Monday, December 20, 2010

Holiday Castle Siege

What would Christmas be without creating something ridiculous out of cookie? A few years ago, there was the Great Gingerbread Massacre, and last year, my friends and I recreated the movie Zombieland with gingerbread. After "castle siege" was suggested this year, I knew I would have to attempt it. I immediately googled "gingerbread trebuchet" and got some great ideas. (Click the picture above to embiggen.)

(By the way, in my googling, I found the most amazing recreations of scenes from the Lord of the Rings, done entirely in candy. Check them out.)

My friend Melody was along for the whole ride, and many of her suggestions are what made this thing so awesome. While I was baking the pieces, she pulled out a toy horse cookie cutter and said that we had to make a Trojan horse. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a HUGE nerd about the Trojan war, so how could I not make one after she pointed it out? I put a little platform between the two horse cookies and loaded it up with little men. There's even a ladder on the back for them to climb.

There are just so many awesome things in this scene, and they make me laugh just thinking about them. There's a prisoner who's being set on fire, men on top of the wall with vats of hot pitch, a ladder thrown over the castle wall, a guy sneakily trying to set the castle on fire, and a few men impaled by thrown javelins.

And of course, there's the gingerbread trebuchet. The thing actually moves!! The counterweight is a little house-shaped box attached to a pretzel rod with a toothpick, and the basket is a mini cupcake wrapper attached to the pretzel with string licorice and loaded with Whoppers. The pretzel itself is attached to the base via a wooden skewer, and it moves up and down. The only thing missing is a mechanism to secure the basket pre-firing. Hey, I'm no engineer.

By the way, this whole thing was made with one batch of my favorite gingerbread and one batch of royal icing. It was all pretty easy (although I am aware that my definition of "easy" is a bit skewed.)

I love having fun with gingerbread. Have any good gingerbread creations to share?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Za'atar-Crusted Chicken with Pomegranate Tabouli

A few months ago, I heard the rumbling about a new site that would pair food bloggers with products in order to create unique recipes. Little did I know that I would be joining in the fun that is Kitchen Play so soon!

I was sent a link to MySpiceSage.com, this month's sponsor, with the instructions that I was to pick out something to use for an entree. Immediately, my mind was racing. With an entire spice store at my fingertips, how was I to narrow down my recipes? I wasn't sure what to do, so in the end, I just picked a wild (and not often used) spice, za'atar, figuring it could use a little love, and started brainstorming.

Za'atar is a blend of dried herbs (MySpiceSage.com uses thyme), sesame seeds, and salt. There are as many variations on this blend as there are cooks who use it (and can include oregano, marjoram, sumac, savory, cumin, coriander, fennel, or caraway), but those three ingredients are what makes za'atar za'atar. I opted to add some sumac to my mix to give it a lighter, fruitier flavor. Of course, if you like the base flavor of the spice mix, the real fun comes in blending your own to get exactly the flavors you like.

When it came to actually using the za'atar, though, I was a little stumped. The only place I've ever seen it used was on bread, much like foccacia, at my local Armenian grocery store - definitely not something to make an entree out of. So I opted to stick with the Armenian flavors and pull out a little trick that my mother had used in my childhood.

Whenever my mother and I would go through the effort of making boreg (either sou boreg or the crispy version that is much like spanakopita triangles), there would inevitably be leftover cheese filling. Instead of just throwing it away, she would combine it with chicken and bake it up for dinner, like a nice little preview of the special-occasion appetizers we had slaved over all day. I don't know why I never thought to ask her just to make that for dinner without having to go through all the other cooking.

So here we are: crazy Middle Eastern spice + childhood memories = a dish that is perfect for any dinner party (or any dinner, really). I paired the chicken with a winter-y version of tabouli, incorporating pomegranate seeds, more sumac (which may be my new favorite spice after this challenge), and just a hint of spicy cayenne pepper (ok, I added more than just a hint to my final dish, but you don't have to go as far as me). The chicken reheats wonderfully, and the tabouli is almost better the second day, so don't worry about having leftovers around.

You can join in the fun of the Progressive Party and earn a chance to win $100 by recreating this and other recipes at home. Check out the contest page of Kitchen Play for more details.

Za'atar-Crusted Chicken
2 cups (about 8 ounces) shredded muenster cheese
1/2 cup cottage cheese
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
6 chicken breasts
1/2 cup za'atar
1/2 cup panko
1 Tbsp sumac
2 egg whites

Preheat oven to 350°. Coat a 13x9 glass baking dish with cooking spray and set aside. Combine shredded muenster cheese, cottage cheese, and parsley, stirring well to evenly distribute, and set aside.

Place one chicken breast between two sheets of wax paper and, using the flat end of a meat tenderizer, a rolling pin, or the flat bottom of a pan, pound the chicken until it is uniformly flat. Don't hit it too hard or the meat will tear. Place 1/6th of the cheese mixture in the center of the flattened chicken and pull the sides up around the cheese. Use toothpicks to secure the chicken closed. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

In a shallow bowl, combine za'atar, panko, and sumac. Dip chicken in egg white, then za'atar mixture, making sure to evenly cover all the sides. Place chicken in the prepared baking dish, seam-side down. Bake for 40 minutes. Make sure to remove the toothpicks before serving.

Pomegranate Tabouli
1 cup fine bulgur wheat
2 cups hot water
1 tsp salt
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1 Tbsp mint, finely chopped
1/4 cup lemon juice*
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp sumac
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
salt and pepper

Place bulgur wheat in a large bowl and pour in water. Stir in salt and cover with a kitchen towel. After 30 minutes, drain off any excess water. Stir in parsley and mint. Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, sumac, and cayenne and pour over the salad. Add pomegranate seeds and salt and pepper to taste; mix well to combine. Best served at room temperature.

