Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

I hope everyone has a fun (and tasty) Halloween! If you're still looking for recipes, there are great things up on Tastespotting, or try these delicious Vampire Cookies from Baking Bites. They're easy to make but look very impressive (although Baking Bite's look much more impressive than mine).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Chocolates

I've decided that I shouldn't be allowed in craft stores. I walk in and instantly want everything I see. Only problem is that I never have enough time to actually make the crafts that I buy. When they're food-related, though, my chances are a little higher. When I walked into A.C.Moore a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't help but pick up materials for making Halloween chocolates. I mean, who doesn't want chocolate tombstones?!?

Or spiderweb lollipops?

It's been years since I've made chocolates, probably in middle school when my mother and I would use those horrible "chocolate" buttons in an assortment of colors to make candies for her favorite holiday, Valentine's Day. I had forgotten how much fun (and how easy) these are to make, and the results are always impressive. I opted for good dark chocolate this time (and yes, some crappy white chocolate for contrast). And there's something so satisfying about whacking those little plastic trays on the counter to get out all the air bubbles...

But my real achievement with my Halloween candies were the pumpkin cups I created. I wanted to create chocolate pumpkin truffles, but I just couldn't get the consistency right, so I opted for pumpkin cups instead (in mini black and orange paper cups, of course). They ended up working really well, like a little shot of pumpkin pie enrobed in chocolate. The filling was still a little loose, so they're best eaten in one bite to avoid a mess. And yes, the spices may seem strong when you're mixing them in, but the chocolate can be overpowering, so you need that much for the flavor to come out. (I also eyeballed the cream and chocolate, so while I provided measurements, they're not exact.)

Chocolate Pumpkin Cups

1 can (15 oz) pumpkin
1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/3 cup heavy cream
about 1/3 lb white chocolate
about 1 lb dark chocolate
mini paper cups

In a pan over medium heat, mix together pumpkin and spices. Cook pumpkin for 3-5 minutes or until it begins to condense and look dry. Whisk in cream and heat through, then remove from heat and whisk in white chocolate until melted. Transfer to a bowl and freeze for at least an hour.

Arrange paper cups on a tray that will fit in your freezer. In a double boiler, melt the dark chocolate. Add about a tablespoon of chocolate to each cup, and use a small kitchen brush (or a small, new painting brush) to bring the chocolate up along the sides of the cup. Freeze until chocolate is hardened. Add another layer of chocolate to the sides (not the bottom) of the cup with the brush to build stronger walls, then freeze until hardened. Add a small amount of the pumpkin filling (about a teaspoon), then cover with more chocolate. Freeze until hardened, then try not to eat them all at once.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ye Olde Boston Food Toure

Last night, the wonderful Lily von Schtoop from Calamity Shazaam in the Kitchen and I embarked on a tour of our shared Yankee heritage, which we quickly dubbed the Ye Olde Boston Food Toure. (See Lily's report here.) It was like playing tourist in our own city (especially since most of our stops were pretty touristy). And despite having lived in Boston my whole life, I had only visited one of these restaurants before. For fun, we had Phyllis Meras' The Historic Shops & Restaurants of Boston along for reference, which we used to amuse ourselves (and our waitstaff).

Our first stop was Durgin Park in Quincy Market. A mainstay of Yankee cooking, Durgin Park is known for surly waitresses and huge meals catered to tourists. Since this was just our first stop, we didn't go for a whole meal (although I have heard good things about the Prime Rib). Instead, we started with clam chowder, baked beans, and cornbread. The chowder was a lot like what I grew up with, with a thinner broth and extremely tender clams. The beans were surprisingly tasty (especially since I don't even like baked beans) - I doubt I could eat a whole bowl of them, but it was still good. The cornbread was a definite no - bland and uninteresting.

