Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More Favorites, As Of Late

Blood, Bones & Butter
This long winter eased into a cool spring. And while at times that constant grey, snow and cold was numbing, it also gave me a chance to huddle in, to cook, to read, to listen. Here are some of my loves as of late:

The eloquence, subtle humor, honesty and beauty of Gabrielle Hamilton's writing in Blood, Bones and Butter. Let's just say I am dying to try her restaurant Prune in New York City. And, I confess, to meet her! Groupie, I am.

The fact that every.single.recipe is absolutely delicious in Dorie Greenspan's Baking. I know I am late to discover this gem. Ironically, after I swooned over Around My French Table, I realized that Baking was the first to use her fantastic format: dozens of recipes, with even more variations. Her recipes are so clear, so easy and just so yummy.

The writing of Nigel Slater. Slater is another writer I would love to emulate. His voice is so calming and reassuring as he suggests ways to grow and prepare vegetables, to enjoy simple meals and just to be.

The Leite's Culinaria "Authors' Answers" Podcasts. I have long been a fan of the amazing site, Leite's Culinaria. It fulfills two roles for me: access to great recipes and to glorious writing. Yet, somehow I missed these podcasts. Here David Leite interviews authors such as Melissa Clark, Joanne Chang, Dorie Greenspan and Amanada Hesser. Not only do you get a chance to discover these authors but to find out how a cookbook evolves. Listening to this is a joy.
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The writing of Melissa Clark. I have written before about the thrill of discovering her broccoli and shrimp dish. Roasted in the oven, dinner is ready in minutes. While I had enjoyed the sweet crispness of roasted cauliflower, roasted broccoli is good, too. But the revelation in the recipe is the use of coriander and lemon zest. With that combination the other flavors sparkle. And each week in her New York Times column, Ms. Clark provides a backdrop for her thinking and a lovely recipe that I am dying to cook. I have also loved having many of those recipe (and more) in her delightful book, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. The recipes aren't complicated, but the resulting dishes sing with flavor. The stories, too, support her strength as a writer.

Mario Batali's cookbook, Molto Gusto. As I wrote about here, I am not a huge celebrity chef fan. But this cookbook, which focuses on his restaurant Otto, centers on simple preparations and many are focused on vegetables. Rather than covering, say, cauliflower with cheese sauce, you top it with sliced olives and serve it warm. I am always looking for more ways to honor the vegetable, while taking a new twist, on, say, brussel sprouts. This also has many pizza recipes which could be done on the grill. But my secret fav? His recipe for olive oil ice cream from Otto, one of the most memorable desserts I have had!

Cafe Pajaro coffee from Trader Joe's. While I would love to always get coffee from local roasters like Karma in Sudbury, I can stock up on dark, rich Pajaro for those mornings that I need coffee. NOW.

High Lawn butter. After a great Spilled Milk podcast that covered butter, I, too tried to find a local sweet butter for topping my bread. High Lawn uses Jersey cows, known for their rich milk and cream. This butter is a lovely and deep yellow. It is sweet and wonderful topped with Maldon salt flakes.

Maldon Salt Flakes. Okay, I get that I am really late to this party. But these crunchy gems are a revelation on top of butter and bread, polenta, vegetables and, well, anything. They are worth the price.

The way my son, 5 years old, loves "popping peas." He sits with a huge bag of English peas from Russo's and devours them. One of those moments that I can actually take pride in my mom skills!

And you, readers? Any things that you are a cravin' right now?

Monday, May 30, 2011

"Mom, I am HUNGRY!": Sargento Cheese Fridge Packs

I know I am not the only parent that is hit with demands of starvation in the time between arriving home and dinner. Ironically, when my goal is to put some fresh vegetables and healthy meal on the table for dinner, I can't prepare a good snack. So, I am always looking for easy healthy options that the kids can eat. I also, though, care that they learn to make healthy choices independently, so I love when snack is something my sons can chose themselves. For the most part this means yogurt, which they love but still is loaded with sugar. And my peanut allergic child eliminates the standard peanut butter based snacks. Cheese sticks, though, fill this role beautifully. The protein fills up the kids, they can grab it themselves and, voila, instant calm. So, when Mom Central Consulting asked for some volunteers to try Sargento's new Fridge Packs, I easily jumped on the bandwagon. While, honestly, I prefer to go organic, the price, especially of organic cheese, can be prohibitive.

