My kids and I listen to a lot of books on tape. One series we are currently captivated by is Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. I suspect we’ll be captivated for quite some time as Jacques has written 22 novels, the last one published posthumously in 2011. In the books, Redwall is an abbey populated by animal folk like mice, otters and badgers who are harangued by evil sea rats, ferrets and stoats. Some group of Redwallers always goes out on an adventure while those left behind always have an adventure of their own defending the abbey. Most of the books are narrated by the author with a full cast playing the characters with all their delightful high and low country accents.
Jacques spends a lot of time in each book recounting the bounty of Redwall Abbey and surrounding Mossflower Wood, bringing to life the idyllic community through descriptions of elaborate feasts. After reading four books, I was left wondering what all these tasty dishes were. Could there be a cookbook companion to the series? Indeed, there could. Written by Brian Jacques and illustrated by Christopher Denise, The Redwall Cookbook is a delightful collection (vegetarian, of course) of English country dishes accompanied by short passages describing the animals of Redwall tasting the dishes and sharing the recipes.
I declared a Friday dinner, Redwall Feast, and the kids and I picked out recipes: Stones inna Swamp, Veggible Molebake and Outside ‘n’ Inside Cobbler Riddle.
Stones inna Swamp is a hearty bean stew with parsley dumplings. The kids weren’t thrilled with it, and Cris found it a little bland. I liked it, though. In future, I think I’d pressure cook the dried beans to get them very soft. I’d increase the liquid to make it more soup like, and I’d even blend some portion of the beans up to make a smooth, thick broth. The dumplings were a bit dense, but I suspect that was more cook’s error that recipe flaw as I’d never made dumplings before. I liked this recipe because it willingly took the kids out of their comfort zone.
Veggible Molebake is a casserole of fresh, lightly cooked vegetables, covered in a béchamel sauce and topped with fresh tomatoes and cheddar cheese and baked. The recipe called for cauliflower, peas and carrots, but I added broccoli, too since that is a family favorite. Any veg could be used to suit your family’s tastes. I lightened it up by using 1% milk instead of heavy cream, but that didn’t detract from the richness of the béchamel or the tastiness of the dish. We really liked it, and have been enjoying the leftovers. I plan to make it again for a pot-luck as it is easy, and healthy.
As an aside, we accompanied dinner with October Ale. This is the standard drink in Redwall and is clearly something that is brewed and served out of a large cask in the cellar of the abbey by a hedgehog, or cellarhog as he is coined. Jacques describes it in his cookbook as ginger beer and grape juice. Not to be outdone, Cris made ginger beer by adding grated ginger and yeast to grape juice, which, by the way, has more sugar in it than the sugar-water the recipe usually calls for.
For dessert we made Outside ‘n’ Inside Cobbler Riddle. This is a cobbler with mixed stone fruit (peaches, plums, etc.) and almonds in the crust. The riddle is, “What has the stone on the inside and the stone on the outside?” The answer, this cobbler since the peaches have the stone on the inside and the almonds have the stone on the outside. Way more taste than clever, this cobble was a treat. We made it with the peaches from our tree which we had frozen last fall. Yum!
This was a fun cookbook which brought to life books we are coming to treasure. It was a great way to get the kids involved with dinner, and I sense themed meals gracing our tables more often. Although Brian Jacques has left us, the creatures of Redwall Abbey will live on in hearts, and their food will continue to grace tables, for generations to come.
When I started reviewing all my cookbooks my main goal was to cull my huge collection and get to a manageable number of books that would fit on my kitchen shelves. A huge, and unexpected, bonus has been the interest my children have taken in helping with this project. My son, in particular, is always excited to pick a book, thumb through the photos or menus, and pick several dishes to review. Then they are even excited to taste the results!
This book was entirely David’s project. He selected the book, The Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi. He selected the menu: White Lamb Korma, Pulao Rice, Peas and Carrots and Indian Bread Pudding (Shahi Tukra).
To begin, this is a beautiful book with a full-page color photo of each dish. It also contains my favorite Red Chutney recipe, a lovely onion/date/ketchup combination that is spectacular on everything. Its flaws, which are frustrating, are in the editing. For example, The White Lamb Korma listed in the menus doesn’t actually exist. There is a white chicken korma or a lamb shank korma. We made the lamb because the picture paired it with the pulao rice so we suspect that was the intended dish. Some items in the index are listed on incorrect pages as well. The recipes themselves seem to be correct and well tested.
The lamb shank korma (Nalli Korma/Lucknow) was delicious! Tons of spices, yogurt and rose water combine to make a simmering sauce. The lamb is tender and flavorful. I left the chilis out of this dish, and both kids loved it.
Pulao rice is basmati cooked with caramelized onions, cinnamon and clove. It was close enough to risotto that my kids didn’t notice, except that they picked out the onions. I thought it was flavorful, and not that much harder to make than regular rice. In fact, if you pre-caramelize the onions, you could put the dish into your rice cooker.
