Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The King's Toddy, or My New Health Tonic

I have never been one to sip a little something when I'm not feeling well. I always thought it was an old wives' tale that having a dram of whiskey or something could cure your ills. I'm beyond thinking that now.

A few months ago, I was invited to the Boston launch of No. 3 Gin and The King's Ginger (a ginger liqueur) at Eastern Standard. I, of course, tried all the iterations of gin cocktails that were offered to me, but my favorite of the night was a simple hot toddy made with both No. 3 and King's Ginger. The King's Ginger especially was intriguing to me because it has a much better, richer, fuller ginger taste than the other ginger liqueur on the market. I couldn't wait to get a bottle for myself. Or I thought I couldn't. Instead, I forgot all about it.

Last week, though, after feeling sick for most of this month, I was reminded of the cocktails I had tried at the event, and I remembered just how much I had loved that hot toddy. I searched around for No. 3 and King's Ginger (eventually finding them at Downtown Wine and Spirits in Somerville) and got to work.

I've made these toddies a few times now, and it only takes a sip or two to feel its effects. Between stress at work (Christmas retail in a store with concrete floors is HELL) and whatever illness I have that won't go away, I'm definitely more tense than I should be, but a King's Toddy soothes like nothing else. The warmth coupled with the intoxicating ginger, the subtleties of the gin paired with lemon and honey all add up to love in a mug.

The King's Toddy
1 oz No. 3 Gin
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz King's Ginger
tsp honey

In a mug, combine gin, lemon juice, ginger liqueur, and honey. Top with hot water and whisk to dissolve the honey. Garnish with lemon twist.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2011 - Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

When an event has a name like The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap, you know it's going to be a big deal. In the past few weeks, hundreds of bloggers have been busy baking and mailing their holiday cookie creations. It's been a nice way of building community that I've enjoyed taking part in.

I had some trouble coming up with a recipe I wanted to use, but as soon as I tasted the Candy Cane Coal from Trader Joe's, I knew what I had to do. I used my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe and simply swapped out the chocolate for the candy cane bits, and I had a perfectly festive cookie. I made these a little smaller than usual, so they were a little flatter and crispier, but just as tasty.

Now I just need to stock up on this candy so I can make sure I can make these cookies in the future!

And since this was a swap, I got some wonderful cookies in return. I received double chocolate coconut cookies (top left) from Elizabeth at A Chronic Venture, chocolate lemon ricotta cookies (top right) from Janet at Food Beautiful, and hazelnut linzer cookies (bottom) from Athena Plichta. You can be sure that I've made short work of all these cookies.

Chocolate Peppermint Cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
1 egg
1 egg yolk
3-4 ounces chocolate-covered candy cane bits (like Trader Joe's Candy Cane Coal)

Preheat the oven to 325°. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, salt and baking soda and set aside.

Mix the sugars and butter just until thoroughly mixed, then add egg, yolk and vanilla and mix until creamy. Add the sifted ingredients and mix until just blended. Stir in the candy can bits, then drop dough in heaping tablespoons on a cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart, and bake for 15-17 minutes until golden and puffed. Slide the sheet of parchment off the cookie sheets and let the cookies cool without disturbing them for a few minutes. Once they have cooled slightly, move the cookies to a cooling rack.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday I'm In Love... with Trader Joe's Candy Cane Coal

It's seeming like every Friday I'm In Love post is candy from Trader Joe's, and rightfully so. There are always new products every time I walk in, and I can't help but walk out with at least one new item to try. And Christmas time is an even better time for new products - you never know what kind of gifty thing you're going to find there.

Case in point: Candy Cane Coal. It's got kind of a stupid name, but I'll let that pass, because it tastes so damn good. The box is small (although I like the simple design of a fireplace) and holds about 3.5 ounces of the candy. Doesn't sound like much, but there's lots of flavor in each little bit. The candy is tiny bits of crispy candy cane covered in dark chocolate. That's, like, two of my favorite flavors in one food. How could I not love this?!

I've already eaten plenty of these straight, but I've also done a little baking with them as well. Stop back on Monday for the recipe. I'm thinking I might have to stockpile this stuff after Christmas because I don't want to not have this in my life.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Marge Simpson, Food Blogger

I am and always have been a huge fan of The Simpsons. Ralph Wiggum was included in my high school yearbook quote (he was also one of the first embroideries I ever did). In college, I taught two semesters of a class on The Simpsons and American society with a friend (the first semester, the class was only for freshmen, and 90% of the incoming class signed up to take it).  There was a chunk of time when the show was just too bad to watch, but it has definitely been much, much better in the last few years. Like most fans, though, I can be a bit wary - current episodes are often hit or miss and are never as strong as the earlier seasons.

So when I heard that Marge was going to become a food blogger (even if only for one episode), I was a bit worried. Would Marge's new job be a success (pretzel wagon saleswoman) or a failure (erotic baker)? Would the writers just take the easy jabs, or would they actually pay enough attention to the culture to get it right?

I can happily say that they hit this episode, entitled The Food Wife, on the mark, even if it does pinpoint the pretentious nature of many food blogs a little too accurately. The basic story? Marge, Bart, and Lisa are driving in the car when it breaks down in Little Ethiopia, a previously unknown section of Springfield. They go into a restaurant and Marge (and the kids) are wowed by the food they try there. They meet a bunch of foodies, led by Comic Book Guy, who actually searched the restaurant out, and Marge is swiftly on her way to becoming a foodie. Marge, Bart, and Lisa start their own food blog, called The Three Mouthketeers, while Homer looks on. In fact, Homer seems to be firmly against food blogs or even trying new foods, saying things like "I don't eat anything new unless I've eaten it before" or "I don't want to think about food, I want to like it!" or "All the food in those pictures is poop by now." Marge and Homer are quickly and firmly on two very different sides of the debate.

The video above is by far the funniest part of the episode (I mean, who doesn't love a montage?!). Do a little freeze-framing and you can see Marge’s favorite food gadgets (Marshallow Puffer, Immersion Toaster, Raisin Re-graper, Industrial Tagine, Soup Ruler, Cranberry Pitcher, Banana Separator, Souffle Barometer, Pressure Curder, Convection Slurper) or Bart's 4-star review of The Burger Maestro ("An ostrich burger with buffalo mozzarella? It’s like a zoo exploded in my mouth!"). A spoof of Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind, the song name-checks chefs, food writers, cooking terms, and ethnic foods left and right. There's even a reprise of the song over the end credits that's even funnier than this version because it really gets down to the glamorous life of a blogger (We're bloggin' a food blog/ Setting up accounts for our users/ Using computers/ Most tweets every day, yo tweets every day/ Never give it four stars, ain't never give it four stars, maybe two, maybe three/ Moderating the comments/ Checking the page views, page views, page views).

Eventually, Marge and the kids get invited to dine at El Chemistri, a high-end and experimental restaurant in town. We see what I imagine is only a portion of the meal, but what a meal it is. It starts with mints placed in the mouth that vibrate when their table is ready. We see a deconstructed Caesar salad (romaine lettuce gel, egg yolk ice, crouton foam, and anchovy air), "Regret" (some kind of soup served on a pillow, which deflates when the soup is garnished with a single tear from the server's eye), Pork Chops 100 Ways, root vegetables "cooked in the perfect vacuum of outer space" ("They say you can't even understand parsnips until you've had zero-G parsnips"), and a doggie bag (woven from the silk of a blueberry-fed spider) of deconstructed apple pie (cue the ending of Ratatouille). You'd never think of Marge as the type of woman to try those dishes, so good for her!

