Tuesday, March 31, 2009

spring on the wind

"The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said 'Bother!' and 'O blow!' and also 'Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat."

It's finally spring in Boston, and I feel a little like the Mole myself. (Though it's more "Hang outlining!" in my case.) It should therefore come as no surprise that my literary selection for the Spring 2009 edition of Novel Food is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the classic British novel involving the adventures of Mole and Rat and Badger and Toad.

It’s a generally accepted fact that classic British children's literature is also some of the best food literature ever written. From Paddington Bear’s misadventures with bacon and marmalade and sticky buns, to the Pop Biscuits and Shock Toffees beloved by the inhabitants of the Faraway Tree, there’s an entire canon to capture the imaginations of the young and impressionable. The Wind in the Willows is full of food: there's an impromptu supper of sardines and ship’s biscuits after Mole and Rat rediscover Mole End, a lunch Rat shares with a seafaring stranger, and the gypsy stew Toad gorges himself upon after escaping from prison disguised as a washerwoman.

The meal that seems most fitting for spring, however, is the picnic mentioned right at the very beginning, when Mole, having bolted from his house, goes out to explore the world. His wandering leads him to the river, where he makes the acquaintance of Rat and his boat. Rat, upon hearing that Mole has never been on the river, is eager to show him the sights:

“Look here! If you've really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?"

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leant back blissfully into the soft cushions. "What a day I'm having!" he said. "Let us start at once!"

"Hold hard a minute, then!" said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat wicker luncheon-basket.

"Shove that under your feet," he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.

"What's inside it?" asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

"There's cold chicken inside it," replied the Rat briefly:

"O stop, stop!" cried the Mole in ecstasies. "This is too much!"

"Do you really think so?" enquired the Rat seriously. "It's only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast and cut it very fine!"

Just the idea of a lazy afternoon on the river with a picnic lunch is enough to make me hungry, and I originally wanted to replicate Rat's entire spread. Unfortunately, securing such delicacies as cold tongue and potted meat required a trip off my usual shopping route, and I was a little pressed for time. Worse, New England weather is a capricious beast, and a glorious Saturday was followed by a gloomy, wet Sunday.

And so I settled for a simple lunch indoors, involving a meal so simple that I’m almost embarrassed to offer the recipe. It is legitimate picnic food, however, and it's vegetarian too.

The legitimate picnic will follow as soon as the weather becomes more reliable.

Egg-and-Cress Sandwich

Week-old eggs are best for hard-boiling; fresh eggs are a pain to peel.

(Makes one sandwich. Multiply as necessary.)

Place two eggs in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Put a lid on the pan, and place it on the stove over low heat. (If you want to set a timer, the eggs should boil for seven minutes or so.)

Meanwhile, take a small bunch of watercress, and pick the leaves off the stems. Chop the leaves roughly and place them in a small bowl.

Once the eggs are done, place them under running water to cool. When they’ve cooled off sufficiently, remove them from the water, and roll them back and forth gently on your counter to create lots of little cracks. Once you get hold of the skin that covers the egg, the shell will strip away in big pieces. (It goes much faster than tapping it against a hard surface and picking off the shell bit by bit.)

Cut the eggs into fine dice and add them to the bowl with the watercress. Add a spoonful or two of good-quality mayonnaise, just enough to hold the mixture together, and give everything a good stir. Season with salt and a sprinkling of black pepper.

Spread the egg mixture on a slice of thick-cut sandwich bread, and top with another. Cut in half. Serve with gherkins (cornichons) and old-fashioned ginger beer.

Note: If you’d prefer to make dainty tea sandwiches, use white bread with crusts trimmed, and after you’ve cut them into triangles, spread the outer edges with mayonnaise and dip them into finely chopped parsley.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

duelling menus in the south end

"So what are you going to have?"
"The lamb brik, and then the duck or the flounder."
"Yeah, the lamb brik definitely looks like best appetizer on the menu."

Once again, I am out later than I should be on a school night for food-related reasons. This time, my excuse is not a food blogger event, but a Restaurant Week dinner with Jake and Michelle. We're at Sibling Rivalry in the South End, and Jake and I are analyzing the menu while Michelle looks on with patient amusement.

Jake and I originally became friends because we were both fascinated with food. When we were dating, our conversations focused on the meals we’d eaten and the recipes we wanted to try. Our brief involvement is now ancient history, but some things still haven’t changed: Jake gives me details whenever he and Michelle go out to eat, and we still have IM conversations that open with links to kitchen tools, or turn into troubleshooting sessions for recipes that didn’t turn out quite to Jake’s satisfaction.

It should therefore come as no surprise that we’re planning out our selections with the precision of Hannibal planning his trek across the Alps. There’s plenty to analyze: Sibling Rivalry is offering its entire menu for the Restaurant Week three-course prix fixe, rather than a set menu with just a few choices in each category.

