Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Kitchen Reader: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

What is it with chefs living hard lives? Is it simply self selection? I was barely a quarter of the way into the memoir and this woman had already done enough hard living for someone twice her age. I don't even think Anthony Bourdain got in that much trouble by the time he was 17. In fact, the further I read, the more convinced I became that Hamilton is the female Bourdain. Maybe not the most flattering of comparisons, but I hope she goes on to achieve the same kind of success, since i thought her writing was fantastic. Here are a few of my random observations:

  • How can the same parents produce uber-successful children at the same time as utterly messed up ones? I have no answer, but the idea fascinates me.
  • Her description of Mark Bittman's daughter is so sweet. At the same time, her descriptions of food issues instilled in little girls by their mothers are sad and a disturbing commentary on our culture.
  • The "weird" stuff she ate growing up reminds me of my upbringing, where foreign foods/cultures were not widely accepted (cultural assimilation is the norm!). I'm glad it's not that way anymore, though it's not like we have children who would be subject to any mocking.
  • Her graphic account of cleaning the outside of her restaurant because of poop and a rat really grossed me out. It's the side of NYC that I just don't want to think about.
  • Her stories of her annual trip to Italy reinforced my view that you can't really get to know a country unless you spend the time with locals.
Reviews that I read only after I finished the book seemed to be very critical of her lack of explanation for certain decisions in her life - for example, why she stopped speaking to her mother and why her Michigan girlfriend was the love of her life. It seemed to me that her ability to self-reflect and convey those thoughts in paper was not as well developed in the first part of her life since she seems to open up more in the latter parts of the memoir. She may also just be more comfortable being a descriptive writer, evoking vivid images of the environment around her.

Reviews also criticized the lack of explanation behind her decision to marry, have kids, and stay in the relationship despite it being so profoundly unsatisfying. Oddly enough, I didn't find her lifestyle to be all the strange, probably because I had seen an unusual arrangement of this nature before. When I lived in Montreal, my hairdresser was a fabulously tiny Asian man who could rock stripper platform shoes better that I could ever imagine. He was so openly gay, yet he talked about his wife and 4 kids, much to my confusion. A friend of mine who had initially referred me to his salon explained that he was married to a lesbian, that they had a big family together but they were both free to live their preferred lifestyle. I would have loved to know the why behind this arrangement, but obviously I couldn't figure out a way to politely ask such personal questions while getting my hair done. So Hamilton's marital situation, while unusual on the surface, may not be all that unique.

In our many trips to NYC, we have yet to eat at Prune, but having enjoyed her memoir, I am now eager to try her food - I hope it lives up to expectations.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Is it possible to OD on rhubarb?

I was out of commission for a couple of weeks in June, first with a light cold that subsequently developed into full-on bronchitis, which is not the most pleasant thing to have when it's warm out. Since that kind of illness knocked me off my feet and put a damper on any cooking or baking, I think I was perhaps a little over-enthusiastic when I was well enough to start being interested in cooking again.

Spring = rhubarb in our household. I like the vegetable (I think it's technically a vegetable?), but the husband loves it. Every spring, when I first start making desserts with rhubarb, the husband announces that he loves rhubarb because it reminds him of his grandmother. I think his grandmother made pies though, and I'm not a pie-maker. The husband is the fruit crisp maker, and made these lovely strawberry-rhubarb delights one day after work:

When I was back in grocery-shopping mode, it really hit me that spring was more than half over and that rhubarb season would be ending soon enough, and at this point I didn't think we'd eaten enough rhubarb, despite the multiple crisps and some strawberry-rhubarb compote with whipped cream over pavlovas. So we ate more. We ate rhubarb as a savory side to pork chops twice in one week, with apple cider vinegar, fresh ginger, lemon peel, a little sugar and cranberries. Then I decided we had to have more strawberry-rhubarb compote, though I had the presence of mind to suggest that I freeze or can them. So I bought 3 pounds of rhubarb and two quarts of strawberries and compoted away. Here's some of the bounty, all of which is now safety tucked away in the freezer for the next rhubarb emergency.