My favorite moment of the episode (besides the song) was Homer's comment after watching the chef at El Chemistri make pine needle sorbet. He seems horrified by the very idea of pine needle sorbet - "Pine needle sorbet? Pine needle sorbet! My kids do not eat sorbet! They eat sherbet, and they pronounce it sherbert, and they wish it was ice cream!" 

(My other favorite moment from the episode was not food related but reminded me of my father - Marge calls the kids "gang," and Bart shoots back "I hate it when grownups call kids 'gang.'" I hope you enjoyed that, Dad.)

If you could have one of Marge's favorite kitchen gadgets, which one would it be and why?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday I'm In Love... with Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar with Caramel and Black Sea Salt

Recovered from your Halloween sugar coma? I would have traded all the Halloween candy I ate for just one of these bad boys. Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar - Caramel with Black Sea Salt (say that 10 times fast) is just too damn good. It's a very good 70% chocolate with a nice snap, filled with a deliciously runny caramel and topped with giant flakes of salt. I'm a fool for anything salty/sweet, and if you add in chocolate, it's a perfect trifecta. This bar doesn't fail on any of its three components. Oh, that caramel... I've heard rumors of jarred salted caramel at TJs, and if it's the same stuff as this, I'm glad I haven't found it yet - I would eat it all with a spoon.

This is not a pretty chocolate bar, though. I know, I took about 50 pictures of it. One side of the bar is nice and smooth, but the opposite side, where the salt is sprinkled, is more unruly. Between the salt, which could stand to be distributed a lot more evenly, and holes where the caramel had oozed out a bit, it becomes clear that the reason Trader Joe's can sell this bar for a very, very reasonable $2 and something is because it's pretty hideous. This isn't something to give as a gift, as it will win no beauty pageants. But then, I'd have a hard time giving one away. I want to keep them all for myself.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Lamb Pro-Am Finals

Sunday was the big day - the Lamb Pro-Am Finals! It was the first tasting-style event where my goal wasn't to make sure I hit every booth I could. Instead, I arrived early, met with Chef Jay Silva of Bambara, who walked me through the changes he had made to my dish, and then it was time to serve.

Since my original dish was a roast leg of lamb, Chef Silva had to change things around to make it something that could be served to 150 people in small servings. He created smaller roasts by cutting up the lamb, thus enabling each dish to get a perfect slice of meat and rice. He also used the rice mixture and some ground lamb to create little arancini, adding lots of crispiness to the dish. Pumpkin puree and a red wine reduction pulled the dish together. I was very pleased with his changes and how the final dish turned out. In fact, I'd be very happy to receive this dish in a restaurant. Or just a dish full of the arancini.

Sadly, we didn't win (although our dish was my favorite of the day - what, you think I wouldn't be bias?!). Robin of Doves and Figs and her partner Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern took home the prize.

I had a wonderful time participating in this event, completely unlike anything I'd ever done before. Hopefully there will be more Lamb Pro-Ams in the future, and we'll get to see more wonderful and creative lamb dishes. Many, many thanks to and to the American Lamb Board for setting all of this up - they both throw great parties, so keep an eye out for more from them both. In fact, BostonChefs Flavors of Fall is next week - it's a great way to see how restaurants respond to the change in seasons.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Berry Bellinis and Warm Raspberry Brie

On Friday night, I took part in my first Twitter party that was more than just a bunch of people discussing something for an hour. Driscoll's Berries and chef Rick Rodgers hosted the event, where tons of bloggers cooked holiday dishes based around raspberries, then watched (and discussed) as Chef Rodgers demonstrated the recipes live.

I headed to my friend Ann's house (where I do most of my cooking) and started prepping in the afternoon. The "party" started at 8, so we started mixing the drinks around just before, then settled in to a meal of appetizers and dessert. Five recipes were offered to us, and I cooked four of them (leaving out the wild rice, because I've never been a big fan of the stuff). We had a few rounds of berry bellinis, a fantastic dish of warm brie with raspberries and pistachios, roasted acorn squash with a raspberry sauce, and panna cotta topped with balsamic raspberries. We listened to the live chat on and off while discussing whatever geeky things were on our mind and stuffing our maws full of the brie (we polished off that dish in record time, especially impressive because one of the four of us doesn't even eat brie). When all was said and done, I came away with two recipes that I LOVED and intend to make again.

Berry Bellinis
1 oz St. Germaine (elderflower liqueur)
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz simple syrup
4 raspberries
3 oz dry sparkling wine

In a cocktail shaker, combine St. Germaine, lemon juice, simple syrup, and berries. Top with ice and shake vigorously.  Pour champagne into a flute, then top with St. Germaine mixture. Garnish with a raspberry.

Warm Brie with Raspberries and Pistachios
1/2 cup shelled pistachios
1 small wheel of Brie, top rind sliced off
1/4 cup honey
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 package (6 ounces) raspberries

Preheat oven to 350°.

In a small saucepan, toast pistachios over medium heat, tossing occasionally so they don't burn. Transfer to a plate.

Place Brie, cut side up, on a small glass baking dish (I use a small pie dish, so it can go straight from the oven to the table). Bake until warm and top is softened but not oozing, about 15 minutes.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, stir together honey, vinegar, and rosemary. Add raspberries and pistachios and gently fold the sauce over them. Pour raspberry mixture over the top of the cheese and serve immediately (I like water crackers, my friends preferred slices of baguette).

Full Disclosure note: The berries were provided via free coupons from Driscolls. I paid for all the other ingredients, though - well, the ones I didn't swipe from Ann's pantry.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cthulhu Sticks

Every Halloween, my friend Ann and I throw a party, filled with candy, dry ice, costumes, pumpkins, and lots of good food. We always have a good time coming up with items that are both delicious and spooky. Last year, I came across an idea somewhere (probably in one of the many Halloween magazines we pore over) to make tentacle breadsticks. I used store-bought pizza dough and managed to make some vaguely squiggly breadsticks, which we immediately dubbed Cthulhu Sticks (what, we're not super geeky or anything).

I was pleased enough with my experiment last year to try making them again, but not pleased enough. Instead of going the pizza dough route, I found a recipe for grissini (those long, thin Italian breadsticks).  The dough is pretty simple to put together and is fairly forgiving of being worked, plus I found countless tips online about using a pasta machine to roll out and cut grissini so that they're uniform (and last year, the tentacles were anything but uniform).

I am so much happier with how the Cthulhu Sticks turned out this year. I opted to color half the dough black (I used gel food coloring, but you could use squid ink if you want something more natural), which I think gives them a spooky feel. Sea salt on the black ones and poppy seeds on the white ones add a look of suckers to the tentacles, but you can add whatever toppings (or even mix something into the dough) that you'd like.

