Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Kitchen Reader: My Life from Scratch

This month's selection is "My Life from Scratch - A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time" by Gesine Bullock-Prado, chosen by Shelley from My Little Chickadees.

I'll say this right off the bat: I loved this book. It's light, charming and entertaining, which is all that I ask for in a memoir. Now if only the "Language of Baklava", a recent The Kitchen Reader pick, were this well written.  While I think the book's current title accurately reflects its contents, I really prefer its first title, "Confections of a Closet Master Baker" because I think it more genuinely reflects Bullock-Prado's delightful sense of sarcastic humor.

I finally figured out that the reality shows that suck me in and turn my brain into mush all have one thing in common - they depict a lifestyle I will never hope to emulate and a day-to-day existence so foreign to my own that I find it utterly fascinating. That's how I got sucked into this book. After all, this is Sandra Bullock's sister who ran her production company for many years before she threw in the towel and ran away to rural Vermont to open up a bakery, without any formal culinary or pastry training. The Hollywood angle to Bullock-Prado's life is captivating to me, from the time Sandra became famous and the description of the creepy fans/stalkers, to the vivid recollections of the emptiness of the movie industry. The rural Vermont, running a bakery, chapter in her life-story is equally fascinating and puzzling to me, since I couldn't contemplate being covered in chocolate and flour all the time, unless I was eating it.

Bullock-Prado is a great storyteller, and it feels that after the superficiality of Hollywood, she really found her niche in writing this memoir. Her family stories come alive when linked via a specific dessert and ties in beautifully with her tales of the daily hardships in running a bakery. Throw in the unusual twist of a famous sister who wants to help out but probably causes more havoc than anything else and you have a thoroughly entertaining read. It could just be that I really appreciate her sense of humour. Some of my favourite quotes of the book that cracked me up include:

  • "Contemplate your average grocery store loaf of bread. The wheat is most likely genetically modified and doused with a payload of pesticides. Then it's processed, stripped of nutrients and pulverized into oblivion. It's mixed with preservatives to allow for an abnormally long shelf life. And then it's cut into slices of fascist uniformity."
  • "Come spring, I keep my eyes peeled for the naked guys. Now and again some local young folk saunter down the streets in their birthday finest in celebration of spring's awakening, taking full-frontal advantage of our liberal laws regarding public nudity. (State law allows for public nudity, just not in state parks. Window-shopping au naturel is fine, but the law stipulates that you may not draw undue attention to your genitalia while doing so.)
  • "What I don't expect is to find a close-up of a prospective employee's lady parts. Posted not by some evil ex-boyfriend who took the pictures unbeknownst to the poor girl, but by the proud owner of the coochie herself."

As for the bakery, boy do I regret not knowing about her retail store before it closed at the end of 2008. I'm kicking myself in hindsight because in our trips back to the homeland starting in the fall of 2004 (Montreal and Ottawa, specifically), we would drive through Montpelier, Vermont and often stop in the quaint town for a quick break. We never saw any naked guys (though we will keep our eyes open the next time we drive through the town), though the husband once came across a group of Tibetan monks (a flock? tribe? gang?) with their translator in a coffee shop. I guess I have to settle for mail-order, and otherwise drool over her beautiful blog. I may even try some of the recipes from the book or her website. I think I found my new pastry crush - move over David Lebovitz, it's time to try some German pastries!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When the going gets tough, the tough stop cooking

I have been unusually busy as of late. Busy by pharma standards, that is - it's still nothing like my investment banking days, but I have spent a number of days in the past two weeks starting at 8am and ending at 7pm. It's definitely not like my investment banking days since I find myself with a lingering interest in cooking, even when I get home on the later side. The difference is that I find myself with less time to plan meals - I guess I didn't realize that how much I think about food when I have some down time during my work day.

