Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lobster, and Some Housekeeping Matters

I will begin taking and posting pictures on the blog as soon as I find my camera's memory card. I feel your pain...

Also, while I was writing the CSA post, below, I remembered that here in Boston, as elsewhere, the price of lobster is plummeting due to people wanting to cut back on spending. I've seen it as low as $5.99 a pound here. This is bad news for Maine, but good news for me. Whoever thought that cheap winter comfort food could be lobster? According to chowhound, lobsters have the thickest shells and the tastiest meat in late fall/early winter. I think I might be on to something. And, if I were to go out and get lobster for dinner in an effort to save money, I would undoubtedly go to James Hook to get it. James Hook is a Boston institution, right on the water, and cheaper than the grocery store.

The CSA: Carrots and Parsnips and Squash, Oh My!

I've mentioned a few times that we get the vast majority of our produce (up to 90%, maybe even more) through a CSA based in Belmont, two towns out of Boston. CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture." The basic idea is, that we pay the farm in advance for produce throughout the winter (our "share"), and the farm has a guaranteed profit for its harvest. It helps the farm, it makes our lives easier, and it helps us be more "green" by eating and supporting local, sustainable produce. I've also noticed that, since we've started relying on the CSA for our produce, that I put much more thought into what we're cooking and eating. It's tough to justify running off to the grocery store for bright red tomatoes in November when you live in Massachusetts and have a box full of potatoes at your feet, basically. And, I know this might sound trite, but I feel a lot more in tune with the seasons here, and I think I notice what the plants around the neighborhood are doing more.

We're splitting a winter share with another couple. The entire share cost $225 for three installments (every month or so from October through December) of 50 lbs of veggies. In other words, it cost us $112.50 for three installments of 25 lbs of veggies. Even just half the share is a lot of food, and I'm glad we're splitting it. I think we'll try to sign up for a summer share for next season (they go fast though, and may be more expensive). I love getting vegetables from the CSA, so I think cost may be the only real barrier to us continuing (I like being green, but I also like, you know, having a little green in my bank account).

We went to the CSA to pick up our October share. Belmont's right outside Boston, so it's much more of a suburb (a very nice suburb) than a typical rural farming community. But we followed the handwritten map and directions that the CSA manager had sent us, and lo - the farm was faithfully in front of us all of a sudden, in between rows of typical New England colonial suburban houses. We drove up to the barn, as directed, and met some of the workers. They gave us cider, showed us which boxes and bags of produce were ours to take, and invited us to take our time and look around. It was a neat experience - I was very impressed. It was a small farm, but I thought the fact that these dirty veggies we were watching the farmwomen (there were no men) pull out of the ground in front of us, were going to end up on our dinner plates that very night, was pretty cool.

We met up with our other half, split the share pretty fairly (we got the bok choy, she got extra potatoes), and then spent the next hour or so trying to store all the vegetables properly in the fridge and in a plastic box I have in the foyer (the cool, dark place for onions, potatoes, squash - apartment dwellers don't have basements!). Most of what we got was root vegetables and squash. We live in New England, so the pickings are pretty slim in the winter. But, the share's had some interesting things in it that I wouldn't normally try. For example:

- Fennel (roasted with red bell peppers and onions, and topped with feta cheese);
- Celery root (roast chicken, a few posts ago)
- Parsnips (roast chicken)
- Sugar Pumpkin (I roasted this along with some yams that we also got, and then pureed them to make a pie with. I used the recent Cook's Illustrated recipe, and the end result was worth the extra hassle).
- Beets (I plan on roasting these and making a salad with walnuts and cheese)
- Kohlrabi (I need to use this up - anybody have any suggestions?)
- Swiss Chard (I copped out and used this in fried rice - I'm sure there's better things to do with it).

Not to mention, all the onions, potatoes and carrots you could ever eat.