*Microwave your lemon for about 10 seconds to get more juice out of it - 1/4 cup juice should be about one lemon.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Kolokithopita

The problem with blogging, as with so many other things, is that the longer you're away from it, the harder it is to get back into it. For literally six weeks, I've come to my computer almost daily with the intent to blog, but every day that passed and it didn't happen, the less likely I was to actually do it. Well, here I am, having had to create a post for a special assignment (you'll read all about it on December 1st), which managed to get me back into the blogging mindset (hopefully).

That doesn't mean that I haven't cooked anything in six weeks. Quite the opposite, in fact, and I kept taking pictures and jotting down recipes with the hope that it would kick-start some writing. In fact, one week I roasted a pumpkin (ok, a buttercup squash, which has more flavor than a sugar pumpkin) and used it in just about everything I made.

That was how I stumbled across the wonder that is kolokithopita. I was searching for pumpkin recipes and came across montcarte's recipe from last fall. Most importantly, it was a savory use of pumpkin puree, which is much less common than sweet uses. Less importantly, but still intriguing to me, it involved feta cheese (really, any cheese would make me happy) and phyllo dough (which always produces impressive results).

I ended up making this twice in one week because it was so good. The first time, I could barely hold myself back from cutting into it - I wanted to wait until dinner, but instead I declared it an appetizer (hours early?) and just dug in. I'm glad I didn't wait - the crispy exterior and the creamy interior, the natural sweetness of the pumpkin and the salty goodness of the cheese made this a pretty perfect pumpkin dish. At the end of the week, I was invited to a housewarming party and thought it would make a good side dish. The kolokithopita travels well and is good warm, room-temperature, or cold out of the fridge. Plus, it's fun to say.

Don't let the use of phyllo dough scare you off. I know a lot of people are a bit frightened of using it, as it is known to be a somewhat cantankerous dough. This is a good recipe to learn on, though, since it's got to be roll and twisted. The dough WILL rip in this recipe, but it's not a problem since the focus isn't on laying it perfectly flat (like it is in recipes like baklava). Plus, this recipe uses very little phyllo (less than half a box), so if you screw up a lot, you still have more than enough to get the job done.

Kolokithopita
1 stick butter, melted
2 cups pumpkin puree (I like ambercup or buttercup squash, but canned works just as well)
3/4 cup crumbled feta (about 4 oz)
2 eggs
1 tsp nutmeg
1 Tbsp honey
phyllo dough

Preheat oven to 350°. Brush an 8-inch round cake pan with butter and set aside.

Mix together pumpkin, feta, eggs, nutmeg, and honey. Stir well to combine.

Lay one sheet of phyllo dough on work surface and brush with melted butter. Lay a second sheet of dough directly on top of first sheet and brush with more butter. Lay filling in a thin strip along one of the long sides (but don't go all the way to the edge or the filling will squeeze out). Gently roll the dough away from you, forming a long snake. Arrange the snake inside the baking pan, curving it to fit the curve of the pan. Brush the exterior of the snake with more butter. Repeat with remaining dough and filling until the pan is filled (make sure to brush each curve of the dough with butter as you add it to the pan - the butter is what makes it flaky). Bake for 45 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Not Armenia

This is not the post I had hoped to be posting this week. I had hoped to tell you that I was off on a two-week trip to Armenia, my de facto homeland (although all my grandparents were from towns that are well into Turkey). I had hoped to tell you that I busy eating pomegranates right off the trees and seeing bread cook in tradition tanor ovens (the precursor to the Indian tandoor). Instead, our trip had to be canceled at the very last minute, and I'm left telling you that I am still here in Boston, missing a place that I have never seen.

The morning of our trip, my father woke up with the worst arthritis pain he has ever had, and we spent the morning on the phone with Air France and American Express Travel trying to recoup some of our losses (over 4 hours on the phone, however, gained us nothing, and we still lost the entire cost of our plane tickets). To say it mildly, I was bummed, but we all agreed that it was better to be safe than sorry.

So then I hoped that I would cook a bunch of Armenian dishes, but I haven't exactly lived up to that promise. I've mostly been moping around, trying to keep my DVR as clean as possible and working on some embroideries. I have promised my father a batch of simit, and I have already bought the ingredients for that, so I know I'll make at least one recipe in the next few days. I've been wanting to try something different, but I realized that I've already made quite a few Armenian dishes for this blog: manti, paklava, baba ganoush, kadayif, sou boreg, tourshi, vospov kheyma, mock kheyma, and string cheese.

Instead, while I was busy organizing and packing for the trip last week, I took some time to make tabbouleh from the piles of parsley in my garden. I hadn't anticipated that it would be useful in such a way as this, but these things always work out as they should, right?

Tabbouleh (often spelled tabouli or with other variations) can be made in a million different ways, as long as there is parsley, bulgur wheat, oil, and lemon juice. I like mine to be predominantly parsley, with just a hint of wheat, but the ratios can be changed depending on your own taste. I also love chopping herbs, so I don't mind the effort that goes into making this dish predominantly parsley. I like a little spice in mine, but that can be left out.

Tabbouleh
1/2 cup fine bulgur wheat
1 cup warm water
2 large bunches parsley
2 large sprigs mint
4 scallions
1 large tomato
olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
salt
cayenne pepper

In a large bowl, combine bulgur wheat and water. Stir so that all the grains are coated with water. Let soak while you chop the vegetables, or at least 30 minutes. If the wheat soaks up all the water while you are chopping, add a little bit more.