Luckily this winter I've been trying make-ahead meals on the weekend and freezing batches for dinners during the week. Since it's still been freezing cold here in New England in mid-April, the hearty meals from the freezer have been welcome, in addition to being convenient. Though I must say, not everything has been successful and most of them weren't particularly photogenic, or else I was too hungry to bother with a photograph. In fact, the only photo I took of the recent make-ahead meals was this pile of napa cabbage:

The pile was transformed in Asian cabbage rolls via Serious Eats, from the cookbook "Not Your Mother's Casseroles". It's essentially a dumpling filling in a cabbage leaf, and while I love the ingredients in this recipe, somehow the flavour was a little off. It may be the ground pork that I bought wasn't that good (from Whole Foods, and not Savenor's the butcher shop with the best meats that I can find in a retail store), and it may have been a textural thing - I didn't put the pork in the food processor to make it smooth, which is what I would need to do to recreate the dumpling filling effect. It was also a ton of work - chopping scallions, mushrooms, ginger and cilantro by hand perhaps wasn't the most efficient thing to do if I'd thought of using the food processor. The recipe doesn't specify blanching the cabbage leaves beforehand, but I thought they were too stiff to roll without pre-treatment, so I ended up stinking up the kitchen as I blanched the towering pile of cabbage leaves.

Another lackluster attempt was a southwestern meatloaf, a recipe from one of the last Fine Cooking issues in our subscription that combined ground pork with cumin, red pepper and chipotle (among other ingredients), which in theory sounded good but in practice tasted just awful. We also have a small brick of meatloaf in the freezer that I haven't been able to bring myself to thaw, so it will be heading into the garbage once we start needing more space.

At least there were a few successful attempts thrown in there or else I would have thrown in the towel and resorted to takeout all the time, which was occurring with increasing frequency anyway since I hadn't frozen enough meals in advance. One was Tuscan Peasant Soup, an oldie but goodie Fine Cooking recipe that I consider to be a vegetarian meal since pancetta doesn't really count as meat given the quantity used in this dish. I used my homemade roasted chicken stock (made with 75-cent chicken parts!), San Marzano canned tomatoes (the Cento brand, which I think is imported from Italy) and dried white kidney beans that I soaked overnight then boiled for an hour. I'm not sure which or if any of these three ingredients made the difference, but it was the best soup I'd made and since it filled our large Dutch oven, we had plenty of leftovers to freeze.

The other surprising hit was a chicken pot pie recipe from America's Test Kitchen. They aren't kidding when they warn that this is a full-on production. None of the steps are particularly challenging, it's just that there's a lot to follow. It's the kind of thing that I tackle on a Sunday - I start by making the topping, go watch TV while that bakes, come back to poach the chicken, go back to watching TV while it cools, do all of the prep work for the sauce and then finally cook it all together before assembling the final dish and sticking it in the freezer. It's worth the effort to come home on a weeknight, pop the casserole out of the freezer and into the oven, and be ready to eat dinner in 45 minutes after whipping together a salad while the pie reheats.

As much as I like being prepared ahead of time, somehow it feels like these pre-planned meals work best with winter fare. Not sure what I'm going to do when the weather warms up, if it ever does around here...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Brunch at TW Food

Note: Thanks to my efficiently talented sister, I've got a new blog design - hope everyone likes the new look!

A friend of ours recently emailed us to ask what restaurant was on Walden Street in Cambridge - she had read a great review of the brunch at this place but couldn't remember its name. We live in the general vicinity, know Walden Street well, and the only restaurant other than the weird cafe that offers sushi, noodles, coffee and ice cream is TW Food.

We'd been to TW Food once for dinner - it's an intimate and elegant restaurant in walking distance from our place. While the meal we had there a while back was perfectly pleasant, it wasn't exactly a spot we felt a pressing need to return. Their brunch menu which is relatively new was intriguing, so we invited our friends who planted the idea to give the brunch a try.

I don't normally drink before noon, but the cocktails were too tempting to pass up. I ordered the mimosa with blood orange instead of regular orange juice since that seemed like an acceptably light cocktail for a morning meal, but I regretted not trying the "Crimson Haiku" since I'm a sucker for both sake and ginger beer. I stuck to just one libation and our friend ordered the "Sangre de Maria", which looked like a fancy Bloody Mary, so that I wasn't drinking alone.

