Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cantaloupe and Prosciutto: A Perfect Pair

We've all had it before: pieces of melon wrapped in paper-thin slices of proscuitto. The salty-sweet combo is almost perfect. Almost.

Throw in a little bitter, in the form of arugula, and top with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a well-rounded - and filling - salad.

And I don't know how they do it, but Wilson's Farm has the BEST arugula in the state. So much tastier than anything you can get at the market. Too bad I only get out that way once in a while now...

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Athan's, Washington Square

Sunday morning, it was drizzling out, and I had the apartment to myself. I spent the morning reading (all of Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby? by Allyson Beatrice, then starting Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, an anthology of food writing about eating alone) before succumbing to hunger. A quick prowl of the shelves proved that there was nothing bordering on edible in the house. Right then and there, the day planned itself out for me: find something to eat and go grocery shopping.

My first thought was Athan's in Washington Square. The day before, I bought some florentine cookies, which are pictured below, for a party. While I was in there trying to decide, I noticed too many tempting items.

When I walked in, the small front room, filled with display cases and the register, was busy. I really wanted a pastry (the apricot and almond struedel looked especially enticing), but I knew I needed something a little more meal-like. The cafe has a small sandwich menu... I was all ready for the roasted veggie wrap when I spotted two of the sweetest words not in the English language - brie panino.

I ordered and took a seat at the bar in the crowded dining room. It took a while for the sandwich to be delivered, but I forgot all about it when I took the first bite. The cheese was gooey, almost liquid, against an extra-crispy ciabatta bread. The pungent sweetness of the brie was offset by ripe tomatoes and zesty basil, a nice play on the more typical tomato-mozzarella-basil sandwich.

Another sweet surprise came on the drink menu - Nescafe frappe. The owners of Athan's are Greek, which is shown primarily through the large display of various baklava and galaktoboureko, but also through offering Nescafe frappe. This drink, made from instant coffee and milk, is available everywhere in Greece. It does not contain ice cream, like a Boston frappe, and is pronouced frap-PAY. It's the lovechild of iced coffee and a frothy latte, sweet but with a little bitter bite and much tastier than anything you'll find at Starbucks. I know I'll be back, if for no other reason than to order a frappe again.

Thus filled with cheese and coffee (and bolstered by some more reading time), I headed out for a 3-market grocery tour of Allston-Brighton and Brookline. I am now better prepared for the next time I'm home alone and starved.

The florentine cookies, also from Athan's, were a replacement for cherry tarts that failed. I needed something to bring to a party, and these looked delicious. (Of course, I also bought some for myself). They are, from top to bottom: almond, sesame, and pistachio. These are not typical lacy florentines, but more like little caramelized nut clusters. The almond, the most traditional, was tastiest; the sliced almonds were rich, and there was a good ratio of nut to candy. The sesame was also good, but it reminded me of sesame candy that is available at middle eastern markets in the bulk bins. (I'm not knocking the stuff, I grew up on it!) The pistachio was not very good, but this may just be because the typical bitter tones of the pistachio didn't match up well with the toffee like coating.

Athan's Bakery in Brookline

Saturday, July 28, 2007

My Stove Hates Me

It's official, my stove hates me. I'm going to a party tonight, and I was working on a batch of mini cherry tarts to bring along. Without warning, the cherries started to burn in their pot. Now the whole apartment smells like charred sweetness. And I have no eggs, so I can't bake cookies.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

CafePress can read my mind

I just got an email from CafePress with a link to cooking designs. How did they know I was in the market for an apron?

The "Your misenplace or mine?" design made me laugh pretty hard... is that sad?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Anna, How I've Missed You

Anna's has been my favorite Boston-area taqueria since Day One. When I was in college, we would eat at the Davis Square branch at least once a week. Nowadays, though, I don't get there often enough... it's just don't get off at that T stop. I finally stopped by today to assuage my craving for veggies and cheese.