Cthulhu Sticks
1/2 cup warm water
1 package dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 3/4 cup flour, divided
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
optional: chopped herbs, food coloring, poppy seeds

Combine water, yeast, sugar, and 1/2 cup flour in a large bowl. Rest 10 minutes. Add remaining flour, oil, and salt (also any herbs or spices you could like. If coloring the entire batch, add food coloring now. Otherwise, wait until dough is more solid before kneading it in). Knead about 5 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400° and move oven rack to the top position.

Divide dough into four pieces. Using pasta roller, roll into a roughly 9x4 rectangle on the thickest or second-to-thickest setting. Cut with fettuccine cutter. Arrange grissini on parchment-lined baking sheets, keeping one end straight (so they can stand in a vase) and one end tentacle-y. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle on salt or additional toppings. Bake 8-10 minutes until golden (well, at least for the ones that aren't black) and cool on a wire rack.

To serve, arrange in a vase to get the full tentacle effect.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Moving on in the Lamb Pro-Am

Well, it's official! My pumpkin rice-stuffed lamb roast and I are moving on in the American Lamb Pro-Am! I have been teamed up with Chef Jay Silva of Bambara, and hopefully we'll have a bit of a home team advantage, because the Pro-Am event will be held at the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge, where Bambara is located.

Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here. That includes samples from the four Pro-Am teams, plus all kinds of beer, wine, and cocktails and other tasty treats. Attendees also get to vote on their favorite dish, so of course I want my readers to come and vote for me ;) If it's anything like the other American Lamb events I've been to, it is well worth buying a ticket.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Salted Caramel Apple Tart

There comes a point after you've gone apple picking when you can't possibly eat another apple all by itself. And I love apples. Once you hit that point, you've got to do something else with them.

Enter this delicious salted caramel apple tart. Caramel and apples just go together so perfectly. I would have made caramel apples, but, well, that's just an apple covered in caramel. Not different enough from a plain apple for my apple-exhaustion. For the tart, I made homemade caramel, but used store-bought pie dough (to even out the workload). It was so good, I had to make a second one (good thing the pie dough comes two to a box).

Salted Caramel
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream, warmed in microwave, plus more for brushing
1/4 tsp salt

Pour the water into a large saucepan, then pour the sugar into the center of the pan. Heat over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Cook on high without stirring until golden brown (have cream warmed and waiting for this). Remove from heat and carefully whisk in cream (wearing an oven mitt helps - the caramel will release a lot of steam). Boil to thicken slightly (remember the caramel will thicken further as it cools), then stir in salt. Let cool before using.

Salted Caramel Apple Tart
1 large or 2 small apples (eating apples work better than baking apples), sliced very thin
salted caramel
pie dough (1 disk of store-bought or half of your favorite recipe)

Preheat oven to 450°.

Roll dough into a 1/4-inch thick circle. Arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spread caramel on dough, leaving an inch-wide margin around the edge. Lay apple slices overlapping in a fanned pattern around the dough (outer circle first, so the inner circle can overlap). Gently fold the edges of the dough up over the apples. Brush the top of the entire tart with heavy cream and sprinkle on some sugar. Place baking sheet in the center of the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375° and bake for another 15-20 minutes, or until the top of the tart is golden brown. Let cool before serving.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vote in the Lamb Pro-Am

I have heard so many nice things about my pumpkin, rice, and lamb dish, I really appreciate all of them. I'm glad I can share my family's story and recipe with everyone.

But now's the time I need you to do a little something for me. Head over to the Lamb Pro-Am site and give me a vote! I'm at the bottom of the list, right above the big "Cast Vote" button. You can't miss me.

How the voting works: Out of the ten fabulous blogs participating, the four with the top votes will move on to the live competition. Those four will be paired with local chefs Michael Scelfo (of Russell House Tavern), Jay Silva (of Bambara), Mark Orfaly (of Pigalle), and Jason Cheek (of KO Prime). They will cook with their chef and present their dish at the Lamb Pro-Am event on November 6th. You can buy tickets here, or enter to win a pair on the voting page.

Of course, there are some absolutely mouth-watering dishes in competition with me. So while I want you to vote for my pumpkin rice-stuffed lamb roast, take some time and visit the other competitors too. Everyone did a wonderful job adapting the competition to highlight their style of cooking.

The Lamb Burger from Boston Burger Blog - I love the use of pomegranate seeds on top!

Guinness Braised Lamb Poutine from the Small Boston Kitchen - Sweet potatoes + lamb = delicious

Three Peppers Lamb from Jacqueline Church - Don't look at me strangely when I say I wanted to lick the picture of her dish.

Autumn American Lamb Supper from Doves and Figs - The only other roast-for-roast-sake in the competition, and dear god, lamb fat cornbread!

Roast Lamb Tacos from Two Recipes - the zesty Mexican-inspired marinade for the meat sounds wonderful!

Moroccan Style Lamb Chapati from Just Add Cheese - More pumpkin, but in an entirely different format.

Lamb Potstickers from Umommy - Not one but TWO fantastic kinds of lamb dumplings.

Guatemalan Lamb Tacos from the Gringo Chapin - He humbly talks about street food, but I've never seen street food look that good.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pumpkin Rice-Stuffed Lamb Roast

When Armenians say meat, they really mean lamb, and I can hardly think of a gathering of Armenians beyond my immediate family that hasn’t include at least one type of lamb dish. So when I was invited to participate in the inaugural Lamb Pro-Am, sponsored by the American Lamb Board and BostonChefs, I knew I would make an Armenian-inspired dish almost as quickly as I knew I would participate.

I was surprised at how fast I came up with a recipe for this challenge. We (me and 9 other Boston-area bloggers) were tasked with cooking a boneless leg, which ruled out any stew-like dish because there are better cuts for that. Immediately I thought of shish kebab – skewers of lamb (usually leg), marinated and grilled. But it was too simple (not to mention that Fall seems to have finally settled upon us with drizzly day after drizzly day). And then I remembered an often-talked-about dish that my grandmother used to make, and I KNEW.

My father’s mother passed away when I was very young, so I never got to experience her cooking, although my life has been filled with stories about her ruling over her kitchen. I spent a weekend this past summer with my horkur (Armenian for aunt, more specifically father’s sister), and after we baked treats that she remembered from her childhood, she gave me a copy of a cookbook she had written, which included many of her mother’s recipes.

One recipe jumped out at me. It consists of rice and pumpkin and onion and raisins, and that’s pretty much it. I had wanted to try it since hearing about it years before, and I knew that my other grandmother had made a similar dish, so it couldn’t be bad if both sides of my family had their own versions. But instead of just serving the pumpkin rice alongside the lamb, I decided to fill the lamb with it.

The rice was surprisingly quick and easy to put together. The only hardship is the chopping of the pumpkin and the onions. I know 3 onions sounds like a lot, but light a candle and get chopping – you really do need 3 onions. Trust me. And because I was planning on putting the rice inside the lamb, I diced the pumpkin up into small cubes; if you serve it just as a side dish, you can cut bigger cubes. Use any kind of pumpkin or winter squash you’d like (I used my favorite, buttercup squash). This can be made a day ahead if need be.

