, spices and sauces.
What makes this place so unique, though, is that many are remarkably affordable. I am a fan of the "Roland" brand, which packages high end products under their name. For example, I use their garlic oil on rice or pasta. But they also have items from Greece, Syria and Lebanon.
You can also buy a variety of kitchen supplies, including some great tea pots.
This store doesn't even have a website, which makes it that much more worth a visit.

My last stop on this culinary adventure was Ming's Supermarket. It is just as unassuming. Located almost directly across from Myers and Chang and just down the street from the C-Mart store, you would never realize how enormous this store is from the outside. But once inside, it is otherworldly.
It has hundreds of types of noodles, fish, dumplings, woks, soy sauces, teas, beans, dried fruits and so much more. Unlike C-Mart, which focuses on Chinese products or H-Mart that is a Korean chain, Ming's offers items from China, Korea, Indonesia, the Phillipines, Thailand, Japan and Malaysia. Be aware that most of the workers don't speak English. Most items though are labeled well enough that I was able to avoid dumplings with MSG (which included, well, all of them!), but I wasn't able to figure out one Korean sauce from another.
In the past I have found it helpful to bring cookbooks (such as those of Fuchsia Dunlop or Eileen Yin-Fei Lo) that actually write out ingredients in Chinese or Korean, etc. Ming's is also incredibly inexpensive, making it easy to stock up on hoisin sauce, fresh ramen noodles, chopsticks for my kids, 3 kinds of soy sauce and wonton wrappers for making dumplings at home.

South End Fromaggio, 288 Shawmut Street, Boston, 617-350-6996
Syrian Grocery Importing Company, 270 Shawmut Street, Boston, 617-426-1458
Ming's Supermarket, 1102 Washington Street, Boston, (617) 338-1588

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Miss SOWA-The Arts, The Food, the Free Parking

The Art Studio of Joanne Tarlin
Before children, one of my favorite past times was to go to Open Studios. Held everywhere from Jamaica Plain to Dorchester, Cambridgeport, Brookline, Newton to the South End, Open Studios offer a chance to see artists at work, to see a greater range of their art and to talk to the artists themselves. When my kids were babies, it was easy to put them into slings and backpacks. But as soon as they could walk, Open Studios felt out of the question. I was just too fearful of my son crashing into elegant glass work, smooshed Cherrios on paints or fingerprints on an oil painting.
This past Saturday when my boys were with their dad, I was able to head back into the world of art. And I picked well, as it was the opening weekend for SOWA Sundays. SOWA is the acronym for South of Washington Street-a previously lesser known section of the South End. From now until October, each Sunday from 10 to 4, you can head to SOWA, have free parking (!) and explore.
I started at the SOWA Open Market. An outdoor crafts and food fair, there was a glorious range of handicrafts and arts. I loved the colorful products for children, the handcrafted jewelry, reprinted vintage photos and ceramics.
I was particularly impressed with the adorable plush toys of Zooguu, the reprinted 19th century photos and the adorable children's clothing. What made me happiest, though, was that one of my favorite artists, Mike Bryce was there. The irony? I had almost headed to Providence that day to buy his work at the Rhode Island Farmer's Market/ Open Studios. Instead, by the end of the day, I had purchased my first 3 oil paintings from him, which now grace my new apartment. (**Added note: if you want to see more of his paintings, click on my "Rhode Island" link here. You will see images at his studio. You can also check out his website here. Finally, you can e-mail Mike directly to double check that he will be at SOWA on Sunday and Providence on Saturday. His address is
There are also a few great food stands. I stopped to talk to David Gilson of the Herb Lyceum. (His son is the talented Wil Gilson of Garden at the Cellar). He was kind enough to treat me to a jar of their Orange, Lavender Buttermilk dressing. There are also soups, in flavors such as pea and mint or carrot cardamom whipped up by Chef Paul Callahan.
Then, next was Silverbrook Farm from Dartmouth. They had both cattails (which they said taste like mild scallions), and eggs that came in shades of blues, greys and speckled browns.
The eggs themselves cooked up into golden, soft scrambles that my son and I have eaten for breakfast each day this week. Both the Danish Pastry House and When Pigs Fly offered samples of their tempting sweet products.

