Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From Pho to Banh Mi in Dorchester

A bowl of pho, or Vietnamese soup, seems to cure most anything. It is as satisfying on a sweltering day as a chilly fall afternoon. I have blogged about my love of the inexpensive bowls of soup at Xinh Xinh in Chinatown and my first love, Pho Viet's at the Super 88. However, for years I have yearned to explore the range of Vietnamese restaurants that line Dorchester Avenue in Dorchester. After a recent food crawl with friend, Ilene, I realized that it was worth the drive and wait.
We parked in the middle of Dorchester Avenue, and began by checking out Banh Mi Ba Le. What I loved was the range of snacks, food and drinks that were completely unfamiliar to me. I could return many times and still have something new to try.
This time, knowing we were headed to a restaurant, I played it safe and we tried their grilled pork Banh Mi. Served on a crispy french roll, the sandwich was layered with pickled vegetables and fish sauce. While it didn't make me swoon like the Banh Mi of Pho Viet's, it was certainly a solid and delicious lunch for about $4.00!
As we headed down Dorchester Avenue, we passed a range of stories with Vietnamese writing, from doctors to grocery stores to a wide range of restaurants. I had heard positive reviews of many places, such as Sunrise, Pho Hoa and Anh Hong. We chose, though, to amble a few feet off of Dorchester Ave to try Pho 2000.
Pho 2000 is as unpretentious as possible, consisting of casual tables and an extensive menu. While Pho 2000 is known for their 7 (!) courses of beef, we kept it simple, ordering Goi Coin (fresh spring rolls) and Pho Ga (or chicken noodle soup.)
The Goi Coin were simple and satisfying. The Pho Ga was clearly made with homemade chicken stock and was served with the range of fresh herbs that make good Vietnamese soups so special.

We left full, but not overly so, with visions of many return visits to this area, if only to compare Pho.

Banh Mi Ba Le, 1052 Dorchester Ave, Boston
Pho 2000, 198 Adams Street
Pho Hoa, 1356 Dorchester Ave, Boston
Anh Hong, 291 Adams Street
Sunrise Restaurant, 1157 Dorchester Ave, Boston

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Lego KidsFest, Part 2: The Event

I appreciate that the folks that run the LEGO KidsFest in Boston gave tickets to my family so that we could attend the event. I have also heard that LEGOLand in California is a fantastic theme park for children. And, as I wrote about in advance of the KidsFest, I think LEGO itself is a fantastic toy for children.

The LEGO KidsFest did have great big LEGO sculptures.
It did have models of local landmarks.
And, yes, there were some LEGOs to play with.
That being said, as multiple commenters to my original blog post have already noted, the LEGO KidsFest in Boston was, quite simply, a disappointment. I remain perplexed, in fact, at how poorly it was run, considering the reputation of LEGO itself. There were thousands of people, barely any LEGO, many advertisers, long lines for everything from a stroller drop off to buying water. It was loud, chaotic, and, even for my own children, boring as they couldn't get close enough to the LEGO tables.
It took over 45 minutes for us to find a person who worked for LEGO KidsFest and could actually answer our questions. She admitted to me that as bad as it was at the afternoon session on Saturday, it was far worse Saturday morning. She also noted that most of the people working at the event were temps that had just been hired!

I had hoped to report on all aspects of the show, but even with my mother's help, it was almost impossible to keep track of my two little boys amongst the throngs of people. The limited LEGO also meant it was a free-for-all at each corner, as kids (and some parents) tried to grab for the blocks. We couldn't even get near the LEGO store as the line wrapped down and back.
The only salvation was the DUPLO corner, where my sons were able to play in relative peace.
That is until a contest began and the loudspeaker was so loud that both my kids started crying and visitors grabbed their heads. Again, I hoped to walk the floor, but I literally couldn't as it was so packed.

And we were lucky: we had brought snacks, while others spent over 30 minutes in line to get something to eat. We also had the ability to leave after an hour, as we hadn't spent the $15 per child to get in!

Needless to say, it is hard for me to even provide constructive criticism here. To make this better would require a space that is 4 to 6 times larger, for the event to have far more trained workers, and hundreds more LEGOs.