Finely mince the parsley, mint, and scallions. I mean fine. Remove the seeds from the tomato and chop fine. Pour off any excess water from the bulgur wheat, then add parsley, mint, scallions, and tomato. Add some olive oil, a little at a time, and the lemon juice. Toss well to coat. Make sure to add enough oil so that the salad is not dry. Season with salt and pepper (or cayenne pepper) to taste.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Baltimore Wrap Up

Weddings can be a great chance to explore a city that you're not familiar with. I had been to Baltimore a while ago, but most of what I remember from that trip was sitting in the back of my parents' car with my headphones on, trying to avoid interacting with them in any way possible. Oh, and the wonders of the Walters Art Museum.

My second visit to Baltimore was much more interesting. I attended my college friend Rick's wedding and got to spend the whole weekend with my college roommate Caroline. It was a short trip - Friday evening to Sunday afternoon - but we fit in a fair amount of food (yeah, and sightseeing too).

Friday night, after we checked in and took a bit of a stroll, we ended up at Brewer's Art for dinner. I had read online that dining in the bar was a good alternative to the pricier dining room, so we grabbed a small table with two tall wing back chairs and awkwardly made our way through dinner (oh, we need to place food orders at the bar? We need to yell to each other to be heard? OK, why not.). While we waited for our meal, a man in a suit towered over us, and we looked up to see our friend, the groom. Turns out we had picked the same spot as the rehearsal dinner, and since Rick is a foodie too, we knew we were in for some good food. We shared the falafel (fava beans, chickpeas, and green peas with lemon sesame vinaigrette, cucumber, arugula, and tomato), served with super-garlicky parmesan fries and the flatbread (smoked ham, herbed marscapone, bourbon-soaked cherries, mustard seeds, and arugula). They were both fantastic (despite the horrible picture I took of them), but I really loved the flatbread. It was crispy, creamy, smoky, sweet, and salty in every bite. I might have to suggest these toppings the next time my friends make grilled pizza... Brewer's Art also had Ace Pear Cider, which I've only had once before but loved.

On Saturday, we were surprised at how hard it was to find coffee in the morning. We kind of hovered outside one coffee shop until it opened at 10am. After that, we wandered towards Lexington Market to check out all the food stalls. We only ended up tasting an all-lump crab cake from the famous Faidley's, which was incredibly moist and filled with huge chunks of crab, but a lot of the other stalls were enticing.

Since the wedding wasn't until 7pm, we had a light meal at around 4 to tide us over. We stopped in at Iggies, and because of the hour, it was mostly empty. I was thrilled by this pizza and found myself wishing that Iggies had a branch in Boston. Caroline went with the Funghi (mushrooms, leeks, goat cheese, and housemade mozzarella), while I opted for the Pepe (arugula, ricotta, and lemon). The crust was perfectly crisp, and the toppings were light and fresh. The arugula, especially, was dressed just right (including a good amount of salt and pepper!). Man, I could go for one of these pizza right now, in fact.

The wedding itself, held in the Peabody Library, was beautiful. Rick is Chinese and his wife is Jewish, and the rabbi did a wonderful job of combining their two traditions. The party was great, even though I only knew four people in the entire room, and the food was some of the fanciest I've seen at a wedding. For dessert, alongside the regular wedding cake (lemon raspberry), servers came around with mini pie pops (above), hazelnut mousse in a white chocolate cup, and other little sweet bites. It almost rivaled my friend Cicely's wedding, where the caterer, dressed in a red satin nehru-collared jacket and giant Dracula brooch, offered our very drunk group of friends warm cookies and cold milk.

On Sunday, after brunch at our hotel with the bride and groom, I forced a tour of the Walters Gallery on Caroline (who has never been a big fan of art museums, but gracefully always goes along with my plans). I took a ton of pictures of ancient statues, as I am wont to do, and spent much less time in the more modern galleries.

We didn't have much time between the museum and our flights, so we wandered around a bit and finally settled on Maisy's. Our meal started off strong, with an excellent crab and artichoke dip, hot and cheesy. There definitely wasn't enough bread, but we didn't mind - we just cleaned up the plate with our forks. When it came to our entrees, though, things went very wrong. There were three things wrong with our two sandwiches. I sighed and just opted to eat mine(avocado, tomato, spinach, sprouts, spicy mayo, and I added bacon) (I asked for no mayo, but there weren't giant globs of it, just a light coating, so I wasn't too offended), but they screwed up Caroline's pretty bad. She sent it back, and the second try was still wrong. I'm pretty sure this wouldn't have happened if the waitress (the only one on the floor) had just written our order down instead of trying to remember it. At least the dip was good!

Long story short, my trip to Baltimore was a great time, but I wish I had had more time to explore the city. From the little research I did online, there's a lot of good food to be had there. I guess that just means I'll have to go back ;)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

You Know the Food Is Going to Be Good at a Blogger Potluck

At the beginning of the summer, I wanted to have a blogger picnic potluck. I figured with so many good food bloggers around, it would be a great opportunity to eat great food and meet fantastic people. Well, next thing I knew, early June had turned into late August, and still I hadn't planned anything. Luckily, that's when I heard that Maggie of Eat Boutique had the same idea.

So on Sunday, I met up with Erin (and CK) of Erin Cooks, and we headed up to Maggie's house. We were greeted by Maggie's gorgeous dog, tables filled with food, and plenty of bloggers enjoying the crisp weather. I brought along my cheddar scallion scones (both with and without bacon), because who doesn't love baked goods involving bacon, and my potato chip cookies, which are nothing if not a conversation starter.

Sometimes I feel like an old hat at this whole blogging thing since I've been at it for over three years. But it's always wonderful to meet so many people that I previously didn't know (or only knew via their Twitter handle). We chatted and ate and drank for hours.

