Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Late Bloomer

Or early, depending on how you see it.

This is the second time this one has bloomed, in spite of the fact that it's horribly neglected at times. Or perhaps because of it!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

Ok. I know, I know. Rhubarb in April? That makes sense- it's just coming into season. But strawberries? In April? Not so much.

Here's the problem. Rhubarb is one of the first food plants to be ready to harvest in the Northeast, which means that rhubarb season has officially begun and the first young stalks- tender and flushed bright, coral pink- have finally appeared in my favourite grocery store.

Ok, that's not really the problem. The real issue is that, of course, the store had gorgeously bright stalks of rhubarb stacked strategically, temptingly close to pallets of strawberries. $8 for 8 pounds of berries is pretty damn cheap. But it's really not strawberry season here. Not even close- we have to wait for July for that. I don't think it's strawberry season on the West Coast either, so I am sure that these California strawberries were grown in a hothouse.

We were all set to resist them, thinking that we'd make do with just rhubarb. I was convinced that the strawberries would be, like so many hothouse grown fruits, all pretty looks with a bland, boring taste. But then, curiosity got the better of me and I leaned in to take a closer look at the ruby gems. That was when it hit me- the most fragrant summery scent I've enjoyed in months wafted up from the pallets.

Really, who can resist the idea of strawberry rhubarb crumble? Strawberry rhubarb sorbet? Strawberry rhubarb preserves? Strawberry rhubarb anything?

Not us. We came home with 8 pounds of tasty strawberries.

So, of course, the inaugural dish for the season's first rhubarb had to be a crumble. Perhaps we were blinded by the excitement of bright, summery flavours laced with a lovely refreshing note from the Cointreau- we happily devoured this plain, no ice cream needed... though I am sure a scoop or two wouldn't hurt!

Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

For the filling:
2 quarts/16 ounces strawberries, washed and sliced into 1 inch pieces
8 ounces rhubarb, washed and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon Cointreau (optional)

For the topping:
1 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch dice
1/4 cup sliced almonds
3 tablespoons light brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400'F. Butter a 12 inch baking dish.

Toss rhubarb, strawberries, sugar and Cointreau (if using) in a bowl and set aside to macerate for 15-30 minutes.

To make the crumble topping, pour the flour and brown sugar into a small bowl. With quick movements and using the tips of your fingers, rub in the butter until it is thoroughly combined and has a texture like rough sand. Toss in the almonds.

Pour the fruit mixture into the buttered dish. Sprinkle the topping over the fruit.

Bake until topping is golden brown and fruit juices are bubbling, approximately 40-50 minutes. Serve warm.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Farm Share Redux: 2008

At the beginning of January, we signed up for our 2008 CSA farm share. I'm thrilled, as always, especially since the farm shares seem to sell out faster and faster every year!

We opted into everything again this year- the June through October vegetable share, summer fruit share, and the November + December winter vegetable share. And again this year, the amazing organic produce that we pick will be cheaper and more delicious than anything we can find at our local chain grocery stores. Food is so amazingly expensive around here, and I'm always disappointed at how much you have to spend to get decent produce at places like Whole Foods.

Our meat share has been working out beautifully, too. We opted for no lamb, which drives L just a little nuts, but I just don't love the taste and I have a hard time with the idea of lamb and veal. I figure that we can buy it separately if need be. In any case, we've been enjoying amazingly fresh, flavourful meat from Chestnut Farms, and though I seem to be eating less and less meat in general these days, I feel better knowing exactly where our meat comes from.

A has even given the ground beef (a trusty Marcella Hazan cookbook and 6 lazy hours on the stove turned it into the most amazing bolognese) his stamp of approval, and that's a big deal coming from someone who grew up on a self-sufficient farm!

As you may have noticed, rising food prices and local farms/farmers are gaining momentum in the news, and most people agree that buying local whenever possible is a great solution. Buying local, and even better: local and organic produce can be difficult, if not impossible when you live in the city- especially if you don't have a car, and why would you need one in Boston anyway? At the risk of sounding cliché, I do believe that every little bit helps, so we're happy to do our part wherever we can.

My cookbook collection has slowly grown over the winter holidays, and I've been marking intriguing summer vegetable recipes left and right in cookbooks and the newest issues of Gourmet, Bon Appétit and Saveur.

and I have eaten just about as many winter vegetables as we can manage, and even though I'm thrilled that I've got some new winter veggie recipes and techniques under my belt after the snowy, long-and-slow-cooking-friendly New England winter, I know that we are both ready for a change.