After years of experimentation, I have come to the decision that the Veggie Quesadilla is an amazing food. The tortilla is oiled and grilled to crispy perfection. The cheesy is creamy and not too bold. The myriad of veggies are fresh and delicious. In the production line of various fillings, there is a bin filled with cooked veggies of all sorts - zucchini, summer squash, broccoli, red onion, sweet potato and corn on the cob. You just let the guy behind the counter know which ones you specifically want or don't want, and he'll chop them up and wrap them in the crispy shell (be sure to get some of the sweet potato, though, because it really elevates the dish). The fresh salsa is a perfect accompaniment to the cooked veggies (although if the salsa is too cold, it can be a bit jarring against the warm veggies and cheese). And can you see all the cilantro in the salsa? Delicious!

And don't forget the chips and guacamole! The chips aren't stellar, just good. The guac, though, is great. The avocado is creamy and smooth, while small chunks of tomato, white onion and cilantro give some texture. It's not uniformly mixed, allowing for each bite to have a different nuance - a crunch of sweet onion, the coolness of the avocado, a hint of black pepper.

I've been hearing a lot of grumbles from various sources, especially on Chowhound, about how awful Anna's is. This visit only strengthened my view that my standard quesadilla order is far superior at Anna's than at the Boca Grande near my office. If only that Boca Grande, which opened just a few months ago, could have been an Anna's...

Anna's Taqueria in Brookline

Monday, July 23, 2007

I Have a New Love

The rain was beating down last week when I finally made it to the farmers market. I made my choices quickly, moving from booth to booth and picking what looked best. I really had my hopes up for some zucchini flowers, but there were none in sight. One booth had bunches of pea tendrils, something I've heard a lot about, but never tried.

The first time I heard that people ate pea tendrils, I was amazed. I would never think to eat the part of the plant that helps the peas climb. I thought they would be too tough, despite the thin curls, because the plant would need strength to climb. I was all wrong. The leaves and the vines were very tender with just a little bit of bite.

I didn't get around to cooking these until tonight, and I was afraid they wouldn't be any good after 4 days in the fridge. There were a few bad pieces, but there was more than enough left after I culled them from the bunch. I heated some oil in a wok on high, then added the tendrils for about 10 seconds. They wilted immediately, and with that, they were ready to eat.

My first bite made me smile. The flavor was still bright and fresh, even after so many days. It tasted like a wonderful combination of fresh peas and asparagus - not quite as sweet as good peas, with a little of the woodsy quality of asparagus. Just cooking it in oil let the real flavors shine through, but now I'm looking forward to trying new flavors with it. My Chinese five-spice peeked its head out of the cabinet as I reached for the oil, so I may had to give it a try next time. I'm so pleased that I finally tried these, and I can't wait to pick some more up at the farmers market this week.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Sign That I'm Becoming My Mother

I've seen it coming for years. It's in my words, my gestures, my tastes, my hobbies, even my face (at least, the skinnier version of my face that I had in college). I am becoming my mother.

This isn't a bad thing, or something that I fear. My mom's a great woman (and I'm not just saying that because I know she'll read this - hi Mom!). She's taught me a lot of things, including how to find my way around the kitchen (although she's quick to point out that I still don't know how to make pilaf, which is a travesty for any good Armenian girl).

My point here - and I do realize that I'm rambling - is that I've picked up some of her bad traits as well. In our family, we joke that we can't take her anywhere because she will inevitably get food on her shirt. For a while when I was younger, we were trying to invent disposable napkins with velcro attachments, to make them stick to your clothes... but that venture never panned out. More than once, we've mentioned the need to keep lobster bibs on hand, just in case.

Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, I was sitting at work the other day, enjoying some cherries for my mid-morning snack. Huge, dark, juicy cherries. I had already eaten about half the bag when I bit into a particularly plump specimen... and before I could even look down, I knew that some of the juice had landed on my shirt. On assessment, it was not just my shirt, but my jeans AND my keyboard as well. And not just a dot on my shirt. No - a huge line of juice, dead center of my chest. When I went out to get coffee later in the day, the guy behind the counter didn't even look at my face.