I had no idea I could be so domestic. I think it's only a matter of time before I start churning my own butter...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

My little blog is one year old today. I'm rather pleased since I'm not terribly good on execution (I'm one of those great idea, no follow-through type of people). We celebrated by spending way too much money at Craigie on Main. Actually I lie - we just needed to go for dinner and traffic was too hellish to get across any bridge into Boston. Anyhoo, thanks for reading my incoherent ramblings this past year!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Last stop - Milan, with a great cocktail on the side

I have no idea what to say about Milan. I had a great time there, which surprised me since I had two coworkers tell me they hated the city. The weather was beautiful, which certainly helped. And so was the architecture - here's the main cathedral, right around the corner from where we were staying:

We only had an afternoon and evening in Milan, so we made the most of it by walking everywhere. The window-shopping was fantastic, if you like to admire pants that cost 1000 euros. The people-watching was also an over-the-top experience, particularly on a Friday afternoon at peak aperitivo hour. The Milanese are fashionable to begin with, but where else would you find a very tanned young Italian gentleman wearing a one-piece denim jumpsuit with the buttons opened so low I got an eyeful of a hairless chest?

For a city that doesn't have great food (according to Joe Bastianich), we had some perfectly pleasant food experiences. We found this gelato place around the corner from the duomo, which made for excellent pre-drinks appetizers:
We then ended up having drinks at the Marc by Marc Jacobs bar attached to the retail store. Included with your drinks is a complementary buffet, whcih was an assortment of cicchetti, the Italian equivalent of tapas. It was so civilized to be sipping Italian cocktails while snacking on perfect little bites and watching the fashionable set gather for drinks. We had dinner at a delightfully quaint vegetarian restaurant called Zucca e Melone, which was reviewed in a NY Times article just before we arrived. The next morning, the husband ended up having lemon sorbet from Venchi, a major Italian chocolatier, for his breakfast before he caught his train to Zurich to head home. I had the morning to myself in Milan and went back to the gelato place for lunch. I also came across what has to be the nicest McDonald's I've ever seen, though I didn't eat there:

But by far the best thing by far that we took away from Milan was a new cocktail. When we were at the Marc by Marc Jacobs bar, the husband asked for a typical Milanese cocktail and was served a spritz, a bright orange liquid in a big wine glass complete with a slice of orange bobbing with the ice in the drink. It was light, slightly fruity, and all around refreshing. When we asked the bartender for the ingredients, we learned it consisted of Aperol, prosecco and club soda. We had never heard of Aperol, but a quick Google search informed us that it is related to Campari but is less alcoholic and less bitter, made from bitter orange and rhubarb. The husband is a rhubarb fiend, which partly explains why he liked the drink so much. When we got home, I found Aperol in the first liquor store I tried. Prosecco is easy to come by, so it was surprisingly simple to put together this lovely drink. Such a relief to be able to drink like Italians while back in the US, though I have yet to find someone who's willing to wear the one-piece denim jumper for me...
An Italian Spritz

Monday, June 20, 2011

Where going to school consists exclusively of eating and drinking

Our quest to find a good restaurant open for lunch on a Wednesday led us into the town of Pollenzo, not far from the amusingly named town of Bra which is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement. A Slow Food-associated but high-end restaurant called Guido had been highly praised, and we were anxious to try it since was supposed to be open for lunch. Of course it wasn't, but that was how we ended up on the campus of the Universita degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche, literally translated as the University of Gastronomic Sciences.

From University of Gastronomic Sciences website
We found ourselves in a corner of the campus that housed two restaurants, the hotel front lobby and a bar. There was a big sign at one of the entrances obviously depicting areas where photography was and was not allowed, but since we didn't really understand where we were in relation to the sign, we ended up not taking any pictures. Obviously the campus is absolutely beautiful, immaculately manicured and dotted with students milling about. After wolfing down some food at the hotel bar, we picked up a brochure that outlined the degree offerings in this school founded in 2004 by the Slow Food movement.