We're already three quarters through our November share. We have a butternut squash and some sage, and I'm planning on roasting them together with some garlic. We have to find a way to use up some potatoes and some acorn squash - they won't go bad for a while, but I want to make sure to use them up before they do. Can anyone recommend a simple recipe beyond mashed/baked potatoes and roasted squash?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On Barbecue Sauce and Coleslaw

As I posted about below, I planned on using leftover meat from my roast chicken to make North Carolina-style pulled chicken sandwiches. I've been making pulled chicken sandwiches for years, since I found a recipe in Cook's Illustrated a while back. The basic idea is that it looks and tastes like pulled pork, but it's healthier. I've tooled with the Cook's Illustrated recipe for barbecue sauce over the years, and it's now one of those things I can make without much guidance.

A week or two ago, I came across another recipe for North Carolina-style barbecue sauce, and I noticed an immediate difference. While the hallmark of each recipe is the same: a watery, vinegary, slightly spicy sauce, The Cook's Illustrated recipe is much more tomato-based than the recipe I had found, which called for 1 part crushed red pepper flakes (buckle up!) to 6 parts cider vinegar, with (a lot of) salt and peppercorns to taste, combined and let rest for at least five hours.

I spent some time looking into regional barbecue sauce variations, and found some helpful guidance on the internet. A lot of people have written a lot about barbecue, too much to repeat here in any detail that does them justice. But in a nutshell, as you travel from the northeast (relatively speaking in this case, the northeast is coastal North Carolina) to the southwest (again relatively speaking, coastal Texas), barbecue moves from focusing on pork with a vinegar sauce, to beef with a tomato sauce. From Texas, tomato-beef based barbecue traveled up the Mississippi, like the blues, to Chicago. Note that a lot of easterners consider Texas outside the "barbecue belt" - apparently substituting beef for pork is an irrevocable sin.

At any rate, I wanted to try the more vinegar-based barbecue sauce recipe I had found, in large part because it's a lot easier (two ingredients, plus salt and pepper, as opposed to the laundry list of ingredients the Cook's Illustrated recipe I had modified called for). My regional knowledge also hinted that the CI recipe was probably based on inland North Carolina sauce, while the simple recipe was for very coastal North Carolina barbecue - I'm picturing the Outer Banks in this case, since the sauce is literally cider vinegar plus hot plus salt.

I substituted pulled leftover chicken for the pulled pork. That's probably barbecue heresy, but since I'm a Yankee, I'll plead ignorance and hope I get away with it. I piled chicken and a thimbleful of sauce (it's powerful stuff, and I'm usually the one with a steel stomach) on a toasted hamburger bun. I topped it with the following coleslaw recipe, which I made up and composed from vegetables that we got in our CSA share:

Coleslaw (use whatever vegetables make sense)

combine in a big bowl:
1 head napa cabbage, cleaned and cut into thin strips (1/8-1/4")
4 carrots, peeled and shredded with a cheese grater
1 daikon radish, peeled and shredded with a cheese grater
1 medium red onion, halved and then sliced into very thin semi-circles (as thin as possible)

and toss with a mixture of:
1 part mayonnaise (1/4-1/3 cup)
1 part plain yogurt (i used greek, but regular yogurt would work too)
1 part sour cream
1 big tablespoon of whole grain mustard
juice of one lemon or lime
lots and lots of fresh dill (at least a quarter cup).
taste this and adjust for taste - add some salt and pepper if you want.

let that sit for as long as possible in the refrigerator, tossing occasionally. it will get nice and coleslaw-y by the time you eat as flavors have a chance to come together and the acid beats down the veggies a little. adjust for seasoning again right before serving.

The end result of the sandwich was good - Warm, tangy, spicy meat topped with cool, refreshing, creamy coleslaw that also had a bite to it. We cracked open a reisling and set about enjoying our Friday night dinner. If I could make one change, I would have tried to heat up the chicken in a way that would have given it more of a barbecue texture as opposed to a roast chicken texture - maybe I should have roasted it to try to make it drier and a little crunchy? I briefly looked into assembling a smoker for my oven (I live in an apartment with no outdoor space, a continual bar to my quest for grilling and barbecue), and decided it would be 1) a pain and 2) a quest with a serious potential for me burning down the building. So I passed. But as soon as I save my pennies for a house with a backyard, the first thing I'm buying is a grill.