And today? I ended up eating a nectarine over the kitchen sink, right out in the middle of the office. I need to remember to bring in foods that are easier to eat...


So I made my first attempt - ever! - at a pie last night, and I'm pleased to say that it didn't turn out horribly. I made a very free-form galette, since A) I wasn't sure if we even have a pie plate in my apartment and B) I was too lazy to actually roll the dough out nicely. I'm going to play with the recipe some more to see how I can improve it, but for the time being, you get this tease:

It's lime and cherry, sweet and tart. I could have just eaten a bowl of the filling and been perfectly happy.

I pitted all the cherries using a cider bottle and a chopstick, on recommendation from this Chowhound discussion. It wasn't particularly clean, and some of the flesh got stuck on in the bottle, but it was fun ;)

Monday, July 16, 2007

I Wish This Were the Standard

Eastern Standard Kitchen is one of the nicer options in Kenmore Square. It's my office's go-to spot for going-away lunches. My coworker Tracy is headed off to grad school in Toronto (good luck, Tracy!), so we had a nice two-hour lunch at ES to send her off in style.

About half the table ordered the baked macaroni and cheese, rich with bechamel and with just enough breadcrumbs on top. I thought I was ordering slightly more healthy with the glazed salmon... There was a lot of butter on the dish when it arrived, negating the healthy qualities. It tasted great, however; that much butter will do that ;) The salmon had a mustard glaze that was tangy and spicy, a nice compliment to the sweet butter. The kitchen boasts great fries - thin, salty and ultra crispy, just the way I like them. Overall, the meal was probably a little too salty (which is not something you'll hear me say very often). It didn't bother me at the time, but I was wicked thirsty for the rest of the day.

I was fairly full, but I'm not one to pass up free dessert. I ordered the creme brulee, which was presented with a lemon shortbread cookie. The dish was long and shallow, the optimum shape for a good custard/crust ratio. The sugar was perhaps caramelized a little too much in places; it was very dark, a bit overdone. The custard had a perfect consistancy, rich and creamy but with some stiffness. The lemon cookie might have been my favorite part of the dish, though. The flavor wasn't too bright or tart, and it was soft and buttery without crumbling.

I've eaten at ES a few times now, and everything I've tasted has been fantastic (on other visits, the calamari, the green salad with feta, and the steak frites were great). Oh, and the drinks! The bartenders know what they're doing, and you're guaranteed something delicious.

Eastern Standard in Boston

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Me, A Freak?

I'm a big fan of corn on the cob. It's another trait I've picked up from my father, who will routinely eat 3 ears in a sitting. Next time I eat with him, I'll have to remember to look at how he eats his...

Why? Because my friends have noticed how I eat mine, and they think I'm a little bit of a freak for it.

Apparently there's something strange about the ear being this clean. The weirdest part is that this is totally out of character for me; I mean, I'm clean, but not anal retentive!

I think I learned this trick when I had braces; only my bottom teeth were in a metal hell, so my uppers learned to scrape off each row of kernals without producing too much fibrous wreckage. Since then, I've kept up the habit for a different reason... good corn can be hard to come by, and I don't want to waste any of it!

Does anyone else eat their corn like this?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pecorino Arugula Crostini

When I studied abroad in Italy, I lived in the small town of Vescovado di Murlo, outside of Siena. On Saturdays, we would usually take the bus into Siena for shopping or to take the train to visit other cities. On Sundays, though, there was no bus, so we were stuck in town. More often than not, we would leave our dusty little hamlet and walk the mile or so to Murlo proper, a medieval castle set up on a hill.

Food offerings in the castle were a little more gourmet than in town. There was a pizzeria, with delicious crisp crusts and an amazing view of the valley. There was also a small enoteca, which served some great food along with their wine selections. The enoteca actually roasted a whole pig for our end-of-the-season fete, and you better believe that 50 hungry Americans who had had almost no meat all summer gobbled it up in no time.