I'm craving bright colours, luscious strawberries and melons, buttery zucchini and summer squash, and sweet, juicy tomatoes; winter foods are comforting, but I'm tired of white and orange and bits of green here and there. I'm ready for the 2008 harvest season to start!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ina Garten's Double Chocolate Pudding

It seems that March is turning into Sweets Month around here! If we have a sunny day that makes photographing a bit easier, I'll extend the streak with a last call before the citrus season ends: the previously promised recipe for Italian Lemon Ice.

The cold, snowy and rainy weather (it's too early for rain!) we've been having here lately has made it difficult to take anything but dark, shadowy pictures. It's unfortunate, too, because this weather is best weathered (ha!) from the warm and cozy indoors, preferably with a mug of tea and a new recipe to try.

In this spirit of new recipes, I recently whipped up a batch of Ina Garten's Double Chocolate Pudding. Unlike custards, which can be fussy and have the potential to go very, very wrong, this recipe is wonderfully simple. Don't get me wrong- I love the delicious elegance of custards and pots de créme- but sometimes all you want is a recipe that doesn't require too much mental energy and concentration. This dark, intense chocolate pudding fits the bill perfectly.

Since I knew that pure chocolate flavour would be showcased here, I used Scharffen Berger cocoa powder and, since Ina calls for semisweet chocolate, Scharffen Berger's 62% chocolate.

Percentages, which you are probably seeing listed on chocolate more and more these days, refer to the percentage of cacao-derived ingredients in chocolate. Chocolate with a higher percentage listed has a substantial amount of cacao and less sugar, so it is often labelled bittersweet, bitter or unsweetened. Chocolate with a low %- like milk chocolate- contains less cacao and more flavourings like sugar, milk and vanilla. White chocolate contains only sugar, cocoa butter, and milk solids.

Making this pudding was, not surprisingly, a breeze. Everything went swimmingly until the end, when it took a while for the pudding to thicken over low heat. I was convinced that I'd done something wrong or left something out, and I kept re-reading the recipe while trying to whisk at the same time... but once it started to firm up, the pudding turned beautifully, custardy-thick very quickly. Phew! I know that I can always trust Ina's recipes. Don't know what was going on in my head there.

The ease of this recipe means that you have absolutely no reason not to try it, unless you don't like chocolate, in which case there is no hope for you. The pudding has a pleasingly smooth texture, fabulously rich cocoa flavour and a lovely, lingering bitter chocolate finish. It's definitely not airy in a mousse sort of way, but there is an incredible lightness to it all the same.

I'd absolutely serve it to guests in elegant little bowls, and I imagine it would make a lovely cake or pastry filling, though I believe it's most delicious when eaten straight out of the bowl, preferably with help from friends.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Maple Berry Frozen Yogurt

Lately I've been really, really tired- hence my one and only February post. Pathetic, I know. I do love my day job, but during the busy months, it's absolutely exhausting. Between a big conference and related week-long work trip to New York City, fighting off the colds and flus that travelled mercilessly around my office and every other workplace in Boston, multiple snowstorms and seemingly endless show shoveling, and turning 27 (a crazy fun day that also required full energy for hours of walking, museum and cooking supply shop visits, and of course, eating), February was a tough month.

I know things are bad when I don't even have the energy to cook- the one activity that usually relaxes and energizes me! The good news is that we're already halfway through the semester, which means just a few more months of hectic madness before my job settles back into a more normal, fluid routine and I have more energy for kitchen experiments at home!

When I'm stressed, my appetite goes out the window, so I knew things were getting back to normal when I felt the urge to try out the ice cream maker again- this time, to make something other than sorbet. We didn't have nearly enough whole milk or cream in the house (why do these urges to experiment come right after we've gone to the grocery store?!) for ice cream or gelato, but we did have quite a bit of one of my favourite foods: yogurt. I have a lifelong love affair going with dairy products, and yogurt is at the very top of that list. So of course, frozen yogurt it was!

The inspiration for this frozen yogurt comes from a lovely, simple dessert that L's mom serves often during the summer: plain yogurt sweetened with a touch of maple syrup and topped with fresh berries. In both fresh and frozen versions, the clean tang of the yogurt is balanced by the bright, fresh flavours of the berries and the distinctive woodsy sweetness of the maple syrup. Salt sounds like a strange addition, but it really does bring out vibrant notes in sweets (see chocolates and caramels sprinkled with fleur de sel).