As the name suggests, Sibling Rivalry is the creation of two brothers, David and Bob Kinkead. Their good-natured competition is showcased in a “duelling” menu that divides dishes into columns headed under “Chef David” and “Chef Bob.” Our server tells us they’re keeping score. (He doesn’t tell us what the score is, though.)

Ideally, we would each be ordering a completely different meal so that we’d get to sample nine dishes in all. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way: both Jake and I have latched onto the Moroccan-inspired lamb brik, and neither of us is going to change our minds. Michelle has already declared that she’ll have the crispy fried squid, the hangar steak, and the butterscotch pudding, so Jake and I are figuring out who’s getting what for an entree. Jake ultimately decides on the deep-fried black back flounder and the bread pudding, and I opt for the seared Long Island duck breast and the chocolate mousse.

We place our order, and our friendly server follows immediately with a bread basket. There’s a lull in the conversation as we start in on the slices of challah, whole-wheat, and Irish soda bread, and I take the chance to look around.

The restaurant is divided into spaces, each with a different decor and atmosphere. The main room is done in shades of red and copper with leather banquettes, and has a volume level of the sort that might make conversation difficult. Fortunately, we’re seated in a quiet space in the back, which is done in pale green with wooden chairs, and feels almost like the dining room of someone’s house.

Conversation focuses on the Boston restaurant scene, and Jake and I are puzzling over Boston’s lack of breakfast places when our starters arrive. We put aside the discussion, and turn our attention to the food.

The lamb brik is a crisp golden pastry packet in a little pool of lamb jus, with slices of cucumber and orange segments on the side. The filling is fragrant with spices and rich with gently poached egg, and its softness contrasts nicely with the crisp pastry. My only complaint is that I could really use a spoon: the lamb filling has a tendency to scatter, and a fork isn’t the best utensil for scraping up the curried jus.

Michelle pronounces her squid to be excellent, and urges me to try a piece. I agree that it’s some of the best I’ve ever had: tender, with a perfect, light crispy coating, and a flavorful ginger-lime-chili dipping sauce.

Our server clears our plates and offers us a refill on the bread basket. We gladly accept, though Jake jokingly suggests that we should have asked if we could get just the Irish soda bread. (The challah and the whole-wheat aren’t bad, but the Irish soda bread, with its fine crumb and generous studding of raisins, is superb.)

We’re discussing venues and wedding catering when our server arrives with our entrees.

The duck breast is served in thin slices on a bed of celery root puree, lapped in duck reduction with dried fruit and cipolini onions, and crowned with a tangle of watercress salad. I generally prefer duck leg to duck breast, but this is seared to a perfect medium-rare, and nicely tender. The reduction is rich and dark, and the thin slices of raw cipolini onion add a freshness that balances out the sweetness of the dried fruit. Finally, the celery root puree is creamy and mild.

I trade a piece of duck for some of Jake’s black back flounder, which is drizzled with a spicy mustard-tasso ham sauce and served with crispy potatoes. Once again, the kitchen crew proves that their deep-frying skills are exceptional: the batter on the fish is light and wonderfully crisp. I’d be willing to eat the fish with nothing more than a drizzle of lemon, but the creamy, spicy sauce is a delicious accompaniment. Jake is very enthusiastic about it, and Michelle agrees that it’s better than her grilled hangar steak, which is perfectly cooked, but not very interesting.

Michelle wins when it comes to dessert, however. Although the chocolate mousse is satisfyingly dense and rich, and the bread pudding pleasantly light, it’s the butterscotch pudding that steals the show. It’s lovely and thick, with a delicious deep burnt-toffee flavor. Ginger cake and candied pecans add extra texture. Just a spoonful is enough to leave me wondering if I can replicate the recipe myself at home.

I turn down our server’s suggestion of coffee with regret. It would be the perfect accompaniment to the chocolate mousse, but I have to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. After we finish up dessert, we settle the bill, and soon we’re making our way back towards Back Bay station.

On the way, we do a bit of math: the brik was chef David’s dish, the squid was Chef Bob’s dish, the duck was chef David’s dish, and steak and flounder were Chef Bob’s. We ordered three dishes from each. For our meal, at least, it looks like the brothers have ended in a draw.

(For the record, if you’d like to add your vote to the Kinkead brothers’ competition, Sibling Rivalry’s Restaurant Week menu will be available until April 3rd.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

driven to distraction

Professional Responsibility is driving me to three-course lunches.

It might not have quite the same ring as "Professional Responsibility is driving me to drink," but I had an unplanned Restaurant Week lunch at Eastern Standard, and Professional Responsibility class was, well, responsible.

Professional Responsibility is the class in law school that purports to teach future lawyers how to behave ethically. (Some might say that this is an oxymoron.) The professor routinely exhorts the class to think about what kind of lawyers they want to be. Given that my answer is probably "No kind of lawyer at all,” my attention is usually not focused on the lecture. I write blog entries. I read blog entries. And I browse sites about food-related topics, like Restaurant Week.