Oh, one more thing, an update on the chicken stock: I ended up with eight succulent cups of stock, which I froze in two-cup portions in ziploc bags. I will probably use four cups of it for chicken noodle soup later this weekend (it's supposed to be rainy and gross here all weekend - perfect soup weather), and save four cups of it for some other creation down the line. Or maybe I'll try what the commenter suggested, and fiddle with the leftover stock to make boullion. It's my kitchen, after all.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Roast Chicken, Roasted Root Vegetables, Chicken Stock

Last night was a cooking adventure. I'm working my way through Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. Beef stew? Fabulous. Braised short ribs based on the beef stew recipe? Very good. The book's a great resource for cooks that don't need step-by-step directions, but do like a yes-man of sorts in the background, reassuring them that their instincts are correct. By the way, Waters' suggestion of adding a shot of brandy to beef stew (or braised short ribs, in this case) is a good one; a few tablespoons of coffee that's been sitting in the coffeemaker since that morning adds an earthy, deep, almost chocolaty flavor to the same braise (or stew, I assume).

We've been trying to cook simple, seasonal food that we can use leftovers from lately. In part, this is because we've started getting produce from a local CSA (another post on that later), and in part because food's expensive, the economy's bad, and we're trying to save money. An easy solution to this is simple roast chicken - whole chicken's cheap, pound for pound, and i saw an easy side dish in the endless amounts of root vegetables we had gotten from the CSA. Among the weirder vegetable selections, we got parsnips and celery root in our share. Having never cooked with either before, I figured roasting each would be a good start: I could cook them in a relatively foolproof manner, while also preparing them in a way that let me taste them cleanly, so that I would get a good idea of how to use them in the future.

For the roast vegetables, I turned to Alice Waters. She recommends cleaning, peeling, and chopping into 3/4" inch pieces, carrots, parsnips, and celery root.* Following the recipe (and obvious, common roasting sense), I tossed them in a few tablespoons of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt, then spread them out on a baking sheet and roasted the veggies in a single layer at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes, stirring and turning the veggies a few times in the process.

The end result was really good - parsnips taste a lot like carrots, except they're firmer in texture. The celery root, unsurprisingly, tastes like celery, but with a milder flavor and the texture of a potato. I'll probably turn the leftovers into a mash, using milk heated up with a few garlic cloves in it to add a garlicky taste to the vegetables. I plan on serving that later this week with pulled chicken sandwiches (like pulled pork, but healthier) that I make from the bits of chicken I have leftover from the roast.

On to the roast chicken: Alice Waters' recipe looks good, but I mixed its wisdom as to cooking times and temperatures with my mother's standby method for flavoring. I cleaned the bird (pull out the giblets, wash and dry the inside and outside of the bird), and then stuffed the cavity as full as possible with a peeled and quartered onion, two halves of a lemon (squeeze the juice into the cavity), and as much thyme as I could cram in there, for lack of a more delicate term.** Then, I put dabs of softened butter all over the bird, around three tablespoons total. Salt and pepper, and then into a roasting pan and into the same 400 degree oven. I flipped the bird a few times to make sure it browned all over, but I didn't lower the temperature like a lot of recipes suggest. I'm firmly in the "don't mess with it" camp of cooking. It came out moist, well-flavored and really satisfying.

After I cleaned up from dinner, I realized I didn't have enough room in the refrigerator for an entire chicken carcass, so I made some impromptu chicken stock (we ate dinner early, so i had the four hours-plus required before bedtime to tend to it). I picked as much meat as I could off of the carcass to save for other things (chicken sandwiches, pulled chicken, etc). Then, I put the carcass in a stockpot, covered it barely with water, and added parsley, peppercorns, salt and a few bay leaves to the pot. I also cut a head of garlic in half and added both halves to the water. The carcass still had thyme, lemon and an onion wedged inside it; otherwise, I would have added them, too. Then, I brought the stock to a boil, skimmed off the foam, and lowered the heat down waaaay low. I let it simmer on the back of the stove for four hours, until it tasted good (the best judge of whether something's done or not, in my opinion). I strained the stock out, and then put it into the fridge to cool. Today, I'll lift the coagulated layer of fat off the top of the stock. I'll probably end up freezing some of the stock for some later use. In terms of the rest of the stock, I've had a hankering for some old-fashioned chicken noodle soup, and now I have the chicken bits, veggies and some noodles lying around to put into it.

