Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Surprise of a Sandwich at A & J King Bakery in Salem

On my way home from a respite in Rockport, I steered off to Salem, hoping to find crusty loaves of bread at A & J King Bakery. And, in fact, I did make it home with a bag full of a heavenly chewy, flavorful pain au levain that I devoured with my sons that night. But what I didn't expect was to be able to sit down for a bit, drinking coffee from Coffee By Design in Portland. I didn't anticipate the tender and crumbly pecan shortbread. And I certainly didn't plan on thoroughly loving my Banh Mi, of all things. Sitting between two pieces of their French bread, lay Niman Ranch's lean smoked ham, coated with homemade mayonnaise and moistened with house-made pickled vegetables. And best of all, the bakery is just close enough to the Peabody Essex Museum to make it a ritual stop on a day trip.

A & J King Bakery, 48 Central Street, Salem, MA

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

To Sit and Enjoy Sushi: Daikanyama, Chestnut Hill

It was one of those days (weeks, really). I needed peace. I need calm. And when I crave that, the food I crave is sushi. I will never tire of the incredible sushi at Oishii. However, the Chestnut Hill location, with its minimal seats, does not lend itself to relaxation. After reading some positive reviews of Daikanyama at the Chestnut Hill Mall, I decided to treat myself. (I had finished a year teaching, after all!). And it was worth it. The restaurant itself is soothing, with soft water fountains and shades of browns and tans. And for just about $20, I had a delicious meal. It began with a treat: a warm towel to clean my hands and face. Then, a small salad. It distinguished itself from others I've had by the selection of field greens and a sweet-sesame enriched dressing. Then, a soothing miso soup, filled with not only tofu and seaweed but small dice of daikon. Next, 3 perfect appetizers. Steamed and chilled broccoli with sesame. Eggplant broiled so perfectly it was silky and sweet, sitting on a lemon slice. And my favorite: pieces of seaweed, almost candied, chewy and sweet. And all this before the sushi and sashmi selection arrived. Salmon, buttery and tender; tuna-filling and sweet; hirame-light and chewy; fresh shrimp and a tuna roll. Finally, the meal closed with sweet bites of pineapple and orange. I left refreshed and satiated, content to have another option for just the meal I needed.

Daikanyama, 199 Boylston Street (Route 9), Chestnut Hill, MA

Monday, June 27, 2011

Rediscovering Rockport at the Emerson Inn By the Sea

My year as a teacher ended and I need a get-away, fast. I wanted a place to write, a place to retreat, some place beautiful and within an hour or so of Boston. I realized, though, that what I wanted most was the ocean. I came to Rockport as a last resort. The Rockport of my childhood memories was full of touristy shops laden with salt water taffy, fudge and identical T-shirts. It was packed with cars and the smell of fresh lobster. But the location fit the bill in so many other ways. And then the kind people at the historic Emerson Inn by the Sea gave me a rate for a room that looked out over their lawn towards the ocean. How could I say no? I couldn't have been happier. Yes, there are the tourist shops, but Rockport also has beautiful art studios, houses from the 1700 and 1800s and charming streets to meander down. For many people, the highlight would be the ocean. For me it is the glorious and majestic granite boulders, garnered from years of local quarrying. Some lay strewn on lawns. Others nestle against the ocean, giving the waves a chance to batter them still. And in June, all this is set against wild green and roses in a multitude of colors. The Emerson Inn itself is set in a neighborhood that offers paths directly to the ocean, with huge rock formations that are perfect for sitting, daydreaming, sketching, writing and reading. Pouring rain kept me from the enjoying the lawn chairs or heated outdoor pool. But I sat outside on their porch, watching the birds dip down into the Atlantic. And at the end of a wet day, the Inn offered me chocolate covered strawberries and chocolate dipped sugar cookies, with tea and coffee. Sitting in their comfortable parlor, still looking out at the ocean and skyline, I rested. At night, my room was perfect. A queen bed. Internet access. A bathtub. Quiet. Breakfast the next morning meant a range of baked goods, fruit, coffee, cereal, pancakes, bacon and a egg souffle. I had hoped to eat on the terrace, but the boundless rain had wet it entirely. Instead, I returned to the main room to sketch, to write, to read.

Emerson Inn By The Sea, 1 Cathedral Ave, Rockport, MA

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Strawberry Feast at Hanson's Farm in Framingham

Just minutes beyond the sprawl of big box stores and chain restaurants is a delightful respite: Hanson's Farm in Framingham. And this past Sunday, my sons and I took advantage of the weather to enjoy warm strawberries fresh from their fields. We crouched in the straw and sought out the "beauties", gorgeous deep red berries. We piled them in our green baskets, glad to finally have the sun and time to pick together. I appreciated that you can drive out to the fields, though a good stroller can get you there as well. There are horses to check out as you enter, Topaz the goat bleating, "Hello" and, if you are lucky, freshly-laid eggs from their Araucana chickens in pale blue. Berries are $2.50 a pound. Hanson's adds $2.00 a picker, but it is free for pickers under 5. Inspired by Hanson's shortcake, I went home to rinse off my now-rose-colored boys, and then I baked. Dorie Greenspan's Baking provided recipes to make a tart and a cake. For the adults (and my food-loving 3 year old), sweet tart dough, covered in pastry cream and topped with lime zest and sliced berries. I also made a simple white cake (Greenspan's "Perfect Party Cake"), to slice with more strawberries. The rest, so delicate, I rinsed, trimmed and froze on cookie sheets for frozen yogurt and ice cream as summer extends. Hanson's Farm, 20 Nixon Road, Framingham

