Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy 2008!

Brie and Berry Bites
Originally uploaded by paghababian
Happy New Year to all my readers. I hope you have plenty of good eats to go with your champagne tonight, and lots of new and exciting culinary adventures in the coming year.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

La Voile, Back Bay

There's something about studying abroad that makes you feel so connected to your temporary home. Thoughts of Tuscany, especially Siena, bring back good memories for me. I can only assume that my friends Melody and Zina have the same feelings about France, where they studied. I know I can always suggest French food with them, so they were the perfect people with whom to try La Voile.

La Voile is one of the newest additions to Newbury Street, and it has had rave reviews. The staff is almost entirely from Cannes, and the atmosphere feels very much like a French brasserie. I was greeted by the maitre'd and the owner (?), who checked off my reservation, took my coat, and offered to seat me. I opted, however, to wait at the tiny bar, where I had a glass of wine and some lovely fried balls of goodness - pate chou with herbs and maybe a little cheese. They were wonderfully salty and really whet my appetite.

My friends arrived, and we took our table, where we spent a good chunk of time pouring over the menu. Another amuse buche was brought to us, this time consisting of wonderful salami, gougeres, and the most perfect Caprese I have ever had. The little bites left us wanting more. We were also given French bread to go along with this, which was served in a little cloth bag - a "bag"-ette, per Melody. (See, I told you you'd get a quote ;) )

We shared a goat cheese salad, but the dressing on the greens outshone the rest of the dish. I could easily eat a big bowl of that salad, which included a variety of greens and plenty of pine nuts.

Luckily, my meal came with more of the salad (this time, without pine nuts). I ordered steak and potatoes, with herbed butter. The steak was a great red shade, but not bloody, and was not too chewy. The potatoes were very tasty and included tomatoes and mushrooms (I hate mushrooms, but these were really good!). I tend to prefer frites with steak, but this was a good alternative.

Besides fantastic food, we also had great service. As I mentioned, the host/owner/manager (I couldn't tell exactly) was very friendly and was overseeing the restaurant and giving tips to our waiter. Our waiter, apparently the only American working in the place, was personable and helpful with the menu. I even got a phone call the next day to follow up with our meal, and the manager was particularly interested in what they could improve. More restaurants should pay attention to the customer in this way. I hope La Voile succeeds, because I'm sure I'm going to want that meal again sometime soon.

La Voile in Boston

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Met Bar and Grill, Natick

The Natick Collection, basically an extension of the Natick Mall, opened a few months ago. It has more upscale shopping, and with that comes more upscale eats. I hit the Met Bar and Grill, a satellite of the Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill, with some friends prior to a screening of I Am Legend.

There are two menus at this restaurant: a regular menu, with appetizers, salads, and main dishes, and a burger menu, with different burgers as well as a design-your-own option. There is a lot to choose from here, from standards like cheese and bacon to more out-there options, like kimchi and truffle oil. It took me forever to decide on a combination to suit my mood, but I doubt anyone would have trouble finding something.

The best part is that they offer more than just burgers. Besides a regular beef blend, they also offer a Kobe burger, a turkey burger, a veggie burger, and grilled chicken breast.

We shared a bowl of onion strings while we waited for our meals. They were crispy and delicious, with not too much batter or oil. They would be perfect on one of the burgers, and in fact, they are an option on the long list of topping choices.

I finally decided on grilled chicken on a wheat bun with arugula, feta and tzatziki. The chicken was plump and juicy, and the feta and arugula were filled with flavor. The tzatziki, however, was someone uninteresting, and I would probably opt for a different dressing next time. The sandwiches are reasonably sized, not so large that you feel overly full afterwards. They come with a small serving of fries, but again, not too much to make you feel like you've over eaten. Overall, the food was tasty and the serving sizes were perfect.

Service, however, was terrible. Our server was slow and kept forgetting parts of our order, and we had to chase her down to give her our credit card. Once service problems are cleared up, though, I think this will be a great option for dining - whether you're already shopping at the mall or not.

Met Bar and Grill in Natick

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Gluten-Free Test Drive

Movie night with the girls has changed a bit over the years. In high school, my regular dates with my best friends consisted of whatever bad (or awesomely bad) movies and junk food we could find. The night we watched Excess Baggage is still talked about to this day. Since college, though, we've toned it down a bit... foodwise. For our latest gathering, we had fresh Maine shrimp (since the season's so short), nachos, plenty of wine, and some gluten-free goodies as per one friend's diet.