Pumpkin Rice
¼ cup olive oil
3 onions, minced
¾ cup rice
½ cup raisins
2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar
2 cups water
2-pound squash, inside cleaned out, and diced

In a large pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook until translucent, stirring often. Add rice, raisins, salt, and sugar, and stir to combine. Push mixture to one side of pan and lay down about a quarter of the diced pumpkin; move rice over the pumpkin and lay down another quarter on the other half of the pan. Even the rice out, then top with the remaining pumpkin. Add water, cover, and reduce heat to low. Let cook until rice and pumpkin are cooked through and tender, about half an hour. Stir together before using or serving.

Now, I’m no butcher. Butchers are trained and know what they’re doing with a cut of meat. Me, I just kind of hack at meat until it looks good enough. I lamely attempted to butterfly my leg of lamb, making sure to cut out the silverskin to ensure a tender roast. I definitely could have done a better job, but I also didn’t ruin the meat (whew!). If you give this recipe a shot (and don’t know what you’re doing, much like me), ask your butcher to butterfly the leg for you. You’ll be much happier.

Once the leg is butterflied, lay it meat side up (fat side down), sprinkle with a little salt, and lay some of the rice mixture evenly over it. There will be plenty of rice left – save it to serve with the meat later. Roll the meat up, trying not to squeeze out all the filling as you go, and tie it together to keep its shape (I found this video helpful, although it was more of a two-person job for me). Place it fat side up in a roasting pan and cook in a 350° oven until a thermometer inserted into the meat (make sure you avoid the rice filling!) reads 150°. Remove from oven, cover with foil, and let stand 10-15 minutes before cutting and serving. Reheat the rest of the rice to serve alongside – the pumpkin will mush a bit as you stir, making it appear more orange than it had before. The rice inside is a bit meaty and has imparted much of its sweetness to the meat, while the rest of the rice has a more pronounced pumpkin flavor, so it almost seems like two different rice dishes.

The rice got plenty of approval from my parents, who said it tasted just like they remembered, and the three of us devoured more lamb than we thought possible. Hopefully my grandmother would have approved as well.

Many thanks to the American Lamb Board and Boston Chefs, who provided me with this wonderful cut of meat. Please take a moment to vote for me here - the top four bloggers move on to the next round!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Apple Picking at Highland Farm

You know it's really Fall when there are apples to be picked. My friends and I have picked at a few different spots over the years, but this year, on a warm but drizzly day, we opted to try a new-to-us spot, Highland Farm in Holliston.

Highland Farm was very easy to get to (despite some traffic in Framingham), and when we arrived, there were all of four cars in the parking lot. True, this was mostly due to the weather, but Highland Farm doesn't offer many of the attractions (think hayrides, petting zoos, or play areas) that make other farms destinations for families with young children. We had been hoping for cider donuts, but they didn't have those either. Highland Farm is really a no-frills apple picking experience.

But that's ok, because the focus at Highland is clearly on picking delicious fruit. All the trees are dwarves, meaning we could reach all but the absolutely highest fruit, and they use a trellis system so that every apple is reachable without disturbing the rest of the tree too much. We couldn't get over how many apples were on each tree - a few trees even looked like they were made entirely out of apples.

When we visited, Highland was picking at least 7 different kinds of apples (more eating apples than baking apples, but there were plenty of both). We chose Highland predominately because they were picking Honey Crisp on Saturday, but when we arrived, I found a new favorite in the Twin Bee Gala, which was nice and crisp but not too over-the-top sweet. There were also some amazing Golden Supremes, but we didn't find those until our bags were already full, so I didn't get to bring any home. Take a tip from me - walk through the first section of trees without picking any. The second section (we didn't even check to see if there was a third beyond) is packed with way more fruit (because less people go there, obviously), plus some more varieties, so take a look around before you start picking.

Of course, on our drive home, we opted to drive through Wellesley, which led to a stop at Wasik's for our favorite cheeses and a discussion on what to cook with all of our apples. Not a bad way to end a day out apple picking.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Lamb Jam Masters in New York

Last February, I was beyond thrilled to be a judge at the 2011 Lamb Jam in Boston. In fact, I found myself talking about Chef Jason Santos' winning dish to anyone who would listen for weeks on end. Little did I know that I would see him compete at the Lamb Jam Masters months later.

But as I was planning a weekend trip to New York with my parents (yes, we saw two shows, and we visited more museums than I could count), I realized that the Lamb Jam Masters was being held in New York that same weekend. Kismet, right? How could we not attend? The three of us ended up meeting my cousin who lives in NYC for a leisurely afternoon of stuffing our faces with lamb and drinking more wine, cider, and bourbon than we should (and yet we still went out for rice pudding after). (In planning the day, I made the stupid mistake of asking my cousin if she liked lamb. Hello? We're Armenian. Lamb runs through our veins.)

My family was, quite naturally, rooting for Chef Santos (late of Gargoyles on the Square, now of Blue Inc) to win. I told him before the event that I had come from Boston to see him bring the trophy home. He presented his poached lamb shank with black truffle, cauliflower espuma, bee pollen, and fried garlic (above) with aplomb (it was still my favorite dish, despite the local ties). It's just such a different dish than the others presented (and frankly from most lamb dishes out there) that it stood apart from the others. I guess too far apart for the others in attendance - Santos left without a prize.

The other also-ran was Chef John Chritchley of Urbana in Washington, DC. His dish of slow-cooked lamb leg with preserved lemon over a bed of white polenta was missing something for me that I just couldn't place (maybe I had had too many bourbon and Coke slushies by then?).

The People's Choice award went to Chef Mark Bodinet of Copperleaf Restaurant in Seattle. He made a lamb shoulder confit with creamy parnips and a huckleberry sauce, and this dish was my second favorite of the day. I couldn't get over how tender the meat was, and I just loved the sauce.

Finally, the award of Lamb Jam Master went to Chef Adam Mali of MarketBar in San Francisco. He served up a braised lamb shank with cannelini beans and a lavender-mint gremolata. The gremolata was my favorite part of the dish, but then, I always love floral notes in my food. The meat was perfectly cooked and tender, but I found the white beans fine and the accompanying broth unnecessary.

(See pictures of all the dishes and more here.)

And while those four dishes were the stars of the afternoon, there was a lot more going on. Dickson's Farmstand offered up lamb sausage and pastrami (for which my cousin probably went back for fourths or fifths) as well as a kick-ass butchery demo. Pera Mediterranean Brasserie served up lamb kebabs wrapped in lavash (the idea for which I'm sure my mother is going to steal for future dinner parties). The Meatball Shop had fantastic lamb meatballs with pesto and a corn salad (using the last of the season's corn) that I absolutely adored. Little Cakes made adorable lamb cake pops for everyone (although my father thought the pop part was kind of gross and just tore off the outside for the cake inside - I didn't tell him it was gluten-free). There was lots of wine and beer to be had as well, but since I don't drink beer and wine just makes me sleepy, I stayed away. Luckily, there was plenty of cider from Foggy Ridge Cider (my new favorite!) and bourbon from Jefferson's to keep me happy. Overall, even though Boston didn't bring home the crown, the Lamb Jam Masters was a great event. Thanks to the American Lamb Board for putting together yet another amazing event!