Feel free to dissent here. Share other voices of your experience at the show, what they could do to make it better, if you think other parents should go. I will share as many comments as come this way.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The LEGO KidsFest, Part 1: The Excitement

Watching my 4 1/2 year become completely absorbed in his LEGOs is one of those moments in parenthood when I think that maybe his dad and I have actually done something right. I am a teacher. So to see him independently designs rocket ships and cars and trains and houses out of a series of multi-colored blocks makes me feel incredibly proud of him. Even better is the complete joy that he gets out of his creations. He literally woke me up at 6:25 a.m., LEGO contraption in hand, saying, "Mommy, mommy, look what I made." At night he, his brother and I sit quietly in his room, working together to make a LEGO village, a city, a farm.

One of my key memories as a child was playing LEGOs with my younger brother. Like my own son, my brother was incredibly talented and passionate about his LEGOs. And in fact, my children still use my brother's set, now over 30 years old.

The original LEGOs embody the best of a toy. They are incredibly durable. They can be used by any child old enough to know not to eat them. They can be used in 100s of ways. And they cross between fantasy play and art and architecture and back again.

LEGOs have evolved dramatically since I was a child. Michael Chabon wrote a fabulous piece about this in his book, Manhood for Amateurs. So far I have been able to steer my own son away from the LEGO-marketing packets such as those for Toy Story, Harry Potter and Thomas and Friends. But I secretly can't wait for the days when he wants to attempt their new architecture series and recreate Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater or the Guggenheim Museum. The prices have rise just as dramatically, creating an incredibly high demand on Craigslist. I appreciate each friend who has been kind enough to give us a few pieces, helping us to start to create our own set.

When I saw that the LEGO KidsFest was coming to Boston this weekend, my first thought was that I had to take my boys. It is essentially a huge LEGO party, featuring areas to create LEGO creations, to check out other people's LEGO masterworks and to meet LEGO "Master Builders". And although the thought of steering them through the crowds at the Hynes Convention Center is overwhelming, it sounds far easier (and cheaper!) than taking an airplane to the closest Legoland in San Diego, California or trying to save for the new Lego park at Atlantis in the Bahamas. (Not that I would pass on either trip!)
Needless to say, we will be able to attend the LEGO KidsFest here in Boston, thanks to the fact that the LEGO KidsFest is kindly giving me and my sons tickets to see the event for ourselves. Except for a trial show in Hartford, Connecticut last year, this is the first show of a national tour. Based on feedback from the Hartford experience the tickets are timed and limited so that people have as much of an opportunity as possible to enjoy the activities.
And we are so excited: To build LEGO creations; to see LEGO sculptures; to meet Master Builders, to just play.

I will share more after we attend the event on Saturday. (The event continues on Sunday, too.) Until then my kids and I are getting our cameras ready, packing our lunch, and thinking about all we can create.

LEGO KidsFest is at the Hynes Convention Center this Saturday, September 25 and Sunday, September, 26th. For more information, such as hours and how to purchase tickets click here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