I used my favourite store-bought yogurt: Liberté 2%, and a frozen mixture of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. A gorgeous plummy purple flecked with vivid specks of juicy berries, easy-peasy recipe and healthier than ice cream- how can you go wrong?

Maple Berry Frozen Yogurt
makes approximately 5 cups

27 ounces/3 1/3 cups plain yogurt, thoroughly chilled
3/4 cups Grade A maple syrup, thoroughly chilled
10 ounces mixed berries, chilled if fresh or slightly thawed if frozen
pinch of salt

2+ quart capacity bowl, chilled in the refrigerator

Coarsely mash by hand the cold berries and any juice they give off, or roughly purée with just a few pulses in a food processor.

Quickly mix cold yogurt, maple syrup, berries and salt together in a cold bowl. Freeze according to your ice cream maker instructions (this batch took 30 minutes in my Cuisinart 2 quart ice cream maker).

Pack into containers and store in the freezer- the yogurt will harden considerably in the next 24 hours.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Maslenitsa and Simple Blini

Ма́сленица, Maslenitsa, or "Butter Week," the Russian equivalent of Carnival or Shrovetide, is celebrated during the week leading up to orthodox Lent (March 2-8 this year). The holiday is full of merriment: Punch and Judy-style puppets shows, theatrical performances, troika sled rides, singing, bonfires, fireworks, a burning kostroma effigy to bid winter farewell and fertilize the coming crops... and nutty fun like icy-pole-climbing contests, naked "polar bear" dips in frozen rivers and lakes, and fistfights.

While I grew up celebrating Fat Tuesday, for some reason I've always preferred the blini and vodka-laden festival that is Maslenitsa.

Blini, an essential part of Maslenitsa, can be likened to Russian pancakes. They come in thin, delicate un-yeasted (like French crêpes) and thick, fluffy yeasted versions, and are always, always, always eaten in copious quantities with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings.

During his six-week high school homestay in Moscow, L was told by his host family that a real man will eat two forearm-length-tall stacks of blini, but that as an American, he would be allowed to get by on a one-forearm-length stack. Three years later, when I was a student in Moscow and L flew over from Egypt to visit, we were invited to an amazing, sumptuous dinner at the family's home, where true to her word, his former host mother cooked up the only appropriate amount for her family and the two of us: eye-high stacks of fabulously delicious blini.

A year later, my friend C and I were two of the four Russian majors in our class, and we lived in the same on-campus house that senior year of college. So naturally, we offered to host the Russian Department's yearly Maslenitsa festivities at our place. Early that morning, we rose and prepared the yeast blini batter, and I mixed up a huge batch of un-yeasted blini as well, for good measure. Early afternoon, when the guests started to arrive, arms piled high with bottles of vodka and homemade blini fillings, the fun officially began.

Out came both enormous bowls of batters. I showed our other housemates, who had happily joined in the merriment, and a few cooking-inclined Russian Studies students, how to pan-fry blini, and everyone took turns pouring batter, flipping the golden blini higher and higher, and sliding piping hot ones quickly onto plates ready for refills.

Over the course of a few hours, we made hundreds of blini for guests to pile high with the incredible array of homemade fillings: savoury sautéed wild mushrooms, ever-present and addictively-tasty marinated mushrooms, delicious баклажанная икра (bakhlazhanaya ikra, or eggplant caviar), salty home-smoked fish, thick sour cream, creamy fresh tvorog, glittering kompot, syrupy jams, sticky dark honey, rich local butter, and much more.

As bellies filled and blini consumption slowed, shots of icy-cold vodka flowed and "za druzhba! to friendship!" toasts carried through the house to the snow-covered front porch. As winter twilight descended and night fell, all around cheeks glowed pink from the blini-cooking stovetop warmth and free-flowing vodka. We celebrated for hours, and a faint, rosy morning light shone as the last guests departed, singing and laughing at the tops of their lungs.

Thankfully, most of our guests were students who lived on campus, and they left in pairs and groups to walk safely home; those who weren't students left with two designated drivers. No walking alone or driving for anyone that night!

I don't think I will be outdoing that celebration for at least a few more years! In the meantime, however, we will celebrate Maslenitsa with my favourite blini- a light, unyeasted recipe that turns out very thin pancakes with curled, crisp, lacy edges. There is some argument as to whether or not these can be called blini at all, as some people say that unyeasted pancakes are entirely different and must be called blintzes, but my Russian friends assure me that I can call them blini without reproach.