Full Disclosure note: My ticket to the event was given to me for free by the American Lamb Board. My parents paid for theirs, though.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cider That Packs a Punch

After making my apple cider pulled chicken, I was left with plenty of fresh, local apple cider to drink. At this time of year, I'm happy to drink the cider just as it is, but while looking at the other Kitchen Play recipes, sponsored this month by the U.S. Apple Association, I came across this mocktail combining apple and basil. Sounds good, right? But what kind of mojito doesn't have rum?! I couldn't let that stand.

This cocktail tastes like spiced cider and... that's about it. The basil adds a little bit of spice, as does the rum, and the apple slices soak up a lot of the flavor, so make sure to eat those after you're done sipping. You can't really taste the rum, which makes it a bit dangerous, but if you have some of that cider chicken to soak it up, you'll be fine.

Cider Basil Cocktail inspired by Cheeky Kitchen
3-4 apple slices (I used honey crisp)
3-4 small basil leaves
apple cider
spiced rum

In a tall glass, muddle apple slices and basil leaves. Fill glass with ice, then add equal pours of the cider, rum, and seltzer. Stir to combine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Apple Cider Pulled Chicken Sandwiches

Fall in New England comes on like someone hit a switch. It'll be 80° and humid one day, then 60° and crisp the next. It's how you know the seasons are really changing and not that it's just one particularly cold day. Of course, crisp weather means time for crisp apples (and inevitably, apple cider).

The folks at Kitchen Play clearly agree, what with this month's recipes being sponsored by the U.S. Apple Association and all. I was hoping to be able to go apple picking before I got around to trying some of the recipes, but since that's getting pushed off into October, I stopped by a local farm stand instead. The pulled chicken from Savour Fare especially caught my eye - the recipe looked simple, plus I wanted to lick my screen, looking at her picture.

Whenever I do finally get around to apple picking, though, I'm pretty sure I know what I'll be making for dinner after. This recipe is super quick and definitely delicious, and although it packs plenty of apple flavor, it's still something to look forward to after gorging on apples in the orchard. The chicken is good hot on a toasted bun (the cool slaw gives contrast in texture and temperature), but I enjoyed it just as much the next day, cold out of the fridge with another big dollop of slaw on top. Really, what's not to love?

Apple Cider Pulled Chicken Sandwiches with Apple Slaw adapted slightly from Savour Fare
1 Tbsp butter
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 cup apple cider, divided
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar, divided
1/2 cup ketchup
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp cajun seasoning
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/3 cup Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp sugar
1 apple, cut into matchsticks
1 lb cabbage, finely shredded
4 hamburger or bulkie rolls

Melt butter in a large saucepan; add onions and cook until translucent. Add 1/2 cup apple cider, 1/2 cup cider vinegar, ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, cajun seasoning, and salt to taste, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add chicken breasts and enough apple cider to cover. Cover pan, reduce to a simmer, and cook for about 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.

While chicken is cooking, whisk together Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, sugar, and salt to taste. In a large bowl, combine apple matchsticks, shredded cabbage, and yogurt mix, and toss to coat. Set aside.

When chicken is cooked through, remove from pan, shred with two forks, and return to sauce. Serve chicken on toasted rolls with a good-sized spoonful of slaw on top.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Black Cake for Dad

My father is the only person I know who actually likes fruitcake. He used to share the love of it with my grandmother (my mother's mother), and the two of them would share fruitcake in the winter and mocha almond ice cream in the summer.

A few years ago, when my friend Annabelle of Calamity Shazaam in the Kitchen game me a sliver of black cake (literally a sliver, but it was so rich, I ate it over a few days - ok, it was probably more like a few hours), I knew I had found a kind of fruitcake that I could get behind, and one that I wouldn't mind baking.

And then I promptly forgot about it.

The idea of black cake popped back into my head for some reason this summer, and so I decided I would embark on the task of making some for my father for his birthday. I got the fruit soaking in rum, and then I had a hard time finding enough time to bake the cake, so the fruit ended up sitting for 3 weeks or so. The recipe says 3 to 5 days, but from what I've read, it's really a the-longer-the-better thing. The recipe also calls for soaking the baked cakes in more rum, but I personally don't like cakes with too much of a strong rum flavor, so I left that part out. The cakes have been fine in the freezer/fridge without the extra alcohol to keep them.

Since giving these cakes to my father a little over a month ago, he's already finished two of the four and is currently making his way through the third. Guess I'll have to bake him some more for Christmas.

Black Cake from Trinigourmet via Bite Me New England

Fruit Base
1 lb pitted prunes, chopped
1 lb raisins, chopped
1 lb currants
1 bottle dark rum
(I also added a few chopped apricots I had laying around)

Combine these in a large glass bowl at least 3 days before baking the cake. Cover and store in a cool, dry place.

1 lb brown sugar
1/2 cup boiling water
1 lb butter
1 lb sugar
8 eggs
2 tsp lime zest
2 tsp almond extract
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 lb flour
4 tsp baking powder
2 1/2 tsp mixed spice (I used something like 1 1/4 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/4 tsp cloves)

Blend fruit base in a blender or with an immersion blender. It should be thick and just a little chunky, like tomato sauce.

In a large pot, heat brown sugar over medium-high heat until caramelized (it will take on a darker quality). Add hot water carefully and mix well. Set aside to cool. This product is called browning. (I worked quickly so I didn't worry about it hardening, but apparently that can be an issue - watch out for it so you can get it out of the pan!)

Preheat oven to 250° (yes, I said two-fifty). Grease and line with parchment 4 8-inch round cake pans (you can play around the sizes and shapes as you'd like - I think this would be great in a bundt shape).

Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs gradually, mixing to combine, then add zest and extracts. Sift together dry ingredients, then slowly add them to the creamed mixture. Mix in pureed fruit base and browning.

Pour batter into prepared pans (you don't have to worry too much about them rising). Bake for 3 hours (yes, 3 hours - it's only 250°, remember?). Cool in pans slightly before removing. If you're going to soak them in rum, now's the time.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lamb-Stuffed Eggplants

As autumn arrives full-force here in Boston, I'm left with lots of fresh produce AND a desire for heartier dishes. I've had lots of trouble with most of my garden this year, but eggplants and parsley are pretty much the two things I have plenty of (what a good Armenian girl I am!). It seemed like the perfect time to get cooking with them.

I've been growing Fairytale eggplant this year, which are adorable purple and white speckled fruits about the size of my thumb (below). They cook up very tender and have way fewer seeds than traditional eggplants. They're also the perfect size for cooking in smaller amounts or, in this case, making individual portions. I love them so much, I've pretty much decided that I will always grow these. If you can't find fairytale eggplants, try any long and thin eggplants (you can cut them in half to form more individual-sized portions).

Lamb-Stuffed Eggplants

10-12 fairytale eggplants
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground lamb
cayenne pepper
about 15 cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
2 Tbsp minced fresh mint
3 Tbsp minced fresh parsley
zest of half a lemon
salt and pepper

Cut each eggplant in half and scoop out the insides, leaving about a 1/4 inch wall. Place scooped-out eggplants in a bowl of salted water to prevent browning. Chop up the insides of the eggplant, discarding any areas that are mostly seeds, and set aside.