For dessert, we went for the Indian pudding and the coffee jello. The pudding was served piping hot with melty vanilla ice cream on top, and it was delicious. With all that molasses, it tasted like New England in the fall. And the coffee jello - we ordered this pretty much because it sounded so odd, and the serving we received definitely didn't disappoint. I dubbed it "astronaut coffee" because it was like a good ol' cup of coffee, only in solid form. The gelatin was very stiff with a strong, unsweetened coffee flavor, and it was topped with overly sweet, overly whipped cream. It was very odd, and yet, I couldn't stop myself from eating it. Gross and delicious at the same time.

Overall, Durgin Park offers better food than I thought it would, especially with the desserts. I doubt I'll be eating there regularly, but I wouldn't hesitate to take visitors there.

Next up was the Union Oyster House, where we sat at the semi-circular oyster bar for oysters and more chowder. My companion enjoyed her bivalves quite a bit (I'm not a fan, so I passed), but the chowder was delicious. It was quite different than that of Durgin Park - thicker and creamier, with more chunks of clams and potatoes. But while the chowder was very good, the atmosphere, with flies buzzing around, piles of oysters sitting around in slushy ice, and a bar that's not quite level, was... unique, to say the least. It was a little slice of Boston, with locals and tourists crammed in side-by-side, and we even caught a glimpse of Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi on his way in for dinner.

After all that chowder, we were ready for a little break. We wandered over to Cafe Marliave, the only restaurant of the bunch that I had been to before. The Marliave closed a few years ago after over 100 years of business, and it was just reopened about a month and a half ago by new owner, Scott Herrit (of Grotto, which I love). We sat at the bar and enjoyed a few cocktails. Keeping with our Ye Olde Theme, I opted for the Molasses Flood 1919 (Sailor Jerry's Rum, molasses, lime, and bitters) and the Boston Tea Party (tequila, Earl Grey tea, house-made ginger beer, and lemon). They were both very well mixed by Robbie, our great bartender, although I liked the Molasses Flood more (the Tea Party was sweeter than I was in the mood for). We also had a little sample of pumpkin apple soup, a delicious blend of fall in a cup. I'm eager to head back to try more of their food, which smelled amazing.

Our final stop for the night was at the Omni Parker House for their famous Parker House rolls and Boston Cream Pie (recipes for both can be found on the hotel's website). And while sitting in the bar, overlooking the old city hall across the street, on a cold evening was enjoyable, the food was less than spectacular. The rolls seemed like an imitation of what they should be - buttery with a hint of sweet, and soft with a slightly crispy crust. These specimens were, however, oily and dense and just not right. The Boston Cream Pie was another disappointment - the sponge cake and the pastry cream were both very good, but it was all ruined with a coating of limp, slivered almonds, an almost solid chocolate topping, and fake whipped cream. I know, I know, both of these items were invented at the Parker House, but they are so beloved in our fair city (especially the Boston Cream Pie, which is the official dessert of Massachusetts) that they pale in comparison to what can be had at other spots.

Our Ye Olde Boston Food Toure ended up being a fun adventure through (mostly) tourist-land. Durgin Park, the Union Oyster House, and the Parker House all have their places among the culinary history of Boston, and while they are often overlooked by us locals, they are sometimes the only places visitors stop to get a taste of local food. The Marliave only hints at its past, especially since it has been refigured for a more contemporary crowd, with gourmet comfort foods and terrific cocktails.

Any thoughts on where Lily and I should visit for our next Ye Olde Toure?

Durgin-Park on Urbanspoon Durgin Park
Union Oyster House on Urbanspoon Union Oyster House
Cafe Marliave on Urbanspoon Cafe Marliave
Parker's Restaurant on Urbanspoon Omni Parker House

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tons of great products at Expo East

Last week, I had the great opportunity to attend Expo East, a natural products showcase at the Boston Convention Center. The convention center is a truly huge space, and for this show, it was packed with thousands of booths offering natural health and beauty products, vitamin supplements, and natural foods. Guess what area I focused on?

I loved getting the chance to talk to producers and hear why they were passionate about their products. There was a strong showing of vendors from New England, and I especially enjoyed talking with them - many of them were clearly very excited to be presenting to the more than 26,000 attendees.