Three huge boxes of cheese sticks in 3 varieties: Mild Cheddar Cheese, Light String Cheese and Colby-Jack arrived in the mail. The selling point? That for around $6.99, you get 18 string cheeses in a stand up pack. Initially I was ambivalent about this. First, from an environmental perspective, I am always skeptical of more packaging.
But truth be told, those boxes do make it easier for my kids to find the box of cheese behind the plums, peaches, snap peas and jars of jam that easily take over the frig. Overall, the Colby-Jack was a bit strong for a few tasters under age seven, but my cheese-obsessed 3 year old nibbled his up quickly.

So, the verdict? The cheese is tasty. While not organic or local, it isn't processed and is easily available at the supermarket. So, will I buy the frig pack in the future? Probably not but only for my hesitancy about extra packaging. But will I buy more Sargento cheese sticks? Yup. For more info about their products, just click here.

Now, the full disclosure: I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of Sargento and received product samples and a promotional item to thank me for taking the time to participate. For more info about Mom Central Consulting, click here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Rolling The Lumpia: Filipino Spring Rolls

My dear friend, Alyssa, wears many hats. She is a wonderful mother, teacher, friend, and despite her insistence, a terrific cook. And one of her specialities are her Lumpia, or Filipino Spring Rolls. Her recipe, in turn, comes directly from her mother, Gloria Andrada. As Alyssa told me, each family has their own recipe for Lumpia. But I know this, her Lumpia are just delicious. And on a recent night, as we shared stories over Lumpia wrappers, Alyssa shared her family's own version. In fact, she shared two styles: a chicken filling and one, with chicken and vegetables.
Lumpia Filling #1: Chicken

1 lb ground chicken
1/2 cup diced onions
4 garlic cloves, diced
1 can diced water chestnuts
2 eggs
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and chopped
salt and pepper
1-2 Tbs soy sauce

Mix all the ingredients together and put into the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

Filling #2: Chicken and Vegetable
1 pound ground chicken
1/2 cup chopped onions
4 cloves chopped garlic
1 russet potato, chopped
1 packaged frozen mixed vegetables
1-2 fish sauce

Saute the chicken and vegetables over medium heat until just cooked through. Add just enough fish sauce to create balance without making the mixture too salty. Let cool for a few minutes.

To Create the Lumpia:

1 package Lumpia wrappers
water mixed with cornstarch

For the chicken Lumpia, cut the wrappers diagonally to make triangles.
Place about a teaspoon of filling diagnolly on the wrapper.
Fold each corner over.
Then roll up. Finally, put a dab of water on the final triangle to seal the Lumpia.

For the chicken and vegetable Lumpia, do the same, but use the whole square Lumpia.

As you seal them, place them spaced slightly apart on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper. Put them in the freezer for about 30 to 60 minutes until they are just frozen solid. Put in freezer bags until ready to cook.

To Cook

Heat up canola oil in a deep pan until it reaches about 350 degrees. (At that temperature, when you put the Lumpia in the oil, they should sizzle immediately). Put the frozen lumpia in for about 7 to 8 minutes making sure not to crowd them. Put in a colander to drain, ideally standing up and serve immediately.

You can serve with sweet chili sauce (Mae Ploy is a good brand that is readily available at supermarkets.) However, Alyssa recommends serving them with Vinegar Sauce. To make it, mix Vinegar (ideally Filipino Spicy Vinegar such as Datu Puti brand), salt, pepper, minced garlic. Super Filipino secret: make a slit in the vegetable lumpia and pour the vinegar sauce on top!)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Indian Feast

For years I headed over to Rangoli in Brighton to enjoy their plate-sized rolled dosas. These morsels were far better than what I was used to: the luncheon buffets heaving with greasy pakoras, cream-laden saag paneer and wilting iceberg lettuce. The truth is that I have struggled to find Indian restaurants that reflect the true complexity of the food.

