Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Starbucks' Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee

I know a lot of people who are big into wine, and they can converse on the topic for hours at end. Me, I like wine just fine, but I often have a hard time placing flavors, and due to a bad experience with red wine in Italy, I usually just stick to whites.

There are plenty of other drinks, however, that I can get behind, and coffee just happens to be one of them. I could be a much bigger coffee geek if I had the money and time, but for now I'll settle for knowing what I like.

So when Starbucks invited me to try the Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee that they released this week, I jumped at the chance. JBM is a rare and expensive coffee with a short growing season in a specific part of Jamaica. Starbucks has only offered the beans twice in their history - once in the '70s and once in the '80s. This time around, they are only releasing the beans to stores with Clover brewing machines. And of the 50-something Clovers in US stores, Boston has about 30 of them (!). Starbucks sees Boston as a leading city in coffee culture, and the Clover has become a popular feature in local stores.

OK, onto the coffee itself. I like coffee brewed on the Clover because it's as fresh as you can get at Starbucks - beans are ground fresh for each cup, and the brewing process extracts flavors that can't be achieved through regular paper filter-brewers. And this coffee was, no joke, the smoothest cup of coffee I've ever had. I usually like to doctor up my coffee with Equal and milk, but this didn't need anything to help it along. It was almost sweet all on its own. The bag notes hints of citrus and chocolate, and those flavors were definitely there - citrus first, then more chocolate as it cooled. I tried it paired with lemon pound cake and chocolate brownie, and I thought that the combo of lemon cake and coffee was outstanding.

Jamaica Blue Mountain is available in Starbucks with Clover machines until August or the supply runs out. A grande will set you back about $5, but if you think of it in terms of other fine drinks like wine, it's actually a good bargain. You can also buy beans in-store to brew at home. I can't wait to try cold-brewing at home to see what additional flavors I can taste. (Note: If you've never tried cold-brewing coffee, now is the time. It seriously pulls out flavors that aren't there when coffee is hot, plus it has more caffeine! I use my French press for easy cleanup, but you can follow the directions I posted previously if you don't have one.)

Full Disclosure note: Starbucks provided me with samples of JBM.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Taste of Allston 2010

Allston isn't the first place I think of when dining out. When I was invited to attend the 13th annual Taste of Allston, I thought it would be the perfect chance to explore the neighborhood a bit, all at one time.

I know Allston is home to a diverse population, thanks in part to the zillions of students who live in the neighborhood. But seeing different restaurants side by side really drove the point home. Taste of Allston featured American, Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, Indian, Korean, Mediterranean (Lebanese?), and Salvadorean. It was a little jarring to be eating all those flavors in one meal, but it was still fun to try them all.

My favorite dishes of the day:
  • Chocolate chip brownie cookies (above) from Angora Cafe - Yes, brownie INSIDE a cookie. Angora's sandwiches were tasty enough, although they suffered from having been grilled earlier in the day and served cold. Angora Cafe will be opening Angora Ice sometime this summer in Chestnut Hill, which will serve only their frozen yogurt.

  • Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Spicy Potatoes from Garlic 'n Lemons. This restaurant had the best array, sampling six different dishes. The guys working the table were also having a great time, joking with each other and the crowd, which bodes well for the restaurant. I can't wait to try some of their other dishes - their menu includes Armenian lahmajun, which you don't find often, so I'm going to have to see if it's any good.

  • Inbound Pizza's schwarma was delicious, even though my sandwich was lacking sauce. I didn't try their pizza, but my friends thought it was tasty.

  • Kelly's Roast Beef, which has just opened in the neighborhood, featured clam chowder, just like I like it. It was more watery than other chowders (which I like), and the potatoes and clams were perfectly cooked - not a rubbery clam in sight!

  • Papusas and tacos from Taqueria El Carrizal. I love papusas, which are similar to mini quesadillas, and had these been warm, they would have been perfect. The tacos (more like taquitos), stuffed with beef, were crunchy and salty. I had to stop myself from going back for more so I could try all the other restaurants.

Full Disclosure note: My ticket to this event was comped.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Strawberry Picking Time Travel at Ward's Berry Farm

As soon as the weather turned nice (ok, better) back at the beginning of May, I've been all about fresh fruits and veggies. I've been growing some of the best lettuce I've ever tasted and some insanely fast-growing radishes, along with a whole slew of other things that won't be ready for a while. To do this, I had to pull up all the strawberry plants in our yard.

I know, I can practically hear you screaming "WHYYYY?!?" already. These were strawberries we had planted I don't know how long ago, and how many ripened fruits have I ever eaten from them? Exactly zero. They only grew the tiniest of berries that seemed to take forever to ripen, at which point they would go from green to vibrant red overnight and some pesky animal would beat me to them in the morning. It began to be such a constant disappointment that I had no problem ripping them up to make room for things like eggplant and tomatoes, which actually produce things that the animals don't care about.