In the end, one chicken will lead to at least three meals: roast chicken, pulled chicken, and chicken noodle soup. That's pretty good, I think. Here's to cooking simply!

* Celery root, I learned from Wikipedia, is the same thing as celeriac. That answered a lot of questions in my mind. I also learned that celery root is sometimes referred to as "Rastfarian turnip," owing to the tendrils coming off it that look like dredlocks. I'll leave that alone for the sake of political correctness, although I have to admit I find the nickname entertaining.

** If I knew that I was going to end up making chicken stock with the carcass, I would have saved all the giblets and other unpalatable bits and pieces that I pulled out of the cavity and then thoughtlessly tossed. I would have put on my hazmat suit (I'm kind of a sissy with the entrails, to be honest), and then put all that stuff into the stockpot. I don't have cheesecloth to wrap them up in, so I probably would have ended up rigging some sort of hydropermeable containment unit out of a tea infuser or something. Necessity is the mother of invention, especially in my bathtub-sized galley kitchen.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It Must Be Something in the Water

There's an interesting article on today, recounting the history of the bagel. The author talks about the bagel's start in Poland, and then its emergence in New York with Jewish immigrants, and then goes into the (kind of unpalatable, in my opinion) move towards mass-production. It's an interesting read, and if nothing else, I think it says a lot about the patterns of food that follow patterns of immigration in America. Think about it - 100 years ago, pizza was only available in Italian enclaves; Chinese food was unheard of.*

I relate to the bagel piece. I grew up in a town fifteen miles from Manhattan's Times Square: there were bagels everywhere, and the only doubt as to what Sunday morning breakfast would be revolved around the age-old question: plain, or onion? (As a sidenote, my personal favorite perfect bagel is lightly toasted everything, with a schmear, tomato, lox, red onion, and a few capers. I think everything bagels are relatively new, though, since I don't remember them being around before I was maybe twelve years old (1992). Can anyone speak to this?). I remember going with my dad to the bagel store in town - the best bagel store in town - for the baker's dozen: if you bought twelve bagels (for 30 cents each, back in the day), the baker would throw in a 13th bagel for free; and sometimes, he would hand me a small salt bagel, fresh and hot, to munch on while my dad fumbled with his wallet.

It's also interesting that bagels are traditionally a Jewish Sunday morning breakfast. I wondered why that was, so I did some research. Wikipedia says that the cooking method lends itself to the timing. The entry states the following:

At its most basic, traditional bagel dough contains wheat flour (without germ or bran), salt, water, and yeast leavening. Bread flour or other high gluten flours are preferred to create the firm and dense bagel shape and texture. Most bagel recipes call for the addition of a sweetener to the dough, often barley malt (syrup or crystals), honey, or sugar. Leavening can be accomplished using either a sourdough technique or using commercially produced yeast.

Bagels are traditionally made by:

* mixing and kneading the ingredients to form the dough
* shaping the dough into the traditional bagel shape, round with a hole in the middle
* proofing the bagels for at least 12 hours at low temperature (40-50 degrees F = 4.5-10°C)
* boiling each bagel in water that may or may not contain additives such as lye, baking soda, barley malt syrup, or honey
* baking at between 175°C and 315°C (about 350 to 600 degrees F)

It is this unusual production method which is said to give bagels their distinctive taste, chewy texture, and shiny appearance. In the context of Jewish culture, this process provided an additional advantage in that it could be followed without breaking the no-work rule of the Sabbath. The dough would be prepared on the day before, chilled during the day, and boiled and baked only after the end of the Sabbath, therefore using the Sabbath as a productive time in the bagel-making process (as the dough needs to slowly rise in a chilled environment for a time before cooking).