In a large pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Add lamb and chopped eggplant, and cook until lamb is well browned, breaking up any big pieces as you go. Remove from heat and drain off excess fat. Add cayenne, cinnamon, and nutmeg to taste (go easy on the nutmeg). Stir in tomatoes, mint, parsley, and lemon zest. Salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a baking sheet with tin foil. Remove eggplant halves, one by one, from water, and fill the cavity in the center with lamb mixture. If you press the mixture in with a spoon, you can mound it up a bit. Place on the baking sheet and repeat with remaining eggplant. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until eggplants are easily pierced with a fork.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cashew Cookies

There's something so nostalgic about peanut butter cookies. I don't recall making them all that often with my mother (I think we made them more often in my Girl Scout troop), and yet, they call to mind the days when my mittens were clipped to my coat and my feet would dangle off the edge of my chair.

My favorite peanut butter cookies are barely cookies - just peanut butter and sugar bound together with egg. Regular peanut butter cookie recipes seem to lack that real nutty flavor, so I usually use this recipe and forget about using flour all together.

As I looked for a cashew cookie recipe to make for a coworker's birthday (she eats cashews all the time, so I thought it would be a nice touch), I came across a recipe in an old Martha Stewart magazine that looked good. A few tweaks here and there (what, you expect me to buy the right kind of brown sugar?!), and I had to stop myself from devouring them all straight out of the oven. I had found a cookie that tasted strongly of nuts but still had flour (so they're less fragile than the flourless ones). This might just be my new go-to for nut butter cookies.

For this batch, I followed the instructions for mixing in the crushed nuts, then baking as balls and flattening (I used the bottom of a glass) a few minutes into baking. That worked fine, but they're not very pretty. I would suggest a few ways of making them look nicer. Try omitting the chopped nuts, then press a whole cashew into the middle of the cookie after flattening. Or leave in the chopped cashews, but flatten with a fork (a la old school peanut butter cookies). The original recipe called for a drizzle of caramel (which would, of course, make these very pretty), but I think the caramel would make the cookies too sweet, and you'd miss a lot of the cashew flavor.

Cashew Cookies (adapted from a Martha Stewart cookie magazine) (specifically this issue)

2 1/2 cups salted cashews (or 1 cup cashews and 1 cup cashew butter)
2 Tbsp canola oil (omit if using cashew butter)
1 stick salted butter, softened
3/4 packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 2/3 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350°. Roughly chop 1 cup of cashews and set aside. In a food processor, chop remaining nuts until fine; add oil and process until creamy. (Obviously, skip this step if using jarred cashew butter).

Combine cashew butter, butter, and sugars in a bowl and beat until fluffy and uniform, about 2 minutes. Mix in egg and vanilla. Slowly add in flour and chopped cashews.

Roll dough into walnut-sized balls and place evenly (about 2 inches apart) on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 6 minutes, then flatten slightly (see note above about different ways to flatten); bake for another 6 or 7 minutes or until edges just start to brown. Cool on a wire rack.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summery Gin Cocktails

When I woke up on the morning of my birthday party this year, anticipating a wonderful dinner of grilled pizza and make-your-own ice cream sandwiches with friends, I craved a light and summery drink to go along with everything else. I looked at my bottle of Hendrick's gin, which has been sitting quietly on my shelf since last summer (because I rarely drink at home by myself), and started researching.

I found a whole bunch of awesome recipes on the Hendrick's website, but my favorites are below. Between the lot of us, we sailed through at least a bottle and a half of Hendrick's before moving on to some lesser gin. The Floradora is sweet and tangy, and the ginger beer gives it a nice bite. The Basil Gin Smash (above) is herbal and welcoming, and I added a splash of seltzer to give it some bubbles as well.

1 1/2 parts Hendricks gin
1/2 part lime juice
1/2 part raspberry syrup*
ginger beer

In a tall glass filled with ice, combine gin, lime juice, and raspberry syrup. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel and a raspberry.

*Raspberry Syrup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/2 pint raspberries

Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add raspberries and let simmer for a few minutes, crushing the raspberries with the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and allow to steep for a few more minutes. Strain out pulp and seeds before using.

Basil Gin Smash
2 parts Hendricks gin
1 part lemon juice
1 part simple syrup
5-6 basil leaves

In a shaker, combine ingredients and muddle well. Add ice and shake. Strain into a tall glass filled with ice. Top with a basil leaf (I like a splash of seltzer as well).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

S'mores Bars

I was one of those kids who never enjoyed making s'mores. I always managed to burn the marshmallow (although I preferred it un-charred), the graham crackers were too crumbly, and I'd just rather eat the chocolate by itself. But the idea of s'mores was something I did enjoy.

I don't know why I didn't think to make these s'mores bars before now. You get all the great taste of s'mores without all the negative burny, crumbly bits. The fact that they only take a few minutes to make doesn't hurt either.

S'mores Bars
6 Tbsp butter
2 (10 oz) bags of mini marshmallows, divided
5 cups Golden Grahams (or other graham cereal)
4 cups Cocoa Krispies (or other chocolate crisp rice cereal)
1 cup mini chocolate chips, divided

Line a 9x13 baking pan with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large pot over medium heat, melt butter, then add 1.5 bags of marshmallows and stir to melt. Remove from heat and mix in cereals and 1/2 cup of chocolate chips. When everything is well-coated with marshmallow, press into the prepared baking dish (spray your hand with cooking spray if the mixture sticks too much).

Preheat broiler. Sprinkle remaining marshmallows across the top of the cereal mixture. Place under the broiler to brown marshmallows; pay close attention so they don't burn! Remove from oven and sprinkle on remaining chocolate chips. Let cool completely before cutting.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Summery Orange Pasta Salad

Another month, another stab at a Kitchen Play recipe. (Really, if you're not checking out the monthly Progressive Parties on Kitchen Play, you're missing out. I won a prize for making nachos last month). This month's sponsor was Dreamfields Pasta. I'd seen this brand in the store, but I eat pasta so rarely, I never bother with any of the stranger varieties on the shelf. So when it came time for me to actually buy my pasta and I took the time to look at the Dreamfields box, I was impressed - 5 grams of fiber and 7 grams of protein in one serving, and yet it doesn't taste dense like whole wheat pasta! I'm definitely a fan after tasting the stuff, too.

There were so many tasty looking choices on this month's menu, but I was intrigued by Foodalogue's pasta salad with orange sauce. I just so happened to be on my way to a family gathering, and knowing us, I would need to make something that could sit on the table all afternoon while we grazed (and graze we did, for 7 hours straight - pretty typical for us). Unlike so many pasta salads, this one didn't have any mayo or, really, anything that would go bad in the summer heat. Bonus points for lots of fruit and veggies and plenty of taste in each bite.

I loved how fresh and bright the orange dressing made everything taste. I think I'm going to try it on a regular salad sometime soon.