Anyway, all that garden shuffling has left me wanting. Strawberry season is quick and short around here (although this year, it seems like lots of crops were ready early thanks to our warm spring). My friends and I had planned on berry picking a week ago, but we were beat out by a rainstorm, and we had to postpone to last weekend. With absolutely no rain in the forecast, we piled into the car and headed south on 95.

Ward's Berry Farm is all of 30 seconds off the highway in Sharon, less than half an hour from Boston. Their prices are reasonable for fresh and local produce ($3 for a pint, or $6 for a larger handle basket, above). The strawberry patch is huge, and we each had a couple rows to ourselves, although we stuck close together so we could chat while we picked. Strawberry picking is harder than, say, raspberry picking because the plants are all so close to the ground, and at times I felt like I was playing Twister in an attempt to not faceplant into the berries.

One thing about strawberry picking that I kind of loved and that also freaked me out at the same time? There are a lot of berries on those plants, and they don't all get picked. When they start to rot, they turn into these powdery, dessicated, zombie versions of real berries, and they tend to explode if you pick one by accident. Yeah, what's the good part, you're asking. Because they were rotting in the sun, the sugar was fermenting, and occasionally I'd get a whiff of strawberry liqueur. Every time I got a hint of the scent, I was thrown back in time to a trip to Italy, where my friends and I stayed in a terribly crappy hostel in Sorrento and bought a bottle of liquore di fragola, a supersweet liqueur made from local strawberries (the berries were still in the bottle, and you know we ate them all). I had to fight to not yell out "Strongberry!", which is what we called the drink (and which we used to yell at each other often after that). I could have stood in that strawberry patch, smelling the breeze, all day.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cucumber Mojito Salad Redux

We all have those recipes that we go back to time and time again. They're perfect for a specific time of year, or they're often requested by friends and family, or they're a comfort food that we couldn't live without. Over time, though, those recipes can get a little stale and in need of freshening up.

So last week, when I went to make the first cucumber mojito salad of the summer, I looked at the recipe (one of the very first I posted on this site, over 3 years ago) and decided it needed a little change. At the time, the only thing that the recipe had in common with a mojito was the mint and sugar - no lime, no rum. How hard could it be to include all those ingredients and actually have the title be correct? Not hard at all.

This new version is very similar to the old version, but it's a little more refreshing in the Happy Hour sense of the word. The rum isn't overpowering, just present enough to give the dressing a tiny hint of zing. I couldn't stop snacking on these as I prepared dinner, so I must have done something right with this recipe!

Have you overhauled a favorite recipe?

Cucumber Mojito Salad Redux
1 English cucumber
20-25 fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup sugar (I actually prefer Splenda for this)
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup white rum (or 1 nip bottle)
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1-inch fresh ginger, chopped
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

Slice the cucumber into paper-thin slices (a mandoline works perfectly). Put slices in a large bowl and set aside.

In a blender or food processor, puree the rest of the ingredients. Pour over the cucumbers, tossing to cover with the dressing. Refrigerate for at least half an hour to let the flavors meld.

Oh, and don't throw away the cucumber juice at the bottom of the bowl. Add it to more rum or some gin for a light cocktail!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

If you follow me on Twitter, you've noticed that I've been talking a lot about my garden in the past few months. Since I live in the suburbs, I have a little more room to play than my neighbors in the city. After living in a basement in Brookline for two years, where we couldn't even get herbs to grow on the windowsill, my small garden in Lexington seems like acres. Last summer, I didn't really know what I was doing, but I still ended up with a bounty of tomatoes, eggplants, and herbs. It taught me a lot, so I'm back this year, bigger and better.

The most important thing I learned last summer? Rabbits can (and will) chew through a plastic fence. Putting a big rock in front of the hole they chewed means that they will just chew another one right next to the first. So far, with my new metal fence, I have yet to see a rabbit in the garden, although they live under our deck and run through the rest of the yard all the time.

Second, even if you have the room to plant things in the ground, it may not be the best thing to do. Some perennial herbs, especially mint, will completely take over an area if you let it. Keeping it in a pot means it doesn't get the chance. My mint is CRAZY right now - it's probably the thing that's growing the best.

I've had a hard time growing things like lettuce in the ground, and yet it has completely flourished in its pot this year. This is some of the best lettuce I've ever eaten (planted from a seed packet that included seeds for three types of lettuce, which they called the "salad bowl mix") - it's so tender and soft that I don't know if I'll be able to eat lettuce during the winter anymore. Did you know that lettuce regrows from the root after you cut it? The lettuce pictured above was cut on Sunday night and it's already grown more than an inch!