At the entrance, there was a SOWA Food and Produce Market that was pretty...unimpressive. Perhaps it will improve as the Farmer's Market Season kicks in.

Next door was the SOWA Antiques Market, which features antique and vintage jewelry, furniture and clothes.
One of the best parts of this past weekend (May 15th and 16th), was that it included the SOWA Arts Walk. During this time, the artists also opened their studios to meet the artists and to see their work.
My favorite building continues to be at 450 Harrison Avenue. I always check out the photographs of Debby Kirm, but it is the chance to see so much art in its space of origin that is so exciting. Don't worry if you missed it, as the studios of the South End Artists will be open on Friday evenings, from 5 to 9 on June 4th, July 2nd and August 6th.

SOWA Sundays, 540 Harrison Avenue, May through October 25th, 10 to 4.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chocolate Buttermilk Cake By Dessert

For better or worse, these days baking has become my respite. And that means that on weekends I bake bread and during the week I often find myself cooking sweet breads and cakes. I try to keep the amount of sugar that my kids eat and the amount of fat to a minimum. So, buttermilk has become an essential ingredient for adding moistness without too much fat. One night last week I just HAD to have chocolate cake. I found the recipe below and literally made it in minutes. Other websites note that you can even make this cake directly in your cake pan for minimal clean up. The end result: a moist, chocolate cake that wasn't too sweet or too rich. More importantly, it was so quick and easy that this will be my new go-to recipe for potlucks, birthdays and nights that chocolate cravings strike.

Chocolate Buttermilk Cake (adapted from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook)

1 2/3 cup flour (I suspect you could use white whole wheat flour here, too. I love the King Arthur brand)

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup cocoa (the better the cocoa, the better the cake)

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup buttermilk, well-shaken

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 tsp vanilla

(walnuts, toasted and cooled or chocolate chips, optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and lightly flour two 8 inch round cake pans or one 9 x 13 baking dish. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl. Mix the buttermilk, oil, and vanilla in another bowl. Mix the dry and liquid ingredients together until smooth. Add in the optional nuts or chocolate chips. Spread in the pans.

Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes for the small round pans, and about 35 to 45 minutes if using the large pan. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes in the pan before turning out onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Whole Wheat Banana Muffins

I have never been a fan of whole wheat muffins. They are usually too tough, or not sweet enough, or too...well, grainy. And because I am a bit of a banana purist, once there is the slightest bit of brown, I just toss them in the freezer. So, inevitably frozen bananas fall on my head when I open up the freezer.

My kids asked for muffins this weekend, and on Saturday mornings, I am always happy to oblige.

I was inspired by Smitten Kitchen's riff on King Arthur's Whole Wheat Muffins, as well as those from Mark Bittman at the New York Times. Both of these recipes were easy, and used fruit, but they used a full stick of butter. In an attempt to make these healthy, I also checked out this recipe from Simply Recipes. Elise uses less butter, but white flour. She also throws in a bit of coffee, which balances out the sweetness of the bananas. So, throw these 3 recipes in the air, and I ended up with this.

In terms of the frozen bananas, I just toss as many as I need in a microwaveable safe bowl and defrost them for a few minutes. I ease them out of their skins, making sure that the "juice" gets into the bowl as well.

**I fixed the recipe below based on a reader's suggestion. I always use King Arthur white whole wheat flour. Just using whole wheat flour can make for very dense muffins. Or you can mix regular whole wheat and white flour together.

Whole Wheat Banana Muffins


3 or 4 ripe bananas, smashed (or frozen bananas, defrosted)
1/3 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 Tbsp espresso or strong coffee (optional)
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups of either King Arthur's White Whole Wheat Flour (OR 1 1/2 cups of white flour and 1 cup of wheat flour, mixed)

1 Preheat the oven to 350°F. With a wooden spoon, mix butter into the mashed bananas in a large mixing bowl.

2 Mix in the sugar, egg, espresso and vanilla.

3 Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in.

4 Add the flour, mix until it is just incorporated.

5 Pour mixture into a prepared muffin tin. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin. If it comes out clean, it's done. Cool on a rack.

Makes 12 muffins.