Since we moved to Boston, I've been looking for the perfect bagel. I live very close to Brookline's Coolidge Corner neighborhood, which is heavily populated by Jews, and Orthodox Jews in particular. I've focused my search on the bagel bakeries around my neighborhood. The bagels are good, but not the same as they are in New York. This seems strange to me, since the recipes are the same, the dietary laws and ancillary methods and ingredients are the same, and in some cases, even the bakers are the same - transplants like me (don't ask me how I know this; I'll just say that there are a lot of undercover Yankees fans like me prowling around the neighborhood).

The only difference I can find between New York bagels baked in Boston, and New York bagels baked in New York, is the water. This theory: that Boston water is different from New York water (or, more wide-ranging, that New York water is different from non-New York water), is relatively well-accepted. Example, Example, Example, Example, Example. Fair enough. Now, the question is: what's so special about New York water? This, unfortunately, we will (or at least I will) probably never know. I'm sure it has something to do with the minerals in the water that seep in from the reservoirs, or the top-secret additives that the government puts into the water, or the way in which it's filtered and what's left behind. Someone who knows more than I do about this needs to tell me - until then, I fear my only recourse will be to continue to bring bagels back to Boston with me from New York, or to ask my parents to ship gallons of water to me from New York for me to make my own bagels with.

* I read somewhere that pizza's rise in American cuisine actually owes a lot to American soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II that got hooked on pizza, and then came home and led to the modern-day demand. I also know that Chinese food in America is not the same as Chinese food in China. So maybe those aren't really the best examples of food following immigrants. But the idea's there. Maybe a better parallel would be Greek food? Japanese food?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Today, we had lunch at Sportello, in Boston's Fort Point neighborhood. Sportello is the newest in James Beard Award winner Barbara Lynch's empire. We've had (or at least I've had) a hankering to eat at a Lynch restaurant for a while. But, B&G Oysters is too expensive; No. 9 Park is too intimidating (the kind of place I expect Mitt Romney to eat at while he explores new and more devious ways to make his election to public office the worst thing to ever happen to America, nee Massachusetts); and on and on. When I heard that Babs was opening up a more casual, inexpensive Italian lunch counter, I had to try it.

And, we weren't disappointed. Sportello's space is gorgeous (if a bit out of the way and hard to find parking around), located on the floor above Drink. Floor-to-ceiling windows and a classic white counter put me at ease instantly, and gave me an excuse to people watch (both other patrons and street traffic) while I ate. The kitchen's right next to the counter. Overall, I got the sense that Sportello's a casual place, with transparent cooking and easy food. There's also a bakery and retail section, which I feel the restaurant could have done without.

The server brought us bread with a spread of marscapone cheese, fig preserves, olive oil and sea salt. It was amazing. The sea salt was a surprising taste, but it really set off the fig preserves just right. For our actual lunches, I ordered a $17 pasta dish: strozzapreti with braised rabbit and green olives. This was my first try at rabbit, and it was worth every penny - homemade pasta (at least, I think/assume it was homemade), dressed with braised, pulled rabbit and perfect green olives. It was hearty, tangy, and comforting, and the rabbit lent a perfect texture to the dish. The rabbit was almost the texture of pulled pork, if that makes any sense. Sorry, Bugs. Meanwhile, Amanda ordered a dish whose name escapes me now - but essentially, it was flat bread with roasted tomatoes and fresh ricotta cheese on it, and it probably wasn't worth the $17 it cost (although, the roasted tomatoes were the best I've ever had - soft, juicy, and a little spicy).

We opted out of dessert, since we were very full. But the options looked good - in particular, there was a pistachio torta with meyer lemon and marscapone flavors that I wouldn't mind making another go at.

This is a restaurant we'll definitely be back to. I was especially happy to see Chef Lynch on the premises today, greeting customers and keeping a watchful eye. Sportello's only open for lunch now (it just opened a few days ago), but the maitre'd told me that the restaurant will be open for dinner soon. This is the kind of place Boston needs more of: serious, good, well-thought out food, but in an atmosphere that's casual and approachable.