I sit next to Lizzie, a third-year student who is more than ready for law school to be over. She’s usually on the lookout for a distraction too, and once the Restaurant Week website caught her eye, she spent the better part of class reading menus.

Which is how we end up calculating that if we’re quick and the T is cooperative, I have just enough time between classes to squeeze in lunch at Eastern Standard.

Eastern Standard is a restaurant with bar located in Kenmore Square, right near the exit from the T. I know it has a reputation among the law students as a place for interesting cocktails, but I’ve never been to investigate. (Given the drinking habits of law students, you could say that I’ve been a little too scared to investigate.)

My fears, as it turns out, are unfounded. It’s actually something of an oasis in the noise of Kenmore Square, with high ceilings and an open, airy architecture that’s evocative of the grand halls of European train stations.

Our server seats us at a table in the crook of an L-shaped red leather banquette, and we settle in to consider the menu. Eastern Standard is offering a three-course lunch prix fixe: three choices for a starter, three choices for an entrée, and two choices for dessert.

Lizzie is quick to make her decision: roasted cauliflower soup, grilled Scottish salmon, and chocolate crepes for dessert. I spend a little more time dithering: I’ll have the pâté de maison as my starter, and the key lime tartlet for dessert, but when it comes to the entrée, I’m wavering between the hand-rolled ricotta cavatelli and the braised pork shank.

I end up asking our server for input. She tells me both dishes are excellent, but warns me that the braised pork shank is fairly hefty. Given that I have a class to go to immediately after lunch, and “food coma” is not an acceptable excuse for lack of participation, I opt for the cavatelli.

Our server brings out a bread basket, and we eagerly fall upon the crusty rolls and slices of sourdough. By unspoken agreement, our conversation avoids the topic of law school. Lizzie was also an art history major in college, and so we discuss art and food instead.

When our starters arrive, I briefly wonder if I should start carrying my camera. The pâté de maison is presented on a rustic wooden board with a little china pot of mustard, slivers of cornichon, and a mound of pickled red onion. It would make a charming picture.

As it turns out, however, the dish is easier on the eyes than the palate. I prefer my pâté spreadable, with the distinct flavor of liver: this pâté is almost solid, and doesn’t taste much like liver at all. Also, the accompanying baguette rounds appear to have been pre-cut; they’re a little on the dry side. Topped with a smear of mustard and a bit of pickle, the pâté is serviceable, but not great.

Lizzie offers me some of her roasted cauliflower soup, and a quick taste is enough for me to conclude that she’s made the better choice. It has a nutty depth and creamy texture, but it’s still pleasantly light.

After the pâté, I don’t have high hopes for the cavatelli. Once again, the presentation is lovely - a wide, shallow dish of pasta on a bed of celery root puree, tossed with softly sauteed spinach and topped with shavings of parmesan cheese – but that’s no guarantee of taste. I pick up a forkful, and brace myself.

The kitchen definitely has a better handle on pasta than it does on pâté. The cavatelli are satisfyingly chewy, and the ricotta in the dough gives them added richness. The celery root puree acts as an unusual sauce, and the parmesan adds a welcome umami note. Our server’s description is spot-on: it’s excellent. Lizzie's Scottish salmon is also well-executed: the fish is simply grilled and served on a bed of spinach and pearl pasta in a light, flavorful broth.

Our lunch has been a little more leisurely than I anticipated, and I'm sneaking nervous glances at my watch by the time our entree plates are cleared. A diligent law student would forgo dessert to ensure punctuality at the next class. As a diligent diner, however, I am staying firmly put.

And I'm glad that I do. The pastry chef has a deft touch: the key lime tartlet is composed of a gloriously tart curd in a crisp, flaky shell. It sits on a bed of rum-spiked whipped cream, ringed with candied macadamia nuts that add a buttery, nutty crunch. It's a small dessert, but it's remarkably rich, so I end up taking a pass when Lizzie offers me some of her chocolate crepes. (I have her word that they were good.)

Once we've finished dessert and settled the bill, I make a dash for the T. For once, a trolley comes through immediately, and I'm only a few minutes late for my afternoon class. Being driven to three-course lunches might not be such a terrible fate, after all.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

seeing green

Shamrock antennae. "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" shirts. Open containers of beer on the T. Verdant vomit in the streets.

It may be Erin-go-bragh, but the festivities that lead up to St. Patrick's Day in Boston make Adele go "Bleah."

Frankly, there are some things that should never be green; I think that beer is one of them. Maybe I'd be more open to the idea of rowdy inebriation if I actually drank some of the emerald-hued brew, but I think I'd just be sick - and still annoyed at all the drunken revelers on the Green Line.

If there must be green food, I'd rather make green pasta instead.

No, there's no food coloring involved. I'm referring to parsley pasta with leeks, which is a dish that actually has no connection with St. Patrick's Day whatsoever. (Just in case "pasta" wasn't a dead giveaway.)