Once we'd placed our order, our servers brought us a lovely platter of bread, chocolate pecan scones, and warm apple bran muffins with soft butter and orange marmalade. It was the right amount to nibble on while waiting for our food, which seemed to take a while but wasn't surprising since the restaurant was completely full and wasn't a big deal to us since we had a lot to catch up on. Here's the dishes we tried when our food arrived:

  • Smoked kobe brisket corned beef hash: in case that didn't sound rich enough as is, it came with fried beef tongue fritters, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, as well as a giant slice of brioche toast that took up almost half the plate. The egg was perfectly poached, and there was a nice salad to offset the richness of the dish. 
  • Feuillantine of wild mushrooms: this came in a puff pastry with a compote of vidalia onions, slow-poached eggs, and black trumpet and morel mushroom cream.
  • Torrijas: this was fancy french toast, with brioche marinated in oloroso sherry, served with wine poached apricots and vermont maple syrup. 

Overall, we found our meals to be very tasty - on the rich side given what we'd ordered, but the portion sizes were on the smaller side so at least it wasn't gut-busting. The walk home probably helped the digestion and the proximity should encourage us to become regulars at a new brunch place.

T.W. Food
377 Walden Street, Cambridge

(617) 864-4745

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Breaking my own rule at Craigie on Main

Going out on a Friday night is a bit of an ordeal for us, since we seem to be incapable of planning in advance. The husband wanted to go out for dinner but had no suggestions - it wasn't until I met him at 6:30 that we decided to go to Craigie on Main since we were down the street and hadn't been in a long time. It's not a good idea showing up at Craigie on a Friday night just shy of 7 without a reservation because it means there's a wait of indeterminable length. It's worth it, and luckily it was only a 40 minute wait to get a seat at the bar.

We hadn't been back to Craigie since they merged their main dining room and bar menus a few months ago, so it was exciting to be able to order off the full menu. The downside is that the main dining room menu is expensive in comparison to what they used to offer at the bar, with most entrees well over $30. So we were contemplating trying an entree for two at $60 total, with the choice of either their famous roast chicken or a roasted pig head.

Either sounded good, though I was leaning towards roast pig - I needed a fix after what we had in Puerto Rico. Since the husband was more inclined towards the chicken, I decided to enlist the opinion of our bartender, a straight-out-of-the-70's-cop-movie gentleman by the name of Ted or Tad. He looked so hipster it hurt. Anyhow, he recommended the pig's head since it was delicious roast pig with lots of fattiness, but served Peking duck style with pancakes, hoisin sauce, and a pumpkin sambal which essentially was a bright pickled dish.

So we ordered the pig, got ourselves another round of drinks, and waited....and waited...and waited some more. The place was absolutely hopping - I would have liked to have asked Ted/Tad what drinks he was making since he was using liquids of all sorts out of dropper bottles (the one closest to me was labelled Tiki), smacking ice cubes before dropping them in drinks, and for one popular drink, lighting an orange peel on fire before rubbing the peel on the rim of the cocktail glass, but the guy was moving constantly, mixing drinks while taking food orders from the crowd eating at the bar. At least we had an incredible grilled Spanish octopus, which was tender and smokey and nothing like the pulpo we ate when we were in Madrid - that one was insufficiently boiled so that it was like chewing on a rubber tire.

But it was close to an hour wait before finally, this baby appeared before us:
I wanted to name our half head - doesn't it look like a Wilbur to you?
The head was so spectacular a sight that I had to take a picture, which I hate to do unless it's worthwhile. This was definitely worthwhile. How many times does half a head arrive at your table? It's a good thing it was just half a head (we had the left side of the face, if anyone cares) because it was a big hunk of meat. The chefs had scored the skin so it was easier to get in to, but otherwise it was a butcher it yourself kind of meal. The skin was the well seasoned crispiness that I crave, followed underneath by a generous layer of pure fat hiding the moist meat. We ate half of it - the meat is so rich that it's hard to eat a lot of it. The waitress mentioned that the eyeball was still in (though I think it's eyelid was closed) for the adventurous to try. We brought the remaining amount home, so we have an eyeball to try and a lot of pork bones with which I can make a tasty stock.