The peas and carrots is actually called peas and carrots with cumin. The kids were less excited about this dish. Despite the title, it has a lot of ginger and hot peppers. Leaving the heat out, the dish was still a nice blend of spices stewed in tomatoes with the peas and carrots. I think it was too complicated for the kids, but Cris and I liked it.
Indian cuisine isn’t known for its desserts, and Shahi Tukra is a good reason why. This isn’t a bread pudding as we New Englanders think of bread pudding. It is thin slices of white bread, fried in ghee and served in a sauce of spiced evaporated milk. We liked the milk in our coffee, but the dessert fell flat.
All together the meal was great. We’ll keep the book, but it is an example of how poor editing can make a book frustrating to navigate. Luckily, time was spent on the recipes and the photographs so once you find what you are looking for, it’s great.
Do you remember Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet? The "Frug," as he called himself, hailed on PBS throughout the 1980s and 1990s and wrote at least a dozen cookbooks. His attitude was to be frugal when eating, select only the best food and avoid the rest.
I have few memories of watching his show. I remember his always coming off as a little snippy, but I also remember liking the way he cooked, referring to a recipe card and bumbling around the kitchen in much the same way that a lot of us home cooks do. He seemed like a real person which was appealing.
His cookbook topics were interesting. I have The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines: China, Greece, and Rome. It is not the type of cookbook I normally purchase, containing no photos, but the topic is compelling. I never cooked from it much so I picked it up to find out why.
Three Ancient Cuisines seemed fascinating. As an Italian cook, I'm often drawn to what the cooking of Italy looked like before the introduction of American ingredients in the 1400s. Tomato sauce, polenta and potato gnocchi are relatively new inventions and not what the Romans ate. I began thumbing through the book and was immediately annoyed. He talks about traveling to restaurants in Italy, Greece and China as well as the U.S. and looking for authentic food. Very often he prefaces a recipe with a comment like, "Well, I don't like it, but you should try it," or "You've eaten an American version of this, but you should know that is crap. Eat this authentic recipe." Look, Jeff, I don't need your recommendations on crappy food to broaden my culinary horizons, nor do I need your snarky comments on what I already enjoy. I already have a more sophisticated palate than you, I can tell. Stop the preaching.
He has several other annoying habits in his recipes, and I know I've complained of some of these before. He often uses specialty ingredients in small quantities. If I have to mail-order mien see, a soy condiment, because one recipe uses one tablespoon, would you kindly suggest a substitution? His recipes contain ingredients that are other recipes. I find this annoying because I always end up missing an ingredient for the shopping list, or underestimating the time it will take to complete the dish. Also, let's be realistic. I'm not making a gallon of Chinese chicken soup because the recipe I want to make uses two tablespoons of it. Lastly, he uses odd amounts of ingredients, like using 1.5 pounds of ground meat to make a dish with 6 servings. Ground meat tends to come in whole-pound increments, so it would be nice if he had either made a dish that served 4 with 1 pound of beef, or a dish that served 8 with 2 pounds of meat.
In testing this cookbook, we thought we should cook a recipe from each of the three ancient cuisines. My kids' favorite item off of a Chinese menu is the boneless ribs so we made Barbecued Pork Strips. This was the recipe that called for 2 Tbsp of Chinese chicken stock, 1 Tbsp of mein see and 1 Tbsp of home-made hoisin sauce. I made these substitutions: Since the stock was a basic chicken stock with ginger added, I used my own home-made stock and added fresh grated ginger to the marinade. I skipped the mein see with the assumption that a soybean condiment is probably salty more than flavorful. I used jarred hoisin sauce. His directions feel a little untested. He said how long to cut the strips of meat, but not how thick. The meat is cooked directly on the rack in the oven, and my strips fell through so either his oven grates are closer together or the meat needs to be cut in longer pieces. I also cut the meat too thin. It cooked much faster than the recipe indicated, and some of it burned. The recipe also calls for a few drops of red food coloring in an attempt to mimic the meat from Chinese take-out. I don't know what they are using in restaurants, but a few drops of food color does nothing to the meat. Apart from all my complaining. This dish was tasty. I can't give it high marks because I did have to doctor it up, but it's a keeper.
Next we found a Greek recipe, Poached Meatballs in Egg and Lemon Sauce. This sounded lovely. Egg-lemon soup is a favorite of mine so I had high hopes for this dish. The meatballs are poached in water with oil in it. I was unsure what the oil was for because he didn't indicate to brown the meatballs prior to adding the water. The meatballs are removed, and the egg/lemon mixture is added directly to the pan. I'm used to this step happening over a double boiler to avoid lumping. In our case, we didn't get lumps, but the sauce became very thick, almost goopy, and it had a very sharp lemon taste that was jarring. I'm sure there are really good recipes for meatballs in lemon sauce out there, but this isn't one of them.