Some of my favorites:

White Mountain Kettle Corn makes quite possibly the best Kettle Corn I've ever had. It was very well balanced between sweet and salty. I find that kettle corn is often too sweet, but this product had plenty of salt too. Plus, it's local (not too far from Manchester, NH) and a terribly addictive snack. I loved talking to White Mountain's president, the charming Priscilla Dube, who told me how the company began as a retirement project for her and her husband. What a delicious retirement!

Putney Pasta's booth was much like it's packaging - bright, vibrant, and inviting. When I think of frozen ravioli, I think of the rather bland ones I ate as a kid, but these have changed my perception of frozen ravioli. The pasta was not too dense, and the fillings were bursting with flavor. They were also sampling their new skillet meals (complete with meat and sauce), and while I've ragged on some frozen meals before, these were delicious and tasted homemade. Considering how hectic my life can be sometimes, I think these would be great to keep on hand. Plus, it's another (fairly) local company, from Brattleboro, VT.

Baji's offers Indian-inspired convenience food. Their papadums come in four flavors (cilantro, mango chutney, yogurt dill, and tandoori). Flavors like these are hard to find in snack foods, and these crispy little snacks really fill a void in the market. Their microwaveable rice meals offer a quick, filling, and healthy meal (with real veggies!) in no time - I'll definitely be giving these a try on my days when I have about 10 minutes for lunch. Plus, Baji's was the most local of my favs - they're in Sudbury, MA!

Sunbutter is a terrific alternative to peanut butter (for those who can't have pb or want something a little different). The texture is great, not at all grainy like some pb-alternatives can be. If you're paying enough attention, the flavor is definitely sunflower seeds, but not so much that it's distracting. I enjoyed this product a lot, and while it's not going to replace peanut butter for me, it would be a great option for changing things up every once in a while.

Harvard Common Press was on hand showing off some of their cookbook selection (their other focus is on parenting books). They have tons of beautiful and creative cookbooks for kitchen inspiration. I was actually in the bookstore just a couple of days ago and saw their Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies - it's a great concept and is well-executed, and knowing my passion for cookies (especially at Christmas time), I'm sure this one will end up on my shelf sometime soon.

There were also quite a few companies offering a different kind of dried fruit - crispy! I really enjoyed Bare Fruit, Danielle Snacks, Crispy Green, and Just Tomatoes. Sometimes I crave something crunchy and the only things on hand are not the most healthy choices. But crispy fruit (and veggies, in the case of Danielle and Just Tomatoes) are a fantastic alternative that sates the urge for crispiness while providing good-for-you food. (Plus, Danielle is also another local company!)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jimmy Kimmel's Cooking Tips

So I've never watched the Bonnie Hunt Show before, but I had the tv on in the background while I worked on my homework on Tuesday and I'm so glad I did! Jimmy Kimmel starting talking about his diet and how he can eat whatever he wants so long as it's imaginary and, of course, he had to show Bonnie one of his favorite recipes.

The best part? They both took it so seriously (well, at least at the beginning). I love when he critiques her knife skills... And then they passed samples around the audience! I love it!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I Made Stock!

And it was easy!

I've been wanting to try my hand at stock for a while, especially last week when I woke up sick and wanted soup IMMEDIATELY. And a while ago, I stumbled across Michael Ruhlman's "recipe" for stock and knew it was just my speed.

So when I bought a delicious rotisserie chicken from Russo's this weekend (as did my friend Ann, who sent me home with her chicken carcass as well), it was time to try my hand at stock. I just dumped both sets of chicken bones in a large pot, covered them with water, and brought it up to a simmer on the stovetop. Once it was simmering, I stuck it in the oven (heated to somewhere between 180° and 200°) for about 5 hours. During the last hour, I added in some carrots, celery, parsnips, an onion, and a bouquet garni. The hardest part was, once the stock was all done, straining it through a coffee filter (sadly, no cheesecloth could be had in my house). This part took quite a while, but was still not hard at all.