Now, I've never worked with specifically gluten-free products before. Sure, I've made lots of stuff without wheat, but using GF flour, etc, was different. I had a hell of a time tracking some stuff down, and I gave up on the xantham gum (apparently an important ingredient) when even Whole Foods didn't have any. All in all, my efforts weren't too bad. I managed to make some kind of chickpea cracker, mini quiches, and these awesome mint bars. My GF friend took all the leftovers home and fed them to everyone in her family over Christmas. Hell, I would even make these on a regular basis for myself, gluten-free or not!

Gluten-Free Mint Bars

1 stick unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
1/2 tsp GF vanilla
1/2 cup GF flour (I used Bob's)
1/2 cup almond flour
pint of salt
Mint icing:
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 cups confections' sugar
2-6 Tbsp heavy cream
1-1 1/2 tsp mint extract
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 Tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 9 inche square pan.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and blend. Stir in chocolate and vanilla. Stir in dry ingredients, blending well. Pour into pan and spread evenly. Bake for 15 minutes and cool completely.

For icing, cream butter and sugar. Add mint extract and just enough cream to make icing thin enough to spread. Spread over cooled crust.

For glaze, melt chocolate and whisk in butter. Spread over icing. Allow to harden before cutting.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chocolate Salt and Pepper Thins

Another day, another batch of cookies to give to my friends and family. For my friend Liney, I wanted something unique. And I knew exactly what ingredient I wanted to incorporate - black pepper.

During college, Liney would put black pepper on just about anything in the dining hall. We'd always share french fries covered in pepper and ketchup (and while I've grown away from the ketchup, I still use pepper on my fries). There are many foods that are very "college" to me, including lychees, but pepper is the only "college" spice I can think of.

So pepper cookies. I was going to go with a jazzed-up pfeffernusse for Liney, but her mother lived in Germany for a while, and I was sure any recipe she had was going to be better than what I could make. Luckily, an old Martha Stewart magazine knew what I was thinking and offered up a recipe that I tweaked a bit.

I call them chocolate salt and pepper thins. Now, that might sound kind of disgusting to some, or like a savory cracker to others, but really, it's a fantastic and delicate sweet cookie. The cocoa and espresso work together for a really rich background flavor, while the salt on top kind of explodes with flavor. You don't taste the pepper right away, but you recognize it after a moment, and if you eat more than one, the flavor intensifies.

Chocolate Salt and Pepper Thins

1 1/2 sticks butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 tsp ground black pepper
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp instant espresso powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
black pepper for sprinkling
coarse fleur de sel for sprinkling

Cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Mix in egg and vanilla. Add flour, cocoa, salt, black pepper, espresso powder, and cinnamon and mix to incorporate. Turn out dough on a piece of parchment paper and roll into a log, about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap in parchment and freeze at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350°. Let dough soften at room temperature about 5 minutes or until sliceable. Slice into 1/4 inch thick rounds. Place rounds on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle each cookie with pepper and fleur de sel. Bake about 10 minutes, until there is slight resistance when you lightly touch the cookie centers. Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Stained Glass - It's Not Just for Churches

There are some cookies that are baked because they taste great. Others are baked for their looks. The Stained Glass Christmas Tree, in my opinion, falls into the looks category. It's a simple sugar cookie recipe that's jazzed up by crushed hard candy. Nothing revolutionary, but the results are impressive. My cousin requests them for our family party, and who am I to disappoint?

Stained Glass Christmas Trees

1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
crushed Lifesavers (lighter colors only)

Cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and mix until smooth. Stir in flour, salt and baking powder until combined. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 325°. Roll out dough on a floured surface until 1/8 inch thick. Use large cookie cutters to cut dough. Transfer to parchment-lined cookie sheet and cut out interior tree using a smaller cookie cutter or a paring knife. Fill centers with crushed lifesavers, making sure not to get any candy on the dough itself. Bake until candy has melted and cookies begin to turn golden. If the candy starts to bubble, pull them out right away. Let the cookies cool briefly to harden, then move to wire racks to cool completely.