Lastly, we made a Roman recipe, Beans and Leeks Apicius. Smith prefaces this recipe with a warning that we "may not be terribly fond of the heavy use of herbs in these old Roman dishes, (but) they are interesting nevertheless." By "heavy use of herbs" here, he means adding a pinch of crushed coriander seed and 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary to 6 cups of leeks and one pound of green beans. Frankly, that's not really heavy use. The rosemary was lost. The mistake here, I think, is that the coriander seeds are crushed and not ground. Mostly the dish had no flavor, until you bit into a chunk of coriander seed, then that was all you could taste for several minutes. Ground coriander would have given a milder and more consistent flavor to the dish. I'm always looking for a way to use leeks that isn't soup, and this recipe isn't it.
All-in-all we were disappointed with this book. It isn't even fun to poke through and read, again a disappointment since the topic could be so interesting. While we'll save the pork recipe, the cookbook goes. I need to be frugal with my cookbook space, select the best, avoid the rest.
Back in the 90's I had a subscription to Food & Wine magazine. I loved the magazine, but I hate keeping the old copies around, and it's impossible to every find a recipe again once you own one or two years worth. Many magazines solve this problem for you. They sell a bound compilation book which you can purchase at the end of the year for the convenient price of about your subscription cost so basically you buy the whole lot twice. If, however, you really want those recipes, you will buy the book. I have purchased three.
I realize that I haven't reviewed a book in a while, and I am anxious to continue. I'm also anxious to remove some of the books from my kitchen so I was scanning my shelves for a book I was pretty sure I would relinquish. To that end I picked up The 1997 Food & Wine Annual. I began thumbing through it and immediately came up with two of my favorite recipes: Curried Pumpkin Soup and Ginger Star Shortcakes with Summer Berries. I picked out a third, Pork Tenderloin with Grapefruit and Curry.
Curried Pumpkin Soup: This recipe must have been in the Thanksgiving edition because it served 20 and uses 9 pounds of pumpkin. 9 pounds! It feeds an army! I was cutting the recipe in half (which still makes a huge amount, serving 10) and forgot to cut the spices. Needless to say, this was CURRIED pumpkin soup. My son was 9 months old at the time and insisted on having some. We obliged. (We're those parents.) He loved it. He loved it to the point that all his vegetables from then on needed to have curry powder on them. I've made this soup with and without the spice-error, and it is always wonderful. It uses pumpkins, pears and Spanish onions which melt into a perfect soup base, sweet, pungent, lovely. The recipe uses only 1 cup of heavy cream (That's in the 20 serving version) so it is actually creamy without being fatty. We love this soup and look forward to it every winter. I rate this a 2.5 mostly because the amount of soup the recipe makes is so out of whack. I have to cut it in half, or even in quarters to make it which is cumbersome.
Ginger Star Shortcakes with Summer Berries: This recipe was meant for Independence Day, and that is why the shortcake is cut into large stars. The shortcake is cut open and spread with molasses butter, filled with mascarpone cream, topped with red and blue berries and capped with the other half of the star. It is red, white and blue and lovely. I make this often for summer buffets like several baby showers I have hosted because I can make individual portions, it is quite easy to make, and it is very pretty. I have cut the shortcakes into stars, hearts and circles. This dessert is actually quite light with the whipped mascarpone cream and fresh berries. The shortcake is flaky and spicy from the ginger, and the molasses butter adds a little richness. People rave when I serve this, and it is so easy to make that I almost feel guilty basking in all the praise - almost. This dish is easily a 3.
Pork Tenderloin with Grapefruit and Curry: I was looking for a dish I could make on a Sunday without having to go to the store. I had country pork ribs in the freezer, and my dad had just sent me fresh grapefruits from his yard so I turned to this recipe. A marinade is made with grapefruit juice, curry powder and freshly ground cinnamon and dried chipotles. Then the meat is grilled and the marinade boiled and reduced to make a sauce. I substituted the thick country ribs for a loin and pan-fried instead of grilling. This was spicy. I love when a cookbook isn't afraid to offer spicy dishes even if the words hot and spicy aren't in the cookbook title. C and I both enjoyed it. Even my 5-year-old liked the meat without any extra sauce. C's comment was, "Make this again," so I think that rates it a 3 on our scale.
One great thing about Food & Wine books, the recipes are all very well vetted and tested. You're never going to find an error or omission. The recipe will work as is written. It's pretty fool-proof.
Another cookbook that gets to stay. Oh, well, I guess I can be happy that I pick well.
Fondue: Fabulous Food, Easy Entertaining by Becky Johnson
A few years ago I co-hosted a baby shower for a dear friend. Our theme was fondue, and between us we served six different cheese and dessert fondues. Of course, in the process of planning this party I bought a few fondue cookbooks. Of course, who wouldn’t?
This one I was attracted to because it has a lovely picture of each dish. It’s not a big cookbook, but it looked like it might have a few treasures in it. The first 16 pages of the book give good instructions on fondue, covering equipment, techniques and ingredients. The recipes are divided into four sections: Cheese, Stock, Oil and Sweet.