The result? Clear, delicious, and nuanced stock that truly tastes like chicken. I can definitely see the benefit of this over the canned stuff. And with a technique as simple as this one, I doubt I'll be using that canned stuff too frequently (which means saving money and not having to lug heavy bags back from the store!).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cheap Eats: Masa

Let's face it: tapas can be an expensive endeavor. Everyone shares a variety of small plates, each costing anywhere from $6 to $18. It's lots of fun to try tons of different dishes, but the little plates can adds up fast. At Masa in the South End, however, tapas in the bar are a much more economical night out.

With a predominantly Southwestern menu, Masa puts a twist on traditional tapas. Instead of ordering a plate about the size of a small appetizer, these tapas are single pieces, about 2 or 3 bites each. Luckily, they only run $1, so you can pick and choose from the list of 10. Platters of all 10 are also available for $10 and are satisfying enough to be a meal. If you have the chance, visit between 5pm and 7pm, when the whole platter is reduced to $5, a truly amazing deal.

And because each tapas is so small, the flavors are intense. The shredded chicken taquito is crispy on the outside with well-seasoned chicken on the inside. The chorizo, sliced and warmed with just a little bit of char on the edges, is salty and chewy and a little sweet from the jam on top. Crispy shrimp are tiny little sweet and spicy nuggets of joy. With so much variety, you'll definitely be able to find something you love.

Originally posted on Bostonist.

Masa on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lemon Chicken Orzo Soup

The roommate and I were both feeling under the weather this weekend, and the only things I could think about Monday morning were soup and orange juice. So, I did what I usually do when I'm sick, and I trudged off to the supermarket with a cloudy head and procured some home remedy ingredients.

I had been to the New England Soup Factory on Saturday for a filling meal before an afternoon of studying, and I had a hard time deciding between split pea with spinach or their orzo, lemon and chicken soup. So, of course, I still had the orzo, lemon and chicken soup on the brain Monday morning, and I had to try my hand at it.

And am I happy I did. Based on Greek avgolemono, this stuff is definitely a cold-killer, and it's easy enough to make when you can't entirely think straight. Although making this did make me wish I had a larger freezer - I used canned broth, but homemade stock would have been so much better, and that larger freezer would give me room to have it on hand. *sigh*

Lemon Chicken Orzo Soup

10 cups chicken broth
1 cup orzo
4 eggs, beaten
Juice of 3 lemons
Zest of 2 lemons
3 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
10 ounces fresh spinach, chopped
salt and pepper

In a large pot, bring the broth to a boil over medium high heat. Add the orzo and cook about 5 minutes. While stirring, pour in eggs in a thin ribbon (so they don't clump up in the heat). Continue stirring until the eggs are cooked into threads. Add lemon juice, zest, chicken, spinach, and salt and pepper to taste. Return to a boil, then remove from the heat and serve.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Cheap Eats: Fajitas and 'Ritas

Cheap Mexican food is easy to find, but cheap sit-down Mexican is not so forthcoming. Luckily, Fajitas & 'Ritas in Downtown Crossing offers south-of-the-border eats with less cafeteria-style ambiance. Whether you're looking for appetizers and pitchers of margaritas or a full meal, there's plenty on the menu that will satisfy.

The nachos are a great place to start, a huge platter of chips and cheese, starting at just $2.86. Choose your own toppings, like the tomato, olive, and guacamole nachos pictured above. Or go for a plate of sizzling fajitas or a gooey quesadilla for a filling meal. And yes, the drinks are cheap and strong and make a great accompaniment to the food (or is it the other way around?). Frozen margaritas start at just over $4 each or $11.60 for a pitcher.

Fajitas and 'Ritas is located at 25 West Street, just off Tremont Street. They open daily at 11:30am and close Sunday at 8pm, Monday and Tuesday at 9pm, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10pm, and Friday at 11pm.