I didn't plan on making any changes to the recipe, but then, I can never really follow a recipe to the T. I left the garlic out of the dressing and the cheese at the end by mistake, but I actually really like it like that, so I'm leaving it out of my version of the recipe. I doubled the recipe for our family gathering, but the recipe below isn't doubled. I also cut my veggies into matchsticks instead of julienned so they would be the same size as the penne - the better to eat it up, my dear!
Summery Orange Pasta Salad (from Foodalogue)
1/2 box Dreamfields penne pasta
1 large navel orange, zested and peeled
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
heaping 1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
salt to taste
dash of honey
1 zucchini, cut into matchsticks
1 red pepper, cut into matchsticks
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced thin, fronds chopped and reserved
toasted pumpkin seeds
oil cured black olives, pits removed and roughly chopped

Cook pasta according to package.

In a food processor or a blender, combine peeled orange segments, olive oil, spices, and honey, and blend to emulsify. Season with salt to taste, but remember, there will be more salt from the olives later.

In a large bowl, combine vegetable matchsticks and cooked pasta. Add orange sauce and toss to coat. Add chopped orange zest, fennel fronds, pumpkin seeds, and chopped olives and toss to combine.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lemon Basil Shortbread

I don't know if my mother taught me this, or if it's something I just figured out on my own at a very young age, but the best way to make friends is with baked goods. Don't believe me? Try bringing a batch of something homemade along the next time you go somewhere and you don't know anyone.

Case in point: I've been enamored by a new sewing and craft shop in Cambridge since the moment I heard about it. Gather Here is, as the name implies, a place where people can get together to work on crafty projects. They have loads of classes and sewing machines that you can rent by the hour, as well as weekly gatherings where all are welcome. Anyone who knows me in real life, and many who know me only through the interwebs, know I'm a crafty person, but I'm especially obsessed with embroidery. And when I learned about Gather Here's weekly Saturday morning gatherings, how could I not attend, stitching in hand? (The piece above, a Tower of Babel meets Supernatural piece, was the one I dragged along.)

Of course, I was headed into a group that, for all I knew, were the best of friends who met every week, so I decided to whip up some cookies too. Hey, couldn't hurt, right? I have a load of basil growing in my garden right now, so I decided an update on one of my favorite recipes was in order.

(By the way, the Saturday morning group at Gather Here is awesome, and I'm looking forward to getting back there when my schedule allows. They also meet every other Thursday evening. And yes, everyone liked my cookies, so at the very least, I had that to talk about.)

Lemon Basil 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 basil
1 tsp lemon zest
pinch of salt

Cream butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Mix in egg and vanilla. Add in flour, basil, lemon, 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.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Touring Boston's North End with Bertolli

There are worse ways to spend a Saturday than wandering around Boston's North End, tasting authentic Italian food. This past weekend, a small group of bloggers (myself included) were shown the wonders of the North End by Bertolli (yep, the olive oil and pasta sauce people). Just because we're not in Italy doesn't mean we can't eat like we're in Italy, and Bertolli is focused on bringing quality ingredients and products to everyone. One thing they wanted to highlight with this tour was the ways in which pasta and sauce or one of the Bertolli frozen dinners could be supplemented by antipasti, fresh ingredients, wine, or dessert to make it that much closer to a real meal in Italy.

Our first stop was Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street. We sat in the back of the restaurant, sipping on cappuccino and nibbling on assorted pastries while we waited for everyone to arrive. The cafe is a great spot to grab a leisurely snack (much more leisurely than Mike's Pastry next door) and talk with friends. I used the time to compare notes about curly hair with Janel (we both drive all the way to Beverly to go to a great salon for curly girls) and to meet some great new people.

When Caffe Vittoria's manager came out to speak to us, he told us about the workings of the oldest Italian cafe in the city. We were all especially impressed with the fact that Caffe Vittoria sells up to 700 cannolis a day! When asked what his favorite thing on the menu was, our host mentioned the gelato (pistachio especially) and had a few bowls sent up so we could try it. Vittoria's gelato is smooth and rich - the coffee was my favorite of the bunch.

Our next stop was Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street (but just steps off Hanover). Even though this shop is so close to the main drag, I think it often gets overlooked (a number of people in our group had never heard of it before). The tiny shop is packed with ingredients shipped in from Italy, including meats, cheeses, oil and vinegar, spices, and packaged food. There is a huge display of fresh breads in the front window, as well.

We were greeted by the staff and then started in on a tasting of meats, cheeses, and olive oils with chef Raymond Gillespie, who is in the shop most days to help customers put together authentic meals. The meats (above, left to right)were speck (a smoked prosciutto), porchetta (roasted pork with a mild flavor), and prosciutto di Parma (which literally melted in my mouth). From there, we moved on to cheeses (bottom to top in this picture) - carozzi capriziola (a creamy blue that was quite mild - I generally dislike blue, but this was quite tasty), piave vecchio (an aged cheese with lots of character and something that most people would enjoy), and seemingly everyone's favorite, moliterno al tartufo (an aged sheep's milk cheese infused with black truffles). Having those meats and cheeses on a platter would be a quick and easy way to dress up a meal, and Salumeria Italiana has plenty of olives and salads to go alongside them.

And then it was time for our second (officially, only the first) gelato of the day. We headed back to Hanover Street to Gigi Gelateria, which has both a street-side counter and a more expansive counter inside. I have had gelato from Gigi's many, many times (why is it that the only time I wander around the North End is when it's a million degrees? At least gelato helps cool you off), enough times to already have a favorite flavor. I could rhapsodize about the grapefruit sorbetto all day, so I decided to try something else to get a wider grasp of their flavors. Made in small batches, Gigi's gelato is flavorful and satisfying (and you don't need to eat a whole lot to be happy). Gelato uses milk and has less air churned into it, while ice cream uses cream and eggs (plus all that churning time), so you can ever feel slightly more healthy with gelato.

I opted for the caramel and the tiramisu, and both tasted just like their names. But I had gotten the grapefruit sorbet in my head, and these two didn't stand up against the sorbet. I tasted a few other sorbets as well, and I can safely say they're all amazing. Gigi's has great gelato, but even better sorbet.

We had a little time to kill, and we started talking about our favorite things to do in the North End. I said "This may sound crazy, but I love going to the True Value hardware store, which has one of the best selections of kitchen wares in the area." I'm sure no one there was expecting that answer (and I'm sure my father will now use this as an excuse to drag me to Home Depot with him). And since we had some time to kill, I hijacked the tour and led us over to the hardware store (which is filled with things like fancy glass jars from Italy and ravioli stamps and pizelle irons, all of which I covet). Seriously, check out this hardware store on Salem Street the next time you're in the North End; there is some awesome stuff to be had there.

We moved onto the next stop in the tour, DePasquale's Homemade Pasta on Cross Street, right across from the Greenway. This shop makes tons of fresh pasta for customers as well as a few of the restaurants in the North End. They have more shapes, sizes, and flavors (lobster, squid ink, mushroom) than I knew existed, and they have tons of traditional and not-so-traditional (marshmallow and chocolate, anyone?) ravioli to choose from. I asked the manager what his favorite was, and he pointed out the radiatori, because its unique shape allows the sauce to cling to it. We were also told that a good way to choose a pasta is to start backwards and think about the kind of sauce you want. The sauce will often dictate the flavors needed in the pasta, so you can create a more unified meal by working backwards. The staff at DePasquale's was wonderful and filled with ideas on how to prepare each and every kind of pasta in the shop.