  • The darker colors (like green and purple) turn too dark and muddy in the oven. If you know a way to make that not happen, let me know!

  • I had great luck crushing the lifesavers individually in their wrappers using the flat bottom of a metal measuring spoon. Make sure you keep the different colors separate.

  • You can either reroll whatever gets cut out of the center of the tree, or you can make minature stained glass trees. Instead of triangles or tree shapes, though, I just cut a small circle. In fact, I liked the smaller size better; it was just the right amount of cookie and candy.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rosemary Shortbread

I'm a big fan of unusual cookies. I'm also a big fan of rosemary. So when I stumbled across this recipe a few years ago, my cookie-loving heart found its match.

These cookies are buttery and delicious, and they are neither too sweet nor too savory. They have a great crumb to them and would be perfect with a cup of coffee.

Rosemary Shortbread

2 sticks butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour
1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
pinch of salt

Cream butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Mix in egg and vanilla. Add in flour, rosemary and salt until combined. Halve dough and shape each half into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap in parchment paper and freeze until firm, at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 375°. Cut dough into 1/4 inch thick rounds. Place rounds on parchment-lined cookie sheet, and bake until edges are golden, about 15 minutes. Do not let the cookies brown, just look for hints of color at the edges.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Snow Falling on Citrus

What else is there to do during a snow storm but cook? The French Toast Alert Level was on high, but I wanted to use the time to get ready for Christmas. With plenty of time on my hands, I went to town on candied citrus peel.

Start with fresh oranges or grapefruits (or lemon or lime with a thick rind). Cut them in half and gently remove the flesh, keeping the peel as whole as possible (rind cups are ideal). Put the cups in a pot, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Pour off water and repeat two to three more times (grapefruit needs at least four boils) until peels are tender. Set peels out to cool.

Slice rind into strips, roughly 1/3 inch wide. In a medium saucepan, make a simple syrup with a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water. For 4 oranges or 3 grapefruit, I used 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of water. Stir over heat until sugar crystals are dissolved, then add peels (I kept each type separate so the flavors wouldn't mingle). Keep the peels at a low simmer until translucent, roughly 15-20 minutes. Stir only occasionally. When peels are done, pour off syrup (save for drinks!) and lay peels out separately on parchment paper so that they are not touching. Allow to cool and dry slightly, an hour or two.

In a food processor, pulse granulated sugar until texture is fine. When peels have dried so that they are only slightly tacky, roll each slice in fine sugar and lay back out to dry further. Let dry overnight before packaging in an air tight container.

This is great to give as gifts or added to other baked goods. There's just something so Christmas about candied orange peel!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Comfort Food for a Snow Storm

This was the view from my office at 1pm today. The Charles River should be visible on the far side of the buildings, but everything was gray instead. Besides the obvious thoughts of "when can I go home?", I was also thinking "what's for dinner?" The weather called for nothing short of comfort food - hot pasta and some oozy, gooey sauce.

Squash Mac and Cheese

1/2 pound whole wheat pasta
1 frozen block of squash
1 12-oz can fat-free evaporated milk
pinch cayenne pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
chopped fresh rosemary (to taste)
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 pound low-fat cheese, shredded (I used Trader Joe's Mexican blend, but plain cheddar would be great)
bread crumbs

Cook pasta, drain, and set aside. Preheat oven to 375.

In a medium saucepot over medium heat, defrost squash. Add milk and stir until combined. Add cayenne, garlic powder, and rosemary and stir. Whisk in cornstarch to avoid lumps. Remove from heat and stir in cheese. Toss pasta with sauce and pour into a glass baking dish. Sprinkle with bread crumbs (as much as you'd like) and bake for 10-15 minutes, until edges are slightly brown.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cookie Swap

Cookie Swap. Wouldn't that be a better show than Wife Swap? As much as I fear what TV will become with the continued writers' strike, I might actually watch "Cookie Swap."

Much thanks to my friend Denice for a wonderful cookie swap party. Remarkably, the only overlap in cookies was two sets of dreidel cookies... who would have thought?

There were some standards - sugar cookies, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin. My tortured gingerbread men all found good homes deep within people's bellies. Denice tried her hand at a couple of my recipes and did an excellent job with them both. Some others that stood out for me were the chocolate "boot track" waffle cookies, the ginger blueberry white chocolate cookies, and the chocolate cookies with Andes mints bits.