Originally posted on Bostonist.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Monkey Business in a Japanese Restaurant

I would totally eat at this place if I were visiting Japan. I mean, monkey waiters!

And the people who were interviewed must think waiters and children are pretty bad if the monkeys are a better alternative...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Best of Boston Dining 2008

Boston Magazine's yearly Best of Boston came out back in August, and since then, they've been throwing parties for the different selections (such as Best of Fashion, and Best of Boston North and Best of Boston South). Last night, though, was Best of Boston Dining at the 808 Gallery at BU, and man was it a great party.

Many of the winners were on hand with samples of their dishes that helped bring them to the top. And while I didn't (and still don't) agree on some of the choices, there were many restaurants there last night that truly brought their A-game to the show.

The Beehive (winner for Best Family-Friendly Brunch and Best Pickup Bar, oddly) featured a killer roast pork with foie gras stuffing - so tender that the dinky little plastic forks could cut through it, and they even gave us some of the ribs to get every last morsel of goodness off of.

Diesel Cafe (Best Coffeehouse) presented sandwiches, spreads, and drinks that were much better than I remember from my time spent in Davis Square - the Lil' Piston (their version of a caprese sandwich) was so intensely flavorful that I can't imagine eating a whole one for lunch, and their jasmine limeade was a very refreshing choice.

Hungry Mother (Best Comeback) offered up little biscuits with ham and pepper jelly - sweet and salty, they were perfect little snack bites.

Church (Best Neighborhood Brunch, Fenway/Symphony) offered some un-brunchy options, like the Vanity cocktail and fantastic shrimp ceviche on tortilla chips - I've been meaning to make my way to Church for a while, but this cemented my desire... I guess I'll have to order a Gluttony when I do go.

ChocoLee Chocolates (Best Chocolates) had some of the most perfectly balanced chocolate flavors I've seen in ages, such as dark chocolate with salted caramel and dark chocolate with fig filling.

This party was a great way to get introduced to some places I had never heard of (hello, ChocoLee), to get peeks at places I've been wanting to visit (Beehive, Hungry Mother, and Church), and to revisit places I had previously brushed aside (Diesel Cafe). I'm definitely looking forward to visiting all those places!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cheap Eats: Bottega Fiorentina

Fall and the accompanying cooler weather mean apples, pumpkins... and comfort food like pasta. Luckily, Bottega Fiorentina (both on Newbury Street and the original location in Coolidge Corner) offers a multitude of fresh and fantastic pasta dishes daily to fill that need.

You could eat at Bottega Fiorentina every day for weeks and never have the same thing twice. There are five specials a day (like Tuesday's lasagna with meat and bechamel or Friday's pumpkin tortellini in a butter sage sauce), plus a made-to-order option with your choice of pasta and sauce. The penne with Fedora sauce (tomato, red pepper, garlic, rosemary, and cream), pictured above, is both sweet and spicy, and the pasta is cooked to a perfect al dente. The majority of the pasta dishes are under $10 and are available for dine-in or take-out.

Bottega Fiorentina is located at 264 Newbury Street in Boston (open daily 10am-10pm) and 313 Harvard Street in Brookline (open Monday through Saturday 11am-8:30pm).

Originally posted on Bostonist.

Bottega Fiorentina on Urbanspoon Brookline
Bottega Fiorentina on Urbanspoon Boston

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Corn and Scallion Chowder

I love corn soups, but I don't have the best track record in making them. So it was with some hesitance that I decided to try a corn chowder from Fine Cooking magazine with what will probably be my last farmers market corn of the year.

I am very glad that I made this soup, though. It was just what I was looking for - creamy, sweet, salty, warm, and comforting - and will undoubtedly secure a place in my repertoire now. The scallions were a surprising ingredient for a soup, but I was really happy with the mild onion flavor, as well as the texture, that they added. I'm sure this chowder would be good without the bacon (I promised my roommate I'd make some bacon-free for him sometime) if that's your style.