'Tis the Season to Enjoy Tomatoes at Bistro 5, West Medford

Summer at the farmer's market bring glorious produce. But as summer fades into fall, New England's gifts arrive. Squash in shades of gold, corn so sweet it could be dessert and tomatoes both lush and vibrant fill the farm and table. At Bistro 5 in West Medford, Chef and Owner, Vittore Ettore embraced this notion by cooking up a creative and delicious Heirloom Tomato Celebration and Dinner at a recent food blogger event. The best part? Chef Ettore created this meal relying heavily on produce from both Kimball and Souluna Farms.
I had never been to Bistro 5, but had heard positive reviews of the Italian food created by Tuscan-born Chef Ettore. In addition to the regular menu, the Chef often features a thematic tasting menu. During the month of September, the theme is Heirloom Tomatoes. That meal may change from week to week depending on the what is available at the local markets.
We began with a tender homemade focaccia, served with a chickpea and basil puree. From there the meal unveiled. Each course featured a different tomato from Kimball Farm, as well as a unique basil from the Soluna Garden Farm in Winchester.
The first course featured a pineapple tomato bisque with plump piece of sweet lobster. Buried in the bowl was a bite of brioche, while the bisque itself was topped with lemon basil and saffron bubbles.
Next, my favorite dish of the night: Copia tomatoes fried with panko and served with Buffalo mozzerella (imported from Italy!) and opal basil pesto. The tomatoes were light and crisp, despite being fried.
The tomato risotto was comfort food at its best. Featuring red brandywine tomatoes, the pink risotto was topped with Leonora goat cheese. A piece of crispy jamon serrano stood in as a rich cracker to scoop up the rice. The most eye opening treat? The lime basil that tasted like lime zest and added an acidic balance to the dish.
This was followed by a duck confit strudel. In many ways this was the most ambitious of the night, featuring 3 separate elements. The strudel itself consisted of duck (a bit oversalted for my taste), wrapped in puff pastry. On the side was an amber dish of tomato brulee! (The Chef explained that it was a transition to our dessert course.) The speckled roman tomato was first smoked and then served brulee style with a thin layer of caramelized sugar and sicilian sea salt. Centered in the plate was a port poached seckle pear with Thai basil. The dish was unexpected, and I returned for many bites, cleaning my plate. Yet my favorite element of this dish was the tiny cubes of Kuri squash that were glistening with a touch of agave syrup. Reminiscent of candy, I can see these at a Thanksgiving table or working to convince children that, yes, squash is delicious.
Our final dish was my least favorite, though that may have been because I had the highest of expectations. Titled "Tomato, Sweet Tomato", it consisted of a tomato napoleon and gelato. The gelato itself, made with cinnamon basil and yogurt would work beautifully on gazpacho. Here it was a bit too savory to connect with the napoleon. The napoleon itself was made up of layers of filo with a mousse made with peach tomatoes (after all, a tomato is a fruit!). I wanted it to work...but the flavors didn't quite gel for me.
That being said, the meal was a delight. Chef Vittorio took the time to explain each course to us. His sense of humor and style made it feel like we were dining in his living room. And the atmosphere of Bistro 5, both warm and playful added to that sense. It was clear that for Chef Vittore, food is a passion and creating it is an artform.
I felt lucky to be invited to attend this dinner, in part because it is always a pleasure to share a meal with other food bloggers. This time, I also enjoyed meeting with Sara Ferguson, manager of the Winchester Farmer's Market. Not only did she help me with my photos (thank you, Sara!), but it was a delight to hear about how she helped to create a Farmer's Market that is clearly a destination for many on a Saturday morning.

So to Bistro 5, I will return: for the food of an ambitious chef, for Tuscan treats and to share this gem with others.

Bistro 5, 5 Playstead Road, West Medford
Soluna Farms, Winchester

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why Every Parent Needs a Good Granola Recipe. Or 5.

I can't remember the last time I bought a box of cereal. Every time I shelled out $4.00, and then opened it to see just a few flakes at the bottom, I rolled my eyes. Instead, I have tried to make breakfast as much as possible. At our house that means homemade pancakes, bagels, breads, muffins and granola. And granola has to be one of those great tricks for parents. In the time it would take me to go to the store, I can prepare granola for a week, and for almost no money.


1. Don't pile too much on a cookie sheet. You want it to brown slightly.

2. Make sure your nuts and seeds are fresh. I have made this mistake and it ruins the whole batch. Just buy them at a place that has a quick turnover, like Trader Joes, and use them soon. Or store them in the freezer.

3. Use a "Silpat" or parchment paper on the bottom of your cookie sheet to make clean up quick and easy.

4. I have read that storing the granola in the freezer keeps it crisp, but I never have room between all the frozen soup and slices of toast.

5. Don't add dried fruit until you are about to eat the granola. It softens the granola.

6. Don't stress if you don't have all the ingredients. I never have coconut and figure I can save a few calories by skipping it. I typically use oatmeal, one type of nut and some spices. If you do use coconut, make sure to use the unsweetened kind. I can only find it at certain Whole Foods and Indian food markets.

7. Salt is key. Don't skip it.

My Favorite Recipes:

Molly Wizenberg's Chocolate Granola at Orangette (I could eat this for breakfast and dessert)

Molly Wizenberg's Everyday Granola at Epicurious/Bon Appetit. This smells so wonderful. I am too cheap to use pecans, but it is another simple recipe.

Mark Bittman's simply and flexible version. The lack of oil may be why it never crisps up enough for me, but it is as healthy as it comes.

Alton Brown's Granola. I am not typically an Alton Brown fan, but I love this granola. Crisp, sweet. I just add a bit more salt.