It actually has its origins in one of Kitty's personality quirks: Kitty has a fascination with green food. (This applies equally to both baby spinach and lime gummy candy, so whether this is a healthy or unhealthy fascination is still up for debate.) Several months ago, when I asked for menu suggestions, she challenged me to create a meal that was entirely, naturally green.

I remembered reading a recipe for pasta with parsley and leeks in the New York Times; it didn't take much to tweak the concept by adding the parsley to the pasta dough itself. Paired with a green salad and followed by a green dessert, it made Kitty very happy.

Should you prefer something other than the usual corned beef and cabbage for your St. Patrick's Day festivities, or if you're looking for a vegetarian option, you can create an appropriately color-themed meal by serving this pasta with a salad of mixed greens, Granny Smith apple, and Sage Derby cheese, followed by pistachio or green tea ice-cream. You can even serve it with green beer, if you must.

Just don't sit next to me on the T later, please.

Parsley Pasta with Leeks

Concept nicked from a recipe that appeared in the New York Times. If you'd rather not make your own pasta, you can use spinach pasta and add extra chopped parsley to the dish at the very end.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

To make the pasta, start by dumping two cups of flour on a clean countertop. Crack in four egg yolks, add a glug of olive oil, and a few tablespoons of water. Stick your fingers in the well and stir, pulling the flour in, until you have a shaggy mass of dough. Knead in half a cup of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley. Knead further, until you have a smooth, elastic ball of dough. (For more detailed pasta-making instructions, go here.) Wrap the dough in plastic. Let it rest in the fridge for an hour.

After an hour, pull the dough from the fridge and give it some time to lose its chill. Roll and cut it into fettucine using a pasta machine. Set the pasta aside.

For the sauce, begin with a bunch of leeks. Trim off the dark green parts, reserving just the white and pale green portion. Rinse them thoroughly - leeks grow in sandy soil, and they can harbor a lot of grit - then slice them into thin strips. Peel and mince two cloves of garlic, and finely chop another handful of flat-leaf parsley.

Set a large frying pan on the stove over low heat. Add a knob of butter and a little olive oil to the pan. Once the butter has melted, add the leeks and garlic. Season with a dash of red chili flakes and a sprinkling of salt. Pour in a splash of white wine, and turn up the heat. Once the fumes have burned off, turn the heat back down to low.

Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks have softened and started to caramelize. Turn off the heat.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water. Drain, reserving a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Transfer the pasta and the cooking liquid to the pan. Sprinkle with the extra handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley. Toss well. Serve immediately.

Monday, March 9, 2009

sex, drugs, and lobster roll

"Did you figure out where you wanted to go for dinner?"
"Let's go to Fish."
"Fish? I thought we were going to Prune?"
"They only had tables available at six and eleven."
"Okay. Where is Fish?"
"Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village. It's near Canal Street."

I'm in New York for the weekend. Lucille and I are doing the usual: figuring out where we're going to eat. This time, it's an early birthday dinner for Lucille, and therefore, she gets to pick the place. Apparently she really has gotten into oysters, because she's taking me to a seafood restaurant she found while looking for places with good raw bars.

I don't know Greenwich Village terribly well, but it turns out that Fish is right near Cones, an ice-cream parlor I know for its fantastic hazelnut gelato. If proximity is any indication of quality, we're in for a good meal.

We walk up to an unassuming storefront with a small neon sign. There's a lobster trap and a fishing net in the tiny vestibule outside the door. Inside, the restaurant is dimly lit and very crowded. There's a line of people waiting for seats at either the stainless steel bar or one of the tiny, marble-topped tables lined up on the half-wood, half-tile floor. No-one seems to be in charge of seating, so Lucille and I just stand in line and wait for next available table.

The decor of the place is a cross between fish shack and French oyster bar, with plenty of sea-themed photographs and signage on the walls. The waitstaff wear shirts with "Fish" on the front and the slogan "Sex, Drugs, and Lobster Roll" on the back, and they reach right past people standing by the shucking counter to collect platters of oysters and clams on the half shell. The mood of the place is cheerful and boisterous: it's Friday night, and people are clearly having a good time.

The wait turns out to be a long one - nearly an hour - but eventually, one of the waitstaff leads us to one of the tiny tables and hands us two menus. We seat ourselves and start figuring out what we're going to eat.

The starter is easy: the special at Fish is the "Red, White, and Blue," half a dozen bluepoints or clams with your choice of house red, house white, or Pabst Blue Ribbon as an accompaniment. The entree, however, requires more careful thought.

The menu at Fish is long but straightforward, divided into sections. There are soups and starters and salads. There's fish from the grill, hot sandwiches ("fries on the side"), and seafood classics like New England lobster dinner and crayfish Creole.

Lucille's favorite is the "Pot O' Bass," a kind of fish stew, but tonight she decides to go with seared diver scallops. I'm in the mood for something with fries, so I opt for a blackened catfish sandwich. We put in our order with our server, and make ourselves comfortable.