There was also a great assortment of drinks - eggnog, hot cider and five different kinds of tea. Just perfect on a nasty, icy Boston night.

So thanks again, Denice. By the way, if we do have a Buffy night, we should have themed food, but what? All I can think of is "skeezy cheeses" and fake blood in a "Kiss the Librarian" mug.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Won't Anyone Think of the Cookies?

Every year as Christmas approaches, people are busy thinking about their friends and families. They gather for parties and enjoy delicious food that has a place as a family tradition or is so indulgent that it can only make an appearance once a year. Cookies in particular are something that are made in huge quantities to be given as gifts and enjoyed as dessert.

But please, this year, think twice about how you treat your cookies.

And for the love of God, don't leave stray glasses of milk around. It can only lead to disaster.

This PSA was brought to you by Take Back the Cookie Jar - Gingerbread Men Against Violence.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

300 Apples

I can't stop laughing over this. Makes me want to stay away from bottled drinks...

I have to say, for a classics nerd, food geek, and film buff like myself, this is a pretty perfect video.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Holiday Hack

What to do when you need to make cookies for class and you're too busy to even think about pulling out the jar of flour? Dress up an already-awesome cookie.

Trader Joe's Peppermint Jo-Jos are a holiday-only treat, and I can't stop eating them. They taste like Girl Scout Thin Mints, but they look like Oreos, and they have the perfect blend of chocolate and peppermint.

I didn't, however, just want to bring a box of them to class. I wanted it to look as if I at least gave a thought to what I was bringing.

So out came the semi-sweet chocolate and the candy canes. Each cookie got a little chocolate bath before a receiving a sprinkling of crushed red and white jewels. This couldn't have been easier (well, I could have done without burning my first batch of chocolate, but it was late, what do you want from me?) and they couldn't look prettier. Not too pretty to eat, though, believe me.

Update 12/7/07 - During class, my teacher picked one of these up and started to gesture with it as he spoke. He took a bite and then stopped talking. "I'm sorry," he said, looking at the cookie, "but I'm distracted by all this peppermint." Mine were the only treats to be finished off before the end of the night.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Send a Holiday eCookie

This morning, I had a great email waiting for me from my friend Sarah - a cookie ecard from Betty Crocker.

The website allows you to decorate six different cookie shapes with a huge array of frosting colors and sprinkles. You can use it as a chance to try out your decorating techniques before the onslaught of real cookies in the next few weeks. Plus, it's much neater than messing up your own kitchen. When you finish, you can email your creation to a friend. Completed cookies are displayed on the front page of the site for others to enjoy.

Not only is this tons of fun to play around with, but Betty Crocker is also donating ten cents for each cookie created to Toys for Tots... so get decorating!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Christmas Popcorn

Yeah, I even put food on my tree.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Butternut Squash Couscous

It was post-Thanksgiving week, and there were no leftovers in sight, one of the downfalls to going to someone else's house for a holiday. So for lunchs this past week, I set out to create something with a "holiday leftover" feel (without it going bad by the end of the week, of course).

I couldn't be happier with how this dish turned out. I was so busy at work this week, I ended up eating every lunch at my desk every day, and it was great to have this waiting in the fridge. Thank goodness I have my "I heart Jim" mug to look at.

Butternut Squash Couscous

1 lb butternut squash, diced
10-15 pearl onions, halved
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup water
1 tsp olive oil
1 cup whole wheat couscous
3 sprigs thyme
sea salt

Toss squash and onions in 1 Tbsp olive oil. Roast in oven at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes or until squash is tender.

While squash is roasting, heat water and 1 tsp olive oil until boiling. Add couscous and remove from heat. Stir to make sure all the grains are coated, then cover and let stand 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

Combine squash and onions with couscous in a bowl. Add the leaves from thyme sprigs, plus a large pinch of salt, and mix to incorporate. Add a splash of olive oil if the mixture is too dry. Keeps well all week.

Tastes like Gummi Bears!

One of the students in my office walked by my desk yesterday, back from a trip to Super 88, with a wicked grin and a bright green bottle. "What to try some?" she asked as she headed towards the fridge. "It's goo-ooood. Tastes like gummi bears."

Oh, well when you put it like that...

Needs vodka, though.