Maple Granola from the Pioneer Woman. I tweaked it dramatically, substituting canola oil for coconut oil, and leaving out the flaxseeds and coconut. I even substituted honey for part of the maple syrup because honey is, well, cheaper! I also made three times the recipe. Maybe that is why I found myself cooking it for about an hour longer! But once I took it out of the oven and it hardened, it was fantastic. It is sweet and salty, and best of all it has that crunch of the best artisan versions. (It is the one featured at the top of the post.)

Slow Cooker Granola from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker: although this cooked much faster than the recipe indicated (and started to burn), I am convinced that this is a great way to cook granola. If I can transfer any of the above recipes to the slow cooker, I will share it here.

Nigella Lawson's snack/granola bars. These were what I ate all the time when I was pregnant and starving. They are healthy, inexpensive and easy to carry as snacks for kids.

Versions I can't wait to try:

Most Recent?
Renee is our daycare provider/friend/general advice giver, etc. She is also a great cook. She created this recipe. I tried it recently and it is a new favorite. It is light, easy and very adaptable.

1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
½ cup water
4 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
8 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 cups chopped pecans, walnuts, or almonds
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut (not the sweetened stuff)
½ cup unsalted sunflower seeds
½ cup wheat germ, optional

Preheat oven to 275. Line two insulated cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Combine sugar and water in a 4-cup measuring cup or bowl and microwave 5 minutes to dissolve sugar. It will boil over in a smaller container. Remove from microwave and add oil, salt, and vanilla. Place oats, nuts, etc in a large bowl and pour sugar syrup over. Stir to mix. Spread on cookie sheets and bake about an hour until lightly browned. When cooled completely, store in an airtight container.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Mom's Brisket-Our Classic Holiday Meal

About three times a year I grew up eating this brisket. I always enjoyed the tender meat, the flavorful potatoes and the savory sauce. As an adult I have come to appreciate it for all its virtues. Since it tastes best if made 24 hours in advance, it is perfect for company. It uses 5 main ingredients, making it incredibly simple. And finally, if you can find a brisket on sale, it is actually quite economical. Mom: Thanks!

A few additional points: My mother has always made this on the stove top without parchment paper. If you do that, simmer it at the slowest, lowest possible. Putting it in the oven with parchment are my own adaptations. In addition, after I wrote this, I read a number of articles that suggested it is better to leave the lid ajar in the oven. Why? Because by putting the lid on, you raise the heat IN THE POT too high. When you cook a pot roast to fast, it gets tough. The moral of the story: just keep the heat low. And do try to make this a day ahead. It tastes so much better that way.

Mom's Brisket
(I am definitely not a professional recipe writer, so feel free to comment if you have questions or need clarifications!)

4 to 5 pound first cut beef brisket, trimmed of access fat
salt, pepper and paprika
olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 to 2 green peppers, diced
6 to 8 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks (if you use red potatoes, halves may be fine)
1 can tomato sauce
parchment paper

Before you begin, cut a piece of parchment paper that is the same size as your pan or dutch oven.

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.

Dry the brisket with paper towels to help it to brown. Season with salt, pepper and paprika.
Heat the oil over medium heat in a dutch oven or heavy bottom pan. Brown the brisket on all sides. Make sure to brown it well, not moving, for about 4 to 5 minutes a side to get the best sear. Carefully take the brisket out of the pot, and place it in a pan.

If there aren't enough drippings, add a few tablespoons more oil. Saute the onions and green peppers for about 5 minutes until they begin to soften. Take the pan off the heat. Place the potatoes on top. Place the brisket on top of that. Pour the can of tomato sauce on top. Then, fill the can with water and pour the water on top, as well. Place the piece of parchment paper on top, pressing to keep the meat moist. Place a lid on top.

Slide the brisket in the oven and cook for three to four hours until the meat is cooked through. Try to turn it once or twice, making sure to replace the parchment paper and the lid.

When it is done, take the dish out to cool. When it is cool, remove the parchment, cover it with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at 12 to 24 hours. This will tenderize the meat and make it even tastier.

The next day, carefully lift the meat out of the dish. Skim any congealed fat off of the gravy. Then place the pan back in the oven at 350 to warm up the liquid. Cut slices, 1/4 to 1/2 inch, against the grain. When the liquid is warm, place the slices in the pan and set it back in the oven. You don't want to over cook the meat, just to warm it up. I check frequently, though it is usually done in about 15 minutes.