Dale of Drinks Are On Me brought his Champagne Campaign to the potluck, teaching sabrage to those willing to give it a shot (and here he is demonstrating). Kitchen.Seven.Five brought a fantastic carrot and feta salad, 5th Joy created perfectly-wrapped prosciutto, fruit, and herb bundles, and Lady Gouda (who happens to be good friends with my cousin!) made a delicious fig and prosciutto flatbread. It was only the second time I've met Rob and Laura, The Two Palaverers, but they greeted me like old friends (their apple cake was awesome and went perfectly with the weather, too). Bite Me New England offered up a pesto goat cheese torta and a shrimp "ceviche" that I had to stop myself from eating too much of. Jeanine from Apartment Therapy brought homemade applesauce, The Musing Bouche made corn and okra pudding (which I sadly didn't taste because I was already full), and I got the chance to chat with Just A Waitress for a just a minute before we left. Erin Cooks made a wonderful orzo salad with feta, dried cherries, and arugula that I'm going to copy for myself. And of course, our amazing host, Maggie of Eat Boutique, made (amongst other things) pulled pork with mango BBQ sauce. There was more, I'm sure, but it's slipping my mind. (I have a few more pictures here.)

I loved meeting everyone this weekend, and even better than talking with fellow food bloggers is eating their food. What's your go-to potluck dish?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Blogger Dinner at Audubon Circle

I worked in Kenmore Square for a few years, and although we didn't go out for sit-down lunches often and (surprisingly) almost never went out for cocktails after work, I got to know the restaurants in the area pretty well. And yet, there are still places in the neighborhood that I barely know at all. Take Audubon Circle, for example. Located on Beacon Street towards the St. Mary's T stop, it's all of a five minute walk from Kenmore, and yet I had only ever been there once, and only for drinks at that.

So when I was invited to try the food at Audubon Circle, I knew it was a great chance to experience something that kept slipping off my radar. I arrived at the restaurant and settled in next to my good friend The Leather District Gourmet as the rest of the group arrived. We ordered drinks (I went with the Cucumber Kiwi Gimlet, above, which was perfectly tart and fresh) as we perused the menu, and Jayne, who handles PR for Audubon Circle, Tory Row, Cambridge 1, Middlesex Lounge, and Miracle of Science (all owned by the same folks), ordered a bunch of appetizers for us to share.

Soon the table was overflowing, and I got to sample almost everything. The cheese board was a lovely display that would be perfect to share over a glass of wine, and the white bean puree was a garlicky riff on hummus, served with lightly grilled bread. I especially loved one of the specials, pan-seared scallops served over a bed of creamy corn and topped with fresh (local!) peach salsa (above). We were told that this is going to be on the menu for as long as they can get the ingredients, so you have a few more days at least to stop in and order this. I found myself scraping up the last of the corn and peach, savoring that end-of-summer flavor.

As those plates were taken away, new plates arrived. The watermelon and feta salad was just alright, maybe because it's getting a little late for watermelon. The heirloom tomato and burrata salad, on the other hand, was absolutely perfect, bursting with flavor. The use of burrata (fresh mozzarella with a creamy soft center) instead of regular mozzarella introduced a nice texture contrast. The turkey, bacon, and swiss panini was a huge sandwich, something that would make a more than filling lunch - I didn't try the asian slaw that accompanied it, but everyone else enjoyed it. My favorite entree was the pork schnitzel, two large slices of pork pounded thin, perfectly fried, and topped with lightly-dressed arugula and pickled onions. It's easy to overcook such a thin piece of meat, but this was definitely tender, and yet it still had an extra-crispy exterior. I will definitely be ordering this dish again.

At some point in all this, I ordered a second drink - the acrb tea party. Made with tea-infused vodka, mint, lemonade, and lime, it's like summer in a glass. Totally refreshing. I loved the use of mint, which was subtle but recognizable.

Audubon Circle only offers one dessert, focusing on quality over quantity for a restaurant with no pastry chef. The chevre cheesecake with oreo crust is a knockout. I usually don't like cheesecake, but this was light and fluffy, with just enough tang from the goat cheese to be interesting. Definitely a good way to cap a delicious meal.

So while Audubon Circle has been off my radar for far too long, I can guarantee that I'll be back, and definitely not just for drinks!

Read more reviews of the evening from Elina, William, Liz, and Tina.

Audubon Circle Restaurant Bar on Urbanspoon

Full Disclosure note: I was invited to Audubon Circle by their PR person, and this meal was provided to me free-of-charge.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday I'm In Love... with Snow Soda

I know it's not in fashion to drink soda these days, but sometimes you still want something bubbly that's not just seltzer. That's where something like Snow comes in - made with cane sugar and loaded with vitamins, Snow is a slightly more virtuous version of the stuff we love to drink.

Snow comes in three flavors - Lemon Lime, Cranberry PomRaz, and Cola. I really loved the fruit flavors. The Lemon Lime was tart and crisp, not just sweet. The Cranberry PomRaz, combining cranberry, pomegranate, and raspberry, tasted fresh and light, like a fizzy version of cranraz juice. The Cola, on the other hand, did not work for me; it tasted almost watered down, but then, I'm firmly a Coke Zero girl, and nothing else tastes right to me. But those fruit flavors - I enjoyed them on their own, but they make even better mixers!

I am also happy to see that Snow will soon be releasing a no-calorie version of their drinks, flavored with (I assume) stevia. I'm looking forward to giving them a try.

Snow is available throughout southern New England.

Full Disclosure note: Samples of Snow soda were provided to me free-of-charge.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Come to the Dark Side, We Have Cookies

Does my family know me or what? My birthday was last month, and about 93% of the presents I received were cooking related (and this isn't the first time this has happened). One of my brothers, who taught me all the geeky things I needed to know as a child, got me these awesome Star Wars cookie cutters from Williams-Sonoma. I had been lusting after these on a recent W-S visit (along with these nifty pie molds, of which I received three) and was so happy to unwrap the package and have Yoda, Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper, and Boba Fett staring back at me.