The thing that we love about Craigie, other than the food, is the incredible service of the staff. While we were waiting, both the bartender and the host apologized for the wait. We didn't mind, since we could see they were absolutely packed in the restaurant and we had great drinks, but it was a nice gesture that they were checking in with us. It also turns out that the heads can vary greatly in size, which obviously impacts the cooking time. When our meal was about to be served, Ted/Tad was concerned that our drinks were too warm to get the full impact with our food, so he promptly offered refreshed beverages. To top it all off, they comped us our meal drinks because of the wait, without us asking. It's the reason we go back and it's an experience we appreciate since it's hard to find such great service these days.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Another kitchen gadget

This is starting to become an expensive habit. First it was the pound of artisanal bacon that I impulsively bought on Saturday morning. No one should let me into Formaggio Kitchen without forcing me to eat breakfast first because I am powerless when surrounded by delicious smells, aka their first BBQ of the season. The cheesemonger was describing this new bacon they have from a farm in Vermont that's made from an heirloom breed, and I was a goner - I bought a pound of it on the spot. Do you know how much a pound of bacon is? It's A LOT. Far more than I expected. Most of it's in the freezer, waiting for the next craving, but we did try some for breakfast on the weekend and it's worth every penny.

But I digress. The bacon incident was a distraction from my original objective - to try a recipe for Pork and Lemongrass Meatballs in Lettuce Cups from the March issue of Bon Appetit. We obviously love Asian flavours, and these ingredients were right up our alley, so I popped over to Savenor's and picked up just over a pound of ground pork. I also picked up over a pound of chicken parts (necks, backs and butts) for only 75 cents, the price of which freaked out the husband but made plenty tasty stock after I roasted the chicken and vegetables.

Anyhow, I followed the instructions for the meatballs using our little 4-cup Cuisinart. Normally this little food processor can handle all of our chopping needs, but not when it comes to a pound of pork that needs additional grinding/blending. It also wasn't able to handle 15-oz of beans (equivalent of one can) when we tried making a white bean pesto dip. Since it was two times in a row that the little model couldn't handle our processing needs, I decided it was time to upgrade to this baby - the Cuisinart 12 cup model, which includes a 4 cup bowl for smaller jobs. I can't wait until it arrives - and if it's as beautiful as it looks in the picture, I think I'll have to find a name for it...

As for the meatballs, they turned out spectacularly well. My only complaint is that the dipping sauce is very salty - I didn't like the ratio of fish sauce to lime juice, but that's easily remedied. I fried them this time since it only took 15 mins and who doesn't love fried food, but I may bake it next time for simplicity and to lower those fat calories. This definitely will be on our future dinner rotation. 
The lettuce cups were so cute!

The full meal - that's sauteed swiss chard in the back

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is this strange, foreign object...

This hasn't made an appearance in our kitchen in many, many years:

Yet it appeared one day, because of my not-so-successful purchase - those not-so-tasty gourmet marshmallows.

Since I couldn't figure out any other way to use up them up, other than to make rocky road ice cream, which I was not prepared to do given that it's still winter and I would have needed to make gallons of the stuff, I gave in and made the classic - rice krispie squares. Of course, because of my adoration for David Lebovitz, I decided to try his White Chocolate Rice Krispies recipe. What confused me was the requirement for a 10 oz or 300g bag of marshmallows. I had marshmallows - but I had no idea how much I had. The weight was nowhere to be found on the bag or on the website. How weird is that? 

So I went out and bought this new toy:
That's not a stock photo, that's really the model that I bought. See the crumbs and smudges on the shiny red surface? Not a professional picture at all. And yes, it is an indulgent purchase considering I have never needed to weigh anything before now. Bakers swear by the precision of a scale, but as OCD as I am, I had never felt the need to take accuracy to this level. 