For our last stop, we headed to Lucca for dinner. Bertolli was started in the town of Lucca in Italy, so it seemed like a fitting spot to celebrate everything we had learned throughout the day. As we talked, we enjoyed this wonderful antipasto plate, filled with meats, cheeses, calamari, olives, and pickled vegetables.

Although pasta is not considered a main dish in Italy, we were all pretty full, so a sampling of two different pasta dishes was more than enough. The pasta duo consisted of tagliatelle with lobster, chanterelle mushrooms, corn, scallions, and crispy bacon in a cream sauce and ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and caramelized onion, served with fava beans, escarole, cherry tomatoes, and basil. The two dishes were so diverse that I felt like I could go back and forth between them and not get tired of the flavors. The ravioli were sweet and fresh-tasting, while the tagliatelle was luxurious (and you didn't even need the lobster on there for it to be delicious).

We were all well and stuffed by then, having eaten for a good part of the last 5 hours. We ordered a few of Lucca's desserts to pass around the table, including the chocolate flourless cake, the panna cotta, the tiramisu, and my favorite, the almond basil cake. There were lots of tastes of grappa around the table, but I opted for some espresso (I was joining my friends for Harry Potter later that evening).

I waddled back to my car, filled with wonderful food and good ideas and toting a bag filled with goodies we received at each stop along the way. I now have all the ingredients needed to make an authentically Italian meal at home - Lavazza coffee (thanks to Caffe Vittoria), Rubio balsamic vinegar (thick and unlike any vinegar from the supermarket) and pecorino cheese (thanks to Salumeria Italiana), some of that fine radiatori (thanks to DePasquale's Pasta), and of course, some olive oil and tomato sauce from our hosts, Bertolli. I can happily say that I have tried some of all of these already (with a post to come), and if I sit amongst my tomato and basil plants while I eat, I can really feel like I'm enjoying a meal in Italy.

Caffe Vittoria on Urbanspoon Caffe Vittoria

Gigi Gelateria on Urbanspoon Gigi Gelateria

Lucca on Urbanspoon Lucca

Full Disclosure note: This tour and samples were provided to me for free from Bertolli. But I wouldn't write about it if I didn't like it!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Farm to Fork Dinner, Wilson Farm

Almost from the moment that last year's Farm to Fork Dinner at Wilson Farm was over, I've been anticipating this summer and another dinner out in the middle of this suburban farm. The minute I heard about this year's dinner, I jumped at the chance to get tickets. For those who don't know, Wilson Farm consists of 33 acres of farm land just outside Boston in Lexington, plus another 500 acres in Litchfield NH, and it has been run by the Wilson family for almost 130 years. The farm stand in Lexington is huge, and includes produce, a bakery, take-out meals, plus indoor and outdoor plants. It's also home to what I think of as the best arugula in the world (I'm not kidding, it's the best I've ever had).

When I told my parents about how wonderful last summer's dinner was, they of course wanted to join me this year. A whole bunch of my friends were supposed to join us to, but they all canceled at the last minute for various reasons (boo! hiss!). That means, though, that I'll be pestering them about the August dinner that the farm has planned.

The crowd - 75 in total - gathered next to the farm stand, and we were led down a set of stairs and out into the field. The location of the dinner this year was a plot that had been filled with beets only a few hours before (and would, of course, be sown with something else the very next day). The tables were decked out with gorgeous centerpieces filled not only with flowers, but also vegetables and herbs. Wine, water, and a fabulously floral soda were passed around, and we all dug into fresh bread.

The first of many salads came out, eliciting excited ooh's from everyone. This plated salad, a mix of arugula, radishes, Thai basil, anise hyssop, microgreens, and roasted peaches, would be at home in any fancy restaurant in Boston. With all of those ingredients, plus garnishes of flowers from the anise, marcona almonds, shaved pecorino, and syrup-thick balsamic vinegar, you'd think there would be too much going on, but everything was very well balanced. I probably could have eaten a whole bowl of this and gone home happy, but there was so much more to come.

Next came a trio of appetizers. The plate was piled up with all kinds of good things, like a pulled pork sandwich (on an arugula pesto biscuit), grilled hanger steak crostini with a spinach gorgonzola pesto, and empanadas de cabra. Chef Todd Heberlein told everyone to take a bite of the empanada before informing us that "cabra" means goat. (I had already spoiled this to my whole table, having watched the conversation between Todd and local meat purveyor Concord Prime on Twitter all week.) The big winner on this plate (not surprisingly) was the beet chips in the center. People kept saying "I didn't know you could make chips out of beets," but come on, they're root vegetables. I've never met a fried root vegetable I didn't like (and I'm still not a fan of beets - sorry, Todd!).

The next salad course came out (and only a meal on a farm could pull off multiple salad courses and have everyone wanting more), and it featured a basic green salad, tossed with a wonderfully light vinaigrette, and a huge plate of pickled vegetables. I, of course, enjoyed the beans and the cucumber (still not the beets!), but I absolutely loved the radishes, fennel, and ginger. I was surprised about how mild the radishes became after pickling. I'm ready to go out and buy tons of radishes and bulb after bulb of fennel so I can eat these all the time.

By main course time, we were all getting full, and there seemed to be a little vegetable fatigue going on around me (while I was anxiously awaiting the next big bowl of vegetables to come my way). The main dish of the course was local sea bass with nasturtium butter. Not being a huge fan of bass, I didn't love this dish, although the compound butter was lovely (hell, you could put flowers in anything and I'd like it, but butter? What's not to love?!). The vegetarian main dish was fresh cajun-spiced pasta with kale, chard, and Jacob's cattle beans (garnished with rosemary frico). I always think of kale and beans (a perfect combo, by the way) to be more of a winter dish, so it seemed out of place while sitting out on a beautiful summer's night. (That's not to say it wasn't delicious...) The two veggie dishes - green and wax beans with fennel, arugula, and parsley, and zucchini and summer squash with caramelized onions, olives, and zucchini blossoms - were very tasty, and they got me excited about eating boatloads of zucchini in the next few months (my first zucchini, coincidentally, came in this weekend).

Just as the sun went down, it was time for our final course - dessert! Because the bakery is a different department than the kitchen, I'm sure they feel that they have to show off what they can do as well, so we were treated to not one, not two, but three desserts. First off, there were blueberries and strawberries in balsamic vinegar atop ginger ice cream (with a strawberry jam pastry straw to boot). A little sliver of zucchini bread (more like a super-moist cake) sat nearby, topped with butter cream frosting and purple basil. Last but not least was the "floral surprise," a lily filled with marscapone and blueberries (and topped with a chocolate dragonfly). Doesn't it look gorgeous?

We rolled our way back out of the farm (I had warned my mother that it would be dark, so she led the way with her little pocketbook-sized flashlight). I was full but not overly so, probably because the meal wasn't terribly rich but plenty satisfying.

If you're interested in attending a Farm to Fork dinner at Wilson Farm, they are planning on hosting another in August. The exact date will be announced in early August - if it's anything like this time, they'll announce it on Twitter and it'll sell out quickly. Don't hesitate to put your name on the wait list if it fills up, though, since there were quite a few people who had taken spots from people who had canceled.