"Did a friend tell you about this place?"
"No, I read about it in a magazine."
"Have you been here a lot?"
"A few times. I came here with my friends."

Our server returns with two glasses of the house white, which is light and refreshing, though not particularly memorable. After a few more minutes, she sets down a platter of ice with a dozen oysters on the half-shell. Lucille and I are of the same mind: we head straight for the lemon wedges, bypassing the shallot vinegar and an unidentified creamy sauce.

Once the contents of the platter have been suitably acidulated, we each pick up an oyster, loosen it from the shell with a fork, and slurp. The bluepoints have a mineral quality, and a light, flavorful brine. As it turns out, they pair quite well with the house white.

Lucille is happy with the oysters, but she didn't have much for lunch, and so she asks our server for a bread basket. It comes with the usual soft dinner rolls, but it also contains something that looks like a pair of hot dog buns at first glance. They turn out to be batons of jalapeno cornbread, and they're exceptional: buttery and just a little spicy, with a light, tender crumb. I'm on the verge of asking if we could have a few more when our entrees arrive.

The blackened catfish sandwich is true to its menu description: a fillet of blackened catfish with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and a little mayonnaise on crusty French bread, accompanied by a heap of golden fries. The sandwich is a satisfying combination of softness and crunch, and the slightly salty catfish is balanced out by the sweetness of the mayonnaise. The fries are excellent too, crisp on the outside and soft within.

Lucille hasn't spoken for several minutes, which is a sign that she's enjoying her food. The scallops are arranged around a mound of lightly sauteed spinach with garlic, and the dish smells appealingly of herbed butter.

"Really good."

She offers me a scallop, which is sweet and tender and nicely seared, and takes a handful of my fries in exchange.

"Can I have a Fish t-shirt for my birthday?"
"Fish t-shirt?"
"Yeah. Like the ones the servers are wearing."
"Maybe." I make a note to ask our server about it later. I wouldn't mind a shirt that reads "Sex, Drugs, and Lobster Roll" myself.

Soon we're polishing off the last few bites of dinner. We've already decided that we'll go to Cones for dessert, so all that remains is to settle the bill. Unfortunately, our server has bad news when we inquire about t-shirts: they're sold out, and the next shipment won't be in for a few weeks. Lucille pouts a little at the news, but cheers up when I remind her that we've still got ice-cream to enjoy.

We'll have to come back again for the t-shirts. Maybe I'll even try the lobster roll next time.

Friday, March 6, 2009

where evenings out become memorable times

I have made two unexpected discoveries in the past month.

One, I think I might actually have developed a social life without realizing it. I used to know exactly where I would be on weekday evenings: at home, or at my carrel in the law library. Now, when anyone asks me if I have plans for any given evening, I actually have to check Google Calendar.

Two, I really don't know Boston geography as well as I think I do. Or at least I don't know it well enough to leave my Google Map printouts in the aforementioned carrel before setting out to a food bloggers' dinner at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

Fleming's is located on Stuart Street in the theatre district, near the Arlington T stop. Thanks to the aforementioned Google Maps, I know exactly how to get from the Arlington T stop to Stuart Street. Unfortunately, that knowledge assumes that I'm starting from Arlington Street... and it turns out that the MBTA, in its infinite wisdom, has moved the exit one block over.

As you might guess, I'm somewhat behind schedule when I finally locate Fleming's and give my name at the door. I've never been here before, so my first view of the dining room is en route to the function room in which the bloggers' dinner is being held. The lighting is on the dim side, and there's a lot of dark wood, but the red leather booths look quite cozy.

Once I enter the function room, I'm greeted by Michael Dearing, the operating partner. I take a seat, and look around. I see a few familiar faces: Pam, of Cave Cibum, Jacqueline, the Leather District Gourmet, and Megan from MenuPages. There are also several new ones: Michele of FoodieMommy, Andrea of BellyGlad, Julia of Grow. Cook. Eat., Athena of Forays of a Finance Foodie, and Rachel of Fork it Over, Boston!

Our server offers me a drink list, and I order a vodka martini, because it seems like the sort of thing you should drink at a steakhouse. This is when I make another discovery: a dirty vodka martini and a regular vodka martini are two very different drinks, and while I enjoy the former, I am not such a fan of the latter. I do like the blue cheese-stuffed olives, though.

My attention is diverted from my contemplation of martinis when Michael suggests that we start in on the food. As I mentioned, I'm a little late to the party, and the table has already been set with a lavish spread of appetizers.

Jason Carron, head chef and partner, drops by to tell us a little about the menu. There's the Fleming's cheese plate (it takes the place of a bread basket), with crispbread, vegetables, and two kinds of cheese spread: brie with champagne, and goat cheese with cabernet. There's shrimp cocktail and seared ahi tuna. There's tenderloin carpaccio, lobster tempura, and crab cakes. If that weren't enough, there are also two absolutely enormous seafood towers, one at each end of the table.