Both the undegraduate and graduate degrees are pretty fascinating. I was never any good at history or geography, but learning the history and geography behind food and wine would at least be entertaining. The best part of the curriculum for the 3-year undergraduate program has got to be practical component, the thematic and regional study trips - check out the options and a sample schedule:
Thematic Study Trip

  • Cured meats
  • Coffee
  • Pasta
  • Cheese
  • Ortofrutta
  • Rice

  • Olive Oil
  • Beer
  • Fish

It essentially sounds like 3 years of eating and drinking, where you come out with a degree at the end and you can call yourself a gastronome. I don't know how similar the Pollenzo program is to the Boston University Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program, and I'm surprised that the two schools don't seem to be collaborating, but in any case I may find myself in Italy when I need a career change.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Italy's annoying practices won't spoil my vacation

I think it's amazing anything actually gets accomplished in Italy, considering their general attitude towards work seems to be lackadaisical or inconsistent at best. One of the most frustrating things we had to deal with was restaurant opening hours. Restaurants are closed one day during the week in the Piemonte region, generally Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, but their posted hours aren't a guarantee that they will be in fact open. The couple that runs the hotel we stayed at was quick to point out that if the restaurant had a busy lunch, they're quite likely going to close for dinner, just because lunch was busy. I'm not sure what they define as busy, since we were only one of two couples in the restaurant on multiple occasions.

So that's how we ended up in a predicament on our second last day in the Italian countryside. Our itinerary for the day was to explore the wine region, driving from small town to small town, armed with a list of restaurant recommendations along with opening hours from our hotel hosts. We first explored Barbaresco, the tiny town that produces wines of the same name.

It's obvious that this particular "commune" has more money than the average village in the area since they could erect a number of quite modern statues that look like this:

Yup, they're exactly what you think they are. What a lower torso and a monkey head has to do with wine-making is beyond me.

There was a well-regarded restaurant in the heart of town that was open, but we weren't hungry and just thought we'd drive on to the next village and eat lunch there. After driving through the larger town of Alba, we stopped at La Morra, a charmingly quaint village that was almost totally deserted since we arrived after 12:30, when the daily closing for lunch occurs. Restaurants are generally open, but the one we had targeted seemed to be unexpectedly closed, to our chagrin, and the only restaurants open seemed to be full of tourists on a Segway tour (yes, it was a very odd sight to see Segways tooling along cobblestone roads).

So the husband, tour guide extraordinaire, suggested we drive the 10km in a different direction than our planned itinerary to try an amazing restaurant in the next town over. By this time it's 1:30, I'm hungry, so I said ok, why not since there was nothing in this ghost town that appealed. We thought it'd be a quick drive over, but I got us lost twice (stupid road signs), but we finally got into the town of Pollenzo and found that the restaurant was....closed. Since we were on a school campus with a hotel and a bar (more on that another time), we settled for a ham and cheese panini, a chocolate tarte, and some espressos before we returned to our original plan - a visit to a vineyard for a wine tasting and then on to town of Barolo itself.

This region is famous for the Barolo and Barbaresca wines made of the Nebbiolo grape, but for everyday drinking the locals like to recommend the Barbera wines, which tend to get overshadowed by their more expensive peers. The husband arranged for us to visit the Fratelli Revello winery whcih practices biodynamic grape growing - not fully organic per se, but with as little pesticides as possible. This is the view we had from the wine tasting room:
View from our wine tasting at Fratelli Revello
Despite the fact the host spoke only Italian, I seemed to have learned far more this time around than when we were in Tuscany. For example, I didn't know that the vineyards for one winery doesn't necessarily reside in one area - turns out many winemakers have large plots within the same vineyard, and one winemaker could have plots all over the region. Our host also explained that even though the grapes are all grown within the same region, a certain vineyard can experience a micro-climate, giving the grapes a different character.