What I originally liked about this book was the off-beat recipes and the creative dippers it pairs with each.
Roasted Tomato and Mascarpone Fondue with Aubergine Fritters: Aubergines are eggplants for those of us who live on this side of the Pond. I have a great recipe for fried eggplant (See It’s About Time by Michael Schlow.) I opted to just use those because I had some already made in the freezer rather than use Johnson’s recipe. The tomato fondue is easily the best thing in this book. It’s easy. Roast fresh tomatoes then stew with onion and garlic. Finish with Worcestershire sauce, mascarpone cheese and basil and blend until smooth. This sauce is both rich and delicate. In a word, it is awesome. I could top everything I eat with this sauce. But that’s just it. It really is a sauce, not a fondue. Each eggplant needed just a dab of the sauce, not a drenching. I can see topping pasta or rice with this sauce, but not dunking bites of bread into it. It’s too rich. It’s a keeper for sure, but not really fondue. We gave it a 3.
Sukiyaki: This dish was good. Sukiyaki is stir fry, and we enjoyed it. It’s not meant to be served in a fondue pot. The recipe calls for placing the wok in the center of the table and letting diners serve themselves. I’ve never heard that called fondue. I’ve always called it family style, and it’s how I serve every meal. As a recipe, this was fine. Steak is marinated and cooked quickly with tofu and vegetables and served with a dipping sauce and rice. No complaints, but nothing spectacular either. We gave it a 2.
Tom Yam Soup: This recipe has the cook preparing shrimp balls which diners are supposed to cook for themselves in a fondue pot filled with hot chicken broth and cellophane noodles. After eating the shrimp balls and some marinated baby corn, diners are served the noodles and broth. Needless to say, I precooked the shrimp balls and served them in the bowl of soup. This dish was fair at best. The broth had little extra flavor. The shrimp balls should have been good, containing lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, but they were a little bland. I liked the baby corn which was marinated in ginger, rice vinegar, honey, sesame and cilantro, but Cris found it bland also. We gave it a 1.
Other dished in the broth section include Chicken Pot au Feu where chicken is simmered in a seasoned broth mixed with cream and served in the fondue pot where diners ladle their own portion into their bowls. It’s served in a fondue pot because…we want to dirty another pot? Another is a ravioli dish where the boiling stock is put into the fondue pot and diners cook their own ravioli. Again, why? I disagree that anything served family-style with a candle is fondue.
The oil section is even more of a quandary. Hot oil is placed in the fondue pot, and diners deep fry their own portion of raw meat, or spring rolls, or tempura. Seriously? Raw meat and hot oil at tableside feels dangerous to me. Besides, I’m not inviting guests to my house to cook their own food.
Equally, the desserts are creative. Raspberry stuffed meringues, poached pears and papaya fritters are all offered as dippers, but while three of the four dips should be warmed, only the chocolate one needs to be heated table-side, and a papaya cream is actually meant to be served chilled.
Technically, this book makes the cut, but I find that I’m getting rid of it anyway. It’s not that these recipes aren’t enticing because so many of them are. It’s that they aren’t really fondue. I rarely cook from this book because when I am looking for a fondue recipe, I thumb through it and don’t find anything, and when I’m not looking for a fondue recipe, the title, Fondue, negates my even opening the book. I feel like I should take a big black marker and write NOT after the title, and perhaps I would turn to this book more often.
Italy Today, the Beautiful Cookbook by Lorenza di Medici
The Beautiful Cookbooks were popular in the 1990s, and were true to their name. They are large, truly beautiful cookbooks. Each book focused on a different country or region and was written by a different author. Three Beautiful cookbooks were dedicated to Italy: Italy, Tuscany, and Italy Today, all written by one of my favorite Italian chefs, Lorenza di Medici.
What I love most about this cookbook series is that there is a photograph of every recipe. It is very easy to sit down with one of these books and find a dish, or plan a meal or event by simply turning the pages. Pictures of finished dishes wet the appetite, and seeing how a finished dish looks helps with cooking. My kids love looking through these books to make dinner plans, and that's how we picked what to test.
Betta chose the following menu: artichoke and tomato soup, peppers stuffed with rice, capers and anchovies and beef stuffed with peppers and cheese.
The soup was difficult. Any time one is cooking with fresh artichokes and not just steaming them, it is difficult. The soup was light, but needed more flavor. This is probably due to the artichokes. I suspect in Italy they are more flavorful and fresher than the ones we get in the grocery.
Although Betta didn't like the peppers, the rest of us did. Serving rice in vegetable cups is a cute way to get kids interested in food. This was a simple and flavorful dish. I don't use canned anchovies because what am I going to do with the rest of the can after I use one or two fillets in a dish. Instead, I use anchovy paste. I'm never quite sure just how much to use, but I seemed to get it right. Anchovies, in small quantities, add a deep savory note that brings out the best in other foods.