(Per my usual policy, I avoided fighting with my digital camera. Try Cave Cibum or BellyGlad if you want to see pretty photos. Of course, their writeups are worth reading even if you don't.)

There's a lot of plate-passing as everyone tries to get a taste of everything. (Well. Maybe some of the other bloggers are more restrained. I'm trying to get a taste of everything.)

The appetizers are all delicious, but standouts include the tenderloin carpaccio, which comes with caper mustard sauce and red onions and tastes like a lighter, more modern steak tartare; the crab cakes, which put the ones at Legal Seafoods to shame; and the seafood tower, an array of fresh lobster, crab, Alaskan snow crab, and shrimp, served with classic condiments.

Did I mention that I have a particular weakness for fresh plain crustacean with a little cocktail sauce? I'm seated right near one of the seafood towers, so as you might imagine, there's quite a little pile of carapaces in front of me by the time the servers come around to clear our plates.

There's a pause between courses, allowing Michael and Jason to go into a little more detail about Fleming's. The restaurant is actually a franchise, but there aren't many on the East Coast, so it feels very much like a stand-alone establishment. Being part of a bigger group has its advantages: the restaurant has the ability to cater to a wide variety of dietary restrictions, and also has menus in multiple foreign languages. (Something to keep in mind if my parents ever visit Boston.) Jacqueline asks a question about the restaurant's beef purveyors, and soon the conversation has shifted to eating local and sustainability. We're discussing the concept of nose-to-tail eating when our entrees arrive.

When we made our selections from the menu, I wavered between the filet mignon and the rib-eye, ultimately deciding on the latter. Of course, I've missed one tiny detail: the rib-eye is much bigger than the filet, and did I mention that I put quite a dent in the seafood tower? Still, it looks and smells wonderful, and, as I discover when I slice into it, it's deliciously, satisfyingly rare. We've been offered madeira, peppercorn, and bernaise sauces, but it's perfect without further embellishment.

Jason and his team have also prepared a selection of sides to accompany our entrees: two kinds of mashed potato (roasted garlic and parmesan peppercorn), Fleming's Potatoes (scalloped potatoes with cream, jalapenos, and cheddar), an enormous cone of shoestring fries, chipotle cheddar macaroni & cheese, onion rings, sauteed sweet corn, sauteed mushrooms, sauteed spinach and grilled asparagus.

I decide that I'm going to have to pick and choose my sides if I'm going to leave the restaurant on my feet and not a gurney. I'm not big on onion rings or mac and cheese, so those are easy to pass up, and the grilled asparagus is at the other end of the table, so I also pass on that. Of course, that still leaves plenty of sides to try. My favorite is unexpected: as much as I like the mashed potatoes and the shoestring fries, it's the Fleming's Potatoes I end up taking seconds on. Beneath a golden blanket of cheddar, the rounds of potato are meltingly tender in their creamy, faintly spicy sauce. I don't take thirds - but that might only be because the dish is passed beyond my reach.

Once it becomes clear that we're none of us going to fit in another bite, our plates are cleared, and we're offered tea or coffee. I fully expect that we're done for the evening. Then our server comes in with more plates, and Jason mentions - did he forget to mention? - that he also has a selection of desserts for us to taste: chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice-cream and pistachio tuiles, Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée with fresh berries, and New York cheesecake with blueberry coulis. We all agree that we might be able to squeeze in just a few more bites.

The chocolate lava cake is tender on the outside and molten inside, and the crème brûlée is lusciously creamy. My favorite, however, is the cheesecake, which is so dense, you almost have to lick it off the fork. I end up managing quite a few bites between sips of strong black coffee.

Finally, we're all well and truly done, and after a little more conversation, the group starts to break up. I leave the restaurant with Pam and Jacqueline; we all agree that we could use a bit of a walk (or in my case, a very long walk) before heading home.

It's been a wonderful evening of delicious food and interesting people. A memorable time, indeed.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

treats for lucille

My mother does not bake.

I grew up in a household with a kitchen that contained no measuring cups. Ground cinnamon and vanilla essence never once darkened our door. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we used the oven each year. When someone at boarding school told me about care packages, my first thought was that it would be rather silly for my mother buy cookies in Hong Kong and mail them all the way to New England.

The idea of receiving a care package containing homemade baked goods was more amusing than appealing. Other people’s parents might send them loaves of banana bread or batches of oatmeal raisin cookies, but not mine. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this state of affairs: it wasn’t unusual for an international student, and besides, my friends were willing to share.

My sister, on the other hand, feels the absence more acutely. Unlike her friends, Lucille does not get the benefit of regular parental visits. She views the lack of care packages as an additional disadvantage. And so, whenever I visit New York, I bake treats for Lucille.