And these cookie cutters are fabulous! I took the time to frost them all with royal icing to give to an even geekier friend for his birthday, but by frosting them, you lose all the neat details that the cutter adds (plus, they look great without adding so much work).

This was only the second time I've worked with royal icing, but this project was a million times more ambitious than my first adventure. Nevertheless, I have a better handle on the process and will surely be using it again.

Royal Icing
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
4 Tbsp meringue powder (can be found at a craft store if not at the supermarket)
6 Tbsp water

Combine the ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer. With the paddle attachment, mix on low speed for 7-8 minutes, until icing is more matte than glossy. This icing is still a little too stiff to work with, but it's better to mess around with smaller quantities than the whole batch. Keep icing covered to prevent from hardening.

Coloring: Gel coloring is a better choice than liquid dyes, but it's a little more expensive. The gel texture doesn't mess with the consistency of the icing the same way that liquid does. Either way, add a little at a time until you reach the desired color.

To pipe: Add water as needed to reach a consistency that will pipe easily (as stiff as you can make it while allowing it to be piped out of a bag in a continuous line). If the icing becomes too watery, add a little powdered sugar at a time and mix. Put some of the icing in a piping bag fitted with a small round tip and outline the area you want to be filled.

To flood: Water down the remaining colored frosting until it reaches a consistency that can run off the back of a spoon. Put icing in a squeeze bottle, or if you're like me and don't have all the proper tools on hand, use a spoon. Add icing to the areas that have been outlined and use a toothpick to push the icing into all the corners and to pop any air bubbles that might come up. Let dry for at least a few hours before adding any other details on top.

Store in an airtight container when frosting is not in use.

I learned all about royal icing from Annie's Eats - check out the blog to get more details from someone who knows much more about the topic than I do.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Getting Corn Off the Cob

I love my corn on the cob, especially when it's at its sweetest at this time of year. But as I do with anything that is only ripe for a few short weeks, I like to work it into as many dishes as possible, which means needing to take it off the cob. I used to stand the cob up in a deep bowl and cut down the sides, but it was an awkward cutting position. There are also tons of gadgets out there that will get this done, but who needs more gadgets? I'm not sure where I first saw this bundt pan tip, but it's been making a world of difference for me this summer.

Just stand the shucked corn cob upright in the middle of the bundt pan (if the pan is nonstick, you can use a paper towel to protect the finish) and cut down the sides to free the corn. Rotate as you go, and if you can't get the last few rows, just flip the cob upside down at the end to cut them off. If you cut slowly, the kernels will fall right into the pan (cut fast and they'll end up all over the kitchen instead).

If you need something to do with your freshly cut corn, you could follow my example and make corn and scallion chowder.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cape Cod Roundup

Besides our amazing dinner at Blue Moon Bistro, we managed to explore a little more of the Cape on our vacation. Some of the highlights:

Cupcakes from Cupcake Charlie's in Mashpee - While doing a little browsing at Mashpee Commons (my favorite store there is Maiden Voyage, which sells all sorts of mermaid themed items), we picked up a few cupcakes to eat later in the day. We picked the Chocolate Mint Madness (chocolate cake with mint buttercream) and the Orange Dreamsicle (orange zest cake with orange buttercream). The buttercream frosting is damn near perfect - creamy and smooth without being too buttery or too sweet. The orange zest cake was also excellent - moist, not too crumbly, and with plenty of orange flavor. The chocolate cake was a bit off to me - it had that weird aftertaste you get from too much baking powder or soda. But that orange cupcake - just heavenly.
Cupcake Charlie's on Urbanspoon

Pain d'Avignon in Hyannis - We found Pain d'Avignon last year while exploring and have been waiting all winter to get back. It's a bit out of the way - you have to look for a sign that says "bakery" but doesn't have the shop's name - but so worth looking for. Since we went last year, the space has expanded from a storefront with a few tables to a much larger space with plenty of room to sit. We shared a turkey and brie sandwich and a croque monsieur, then a lemon tart with strawberries. But the real winner at Pain d'Avignon is their bread. They make some of the best bread around, stuff so good that it reminds me of Paris.
Pain D'Avignon on Urbanspoon

Pizza at Mezza in Falmouth - My parents had eaten at Mezza for dinner one night and enjoyed it, but they wanted to try the pizza sometime. So we stopped in for lunch on a weekday and were practically the only people there. I hope business picks up for this new restaurant because it has a unique concept (Armenian-Italian) and very tasty food. The baba ganoush ("Barber Ganoush" on the menu because the owners' last name is Barber) was delicious - different than typical because of goat cheese added to the mix. And while this picture of the pizza (Mezza Mix - mixed veggies with goat cheese and mozzarella) is pretty hideous, the pizza itself was fantastic. The crust was super thin and cracker-crispy, and the toppings were spread out evenly - a must with such a thin crust. Oh, and the pizza was HUGE - one was plenty for the three of us. I'd love to try more of their pizzas - guess I'll just have to visit again!
Mezza on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 16, 2010

Blue Moon Bistro, Dennis

I spent the week of my birthday on Cape Cod, which has become something of a tradition. On the weekends, we don't leave our neighborhood - it's not worth fighting the traffic - but during the week, we explore a bit afield. One day, we drove up 6A to the Cape Cod Museum of Art and a visit to my cousin's restaurant, Blue Moon Bistro.

Blue Moon Bistro has been open for a few years now, but I get to spend so little time down the Cape, I hadn't been able to stop by (although I have sent my blogging friends before). I'm glad we finally took the time, though, because it was an amazing meal that we're still talking about a couple of weeks later.