During a recent family reunion in Florida of all places, I had a chance to have an opportunity that reinforced my understanding that so much of my Indian food experiences are stereotypical at best. I also had one of my favorite cooking opportunities of the year. Because, as the ironic case may be, my second cousins are, in fact, Indian. And so, as I looked on, my cousins created a feast, Punjabi Jain style. (All the lovely photographs here are by my uncle, Brian Richards. He also creates gorgeous panoramic photos. You can view his photographs here.)

Sanjay and Winnie cook together each Sunday. And their nephew Akshay had joined us from Chicago, trained in his mother’s own style of cooking. Thus, to watch them all cook together was to watch a comical and occasional clash of food training. For example, Aksahy insisted on using one technique for creating the bread dough while Winnie jumped in with another version. (In the meantime they tried their best, and failed, to teach me the proper mixing, rolling and folding methods necessary to create the roti-style breads!) All I know is that the final meal was fabulous.

We started with crispy and warm pakoras or fritters made of spinach, onion and gram flour. I was captivated by this flour which is made from ground chickpeas. I have used it unsuccessfully for French soccas and love the idea of this protein rich flour. Here it was nutty and moist. I loved the second version of the batter as Sanjay cooked it into a pancake in a skillet.

Akshay explained that the resulting bread was a cross between between pronti and fulka (also known as phulka or pulka). These were made simply with whole wheat flour and water. The truth is that I have only known chapatti and paratha. I loved how easily these came together and how healthy they are. I also adored watching Akshay and Winnie try to find a compromise on exactly how they should be cooked. My younger cousins Natasha and Keitan also made sure I knew just how to use the bread to scoop up my meal instead of using a fork.

One of my favorite dishes was Sanjay’s okra. This is one of those dishes that would dispel any idea of okra being a slimey vegetable. He began by heating a non-stick skillet on high heat. Then he seared the okra until it was dry and almost burnt. He addedred chilies, coriander, garam masala, onions and scallions. Finally, off the heat he topped it with a wonderful spice: anardana powder, otherwise known as powdered pomegranate seeds! It added a spicy-sour taste to the vegetable.

His mushrooms were just as wonderful. This time he began by heating sautéing chopped red onions. He added chana masala (a spice mixture). Then he added sliced mushrooms and sautéed them til they were just seared. He added more onions until they cooked down. And, as a final touch, a few more red onions, barely cooked to retain their bite.

His potatoes would put any hash browns to shame. Somehow, despite the limited kitchenware in our rental house he managed to cook the cubed potatoes until they were deliciously crisp and crunchy on the outside, but soft inside. Again, they were sautéed with the chana masala giving them an aromatic taste and smell.

Sajay used a tomato base for two dishes. He pureed tomato paste, fresh tomatoes, red onions and chilis in the blender. He cooked the sauce down and put chick peas in half, creating of my other favorite dish: chole.

Winnie made homemade paneer or cheese by heating up 2% milk just until it was boiling. She slowly poured in lemon juice until it curdled and then drained it in cheesecloth until it was firm. Cubed and placed in the same tomato base it was unrecognizable, but just as delicious as the chana fraternal twin. The only difference-Sanjay added whole milk to create a creamy sauce.

Finally, basmati rice, rinsed and cooked with tumeric and two cloves to give it a sublte glowing color and scent. More importantly, Akshay and Winnie finally taught me how to properly say the name of this aromatic rice: bas’ma-thi.

It is a rare treat to be able to eat truly homecooked, regional food. It is far more special when you get to eat it with family you see too infrequently. So I thank my cousins for bringing us all around the table, to break roti together.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Making Our Way off Marco to the Little Bar