I’ve brought her quiche with a bacon filling and a buttery crust. A murderous chocolate torte. Even bread-and-butter pudding, sweet with cherry jam.

I meant to bake a batch of berry scones for my latest visit, but I forgot that I’d used up the bag of frozen berries in my freezer. Instead, I turned to the pantry, and dug out a bag of walnuts. The maple syrup followed, and then it only made sense to add a little cinnamon.

The result is very much a scone in the American sense of the word, a sweet baked good complete unto itself, more suited to coffee than tea. I'd prefer a better name, but that detail doesn't diminish their appeal: fragrant with maple, filled with nubbly walnuts, and topped with a sprinkling of crunchy cinnamon sugar, they're quite a decent late-night snack.

So Lucille will have scones to nibble on after my visit is over. She can even share with her friends.

Maple Walnut Scones

(Makes enough to feed one hungry college student and a few friends.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Cover a baking tray in parchment paper.

Get out a big bowl. Dump in three cups of flour, a half-teaspoon of salt, and two teaspoons of baking powder. Take three-quarters of a stick of butter and cut it into the flour mixture until the largest lumps are pea-sized.

Add one-third of a cup of brown sugar and two cups of walnuts to the bowl; mix well.

Make a well in the middle. Add a dash of vanilla and a quarter-cup of B Grade maple syrup, then pour in one-and-a-half cups of milk. Mix together to form a soft dough. If it seems a little crumbly, add a little more milk.

Get out a small bowl, and mix together a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon with two tablespoons of white sugar. Set aside.

Turn the dough out on the parchment-covered tray. Shape into a rough round. Cut the round into quarters, then eighths. If you'd prefer mini-scones, cut each eighth further in half.

Arrange the scones on the tray so that they have room to spread. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Transfer the tray to the oven.

Bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until the scones are nicely browned on top. Serve warm or cool with coffee.

Monday, March 2, 2009

locavore dinner in a clandestine location

Underground dining.

It sounds like the sort of thing that requires shadowy connections and cryptic codes. Whispered passwords, scribbled maps, secret signals. Clandestine meals in hidden locations. Like being in a culinary version of the Résistance, complete with fear of surprise raids from the Health Department.

As it turns out, this image is a little exaggerated. The reality involves far less subterfuge, and a little more struggling with the vagaries of the MBTA bus route. Or so I discovered when I attended a O.N.C.E. dinner this past Sunday.

Though the acronym might sound like we're still thinking espionage (as in SMERSH, SPECTRE, and all that old-school James Bond fun), O.N.C.E. stands for "One Night Culinary Event," and it's the brainchild of locavore personal chef JJ Gonson. Apparently she's been holding these events for a while, but I wasn't in the loop until I made the acquaintance of Jacqueline Church, the Leather District Gourmet. She mentioned O.N.C.E. on her blog and encouraged people to attend.

Which is how, come Sunday evening, I'm wandering about Union Square, and very, very lost. After two buses and considerable confusion, I'm cursing Google Maps and HopStop and thinking that Somerville probably does qualify as a clandestine location for a law student who spends most of her time in Allston. I have an address, but none of the streets have clear signs. In the end, I stumble across the given location - a restaurant that is closed on Sundays - entirely by accident.

Once I'm inside and confirm that yes, I am in the right place, my mood improves rapidly. I met up with Jacqueline, the aforementioned Leather District Gourmet, and Richard, The Passionate Foodie, both of whom I first met at the blogger dinner at Sandrine's a few weeks ago. I also make the acquaintance of Dale Cruse, of Drinks Are On Me.

We settle down at our table, and Richard and Dale reveal that they've brought a total of four bottles of wine between them - three reds and a rosé. (I'm suddenly glad that I finished my reading assignment before I left, because I have a feeling I'm not going to be doing much after dinner.) After we admire the bottles for a bit, Richard pours glasses of the rosé, a 2006 Domaine Tempier. It's light, subtle, and very drinkable.

Our first course (of ten!) arrives shortly after: savory profiteroles with duxelles (mushroom spread) and körözött, a kind of Hungarian dip made with anchovies and cream cheese. They're deliciously crispy and a little salty, and my only complaint is that there aren't more of them.

Conversation drifts from blog interviews back to wine, and I work up the nerve to confess that while I can taste a wine and have some idea of what to serve it with, I have no idea how to do things the other way around. My tablemates offer some helpful pointers, and then the next course, soup, appears.

JJ Gonson appears too, welcoming us to O.N.C.E. She explains that the soup before us is made with a three-seaweed broth, contains corn, zucchini and spinach, and is seasoned with epazote. It's very light and could perhaps use a little salt, but the seaweed broth is pleasantly umami, and the vegetables (locally grown, frozen during the summer) are full of flavor.