These blini are identical to many recipes for Czech palačinky- one of my childhood and current comfort foods- which is probably why I like them best. While it's not the traditional thick and fluffy version, this recipe is absolutely respectable for Maslenitsa celebrations.

This recipe lends itself well to doubling, tripling, and beyond. Don't worry if the first blin comes out looking awful, as this is just the way blini cooking works. The Russians even have a phrase for it: pervyni blin komom (the first blin is a flop)!

Simple Blini (or Palačinky)

1 cup all-purpose or whole wheat flour
1 1/3 cups milk (not skim)
1 egg
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional- only for sweet fillings)
Butter for pan

If possible, turn oven to very low heat and put a stack of plates inside to warm up. Alternately, you can use Alton Brown's method and warm the plates under an electrical heating pad. Cold plates will cool the blini very quickly, and they are best when piping hot.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour and salt to combine. In a separate bowl, beat the egg, then add milk (and sugar, if using) and whisk until well-mixed. Add egg and milk mixture to flour mixture and beat until smooth. You should have a fairly thin batter with few lumps.

Heat a heavy medium-sized griddle (a crêpe pan works well) on medium heat for two minutes. Add a pat of butter to the pan- if butter immediately smokes, pour off butter and turn the heat down. You want the butter to sizzle without burning.

Add 1/2 or 1/4 cup batter* to the pan and quickly swirl the pan at an angle so that the batter runs out in from the center all directions. Cook for 30 seconds and then start checking the underside- when it is golden brown, quickly flip the blin and cook for 15-30 seconds more, until golden spots appear on the pale underside and the blin moves freely on the pan.

Slide the blin onto a warm plate, top with a thin layer of filling(s), roll or fold up, and serve immediately.

* Makes 6 medium (1/2 cup batter) or 12 small (1/4 cup batter) blini.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Meat Share and Pork Chops with Mustard Sauce

Our exciting food-related news of late is that we've now received two month's pickups from our new meat CSA offered (through our Waltham Fields farm share) by Chesnut Farms in Hardwick, Massachusetts. Prices are very reasonable for what you get- a fabulous variety of naturally raised, humanely handled, hormone and chemical-free meats.

If you get to the monthly pickup early enough, you can buy huge beef bones for soup and for your puppers, and for $3/dozen, you can get delicious fresh eggs- the family's young son buys the chicken feed, cares for the chickens, collects the eggs, and any profits made are his to keep. We're thrilled to support local farmers trough this great source of meat and eggs!

Lately, I've had a hard time finding the energy for perusing through and trying out new recipes (much less blogging about cooking). A normal weekday around here is starting to look like this:

Morning: Desperately try to roll out of bed. One of us walks the dog while the other tries to do 18 things at once- get lunches out, take out the trash, start the dishwasher, find mobile phones (and curse because neither are properly charged), rinse snowmelt chemicals and road salt off the dog's paws- to get us both ready for work. L drops me off close to my office, because we are usually almost late and his office, which is next door to mine, is tiny bit more flexible about these things.

Day: Hit the ground running. Work a full, exhausting day.

Evening: Relaxing walk with L and the dog. If possible, get a few chores in- laundry, dishes, vacuuming, grocery shopping, farm share pickup, taxes (which are done!), unload dishwasher, shovel snow in driveway- before either of us are too tired to do any more, which seems to be earlier and earlier these days. A few nights ago, I roasted 5 butternut squash and 3 large acorn squash from the farm. After running everything through the food mill, we ended up with 22 cups (!) of squash for the freezer. Phew.

Dinner: Must be fast and tasty.

Next order of business: fall asleep in 2 minutes maximum.

In the interest of trying out some of the farm share meat in honour of Fat Tuesday, we broiled two tasty, salt-and-pepper-seasoned strip steaks and served them with sautéed wild mushrooms and potato gratin- a simple and good meal, but for some reason, not exactly the flavours I've been craving lately.

Wednesday night, however, we discovered an amazing recipe for Pork Chops with Mustard Sauce- briefly cooked chops drizzled with a velvety, tart mustard sauce flecked with soft, flavourful shallots and spicy cracked pepper. Very quick and extremely lip-smackingly delicious, this recipe is definitely going into my weeknight make-often rotation.

Initially, I wanted to brine the chops but was worried about the chops being overly salty if we started them before we left for work, so I tossed them in a bowl of brine when we got home from work and cooked them two hours later. I don't know if the short brine really helped, but either way, the farm pork chops were incredibly juicy and flavourful. For a satisfyingly crunchy heat, I coated the chops in a healthy dose of fresh, roughly-cracked peppercorns a la steak au poivre. I made the pan sauce with equal parts Kosciusko Spicy Brown Mustard (a staple in this house) and dijon mustard, and I substituted sour cream for cream; while the sauce was a bit tart and overpowering right out of the pan, it was a perfect complement to the savoury chops.