Note: My cousin Lisa usually does front of the house stuff, and her husband Peter is the chef, so I'm reviewing family here. But really, if I didn't like my meal, I just wouldn't write about it. While we were eating, the tables on both sides of us talked about how much they enjoyed the restaurant, and they were all repeat customers.

As we perused the menu, the bread basket was brought out. If I were to rank restaurants by how good their bread basket was (why don't I? This may be my new rating system), this would definitely be in the top five. Crispy breadsticks, crunchy cheese-topped crostini, and soft rosemary focaccia was served with a white bean dip and a duck liver pate with wine gelee. This and a cocktail alone would have equaled a pretty perfect dinner for me. But no, we made our choices and ordered our meals.

I started with a half order of lobster ravioli and would have eaten another whole order for my entree. I've ordered lobster ravioli at a lot of places, and I often find the actual lobster flavor lacking - not so here. I'm not sure what else was inside the pasta, but it tasted like lobster without anything getting in the way. It certainly didn't taste like filler. The pasta was lightly dressed in a lemony butter sauce that complimented the filling and that I sopped up with more bread.

My mother went with a goat cheese and beet salad, topped with candied walnuts, that she couldn't say enough good things about, and my dad ordered off the pre-theater menu, which is a great deal, and got a tomato soup.

Since we were on the Cape and Peter focuses on local ingredients as much as possible, I figured fish would be a good bet. I went with the local haddock, topped with olive tapenade and giant capers, and served with veggies and risotto-style wild rice. The fish itself was mild, so the olives gave it an unctuousness that would otherwise be missing. The vegetables were perfectly cooked and still had some body to them, and the rice - oh the rice. I'm not a big fan of rice (ask my mother how many times I've made pilaf, like the good Armenian girl I should be), but apparently cook it risotto-style and I'm in love. I scraped the plate clean. (My parents went with the sea bass and the beef tenderloin, but I was a little too focused on my own meal to pay much attention to theirs.)

I had planned on ordering dessert even though I was getting pretty full, because hey, it was my birthday! My father's prix fixe meal came with two little chocolate tarts. But just as we were discussing dessert, Peter sent out a cheese plate for us. I don't usually think of cheese as a dessert (unless we're talking about Fiore di Nonno's fig burrata, which is totally a dessert), but this was completely satisfying. As with most of the meal, many of the ingredients were local. The aged cheddar (back) and the goat cheese (black rind next to the flowers) were not too challenging, as cheeses go, but were just perfect. I loved the gooseberries (still in their husks) and the honeycomb that served as garnishes. This cheese plate was a main topic of conversation for two days after this meal. I don't know if there is normally a cheese plate on the menu, but there should be - the presentation was gorgeous and allowed the local ingredients to shine.

If Blue Moon Bistro were in Boston, they'd be getting their fair share of buzz, especially in the use of local ingredients and work with local farms, but the food scene on the Cape is much quieter. If you find yourself mid-Cape anytime (they're open year round), definitely make a stop for dinner.

Blue Moon Bistro on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 13, 2010

Farm to Fork Dinner at Wilson Farm


Growing up in Lexington meant frequent trips to Wilson Farm for fresh veggies (and somehow, I'd always manage to get a honey stick too). No autumn was complete without a trip through their haunted house and a big, fat caramel apple with peanuts. Wilson Farm has been operating in Lexington since 1884 as a family-run farm, and they work 33 acres in Lexington (probably some of the most expensive farm land around, considering the price of houses in town) and 500 more acres in Litchfield, New Hampshire. So when I heard through Twitter that the farm would be hosting a farm-to-fork dinner in the fields, complete with over 50 items grown on the farm, I jumped at the chance to attend.

My friend Melody came with me, and we arrived to quite a crowd gathered next to the store. Turns out this was only about half the night's crowd - there were 100 people at the dinner! Farmer Jim Wilson walked us through the field, explaining their state-of-the-art greenhouse and their Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques in abbreviated form (every two weeks in the summer, Jim leads a much longer tour that is worth attending). Right smack in the middle of the field, three looooong tables were set up along the rows, and we headed for seats at the end of the table nestled in amongst the tomato plants. While the attendees were a good mix of ages, our table was skewed a little older - we just happened to take the seats across from a sweet and funny couple our age, though, so I didn't have to spend too much time talking about why I was taking pictures or what the purpose of my blog was. The tables were decorated with beautiful arrangements of not just flowers, but also radishes, beans, kale, basil, and dill.

Fresh bread was passed around (the farmstand has a pretty fantastic bakery), as were herb olive oil and a tremendous roasted eggplant dip (recipe here). There was also red and white wines, and carafes of water with sprigs of salad burnet, an unusual herb that tastes a bit like cucumber, a bit like melon. Chef Todd Heberlein introduced each course as it came out, but since we were at the end of our table, it was a bit hard to hear.

The first course, "Prosciutto and Melon," was brought out in shot glasses - always an interesting way to start a meal. The amuse bouche turned the typical salty-and-sweet combination of melon and proscuitto on its head - it was served as a chilled honeydew melon soup with crispy proscuitto bits on top. I'm not usually a chilled soup fan, but the saltiness of the bacon (as well as the crispy texture) added a lot to the dish.

As the second course was passed out, the chef joked that a lot of people thought it was risky of him to serve not one, but three types of beets to the crowd. He insisted that he would convert some people into beet fans with this dish, and he won over quite a few with his mixture of Chioggia beets tossed in creme fraiche on a bed of beet greens, served with purees of red and golden beets. Walking around the table to say hello, though, he did jokingly scold me for not finishing my plate - what can I say, I can only eat so many beets at one time, which is about a million times more beets than I would have eaten even a few years ago.