This was probably the largest wine tasting that I'd been to, since we had around 8 wines to try. It was the first time we'd had a selection of the same wine but different vintages to taste the difference from year to year. It was also the first time we'd tried wine made from grapes in a single vineyard - usually the grapes are collected from the various vineyard plots, thereby creating a subtle blend of flavours. As good as they were, we limited ourselves to two bottles from Fratelli Revello and one bottle of Barbera d'Alba that we had at our hotel. Between the bottles of Barolo and the Brunellos from our last trip, we're developing a little collection - maybe it's time to think of putting a wine cellar in the basement after all...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Piemontese food

I have complete faith in the husband's planning abilities. When we vacation, he always takes care of all the details - researches airfaires, hotels, itineraries, etc. While I don't mind doing the research, he always seems to find better/nicer places than I do, so I've given up wasting my time and am completely, utterly dependent on him for our holidays. So I wasn't at all surprised that he picked this lovely boutique hotel:

La Villa Hotel, Piedmont
We stayed 5 days in what seemed to be the heart of the Piedmont region, about an hour east of Turin. I was annoyed that I hadn't had time to research the area more before coming here, so all I knew of Piedmont is that the region has great food and is known for their high end wines.

Our first chance to eat Piemontese food was in a little town called Acqui Terme. It's a town famous for its hot sulphur springs and baths. It's unbelievably quaint, and when we finally stumbled upon one of the springs, boy did it stink.
One of the piazza's in Acqui Terme
As is customary in rural Italy, everything closes from 12:30 - 3pm, which is why the piazza in the photo above looks deserted - because it was. All the locals disappeared, and there were just a few tourists around. Luckily for us the restaurants do stay open, so we were able to get a bite to eat. The restaurant the husband wanted to try was a higher end trattoria run by the husband at the front of the house and his wife as the chef. We sat in a charming terrace shaded overhead by grape vines with the restaurant's dog, a golden lab named Judita, to keep us company.

Judita gave up begging and took a nap

We were amused by the dog, since this would never be seen in the US thanks to health regulations, and she didn't particularly bother us, even though she begged at the table when our meals came out. I will admit I gave her a few scraps from my meal.

For dinner, we tried another trattoria, but this one was much more casual and was located in the sleepiest town (Montabone) with a fantastic view of the vineyards. In a mashup of broken Italian and English, we managed to understand that the vineyards around us grow almost exclusively moscato grapes, which makes sense since we're near the town of Asti, and which I assume how the dessert wine moscato d'asti got its name.

For the second time that day, we were in a family-run place, with the husband out front and the wife in the back. We like going to these small, family run restaurants, but then we feel obligated to eat just about everything so that the chef doesn't get offended. Problem is, it can be a hell of a lot of food - for example, our dinner consisted of 4 (yes, 4!) appetizers, a pasta dish, and then a choice of either a meat course or dessert. (By this point, we couldn't imagine eating a 6th savory course, so we went with dessert.) Portions weren't big, but 6 plates with 2 glasses of wine each is a lot, even for me. It made me wonder what it must be like to be a food travel host like Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern, who as a special guest is served the best of what poor families have and must eat it all so as to not offend. I can only imagine how much their crews eat as well.

So what did we eat all day? Our meals consisted of local and seasonal fare - salads, asparagus, green beans and the typical mix of roasted veggies (zucchini, eggplant, peppers and onions) are what seem to be on menus right now. I have to admit, though, that I'm not sure what makes the cuisine Piemontese, even though both restaurants are examples of typical regional fare. And although this is an area known for their mushrooms (this is the home of the white truffle, after all), oddly enough we hadn't had any. There did seem to be less meat, but despite that I found our meals to be pretty heavy for the summer temperatures that we were enjoying. Otherwise, I'd characterize our experience so far to be excellent Italian fare, though I don't think i can yet differentiate between the regions (i.e. Piedmont vs Tuscany vs Umbria).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Turin, Italy - the Olympics of Eating?

After 3 days I was dying to get out of England, only because I've never had my allergies act up so badly and it was making me unbelievably miserable. We arrived in Turin in the northwest corner of Italy for the next leg of our vacation where it was sunny, warmer, and my allergies calmed down. However, we landed on a Sunday afternoon and as is the norm for Italy, almost all restaurants are closed on Sunday nights. Not a big deal ordinarily if we were in an apartment where we could cook, but we weren't, I was hungry and it's a time when I really miss the conveniences of the US.