On our first trip to the enoteca, they told us what they had for the day and we said that was fine. First out was a plate of crostini, smothered in pecorino cheese and honey. I had never had pecorino before, and this was a revelation. The cheese was salty and nutty, balanced out beautifully by the sweet honey. I honestly can't remember what else we ate that night because that crostini was so fabulous.

Later that summer, my friend Suzy and I tried to recreate the crostini, but our kitchen was woefully ill-equiped (we were living in what had previously been an old age home). Our attempt turned out soggy and gross.

Back in the States, I tried my hand at the crostini again, this time with better results. Somehow, I added arugula as a topping, and the dish took on new levels of wonderment.

I don't make this often, because I know I'll just end up eating all of it. This batch was made for a barbeque at my friend Ann's house... she calls the dish "Pam's Cheese Thing" which actually makes it sound kind of disgusting.

Every time I eat this now, it brings me back to those long summer days, digging in the hot sun, exploring places I would never have seen otherwise, and drinking heavily (and legally!) before my 21st birthday.

1 French baguette, sliced diagonally into 1-inch thick pieces
1 large chunk of pecorino Romano (5-6 ounces)
honey, preferably in a squeeze bottle
1 bunch baby arugula, washed and dried

Arrange baguette slices on a baking sheet. Drizzle each slice with honey lightly, 3 or 4 squiggles with the bottle with do. Top with 1/8 inch slices of cheese. Drizzle again with honey, 3 or 4 squiggles. Let rest for about 30 minutes to allow the honey to cover the cheese entirely. Broil for 2-3 minutes, until cheese turns golden brown. Do not over-broil or the bread and cheese will burn. Arrange on a platter and top with arugula.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Bitter Late Than Never

I was browsing Chowhound today and stumbled across this article, about the re-emergence of a fondness for bitter foods in the American palate.

My favorite line: "The country that invented American cheese, the Frappuccino, Jell-O, and Wonder Bread is finally discovering its dark side."

This article was particularly interesting for me because it's only been in the past few years that I've developed a palate that would accomodate a lot of these foods, and I attribute my growing love of good food to this phenomenon. A few years ago, I would have spat out a piece of dark chocolate, and I would have eaten a whole bag of M&Ms at once... now I keep really good dark stuff on hand at all times, and I rarely eat more than 2 squares at once. I just thought this was part of growing up, that your senses would mature, but this article sounds like it's something that's happening across the country in all age groups.

What are your thoughts on this article?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Geekiest Salad in the Universe

I've never been a big Star Trek fan. Well, ok, there were a few years when I was growing up when I thought Deanna Troi was the coolest woman on TV. But besides that, never a big fan. I think I might have seen one of the movies... once. So I was slightly disturbed when the first thought that came to mind while I chopped my farmer's market-fresh fennel was "That looks just like the Star Trek logo!"

And that's not even a good picture of it. It was kind of eerie... More eerie was that this proved that I'm a big geek. I mean, I've known it for a long time, but this really solidified the fact.

Anyway, when I shook myself out of my geeky stupor and finished cutting the fennel bulbs, I was at a bit of a loss for what to make with said fennel. This recent Chowhound post had given me some good ideas, but I was short on supplies. I already had some corn boiling, intending it as a snack for work the next day. Instead, I cleaned all the kernels off and threw them in with the fennel.

With a little more tweaking, I was left with a very brightly flavored salad. The fennel, still raw, is the focus with its vibrant anise flavor. I liked the texture combination from using both the fennel bulb and stalks. The corn brought a sweet burst of flavor to balance out the savory fennel. Adding lime juice incorporated a tart burst to each bite. This salad is simple to make, but it tastes so complex. It would be a great side dish for some grilled meat or fish.