Course three featured a little patty of corn and chorizo pudding, as well as an heirloom tomato gazpacho salad and a grilled Athena melon salad. The pudding (recipe here), featuring sweet corn and spicy chorizo, was a great match for the lighter salads alongside it. The tomato salad was amazing, filled with more kinds of tomatoes than I could count, cucumbers, and peppers - it's easy to forget what a tomato really tastes like over the long winter, which is why late summer should be filled with big bowls of tomatoes just like this. Heavenly. The grilled Athena melon (similar to a cantaloupe) was served on a bed of salad greens tossed with a roasted tomatillo vinaigrette. I loved this dressing - light and tangy - and it paired beautifully with the supersweet melon. I'd love to make a dressing like this with all the tomatillos that are coming in in my own garden.

By the time the main course came out, everyone was pretty full, but of course we had to try it all. The protein was striped bass from Martha's Vineyard, served over an amazing crunchy vegetable slaw with Thai basil pesto. I wanted to eat more of that slaw, I just couldn't fit it in! There was ricotta and swiss chard stuffed pasta, topped with a ratatouille sauce, that was hearty without being heavy, and the ratatouille, which can often turn out mushy or even slimy, still had a bit of firm texture to it, and the flavors of each of the vegetables was pronounced. The sides were Beans, Beans, and More Beans (a crispy green and yellow bean salad, tossed with roasted tomatoes, feta, and olives) and Cranberry Bean and Corn Stew (sweet corn, creamy and perfectly cooked cranberry beans, a little tomato, and some kale and collard greens). Both of these sides would be perfect as a light lunch.

Of course, we were all really stuffed by then, but dessert was yet to come. It was the only course that Chef Heberlein didn't have a hand in, as the bakery department had made it. When the menu said "Stone Fruit Tart with Our Own Berries," I figured we each get a little slice of tart with a handful of berries - more than enough dessert after such a big meal. But no, the plate we were served could have been a meal on its own, with a delicate puff pastry topped with a variety of stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, plums), ginger whipped cream, deliciously ripe berries, sesame tuile cookies in big fat curls, and underneath it all, a whole almond macaroon. Four of us could have shared one plate and been happy - instead, I put the dessert shelf in my stomach* to good use, eating more than my fair share.

It was dark by the end of the meal, and we walked back through the fields, lit by small candles, full and happy after such a wonderful meal. This is the second time Wilson Farm has hosted a Farm to Fork dinner, and hopefully they will continue this tradition next summer. Keep an eye on their Happenings page for other great events, like their upcoming tomato festival.

*Melody and I had a teacher in elementary school that taught us about the dessert shelf. Think about it - even when you're full, you still have room for something sweet. It can only be because there is a shelf in your stomach that ONLY dessert can fit onto.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

All Star Sandiwch Bar, Cambridge

OK, this review is a little late, but better late than never, right?

"Sandwich" is a pretty vague term, encompassing just about anything put between two pieces of bread. You could put a gourmet meal in between that bread, and it would still be given the name "sandwich." And yet, when people say "let's go out for lunch and grab a sandwich," I'm left cringing. I am greatly adverse to cold cuts, which is the staple of most sandwich shops.

So when I was asked to try out the All Star Sandwich Bar in Inman Square, I wasn't sure what to expect. The restaurant was started in 2006 by Chris Schlesinger, of the nearby East Coast Grill, so it was clear that there would be something a little nicer than cold cuts in the kitchen. Two years ago, brothers Kosta and Johnny Diamantopoulos took over, and they're doing a hell of a job. The space is brightly painted, and everything is made fresh on premises.

I pored through the menu, trying to decide what to order. I really wanted a hot dog (they serve Pearl dogs, the best around), but I figured that wouldn't be a fair assessment of what the restaurant serves. The menu is only roughly half of what is available daily - specials are always available. I ended up going with the (poorly-named) Cheese sandwich, which includes not just Monterey Jack cheese, but also bacon, avocado, roasted tomatoes, watercress, and spicy sweet corn aioli, all on scali bread. It sounds like a lot of clashing flavors, but everything went very well together (even if it's not the most photogenic sandwich thanks to the mushing of the avocado, aioli, and tomatoes). I was really impressed with the quality of the ingredients - this is no sandwich slapped together by the guy behind the sneeze guard at Subway.

Kosta wanted to make sure we bloggers (who included Jackie of Leather District Gourmet, Rachel of Fork It Over, Boston!, and Rich of The Passionate Foodie) tried their cornbread, which had just come out of the over. It's amazing how many variations of cornbread are out there, and I'm happy to say that this is one of the best cornbreads I've had - soft with a crisp exterior, moist, and actually tasting like corn. The cornbread comes with the chili, but I'd be happy to order a piece for dessert.

Sandwiches at the All Star Sandwich Bar run around $9, which seems a little steep when you think of it as "just a sandwich place." But when you think about the amount of ingredients that go into these sandwiches, and the fact that they're about 10 times tastier than something you could get at any sub shop, the price is more reasonable. Plus, there's a jar of oreos on the counter, so dessert is free :)

All Star Sandwich Bar on Urbanspoon

Full Disclosure note: My lunch at All Star Sandwich Bar was provided free-of-charge.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dalmore Whisky Tasting

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of people though this blog that I otherwise would have never met. I’ve met other great bloggers, restaurant chefs, farmers, and even a master blender or distiller or two. Somehow, somewhere, someone decided that I knew enough about whiskeys to start meeting the people who make them, and I’ve been more than happy to oblige. (Granted, I probably knew more about whiskeys than most girls my age, but I’m far from an expert.)