The beef dish was a gorgeous presentation. Strip steak is pounded out, layered with cheese, red bell peppers and asparagus spears, then rolled up, tied and roasted. It was really quite easy, and when it was served, it was eye-catching. Both kids liked the meat, but were lukewarm on the "stuff" inside. Cris and I thought it was great.
So all in all, two great dishes and one that fell a little flat.
David picked out saffron spaghetti pie with black olives because it looked so interesting. This is a simple dish, as so many great Italian dishes are. Cooked pasta is tossed with saffron, oil and black olives and then put into a hot frying pan until it crisps. Flip once to crisp the other side. Flip out onto a plate and cut into wedges. I love saffron. It has a subtle, earthy flavor and imparts a beautiful color. The only detraction to this dish was that I couldn't find the right olives. The first time we made it (Yes, we made it twice!), I used David's favorite, kalamata, but they were too salty. The second time I used a lightly cured green olive which worked better. This dish worked well warm and cold.
Cris picked tagliolini with small peas and fava beans. This one required substitutions. I used some other shape of pasta. Italians are picky about this sort of thing, but living in America, I have to let go. I also couldn't find fava beans. I substituted cannellini beans which weren't the right choice. This dish was still great, and the kids liked it even if they picked out the beans.
Regardless of rating, this cookbook has to stay. The kids enjoyed picking dishes out of it, and want to try more. Who could want more than that from a cookcook?
This week has two things uppermost in my mind: Passover and the Supreme Court.
By the end of the week I will have attended three seders, and at each one we will tell the story of the Exodus, the story of Jewish freedom. We remember when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and how God set them free. We tell our children the story so it is never forgotten.
But we don't say, "Remember that time the Israelites were slaves, and now they are free?" We say, "Remember that time that WE were slaves, and now WE are free." We are supposed to personalize it, make the journey through the dessert our own journey. We are all, or have all, or all will be slaves to something in our lives, things like money, popularity, drugs. One of the points of the seder is to make the long walk to freedom personal.
We also eat bitter herbs, not just because horseradish rocks, but because it brings tears to our eyes, and even while we're celebrating OUR personal freedom, we remember that there are people in this world, right now, who are not so lucky. Right now there is human trafficking, drug addiction, government oppression. Right now there are people who can't travel where they want, can't worship as they want, can't marry or divorce as they choose. It's not enough for us to be free. We have to want freedom for everybody.
We end the seder with the words, "Next year may all be free."
I think it's poignant that two marriage equality cases have be argued before the Supreme Court during Passover. I just read a Tweet by a woman who argued that the cases aren't that important because they affect less than 10% of the population. I disagree. Marriage equality affects all of us. I am truly blessed. I was raised Catholic and married a Jew. There was a time when that wasn't legal. I didn't have to choose between my husband and my country. Even after it became legal, it hasn't always been socially acceptable. My father, my mother, my grandparents all came to witness and celebrate with me. I didn't have to choose between my husband and my family.
When marriage equality doesn't exist, it doesn't only effect those who are denied the right of marriage. It affects us all. It brings us all down. It brings tears to our eyes, like the bitter herbs at the seder. Our founding fathers wrote, "All men are created equal." It took 100 years for that statement to include people of color and the end of slavery. It took almost 150 years for that statement to include women and the right to vote. How many years until it includes homosexuals and the right to marry?
Next year may we all be free.
This coming Saturday will mark 10 years of marriage for Cris and me. We celebrated last weekend by shipping our children off for a double-overnight with friends while we ate our way around Boston, the city of our nuptials.
We began our culinary journey on Saturday night at a wonderful little restaurant called The Beacon Hill Hotel and Bistro. We'd had the pleasure of meeting Executive Chef Josh Lewin several weeks earlier at a New England Aquarium Celebrate Seafood dinner, a series that has been one of our favorite social events over the past four years.
We began the evening with four Wellfleet oysters with a lovely mignonette and an appetizer of hand-rolled pasta with a sauce of Wellfleet shellfish, last-harvest corn and tomato, and Scituate lobster. Chef also sent out a plate of Boston sunflower heart served with sunflower seed aioli. A mignonette is a simple sauce of champagne vinegar and shallots. This was one of the best I've had, made with a fragrant and flavorful vinegar. The oysters themselves were the best of what Wellfleet can provide, and if you live in Boston, you know what I mean. The delicate sauce on the pasta was more like a broth, but so full of flavor and sweetness. The corn added a fresh crunch, and the tomatoes added just a hint of acidity to fully complete this pasta dish. I never knew one could eat the actual sunflower. The flashy and nutty seeds always take center stage, but here the heart of the flower was steamed like an artichoke. It has a lovely, mild flavor.
