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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wagamama, Back Bay

When Wagamama, a British-based pan-Asian noodle restaurant, first opened in Boston a few years ago, I thought that our fair city was a surprising choice for the chain's first American location. But when I remember my first encounter with Wagamama, while visiting a friend who was studying abroad in London, it made perfect sense. What other American city has so many college students in such a small area (50 schools in 50 square miles)? I know that more than half of my junior class studied abroad, so multiply that by 49 more schools, and you've got a fair number of kids clamoring for something that reminds them of their time abroad.

Now, I don't know if this is actually why Wagamama chose Boston for its first three locations (Faneuil Hall, Prudential Center, and Harvard Square). But I think it's working for them. Every time I eat at a Wagamama, there seem to be throngs of young adults nestled over their steaming bowls of noodles.

Wagamama recently invited a whole tableful of bloggers to taste some old favorites and some new additions to the menu. We tried a little bit from all the different parts of the menu. I especially loved the chili calamari (cut into long slices instead of rings and super tender and crunchy, even though it doesn't look crunchy at all), the melon juice (apple, orange, and watermelon) and the marinated yasai noodle salad (grilled eggplant, mushrooms, and zucchini, with caramelized red onion, roasted sweet potato, asparagus, tomato, lettuce, whole wheat noodles, pickled ginger, and sesame seeds). (Pictures of other dishes are here.) Are any of these dishes particularly authentic Asian-of-any-kind? No, not really. But they are really good food, and if you don't want to get mired down in definitions, you'll be well-fed.

My absolute favorite dish of the night, though, was the lemongrass shrimp soba (above). The noodles were tossed in a sauce of cilantro, garlic, and chilies, and topped with some well-grilled shrimp. It doesn't look like all that much, but the flavor! So crisp and clean! I kept going back to sneak more bites of this long after I was sufficiently full. The dish is served hot but would be just as good cold (in fact, in the summer heat, it would be even better cold). I have found myself thinking about this dish long after the other dishes (although delicious) had fallen from my mind.

Wagamama US has three Boston locations (Faneuil Hall, Prudential Center, and Harvard Square) and is relatively cheap (almost every dish falls under $15, many closer to $10).

Wagamama on Urbanspoon

Full Disclosure note: This meal was provided for free by Wagamama. But I wouldn't write about it if I didn't like it!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Kiwi Avocado Nachos

If you've been following my sporadic posts this year, you know that I like to check out Kitchen Play for new (and often quirky) dishes to try. Every month, Kitchen Play hosts a dinner party with a theme, and most typically, the theme is an ingredient. June was Zespri Kiwi month, and I'm getting my entry in just under the wire.

My McDonald Meal offered up kiwi avocado bruschetta, and since I always love pairing avocado with fruit, I wanted to give it a try. But my gluten-free friend was joining us for dinner, so I swapped out the bread for tortilla chips. Of course, once I got around to cutting my avocado, I realized that it was way too soft to remain in chunks, and it mushed as soon as I looked at it. That's ok, I love guacamole, and what goes better with tortilla chips than guac?

I opted to use Scoops tortilla chips for presentation, but if you want to be more informal, just use regular chips and scatter in a glass baking dish before topping with cheese.

Kiwi Avocado Nachos inspired by My McDonald Meal
2 ripe avocados, mashed
2-3 kiwis, diced
1 tomato, deseeded and diced
Juice of 1 lime
salt and pepper to taste
1 bag tortilla chips
about 8 ounces shredded mixed mozzarella and cheddar

Preheat oven to 350°.

In a bowl, combine avocado, kiwi, tomato, and lime juice. Mix to incorporate everything and season to taste.

Arrange tortilla chips on a baking sheet (for Scoops) or in a glass baking dish (for regular tortilla chips). Sprinkle cheese on top and bake for a few minutes, until cheese is melted and just beginning to brown in spots.

Top with avocado mixture or just dip the chips right in.