There's a sudden hush (at our table, at least) when a server comes out bearing a majestic pâté de campagne, wrapped in pastry crust and decorated with stars. We're told that it'll be the next course, served with liverwurst and grainy mustard. Richard takes this as a sign that we should start on the next bottle of wine, a red by a winemaker named Sean H. Thackery. It's called Pleaides, because he names all his wines for constellations, and this one contains seven different grape varietals. It's a little spicy and smells of berry fruit, and again, it's very drinkable.

The pâté de campagne arrives, and the table turns silent as we turn our attention to our plates. It's richly, satisfyingly porky with a touch of garlic, and it goes very nicely with the grainy mustard. The liverwurst is also delicious, and it prompts Jacqueline to recount how she brought liverwurst sandwiches to school as a child, and didn't realise that her classmates thought it was weird until they started trading lunches. I can sympathize: my classmates were horrified when my lunch contained sliced pigs' ears.

The conversation somehow turns to college, and it comes out that all of us had impractical liberal arts majors. (Which probably explains why three out of the four of us ended up going to law school.) There's a toast to useless fields of study, and then our server brings out the next course, a salad of pea tendrils, beets, and sunchoke with ume vinaigrette.

The salad is one of the prettiest I've seen in a while: bright green pea tendrils, with thin slices of red beet, golden beet, and yellow sunchoke. The ume vinaigrette has a haunting, sweet-sour flavor, and it goes nicely with the freshness of the vegetables.

(For photos, try the behind-the-scenes writeup over at Cake and Commerce.)

Rumor has it that the next course involves lobster. I never actually read the posted menu, so I'm very excited when the next round of plates starts appearing: lobster ravioli with vanilla butternut squash puree. One bite in, I'm already trying to figure out how soon I can replicate the dish at home. I wouldn't think to combine lobster and squash, but it's a very effective pairing: the sweetness of squash plays up the lobster, and the vanilla's an interesting touch.

Next, we have a palate cleanser of grapefruit segments with vanilla sugar and mint. It's so simple, it's genius. The grapefruit is very refreshing, very effective, and a lot more appealing than sorbet. Someone needs to get this idea out to all those fine dining establishments that insist on serving lumps of crushed ice mid-meal.

The table starts on a third bottle of wine, another Domaine Tempier, but red. It's smooth and fruity and a little spicy, and the conversation turns to grape varietals. Dale tells us that he's just become a member of the "Wine Century Club," a group for people who have tried a hundred or more different grape varieties. He was also at a wine tasting at which he sampled wines from India. (Apparently, there was one wine that had a smoky aroma, like that of a car on fire. This is, as you might guess, not a good thing.)

The next round of plates starts to come out of the kitchen: lamb rack in pistachio-pepita crust, served with beach plum and Grand Marnier sauce and a sunchoke and celery root risotto. The lamb is from Stillman's Farm in Hardwick, and it's fantastic, all sweet and pink and tender. The sauce is subtle and sweet, and the risotto is pleasantly creamy. I am sorely tempted to duck into the kitchen and plead with the chef for another helping.

The table begins on its fourth and final bottle of wine: an Eileen Hardy Shiraz from 1998. It's complex, bold and a little tannic, but not over-the-top. (Bear with me. I am fully expecting Dale and Richard to provide the intelligent commentary.)

I'm trying to get the last little scraps of lamb off the bone using my knife and fork, when Jacqueline remarks that she'd really like to pick up the bone and just gnaw on it. I've been thinking the exact same thing, so I pick up my lamb bone and dare her to do the same, as Richard and Dale look on in amusement. (I think Richard may even have photos.) It's hardly fine manners, but it's very satisfying.

Our next course is vegetables: sauteed sweet potatoes with Mexican chili, and a salad of jasmine blanched kale and pecans. The sweet potatoes are pleasantly spicy, and the pecans add a satisfying crunch to the kale. There is some joking about not getting dessert if we don't finish this course, but I don't think we're in any danger of that.

JJ Gonson reappears from the kitchen, and checks in to make sure that everyone's still up for the two remaining courses. The crowd responds enthusiastically, and soon the servers are passing out plates of mac & cheese, made with local cheese and seasoned with truffle oil and smoked paprika.

My favorite course so far has been the lamb, hands down, but the mac & cheese appears to be the crowd favorite. I can understand why. It's rich and creamy, and the truffle oil is satisfyingly pungent. I wouldn't refuse if, by some miracle, there was more in the kitchen.

Our final course is dessert: warm apple cranberry crumble with candied ginger and cardamom, served with vanilla ice-cream from Shaw's Farm. The crumble is fruity and spicy and not too sweet, and it goes perfectly with the ice-cream.

We linger for a little while longer after the dessert plates are cleared. Once the restaurant has mostly emptied, we get the chance to talk to JJ Gonson. Much to my delight, she gives me a brief rundown on how to prepare the lamb.

It's snowing as we leave the restaurant, and I am not looking forward to wandering about Union Square again, trying to find the right bus stop. Dale kindly offers me a lift, however, and I am spared that particular struggle.

It's been an excellent evening. I think I'd like to do this underground dining thing again.