For our entrees, Cris had an autumn spice cured duck breast with "forgotten greens," long beets and beach rose aigre-doux, and I had gnocchi Parisienne with garden herbs, braised chicken, storybook eggplant and grenolata. The duck had crispy skin and succulent meat. The greens (tops of root vegetables) were slightly bitter which married very well with the aigre-doux, or sweet and sour sauce made from the fruit of saltspray roses. My gnocchi was deemed to be the most tender gnocchi we'd had since visiting our cousin Maria in Sienna over 10 years ago. Of course, Parisian gnocchi is made with a roux instead of potatoes which seems like cheating, but I'm not going to split hairs here. The chicken was so tender that it fell apart under the fork, but wasn't dried-out as braised applications can sometimes be. Just thinking about this dish again makes me want to drive right back there and have it again.
We finished by splitting a goat's milk cheesecake with rosemary grilled figs and a sangria sauce. It was rich and creamy and just perfect to split at the end of such a lovely meal. To cap it all off, Josh treats every guest to some home-made chocolates with lavender salt and sweet-and-sour rose petals. I warned Chef that he may never market these chocolates for sale. I would surely eat them to my grave.
We were recommended a perfect wine, Cusamano Nero D'Arola. It was red and full-bodied without being heavily tanic. I would describe it as a cabernet without the bitterness.
The menu at the Bistro changes with the seasons and the chef's whim. I can't wait until I can go back again.
On Saturday we headed out to Cambridge to lunch at The Greek Corner Restaurant, a place recommended on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. They make their own gyro meat there. I'm a fan of a good gyro, but I guess I've never really had one. Those places that serve that pre-made, ground lamb, pressed cone gyro stuff are just posers. This was the real deal. Succulent, but not greasy, topped with just the right amount of tzetzeki and wrapped into a home-made pita, this sandwich was a lunch-time perfection. We also shared a plate of falafel, another favorite of mine. These were airy, and crumbly, not dense, and were filled with herbs and spices. This little restaurant is tucked in on Mass Ave above Rindge Street, and my only regret is that I didn't know it was there when I lived in Somerville and worked a mere three blocks away.
We planned on bumming around Boston for the afternoon, perhaps visiting the aquarium, site of our third date, or walking part of the Freedom Trail. In searching for parking we drove along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, that little gem of green space that almost makes you think that the Big Dig was worth it. Three or four blocks of the Greenway were filled with tents. When we found parking and headed over there, we discovered The Boston Local Food Festival. Now really, how fortuitous was that? We strolled along visiting local purveyors of cheese, milk, candy, breads, vegetables, meats and of course, fish. We sampled coffees, caramels, jams, a remarkable Bayley Hazen Blue cheese, and even met Chef Josh again who was offering samples of a lovely squash soup.
Our feet now tired and our lungs filled with fresh autumn air, we headed over to the Bay village area for dinner. We were circling the Park Plaza looking for parking. We passed a car with a man on the phone, and stopped to see what he was up to. Shortly he began pulling out of his spot. As he did so, another car pulled up behind him. To be fair, this car couldn't tell from his position that we were waiting for the spot, and he was behind the car so in a better position to take it. When he pulled up he noticed us and made a polite "were you waiting for this spot?" sign. When we nodded yes, he waved and pulled away. It was the best anniversary gift EVER. I wish the four people in that car every good vibe that Karma can give back to them.
We ducked into the Park Plaza to change our clothes in the lobby restrooms, and then walked over to Erbaluce, a lovely Italian restaurant on Church Street. If you visit on a week night, you can ask the chef to make you a five or seven course chef's tasting menu with wine pairings. This is one of the best meals in Boston. Chef Charles Draghi is a masterful cook and has a collection of rare Italian wines that are a real treat. His menu is packed with ingredients from local vendors, fresh and sustainable and delicious. He prides himself in the relationships he's forged with fishermen and wine makers alike.
We opted for the seven-course dinner. Chef Draghi generally serves two dishes with each course which forces you to share with your dining companions.
Minestra with lobster, fennel and garlic croutons
This soup was light and perfect to begin.It warmed us from being outside.The Erbaluce wine was fresh and sweet and wetted the appetite.
Scallops with roe
wine: Altura Ansonaco
Butterfish lives up to its name.It is creamy and luscious.These little darlings were served whole with a light sauce.
Sunflower with arugula, capers and golden raisins
Chicken in the wood mushrooms with corn and tomatoes
wine: Masciarelli Rosato
Again, we had sunflower!This one was served with a sharp arugula salad.The caper/raisin combination was a delightful blend of salty and sweet that, I think, would play well with lots of other foods.I'm going to remember it.Chicken in the wood mushrooms are hearty and have a mouthfeel like meat, very tasty when paired with sweet corn and acidic tomatoes.
Risotto with Porcini and coral mushrooms
Tagliatelle with pork ragu
wine: Gattinara Anzivino
I'm a huge risotto fan, and this one was cooked with a broth of porcini mushrooms which gave it such a hearty, autumn flavor.The pork ragu at Erbaluce just may be my favorite dish of all time.I could eat it with a spoon.
Tautog with shellfish sauce
Snapper Blue with lovage and lemons
wine: Verduna Pelaverdiga
Both of these fish were new to me, and both were delightful.