Before heading down to Marco Island in Florida, I did my standard research to find the best can't-be-missed-Roadfood-style-destination restaurants. The only place that seemed to get more than a mediocre rating was the Little Bar in Goodland, which, ironically, isn't on Marco Island after all! And, in fact, the Little Bar was the bright light among a number of subpar meals out. (My cousins' Indian feast was far better than anywhere we could eat.)
Goodland is just minutes from Marco and the restaurant sits along a canal, providing a chance to see a pelican fly by. We indulged in all things seafood, beginning with our favorites, the poorly named, "Grouper Balls!" Consisting of grouper meat, eggs, and cajun spices they were deep fried and served with a cajun-spiced sauce. We continued our fried food foray with fried calamari, served with the ubiquitious marinara sauce, as well as conch fritters. Conch, a chewy shellfish, was mixed with flour and eggs creating a doughy mass.My vegetarian cousins took advantage of their housemade (skin on) french fries, sweet potato fries, fried onion rings and fried mozzarella.
My brother and I changed course with bowls of conch chowder. This red soup is similar to Long Island clam chowder: a tomato base with thyme, oregano, a red pepper kick and chunks of chewy conch. It was good, though the conch was a bit overdone.
The best part? The waitress, with our contented approval poured a dollop of sherry into the bowl. My cousin had a wonderful vegetarian soup: their flavorful black bean. My aunt enjoyed their cold asparagus salad while my sister-in-law tried the rich, sweet stone crabs for the first time. I loved their smoked amberjack spread, consisting of house smoked fish in a creamy sauce.
For dessert, a trio of pies: chocolate peanut butter, key lime and chocolate mousse. The key lime was a more chiffon style (lightened with gelatin, perhaps) and wasn't my favorite. However, the chocolate peanut butter, as rich as a cheesecake, had us waging fork wars for the last biteful.

The atmosphere was casual and relaxed and our waitress was warm and friendly. The menu (offered up on a white board), offers more sandwiches at lunch and full dishes, such as prime rib at dinner.

Little Bar Restaurant, Goodland, Florida, 239-394-5663

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pear Buttermilk Spice Cake

When I am deciding what to make for dinner, I ask my virtual "friends" (otherwise known as authors of the food blogs that I read so obsessively). I often turn to Molly, whose honesty and humor and photos are always as worth it as her recipes. Recent hits included her homemade marshmallows, and fresh ginger muffins. Luisa led me to Melissa's great recipe for shrimp that you mix with the most marvelous mixture of cumin, coriander, lemon zest and roast with brocolli. I made it with tofu and was in heaven. But Deb leads me most days, especially now that she is also raising a young son. And with her suggestion, I created a twist to her pear cake. It sounded lovely, but I always try to fake myself out by adding white whole wheat flour to baked goods to pretend they are healthier. In that vein, I swapped out some oil for buttermilk. Then, in my new apartment without a box grater (!), I pureed some pear and chopped the rest. Finally, I amped up the spices and reduced the sugar. The result? An apartment that smelled divine and a cake that was so very good.

Pear Buttermilk Spice Cake, adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2 1/2 cups white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat or white whole wheat flour (I love King Arthur Brand)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 Tbs ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp of each: ground ginger, allspice, cardamom, cloves
1/2 cup vegetable oil (or an olive oil/vegetable oil mixture)
1/4 cup buttermilk
3 eggs beaten
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2-4 pears
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 350 and grease and flour 2 9x5 inch loaf pans or a 10 inch tube pan. Mix the flours, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices in a mixing bowl Peel, core and grate or chop the pears so that you have 2 cups total. In another bowl, mix the oil, buttermilk, eggs, sugar, pears and vanilla. Mix this into the dry ingredients. Pour into pans and bake at 350 for 60 to 70 minutes until brown. Cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then remove from pans and cool on a cooling rack.

Store, lightly wrapped in plastic. It is even better on the second day...or third.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sharing a Meal at Journeyman

In a non-descript alleyway in the center of Union Square, my dining companions and I opened a large door to reveal the perfect box of a restaurant. We sat at the bar. We ate wonderful food. We talked. And we emerged happy and content 3 hours later, analyzing which was our favorite bite amongst all the lovely things we ate. Thus was the pleasure of discovering Journeyman in Somerville.Truth be told, I was, initially a bit ambivalent about eating at Journeyman. Though I wanted to support the work of 3 aspiring young people who went out on a limb and started their own restaurant, I had read many lopsided reviews. But the more I dove into the varied views, the more I realized that Journeyman might be just the kind of restaurant I love. And, in fact, I was smitten. Journeyman's concept isn't for everyone. But I went with the ideal dates: two friends who love food and appreciate the art of good food. We sat at the bar, giving us front seats to watch directly into the focus of the chefs. Instead of a menu, Journeyman presented us with a choice of 3 tasting menus: 3, 5 or 7 course, meat or vegetarian. Between the 3 of us, we created the perfect meal: a 5 course vegetarian, a 5 course "omnivore" and a plate of house made charcuterie.