Luckily, in addition for being known as the host city for the 2006 winter olympics, Turin seems to be well known for its gelato, and there was no shortage of gelato shops open late on a Sunday afternoon. So it ended up being that our first meal in Turin consisted of gelato from Grom, which is the gelateria with the most expensive gelato in NYC. We tried salted caramel and I think nutella, 
which were both tasty but we think we had better gelato in Rome. Since gelato wasn't going to suffice for a meal and my appetite had come back, we ended up eating at our hotel restaurant since there really wasn't any other options. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food here too, where the asparagus with poached eggs and black truffle was fresh and flavorful, while the tomatoes with the creamy burrata needed a bit more time to reach its peak.

We only had a day in Turin at the start of the Italian leg of trip, and we were staying right in the heart of the historic center, so we made the most of it by walking everywhere. Their piazzas are beautiful:

A good part of the day was taken up by a visit to the original Eataly in Turin. We've been to the NYC outpost, which was an adventure in itself, so we were eager to see the original store. 

NYC Eataly

Turin Eataly
Not surprisingly, the Turin location is far bigger than the one in NYC, consisting of a little bookstore, multiple dining options, and the basement devoted to alcohol, both wine and beer. We didn't eat any of the food options in the NYC branch, as the waits were inordinately long due to very limited seating. At least in Turin, we arrived before the lunchtime crush so we were able to leisurely tour the store to get our bearings before we decided on where to eat. 

We started off in the seafood section, which consisted of a long bar with seating facing the cooks. It was surprisingly pleasant since we were in the seafood section of the store, but at least our backs were to the raw fish area, not that staring at whole raw fish bothers us, and it didn't smell fishy at all. I had a surprisingly tasty calamari salad - my surprise came from the fact that squid was only boiled, which can be pretty bland, but it was paired with fresh mesculun greens, perfectly ripe tomatoes, lots of olives, and a tasty dressing that included an aged balsamic vinegar. The husband ordered a type of bouillabaisse but thicker, almost like a tomato based stew and only containing baby octopus (octopi?). It was an extremely elegant, civilized lunch, particularly since we were in a grocery store, complete with a glass of wine each.

While this might have been enough of a meal for most people, we were just getting started. By this point it was peak lunch hour and we had to wait to get seats at the pizza and pasta bar, which gave us a little time to digest the first part of our lunch. We shared a Marguerita pizza with buffalo mozzarella, which was good but still doesn't compare to the one we ate in Rome last fall. Of course we had to have another glass of wine to accompany this part f the meal, so for those of you keeping track, we're at 2 glasses of wine each and it's not even 2 in the afternoon yet. We finished off the meal with gelato and coffee. 

All in all, we spent over 2 hours in the store and in addition to what we ate, we left with 8 different types of honey, most of which we'd never seen before and the same bottle of balsamic vinegar that was used in my salad:

One balsamic vinegar and 8 different types of honey

We came back to Turin for a morning after our stay in the Italian countryside, with the sole purpose of finding a particular chocolate shop. Turin is known for their chocolates, even hosting a two week chocolate festival (we missed that). The store we were searching for was Guido Gobino, which had been  reviewed a few years back by Serious Eats. Since the article was written by Mario Batali's pastry chef at Babbo, I imagine the author knows what she's talking about. The chocolates were fantastic - many types made it back to the States with us and we've been eating various goodies for over two weeks now. I'm not sure it's available stateside, so it's a good thing we can make do with the mass-produced Venchi chocolate at Formaggio the next time we have an Italian chocolate craving! Now if only we could find decent gelato in the Boston area and not the crap the locals call gelato...

Guido Gobino

A giant chocolate bar - hack off as much as you want and pay by weight

Monday, June 6, 2011

A proper tea

With this being our first trip to London, we felt we had to see the sights, no matter how crowded and touristy they were. So we did - over two days we walked to see Borough market and Westminster Abbey, dropped by Buckingham Palace, checked out SoHo and Saville Row, hit Selfridges but not Harrods, Kensington Gardens, St Paul's Cathedral, walked over the Millennium Bridge and toured the Tate Museum before finally walking along the Thames on the South Bank to admire the Tower Bridge. 