Goat with pomegranate
wine: Bromaio Morellino di Sansamp
Who doesn't love goat, and why don't we eat it more often?Pomegranate is a fruit that always stymies me when I see it in the market because I just don't know what to do with it.Paring it with goat is a wonderful idea.The pomegranate is both sweet and sour, a combination that works well with most meats.
Poached pear with nutmeg, cinnamon and lavender
Chocolate mousse with meringue
wine: Massa Vechio Passito Rosa
I love poached pears, and this one was perfect.Not mushy, but filled with a sweet, spicy flavor.The chocolate mousse had a delectable and soft meringue on top that (atypical of most meringues) really added to the dish.The chocolate paired perfectly with this wine which is incredibly hard to do for chocolate.Our biggest regret about this course is that this lovely wine is made in very small batches.In fact, the wine maker produces as few at 250 cases a year, and of that only about two 6-packs are imported into Boston.Alas, we shall never taste it again.It was lovely and sweet, floral and spicy.Dessert reds are rare, and good ones are as hard to find as ghosts.
We really should have only done five courses, but it would have been the vegetable and appetizer courses that would have been cut, and they were two of the best ones. Instead, we sat after closing with Chef Charles while he regaled us with stories of his recent appearance on Food Network's Sweet Genius while we digested enough to rise to our feet.
It was a sweet and savory weekend to match a sweet and savory marriage. What's more, having completely separated ourselves from our daily routine, we came back feeling relaxed and refreshed, a feeling that, for me at least, has carried through all of this week. Ten years, three restaurants, and one great partner without whom I never would have made this culinary journey. Thank you.
I love the writing of Isabel Allende. In 1998 when she published Aphrodite, A Memoir of the Senses, a book that combines artful storytelling and food, I couldn’t resist. As the book jacket describes, Allende takes “a highly personal a charmingly idiosyncratic look at the intertwined sensual arts of food and love.” In the introduction, Allende explains it this way:
“The fiftieth year of our life is like the last hour of dusk, when the sun has set and one turns naturally toward reflection. In my case, however, dusk incites me to sin, and perhaps for that reason, in my fiftieth year I find myself reflecting on my relationship with food and eroticism; the weaknesses of the flesh that most tempt me are not, alas, those I have practiced most.
I repent of my diets, the delicious dishes rejected out of vanity, as much as I lament the opportunities for making love that I let go by because of pressing tasks or puritanical virtue. Walking through the gardens of memory, I discover that my recollections are associated with the senses.”
The first 200 pages of this book are memories, folktales, historical accounts of great loves and great meals, but mostly of great loves sharing great meals. Allende proposed to create a cookbook of aphrodisiacs, recipes compiled and tested by her mother, and serve them to her husband and guests. As she admits, her best successes where when she not only prepared aphrodisiac meals, but told her guests they were being served aphrodisiac meals. When people know you are putting in the effort, they respond in kind.
The question in testing this book was never to decide if it was staying or going, but to decide if it would live on the bookshelf or in the kitchen. Is it truly a cookbook, or just a lovely book on sensuality, both physical and edible?
Before going into the recipe descriptions, I must admit that I am a romantic. I swoon. I blush. I am easily won over by dashing charm. My husband is not. He is sweet, caring, compassionate, tender, and infinitely practical.
I began with a simple hors d’oeuvre called Frivolous Prunes. These were easy to put together on a week night, and my husband and I could munch on them while the kids started on their mac and cheese. They also contain bacon, which to my husband is the most singular of ingredients. They are, simply, pitted prunes stuffed with chopped pistachios soaked in sherry. The prunes are then wrapped in bacon and baked until the bacon is crisp and the prune is soft. They are hot, sweet and succulent. I adored them! Cris was lukewarm. He felt the prunes really distracted from the bacon. Again, not a romantic.
Next I tried a simple pasta, Noodles with Artichoke. Marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and olives are gently heated and mixed into pasta then topped with goat cheese and basil. Allende recommends this dish, “for reconstituting exhausted and ravenous lovers.” My husband’s critical commentary was that it needed more artichoke and less red pepper.
Next I made Saffron Shrimp. To me saffron is a heady, luscious ingredient. It smells earthy and rich. It imparts an extravagant golden color to whatever it touches: cheese, rice, one’s fingers. In this dish the saffron is whipped into mascarpone cheese and tossed with warm pasta and shrimp cooked in butter. The dish is lovely to look at and smell. We both liked it, although it was a little subtle for our American palates. I might suggest using goat cheese instead of mascarpone to give a little more tang to the dish.
At this point I began to sense that my husband wasn’t as enthralled by this book and recipe testing as I was. I found myself rereading sections, pouring over erotic ingredients, lovingly concocting each recipe. My husband was eating dinner, thoroughly enjoying himself, appreciating my time and effort, but basically eating dinner. I took the opportunity of several nights of his having late meetings to cook for myself.