Fennel and Corn Salad

2 small fennel bulbs, sliced thinly, plus 3 or 4 fronds, chopped
2 ears of corn, cooked, kernels scraped off
juice of 1 lime
pinch of sugar
pinch of salt

Toss all ingredients in a bowl. Make sure everything is coated in the lime juice. Season with sugar and salt to taste.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Lychees for Liney

My friend Liney has been studying for the Florida Bar Exam, and you can tell by her blog that she's going a little batty. Who couldn't use a care package at a time like that?

I wanted to make something really unique for her, but my brainstorming wasn't getting me anywhere. I began to dig around in my pantry, where I found a bag of dried lychees from Trader Joe's. I've eaten some before, but I wasn't thrilled by them... they tasted like floral jerky, not the best snack on their own.

When I found these lychees, I knew I had to use them for Liney. During college, we would eat lychees all the time. OK, eating may be a strong word... we were usually more concerned with the juice that came in the lychee can and how much of this juice to add to vodka for a nice martini. But lychees were a favorite nonetheless.

I had trouble coming up with a recipe to utilize the lychees. This isn't an ingredient you see very often, so I had to adapt a different recipe instead. Working on the summery, fruity taste, I opted for a lime sugar cookie.

Yes, the butter really was bright green after adding all the lime zest. This recipe was very simple, and mixing the dough only took a few minutes. The kitchen smelled fabulous from all the citrus.

One thing I wasn't confident about, though, was how the lychees would react in the oven. It was possible that they would get too chewy, or the flavor could turn into something gross. I hedged my bets and only added lychees to half. In the recipe below, I listed enough lychees for the entire batch.

These cookies are crispy, fruity, and pack a powerful flavor punch. Keep them small, as a big cookie might be a little overwhelming.

Lime and Lychee Crisps

1 cup sugar
zest and juice of 5 limes
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp coarse salt
15 dried lychees, finely chopped and tossed with a pinch of flour

In a stand mixer, mix sugar and lime zest using the paddle attachment until combined. Add butter and mix on medium until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in vanilla and lime juice. Reduce speed to low and add flour, baking powder and salt slowly. Add chopped lychees to distribute.

Divide dough in quarters, placing each quarter on a large piece of wax paper. Press dough into a log, using the wax paper to compact. Wrap completely in the wax paper and freeze for 30 minutes or until firm.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Remove only one piece of dough from the freezer at a time. Unwrap from paper and cut slices about 1/8 inch thick. Arrange on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes. Make sure to move the pan up to the higher rack early so the cookie bottoms don't brown too much. The cookies should remain light in color for better taste. Cool on wire racks.

Kupel's, Coolidge Corner

I was wandering around Coolidge Corner today while running some errands, and I stumbled across Kupel's Bagels. When I walked in, there was a long, slow line waiting for fresh bagels and pastries. The cases were packed, and I kept changing my mind about what I wanted. The kitchen was busy, and fresh food was still being baked early in the afternoon.

I limited myself to two choices, and man, was it difficult. The lemon flat tire was tempting. The flaky puff pastry was sprinkled with coarse sugar. The lemon filling had seeped down as it baked and had formed a caramelized crust along the bottom; this was too sweet and cloying, like eating puff pastry brittle. There wasn't much lemon flavor, either, but I still enjoyed it.

The raspberry turnover was a tasty little hand pie. I should have heated it up a little first, I think that would have brought the flavor out and toasted the dough a little. There were no seeds in the filling to get caught in my teeth, which I appreciated. There was another 5 or so flavors of turnovers among the rest of the goodies.

I'll be visiting Kupel's again, for more pastries and to try the bagels. Has anyone had the bagels there? Which flavor is best?

Kupel's Bagels in Brookline

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Chowderfest 2007

Harborfest is a week of events leading up to the 4th of July, and Chowderfest is one of the biggest draws. This year, nine local chowder purveyors competed for the title of Best Chowder.

When we stepped out of the T, City Hall Plaza was abuzz with activity. There were tons of vendors handing out free samples - Fruit2O, Pepperidge Farms, some chip company, Crystal Light, Dunkin' Donuts. After a little wandering, we bought our tickets and headed inside the gates.