Big Ben and Houses of Parliament
St Paul's Cathedral
Westminster Abbey, without a wedding
London bridge is falling down - oh wait, no it's not... 
Quintessentially British icons

Not sure what's up with the name...

The one thing I really, really wanted to do while in London was to have tea. The only time I've been to tea was at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, which was very nice but I sensed it wasn't truly authentic. The most talked about tea house in London is the Ritz Carleton, but it is so formal that men need a jacket and tie to dine there, even for tea. Since the husband hadn't brought anything that formal, we opted for the next best - tea at the Orangery in Kensington Palace. Although we sat indoors and not on the outdoor terrace since my allergies were unbelievably bad (not good to be in large gardens when suffering from hayfever!), the setting was lovely. Given the location, I was surprised by the quality of the food, since this could have easily drifted into a gimmick. I also don't remember  finger sandwiches being this tasty. It was also my first time trying clotted cream with strawberry preserves on scones. Of course it was delicious - I much prefer the British scones with their biscuitty texture, and they're made even better when they're slathered with fat and topped with a bit of fruit jam. For dessert, the chocolate cake wasn't all that exciting but the passion fruit tart was bright and refreshing. All in all it was a surprisingly filling meal, and fortified us to continue on our walk to admire the beautiful gardens.

The Orangery at Kensington Palace
Yummy, yummy tea
Delightful scenery in Kensington Gardens

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fergus Henderson's St John Restaurant

Anthony Bourdain cannot say enough good things about Fergus Henderson. I believe Fergus sparked the revolution of nose to tail eating and is widely recognized for his skill in the kitchen while battling the effects of early onset Parkinson's Disease. Given the hype around this chef, I was excited to have the change to eat at his famed St John restaurant when we visited London.

The restaurant consists of a bar and bakery outside of a main (separate) dining room. As we walked up to the location, I was amused to see the English tradition of drinking beer and smoking on the sidewalk outside was in full force. The restaurant itself is situated in a large industrial space inside that somehow evokes a farm to table feeling. Here is the best picture I could get with the iPhone of the main dining area:

It's a very casual yet sophisticated setting, and the food matched the ambiance perfectly. Our starters were simple but perfectly cooked: asparagus with hot butter, just fresh steamed spears with a little dish of melted butter, and roasted bone marrow with toast, fleur de sel and a parsley salad with capers and shallots. Our entrees were just as simple - I ordered the roasted ox tongue since I'm a big fan of cow tongue, but this was definitely tougher than what I was expecting. I wasn't sure if it was due to the gender of the beast or the method of cooking, which in this case was roasted as opposed to braised. The tongue came with well-cooked fries and an extremely tasty homemade ketchup. The husband ordered the roasted rabbit, which confirmed for me for the third time that rabbit isn't for me. It was a good thing in retrospect that we didn't notice this statement on the menu before we ordered, though it does qualify as the best disclaimer on the menu ever: "game and guinea fowl may contain a lead shot". Guess things aren't farm raised around here!

We each ordered a dessert - since I'm a sucker for meringue, I ordered the raspberry meringue and cream that was exactly as it sounds, except it was a good thing that I don't have a nut allergy as the meringues were filled with whole hazelnuts and what seemed to be a gooey nougat. The nuts kinda ruined it for me - I'm a purist when it comes to meringues, and it was also too sweet for my liking. The husband hit a jackpot when he ordered the very traditional Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese - we'd never heard of this cake before but it has flavours reminiscent of baklava, as it's currents and a mix of rich spices (nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, I believe) that's wrapped in puff pastry and baked, then served warm with a nice hunk of this cows milk cheese that is similar in taste to a good quality cheddar.

Overall we were treated to an incredible meal at St John's for what seemed to be a bargain price (about £80 total including two glasses of wine, or roughly $130 USD). I would definitely go back the next time and also check out the new St John Hotel which also features additional restaurants. A reason to go back, not that I need an excuse to travel and eat...

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