From going to just a few of the events, it’s easy to see how much a whiskey is like the man who makes it. Back in March, I had the chance to sit down with the master distiller from Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey, Colum Egan, and as he walked us through the different marques of the brand, I could see how his personality and the personality of the alcohol were in sync – warm and inviting, calming and comforting. And from the moment I was invited to taste Dalmore Whisky with its master blender, Richard Paterson, I knew this specific drink was going to be entirely different.

Dalmore is a Scotch Whisky (hence no ‘e’ in whisky) made in the Highland region of Scotland. It doesn’t have that smoky, peaty flavor that most people associate with Scotch. Richard Paterson is a third-generation master blender, and he’s been at the craft since he was a child. And similar to the whisky he blends, Richard is lively and talkative and yet all about tradition. Of course, I sat right next to Richard during lunch, and we talked about a wide range of things (drinking obviously, cooking, Boston, Scotland, even archaeology and the place that history and tradition have in our lives), but I think everyone at the table got the feeling that he was gregarious.


Richard has given a number of interviews about Dalmore, and it would be more interesting for you to hear it from him than from me. Watch the video above to get a feeling for both the whisky and for the man himself. He also has a great blog, The Master Blender, where he talks about all kinds of great whisky stuff - right now, he's looking at the case of whisky recently found at Shackleton's South Pole camp.

We tried five different marques, or varieties, of Dalmore. There are also special blends that they make in limited quantities, but these five are fairly widely available. Whisky gets its unique flavor from the kind of cask it’s aged in and the amount of time it spends in that cask. It’s amazing how much the flavor can change from this, and Richard says that flavor can change from cask to cask of the same batch, sometimes dramatically, which is where his job in blending the whiskys together comes into play.

  • 12 year (50% white oak casks, 50% sherry casks) – filled with the flavor of almonds, marzipan, and spice, although not heavy-handed with the spice
  • 15 year (split between three different kind of sherry casks) – Citrusy and peachy, but still with an undertone of spice (We tried this with a piece of 72% chocolate, and the flavors in both the whisky and the chocolate were amplified by each other)
  • Gran Reserva (60% sherry casks, 40% white oak casks) – Still citrusy, but with a taste of chocolate as well
  • 18 year (sherry casks and possibly something that I didn’t include in my notes – we had had 3 glasses of whisky by then) – Thicker, with a mouth-feel like velvet, and flavors of citrus and fruitcake (not bad, off-the-shelf fruitcake, but the kind that someone has made at home with time and effort)
  • King Alexander (six different kinds of casks, including Marsala and Madeira casks) – Mouth-feel more like silk, and flavors of tropical fruits, vanilla, and berries. This was the most unique of the bunch, and also, of course, the most expensive.
I especially enjoyed the chance to taste all of these side-by-side – by being able to go back and forth between the different glasses, I had an easier time picking out the flavor differences than I would if I just tried one and then the other.

The tasting was held at Post 390, and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the food too. After tasting all five whiskys, we shared fried clams (surprisingly delicate) and a creamy crab and spinach dip. It was hard to choose a main dish, but every time I looked at the menu, the lamb sausage flatbread jumped out at me. I’m so glad I ordered it, because it was tremendous – crispy dough topped with perfectly cooked ground lamb, feta, just a touch of spicy peppers, and plenty of chopped mint. I would go back to Post 390 for this dish in a heartbeat. We ended the meal with a dense chocolate cake and a light cream brulee, both ordered specifically because of how well they pair up with the whisky. Chocolate cake + whisky = amazing!

Post 390 on Urbanspoon

Full Disclosure note: The Dalmore tasting and lunch at Post 390 were given to me free-of-charge.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cilantro Lime Dip

I read the other day that Cape Cod Potato Chips were turning 30 this July, and almost immediately, I found myself craving potato chips. Just call me Pavlov's dog.

I grew up going to Cape Cod every summer with my family, and for the longest time, Cape Cod Potato Chips were something we ate down there, or back home while remembering our vacations - and I assumed it was only a local thing. I don't know when it clicked that this brand has a wider appeal, but it was well before my favorite exchange from last summer's True Blood:
Sookie: Sorry. I'm usually good at placing people's accents, but yours I can't get a handle on. Where are you from?
Maryann: Cape Cod. Best potato chips in the world.
I nearly doubled over laughing when I heard that. Either that writer was from Massachusetts, or these chips have a wider audience.

I've been to the factory a few times, and my nephew and nieces now think a summer isn't complete without a visit. Frankly, there's not much to see - much less than other factories that have made it almost a tourist attraction - but if you're in the neighborhood of Hyannis, it's worth a stop. The "tour" won't take more than 10 minutes, and you can try a few of the newer flavors at the small shop at the end. Last summer, I bought this canvas tote that is now my favorite shopping bag, and someone comments on it every time I carry it. Oh, and the best part of seeing the factory? The air around it smells heavenly from the frying potatoes. At least, it's nice when you visit - I'm not sure I'd want to come home smelling like that every day.

My favorite of the Cape Cod line of potato chips (actually, my favorite potato chip anywhere) is the Robust Russet (it used to be called the Dark Russet, which made a little more sense). The chips almost look burned, but they're not, it's just the sugars in the particular type of potato. They're a touch sweet, and plenty salty, and I love the ones that have curled up on themselves in the frying process.

I usually eat my Dark Russets by themselves, but this craving called for dip.

Cilantro Lime Dip
2 cups Greek yogurt (fat-free is fine)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 lime, juiced and zested (use 2 if they're small)
1-2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 scallions, greens only, chopped
Cayenne
Salt

Combine yogurt, cilantro, lime zest, lime juice, garlic, and scallions in a bowl and mix to combine. Add cayenne and salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least one hour for flavors to meld.

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!