However, now that I have it in the kitchen, I find I use it fairly often for everyday recipes. For example, it came in handy when I needed 5 oz of goat cheese for goat cheese custards (more on that another time), again when we needed 15 oz of beans for a white bean puree (instead of using canned beans, we soaked a bunch and cooked them, but didn't know how much of it we should use), and again when I needed 1 oz of grated Parmesan for a chicken pot pie recipe. I'm sure we could have winged it had we not had a scale available, but now that it's one of our standard kitchen tools, I feel so much more secure with precision measuring. 

As for those rice krispie squares? I didn't like them. I guess inferior-tasting marshmallows lead to disappointing rice krispies - they weren't buttery enough for my liking, and I was a little over-enthusiastic in mashing the mix into the pan because they came out dense and somewhat hard to chew. Oh well, now I know to leave the rice krispie making to the professionals. Which reminds me, there was a rice krispie maker featured on Foodcrafters recently, I'm going to have to go order some... 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar

After feeling sick for the majority of the winter thanks to two sinus infections and a cold/flu that hit twice within a month, I am finally feeling normal again, which means I'm on my way back to resuming my old eating habits. The husband finally succumbed to a cold but was down only for a day, and was able to head out for dinner the next day and consume two glasses of wine. Sometimes life just isn't fair.

My first restaurant foray post-illness was to Citizen's Public House in the Fenway area. It's a relatively new place (opened in September 2010), owned by the same people behind Franklin Cafe, which we really like but never go to since we're rarely in South End or Southie. Our second visit was considerably quieter than the first, since we went on a Wednesday night right around 7pm, instead of on a Friday night at 8pm. The food experience though was just as good the second time as the first.

We dined on the last night that featured their winter menu, and I'm glad we did since we enthusiastically enjoyed the hearty meals. Somehow I'd forgotten how their menu is so very reasonably priced, with most entrees below $20 and the odd one a couple bucks above. I would describe the cuisine as high quality comfort food, more sophisticated than Highland Kitchen that justifies the slightly higher price point in my mind. Both times we started off with oysters and glasses of prosecco, which to me is a heavenly way to start off an evening, then moved to country fried chicken livers. They're exactly as they sound - a nice crispy breading from frying with a delicious white gravy on the side, but oddly enough they didn't taste that livery to me and that was a minor negative to me. If I'm eating liver, I want it to taste livery; otherwise, what's the point?

I had to resist ordering the same main that I had the last time, which was a rich cassoulet with duck confit, smoked sausage, bacon, white beans and a cranberry glaze (or more like a cranberry sauce). It was a meat bomb, but man it was good. This time round I went with the pork and beans (yes there's a theme), consisting of crispy pork belly and maple-glazed beans. While my meal was deliciously reminiscent of a roast pig, thanks to the crispy skin on the pork belly, the husband's plate of beef bourguignon pappardelle was unlike any beef sauce/pasta dish I'd ever had. It wasn't soupy and didn't have a noticeable tomato base (I'm not crazy about tomato sauces), which I very much appreciated, and the luscious fattiness was punctuated with a fragrant herb that we couldn't identify. I was very pleased when neither one of us finished our meals, since both plates made a tasty lunch for me the next day in the middle of an unusually hellish day.

We managed to find room to share a dessert, but we found that to be the low note of the evening - the creme caramel we ordered was tasty, but the texture was off. It was too dense, without the creaminess of a custard that can still manage to retain its shape.

Unfortunately we left before a table for 14 was seated beside us. We suspected this group had ordered the whole roast pig that requires a minimum of 10 people, where at $38 per person (plus tax and tip), it seems like a great deal for shellfish appetizers, succulent roast pork and a variety of sides. It sounds like it's been a successful offering - according to a recent Boston Globe article, pig roasts occur nightly and reservations are booked until May, though there was apparently an opening available the night before we went due to a last minute cancellation. Drat, a missed opportunity... but the husband was speaking to a friend who suggested "let's go to a pig roast!" out of nowhere, so there may be large amounts of roast pork in my future again...

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