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Second Season, A Second Garden

My sons and I have lived in our home for just over a year. Perhaps we will measure time by our garden. We remember last year as the year of the CUCUMBER. Each day my boys stuffed themselves on long, thin, sweet cucumbers that exploded each day. I couldn't stop popping sweet Sungold tomatoes, finally succumbing to a slow roast that caramelized them, tweaking their taste slightly. The 2010 garden wasn't pretty. But it was successful. And for me it began a love affair with the gardening itself. I fell for the ability to plant and not worry. To know that a weed or a lost plant would not make the world tumble down. Instead I could pick the weed and replace the plant and all would be good.

We planned this year's garden for months. The boys insisted, insisted!, on fruit. So after questioning all the gardeners we knew, as well as the fine staff at Russells in Wayland, we chose a few fruits. First, we planted two blueberry plants in a wide pot. At the suggestion of Russells, we chose a mid- and late-bloom plant, put together to cross pollinate. So far? Ummm...some buds, but we are hopeful.
The strawberries have proven ironic. My sons were devastated when some suburban animal (a rabbit, perhaps) devoured last year's measly crop of 2 strawberries. So, this year we planted one in strawberry planter that sits high on a table, away from hopping bunnies. The other is in planter, overlooking the patio. We had extra plants and I offered them up to our neighbor. They planted the strawberries in flower pots on the other side of the house. As of today? They have about 2 dozen strawberries. We have...well...3! My sons have stayed optimistic and moved our planter to the other side, too, hoping that sun was the factor here. Science at its best. They also planted a honeydew and a cantaloupe because, well, who can resist planting a melon? Our friend Seth brought over blackberry and raspberry cuttings from his yard, but they died, perhaps victims of too much heat and shade, as I am still learning where to plant things.

I let the boys chose the tomatoes and a rainbow emerged: purple, gold, green and red are all sitting, waiting for consistent warmth. I skipped last year's broccoli and traded it for cauliflower. We are also trying to be more careful with carrots which never grew beyond spindly strands.

As for the rest of the garden? It is slow going with a few bright lights. Though the cold weather snagged my first set of basil, I replanted and have plenty for tossing on pasta or grilled pizza. My first batch of arugula and rainbow chard lauded me a few meals, though they recently both died. And we also lost our first set of cucumber plants! I am suspecting that I haven't quite got the hang of how often to water, whether to add some sort of fertilizer and how to manage this jumpy weather. My other irony? As we started our garden I "pruned" some leaves. Luckily, my best friend and gardener galore, Seth, pointed out that actually, I was pruning lettuce! So, the lettuce I planted last year is growing by the glorious handful, perfect for poached eggs and tossed salads. (Seth also bought my son the BEST birthday present: seeds and four pots for him to plant his own beans!)

In the meantime, though, we water. We prune. We eat fresh mint. We wait for radishes, and beets, snow peas and green beans, tomatoes, berries and yes, cucumbers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Let the Steak Grilling (And Eating) Begin: Wusthof Grand Prix II Steak Knives

For many years I was a vegetarian. Yes, this pork-loving, meat-devouring woman was a master of stir-fried tofu and beans. Truth be told, I still love to cook and eat vegetarian meals and they are a central part of my dinner rotations. However, after a recent experience with my grandmother I realized how delicious a good steak could be. You see, my energetic, travel-loving grandmother arrived in Boston for a quick visit and broke her hip. Her hospital stay, while supported by wonderful nurses, did not provide her with her favorite: good food. So, one night I marinated a flank steak, threw it on the grill and packed it up picnic style to bring to her. I hadn't had flank steak since I was a child and it was wonderful. Best of all was the warmth that filled my grandmother's face as she ate it hungrily, proclaiming that it made her feel better.

And thus my love for steak was reborn. Yet after such a long time without meat, I had never actually owned a steak knife. So, I was more than appreciative when the Wusthof company sent me a sample of their new colorful Grand Prix II line of steak knives. I am a big Wusthof fan, relying on my knife set from Crate and Barrel for all my cooking. These beautiful knives from the Grand Prix II line, are a deep red. They are forged from one piece of high carbon steel. And then they sharpen the knives. As in, really sharp. (As in, be careful not to cut yourself sharp!)

So, the key question: how did they do with a good steak? Perfectly. It made any steak seem as tender as butter. In fact they call out for me to head over to my favorite butcher (Dewar's in Wellesley) and keep the red meat coming. The reality for such knives, however, is price. And, the reality: Wusthof Grand Prix II Steak Knives are available for around $160 at stores like William Sonoma. In other words, they may not be on the top of everyone's "must purchase" list. That being said, they are a great gift for a food-lover or a wedding. You can get them in the beautiful cherry red to dress up your table or the basic black.

Disclosure: from time to time I am sent products to review. However, I only blog about those I would recommend to my closest friends and family. In this case, I also thank Wusthof for sending these along.