Nine booths lay in front of us in a line. Some had long lines, while others had no wait at all. My favorite of the group was The Skipper, followed closely by Christopher's. I had a hard time deciding which I liked better, but Skipper ended up with my vote.

My thoughts on all the different competitors:

1) Christopher's - Very good. The potatoes were buttery and smooth, and the large chunks of clam were tender and not tough at all.

2) USS Wasp - The only non-restaurant competitor, the crew of this Navy ship produced a very different chowder. This chowder had a lovely presentation, with a whole shrimp in each sample-size cup, but the flavor was not great. I think the base was lobster, which is fine, but not what I was expecting. It also had a lot of kick to it, and way too much bacon.

3) Great Bay - This was probably the most gourmet of all the offerings. They were cooking up the clams and other solids in pans in the booth, then serving a small scoop of this with broth poured over it. This left the chowder too watery, and there was very little integration between the solids and the broth. There was also on overpowering celery taste.

4) La Morra - This was also very watery with lots of celery. It did, however, include whole (small) clams with bellies, bringing in a more authentic clam flavor.

5) Ned Devine's - The broth on this had a nice, thick consistancy, but it wasn't overpoweringly heavy. The potatoes, however, were undercooked and the clam pieces were big and rubbery.

6) Daily Catch - Oily and watery, this tasted more like chicken soup than clam chowder. Not a good showing for a seafood restaurant.

7) The Fireplace - Bacon. All I could taste was bacon. The potatoes were also undercooked. They did include clam bellies for the fresh-from-the-sea flavor, but it didn't pair well with that much bacon.

8) Skipper's - My roommate's words after taking his first bite were "This is what I think of when I think of clam chowder." It had a thick broth, very soft potatoes, and clams that were chewy but not rubbery. Leave it to a restaurant from Cape Cod to show everyone else how it's done.

9) Grille at Hobbs Brook - This chowder was way too thick, almost gluey. There was no clam flavor; all I could taste was potatoes. Very institutional, but not surprising for hotel food.

Note: Why were there so many Redcoats around? Do we get to ceremoniously kick them out of town on Wednesday?

Another Hit at Grotto

Grotto was one of the first recommendations I ever took off of Chowhound, and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. The meals are rich and flavorful, and it's clear that the chef is having fun with the plates. Usually when I go, reservations are made well ahead of time and there's a lot of anticipation... this time was much more spur-of-the-moment. After seeing Ratatouille, we were dying for really good food, and Grotto came to mind.

Knowing how rich the meals at Grotto can be, I opted for two appetizers. I started with the Gorganzola-stuffed figs and arugula salad. Now, I really don't like Gorganzola, or any pungent cheeses for that matter, but I love these figs. Stuffed with cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and baked, these figs are creamy, chewy, salty and sweet, all in one bite. The large arugula, parmesan, prosciutto salad was topped with a lovely toasted hazelnut vinaigrette, all of which balanced out the richness of the stuffed figs.

I also ordered a half portion of the ricotta cavatelle, mixed with fresh sausage, pancetta, peas and mushrooms in a thick cream sauce. When it arrived, the portion looked small, but by the end, I was quite happy that I had ordered the smaller size. The cavatelle are light and soft, and the rest of the flavors mix together so well that nothing is overpowering.

Grotto has a fixed-price, three-course dinner available every night. If you have a hearty appetite, it's a fantastic deal that includes appetizer, entree and dessert.

My favorite part of Grotto, though, is that every once in a while, they host Big Night dinners. If you've never seen the movie about two brothers preparing their restaurant for the biggest meal of their lives, you must rent it. Scott Herritt, Grotto's owner and chef, cooks all the courses of the Big Night meal, including the impressive timpano. It's an incredible amount of food with tons of different flavors, and it's a blast. If you're interested in events like this, you can sign up for Grotto's email list on their website.

Grotto in Boston