Overall, I think I have a good variety of things that will grown throughout the season. I've already picked my first round of radishes and planted the second batch, which should be ready by July. Garden radishes are fantastic, so easy, and amazingly quick! I have a few peas, above, ready to pick, which I'll do for dinner tonight (with more salad) to encourage the plant to grow.

Cucumbers, eggplants, red peppers, 5 kinds of tomatoes (not counting the ones I started from seed, way too late), zucchini (more than I need, which means I'll get to eat the flowers too!), pumpkins (both jack o'lantern and mini pumpkins), butternut squash (which doesn't look too promising), parsley, basil, cilantro, dill, lavender, rosemary, chives, scallions, red onions, carrots, kale, arugula, rhubarb, and potatoes round out the garden. Am I missing anything?

So tell me, how does your garden grow? (This post inspired by similar posts by Erin Cooks and Hungry Bruno.)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Springtime Strawberry Shortcake

Strawberries are the first local fruit to roll out in the spring, and there is truly nothing like a strawberry right off the vine. I'm dying to go strawberry picking, but for the meantime, pints of berries from the farmers markets that are just starting to open are just as good. And the perfect showcase for perfect strawberries is strawberry shortcake.

The best part of these strawberry shortcakes, though, was the whipped cream. It was the first time I had made whipped cream since getting my KitchenAid Mixer, and it was the easiest process ever. In the past, whipped cream would take upwards of 15 minutes, although it always felt more like 30, listening to the beaters of the hand mixer whapping against the side of the bowl. That cream was always underwhipped until it was suddenly curdled, never hitting that magical "stiff peaks" stage that's always spoken of. But this whipped cream? Three minutes from start to finish, and the addition of vanilla made it utterly heavenly. I could (and did) just eat it with a spoon.

Strawberry Shortcakes

Cream Biscuits
2 cups flour
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Preheat oven to 450°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Place flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl and stir to combine. Pour in cream and mix until just incorporated. Turn out onto a piece of wax paper. Knead dough lightly, folding it in on itself to create layers. Using wax paper will allow you to knead the dough without adding extra flour. Pat dough into a rectangle about an inch thick and cut into 8 equal pieces.

Arrange biscuits evenly on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Rotate pan halfway through. Cool biscuits on a wire rack.

Vanilla Whipped Cream
2 cups heavy cream
2 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp Vanilla Bean Paste

Combine cream, sugar, and vanilla paste in a stand mixer. Mix together on medium-low for about a minute until frothy. Whip on high for 2-3 minutes, or until stiff peaks form. Do not overwhip or you'll get butter.

1 quart (about 1 1/2 pounds) fresh strawberries
1-2 Tbsp sugar

Wash strawberries and pat dry. Slice berries thinly. In a mixing bowl, sprinkle strawberries with 1 Tbsp sugar and stir. Add additional sugar if berries are tart. Refrigerate for at least an hour before use to allow a syrup to form.

Split biscuits in half and place bottoms on dessert plates. Top with a big dollop of whipped cream. Divide strawberries between the biscuits. Place tops of biscuits on the strawberries, then add another big dollop of whipped cream.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Spanakopita Burgers with Tzatziki

It began with yet another email. Fans of Lamb, the promotional arm of the American Lamb Board, was offering to send me more lamb as part of a burger contest they are holding. (I don't have a video camera, so I won't be entering, but you can here!) I had just made tons of manti using ground lamb and was anxious to try other ways to use it.

For some reason, I couldn't get a Greek theme out of my head for these burgers. I really wanted to pair it with tzatziki, and my mind kept bringing up spanakopita too. Luckily, all those ingredients go very well together, and the spanakopita burger was born.

I'm very happy with these burgers. The lamb adds a different flavor than beef, but there are enough other ingredients that it never tastes gamey, like ground lamb sometimes can after a while. My friend found the amount of feta I used a little overwhelming, but I didn't agree - if you're not a big fan of feta, you can cut back on the amount. The addition of so much spinach and cheese is also a great way to stretch the meat a little bit further.

Spanakopita Lamb Burgers
1 lb ground lamb
1 10-oz package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
3-4 ounces of feta, crumbled
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix with your hands until everything is well combined. Shape into 4 patties and refrigerate until ready to cook. Grill (or use an indoor panini press like we did) for 4-5 minutes per side. Serve on a bun of your choice with a large helping of tzatziki.

1 English cucumber (long cucumber wrapped in plastic)
2 cups Greek-style yogurt (I used fat-free, but use whatever you like)
2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
1/2 bunch dill, finely chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper

Grate cucumber. Line a colander with paper towels and add cucumber. Sprinkle on some salt and let stand in the sink for 1-2 hours. Squeeze cucumber as dry as possible and add to a mixing bowl. Add yogurt, garlic, dill, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and mix until well combined. Add more lemon and salt and pepper if needed. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before use to let the flavors meld.