Corn and Scallion Chowder (adapted from Fine Cooking)

6 ears of corn
1 bunch of scallions (5-6 ounces)
4 slices of bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 jalapeno, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
salt and pepper
4 cups chicken broth
1 large potato, peeled and diced
1/4 heavy cream

Clean the corn and cut the kernels from the cobs. Reserve two cobs and discard the rest. Finely slice the scallions, keeping the dark green slices separate from the white and light green slices.

In a deep pot over medium heat, cook bacon until crispy and brown. Remove the bacon pieces from the pot and cool on a paper towel. Drain off the bacon fat, discarding all but 1 Tbsp. Return the pan to medium heat and add the butter to the 1 Tbsp bacon fat. When the butter has melted, add the jalapeno, a pinch of salt and pepper, and the white and light green scallion slices. Stir until the scallions are soft, about 3 minutes.

Add the broth, corn, corn cobs, and potato, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Remove and discard the corn cobs.

With an immersion blender, blend the soup for about 30 seconds, just until it begins to look creamy - you want plenty of chunks left. Alternatively, transfer about 1 cup to a blender and puree before adding back to the rest of the soup. Add the cream and 2/3 of the dark green scallions, and stir until the scallions are wilted. Serve topped with the remaining dark green scallions and the crumbled bacon.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pushing Daisies Cup Pies

Apparently this week is all about food and television for me. Tonight, Pushing Daisies has its season premiere, and what better food to have to celebrate with than cup pies! Pushing Daisies has such a unique style that it's hard not to love it - quirky storylines, a fairytale-like narrator, bright sets, good writing, a love triangle... and PIE! Ned the pie maker can bring the dead back to life, whether it's fruit past its prime or his childhood crush, Chuck.

So, I've been wanting to make these cup pies since Chuck suggested them to Ned, and I've been curious about cheese baked into the crust as well (which Chuck does for her depressed, cheese-loving aunts), so why not combine them? This dough is fantastic and easy to put make and use, so this may be my default pie dough from now on. I even enjoyed the leftover scraps (coated in egg wash and sugar), and now I want to make cookies out of it. And the cup pie shape has a much better dough-to-filling ratio, at least for my tastes. I can't wait to try it with other fillings.

Apple Cup Pies

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
14 Tbsp (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, frozen and cut into small cubes
about 3 ounces Gruyere cheese, finely grated
1/2 cup (or more) very cold water

2 large apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp flour

1 egg, beaten
sugar for dusting

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, and butter. Using the tips of your fingers, blend the butter into the flour until pea-size clumps begin to form. Add cheese and mix in. Add water and knead until the dough just pulls together (add a little extra water if there is a lot of extra flour in the bowl). Divide dough in half and pat each half into flattened disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and store in the fridge for at least an hour, or up to 2 days.

In a medium bowl, combine chopped apples, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and flour. Mix to ensure that the apples are fully covered in the mixture.

Using a 12-cup cupcake pan, grease alternating cups (so that any overflow or overhang from the cup pies does not get in the way of other cup pies) - the outside cups in one row, the inner cup in the next row, etc.

On a floured surface, roll out one of the dough disks until it is about 1/4-inch thick. Using a large cup or biscuit cutter (about 4 1/2 inch), cut 6 circles and fit into the greased cups. Make sure to push them in so they fit into the bottoms and sides of the cups. Fill each pie with apple mixture, heaped up over the top of the pan. Roll out the second half of the dough and use a smaller cup or biscuit cutter (about 3 1/2 inch) to cut 6 circles. Top each pie with the smaller circles and press the edges together to seal. Brush the top of each pie with beaten egg and dust with sugar, then cut some small steam holes in the tops.

Bake for 15 minutes at 425°, then reduce the heat to 350° and bake an another 15 minutes, until the dough is golden and the filling begins to bubble out (in fact, if your cupcake pan doesn't have edges, you may want to set a sheet pan underneath to catch any drippings).

Serve warm with ice cream, or at room temperature any time (especially handy for adding to a lunch).