For me there is such pleasure in giving over to the whims of a good chef. And we were happy from our first amuse-bouche: white beans with herbs, confit veal tongue and light-as-air gougeres made with gruyere. And I enjoyed my "Vaccaro", a perfectly tart mix of Ethereal Gin, Aperol and Cocchi Americano. We ate this with homemade rye breads, one sourdough and the other with caraway. One of our favorite dishes of the night was the silky fois gras terrine served as part of our charcuterie platter. Next, we enjoyed the earthy liverwurst and the rougher, but just as tender squab pate. Finally, the miso pork rillettes, perfect for spreading on bread and eating with a German walnut-mint mustard.
Our first "official course" reflected what I loved most about Journeyman. It was a warm salad, that both inspired by sense of salad and how to cook. Instead of a standard plate of greens, they offered perfectly cooked seasonal vegetables artistically arranged on a plate. We enjoyed golden yellow beets, pickled watermelon radish, fresh fava beans, tender Thumbalina carrots, pea tendrils, potato puree and a warm wheat pilaf. On top, deep-fried quinoa replaced croutons. They were graced with herbs, cut right from the garden that lay against the window boxes directly in the main dining area.
Next, another treat that, I can promise tasted far better than it sounds: a roasted carrot soup with a nicoise olive and chocolate ganache. Fried snow peas and more pea tendrils draped on top. I am not a fan of cooked carrots, but one spoonful of the carrot soup eaten with the olive-chocolate mixture was just this side of dessert. It was fruity, delicate, deep.
On the meat side, a dish that was just as good: a Pig's Head torchon with panko on a sauce gribiche and a raspberry-rhubarb mostarda. I dove, though, right into the tender morel. I could have eaten those alone all night.

We then enjoyed braised artichokes that were lightened by a vinegar reduction. Again, I fell for the maiitake mushrooms that were on the side, though the polenta was perfectly cooked. I never quite "got" the addition of the parmesean coated popcorn, though it was tasty.

The meat course this time: a duck confit that made my dining companions swoon. We were more ambivalent about the Parisian gnocchi which weren't quite light enough to merit our admiration.
Our mains were the weaker part of the night, though still then, each dish had an asset. I enjoyed the homemade canelloni which were brightened by the addition of lemon zest to the fresh ricotta filling. While I could have skipped the pea tendrils, I loved the spring composite of salsify, peas, favas, celeriac and kholrabi.
The meat dish consisted of a large chunk of smoked pork shoulder that was too dry, too heavy. It missed, in many ways, the joys of the other dishes. However, the fresh corn pudding that decorated the side was sweet and creamy.
We were easily turned again by the whole concept of a "Pre-Dessert." This time it consisted of a sliver of goat cheese cheesecake topped with a sweet and creamy fresh corn sorbet.
Our main dessert took the best of the season, rhubarb and transformed it four ways. I adore rhubarb but stick to compote. Here, it was served macerated in raspberry juice and elderflower, highlighting the vegetal taste of the fruit. The beignet (I had idealized visions of it being warm) was tender and filled with rhubarb jam. What I loved most was the delicate and tart rhubarb-hibiscus sorbet . The rooibos-panna cotta was elegant in look and taste-a chai like cream topped with rosy rhubarb syrup.

But the meal wasn't over. Journeyman treated us to 3 last bites: a chocolate biscuit, a rose hip topped butter cookie and an airy and heavenly homemade Campari marshmallow. As the meal ended, we talked about the pleasure of Journeyman. The staff was excellent. Meg, in particular took the time to patiently explain each dish and to make sure we were content. The intimate restaurant was calm enough to allow us to have conversation and hear one another without yelling over background noise. And each dish surprised and delighted us in different ways. No, Journeyman may not be for everyone. But we will be back. I know that another evening, another season will bring another round of wonderful food in a warm atmosphere.
Journeyman, 9 Sanborn Court, Somerville, 617-718-2333