When cooking for myself, I always turn to soups. They had to be quick and easy because I’m making them while preparing kid dinners by myself.
I first chose Consommé Bacchus, “so named because it is recommended for restoring well-being after a night on the town and for fortifying lovers at midnight.” Or perhaps for revitalizing a solo parent after a long day with her kids. It calls for beef stock. I don’t keep beef stock in my freezer, and it seemed inappropriate to use anything from a can here so I opted for my famous fowl stock. I make this from all the carcasses of the various birds (duck, chicken, turkey) that are smoked at our annual barbecue. It is very rich, and I think, stands up to beef stock any day. The stock is poured into a pot of onion and garlic sautéed in butter, brought to a boil, topped with sherry and then poured into a warm bowl over a raw egg. This is a classic Italian style soup as well. The egg poaches in the hot broth. When broken open, the golden yolk thickens the soup. I’d never had it before. I also rarely add alcohol to my soups. Why not, on both parts I ask you. This soup was so yummy! I was full. I was satisfied. I was warm and content. I was ready to snuggle with my kids as we read bedtime books. Love has many forms.
The next night I made Rise and Walk Soup, “also called Lazarus’s Lifeblood, this is the consommé we use in Chili to cure colds.” Here the stock is mixed with curry powder, Tabasco and sherry and served with rice. Despite the heat, even my daughter liked this soup. It was tasty and cleared my head. I felt invigorated and not so full as to be bogged down.
So where does this book end up? I think it lives in the kitchen where all love starts. Our mothers feed us and send us off into the world to feed others. My kitchen, the center of my home, the center of my life, is the place where book bags get dumped, mail piles up, friends congregate and my family eats. Allende says, “…if eroticism is to flourish, stimulating edibles aren’t enough; also essential is an atmosphere where spirits rejoice and there is no place for negative words or melancholy humors.” That place, for me is my kitchen, and that place is where this book belongs.
The Complete Caribbean Cookbook
The title exudes a lot of hubris for a 157-page book. The full title, The Complete Caribbean Cookbook, Totally Tropical Recipes from the Paradise Islands edited by Beverley Le Blanc sounds even sillier. Like, Totally Tropical, Dude! But I didn’t buy this book for its title. In fact, it’s easy to even miss the fact that it has a title. The cover is resplendent with fresh fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow packed tightly around luscious dishes of shrimp and rice.
This book always made me think of spring, and I remember using it often. We embarked on rediscovering it before autumn weather makes fresh mangoes hard to find until May.
I selected a chicken stew. I love one-pot meals. My family is less fond of them, but when I’m testing a cookbook, pleasing them comes second. (A guilty, but pleasurable result of this project.) I made Stewed Chicken, Trinidad Style. Chicken pieces are baked in spices and veg, browned in a pan and then simmered over a bed of shredded cabbage. Delectable. I admit I’m biased because I love anything with braised cabbage, but this was well worth making again. We gave it a 2.5
We had some lamb chops in the freezer so decided to use them to make Braised Lamb, Puerto Rican Style. I’m not a huge fan of lamb, but when you sauce them with honey, sherry and dark rum, how could they be bad? The answer is, they can’t. For both these recipes it is necessary to take the sauce once the dish is finished and reduce it to intensify the flavors. Cris found it a little bland, but I would work with this recipe again so we gave it a 2.
I also threw in an extra recipe. I was reading a recipe that called for boniato, also called patate. This is a white, sweet tuber. As I was walking through the grocery store, I saw some! I had to buy them and make Pain Patate. The boniato is roasted with evaporated milk, coconut milk, sugar, spices, rum and lime zest. It makes a delectable, sweet pudding, not unlike the Thanksgiving favorite of sweet potatoes with mini-marshmallows except that the coconut, rum and spices give this a grown-up taste that brings to mind the cozy part of lying on the beach in hot sun. The dish needed salt for my palate, and it lends itself more to a dessert than a side dish so I give it a 2.
Finally, Cris asked me to make a shrimp dish. I don’t like shrimp, but this one looked to pretty to resist, Avocado-Shrimp Boats. A salsa of mango, red onion, bell pepper, jalapeno and lime is tossed with cooked shrimp and served in an avocado half. Really, this dish exemplifies making the most of fresh ingredients – don’t over fuss! Lime and chili is all it takes to bring out the best of mango and shrimp. In order for this dish to work the way it is presented, you need a very ripe, very soft avocado. I also found it difficult to put all the shrimp and salsa I wanted into the small pit-indentation of the avocado. In the future, I would chop the avocado and mix it with the salsa and then serve it all in the emptied avocado shells. This would make a lovely appetizer for a dinner party, or a pretty tray for a buffet. We gave it a 2.5.
Some of my other favorites from this book are salads made with hearts of palm and star fruit and a luscious pineapple papaya fool. I will pull this book out whenever I can find fresh ingredients. It’s a cheap and quick trip to the Caribbean without the hassle of airline travel.