I recom
mend doubling the sauce recipe- you will be licking your plate clean! I am even tempted to try the sauce on other meats! Clearly, I think everyone should give this recipe a try.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Nigella's Orange Breakfast Muffins

It's funny what happens when the world outside is covered in towering, powdery-white snowdrifts and your home internet goes out for what seems like a Very Long Time: you are given the chance to really, truly focus on those things you love to do in your spare time, without obligations to e-mail, upcoming-birthday-gift-shopping, bill monitoring or anything else that can leave a person tied to the computer.

During the past week and a half, we had great fun celebrating A's birthday with friends, learned so much more about my camera (and just how bad food pictures can turn out in oh-so-faint indoor winter light), delighted in the sheer pleasure Argos takes in chasing snowballs and jumping into said snowdrifts, watched some of the movies on The List*, read parts here and there of five different books without finishing any of them, baked a ton, and hoped for another huge snowstorm so we can spend another lazy snow day at home with the puppers.

In addition to a double batch of lemon curd- requisite for all birthdays- we spent last weekend enjoying all sorts of yummy treats with friends. On Saturday morning, I spent a few minutes wondering what in the world we were going to have for breakfast- a behaviour very unlike me, since I am usually insanely OCD and plan these things ahead. Having just gone grocery shopping, we had plenty of ingredients for something fancy in the house, but I really wanted something really fast and easy- no time spent chilling in the fridge (à la yeast breads or bread puddings), minimal preheating, no thawing frozen farm fruit from the summer.

Happily, while furiously digging through a stack of cookbooks, I thumbed right to a recipe for Orange Breakfast Muffins that I've had dog-eared ever since my copy of Nigella Bites arrived in the mail last fall. Yes, I am absolutely addicted to Amazon's cookbook section- and honestly, who wouldn't be? They have everything- absolutely everything- one needs to keep a girl happy in the kitchen.

These orange muffins come in a very close second on the happiness scale: light and moist, with a lovely, distinct orange flavour (and color!), they immediately made it to my will-make-often recipe shortlist. I want to say that they remind me of bright, sunny summer mornings, but I realize that would be silly, given that citrus season is winter. Ach. In any case, you get my point- they are the perfect thing for cold winter mornings. I didn't have the energy to grind almonds, so I substituted an overflowing handful of paper-thin, crunchy sliced almonds, which added a nice texture and subtle almond flavour. The sweet citrus scent of the muffins in the oven is enough to make anyone hungry, so I highly recommend doubling this muffin recipe. On the off chance that they don't all disappear at breakfast, however, they keep beautifully for snacks and weekday breakfasts.

* You know- that list of movies that you really, really must see at some point. The list that grows twice as fast as the crossing-off part. That one.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Blood Orange Sorbet

Now that the Christmas and New Year holiday celebrations are over and life is a bit less hectic, I've had time to try out the gorgeous ice cream maker that L gave me for Christmas! I've coveted one for a quite a while, and am absolutely thrilled with this one. For a machine with such a simple mechanism it works beautifully, and we've had great success with it so far. L certainly knows that fun kitchen gadgets are the way to my heart!

As citrus season is upon us and there are so many tasty fruits just waiting to be eaten, I've been experimenting entirely with fruit sorbets. The very first thing I made was a positively addictive, intensely refreshing Italian Lemon Ice (post on that coming soon) from The Gourmet Cookbook that, for some reason, doesn't seem to be in their online recipe database. I was worried that it would be too sweet, but during our many taste tests I realised that I should have a bit more faith in Gourmet's recipes- the Lemon Ice was tart and sweet, with a fabulous icy mouth-feel and lovely hint of bitterness from the zest. We immediately made three more batches to share with family and friends at holiday dinners.

Aside from blueberries, I think blood oranges have got to be my favourite fruits, so naturally, I've been itching to make a blood orange sorbet. If you have an electric juicer and/or microplane zesting rasp, now is the time to use both. The lovely thing about sorbet is that when you base your recipes on flavours combinations you love, you really can't go terribly wrong when experimenting. Happily, we were thrilled with my first pass at blood orange sorbet- the texture is very smooth, and the intense blood orange flavour comes right through, with just the right balance of honeyed sweetness and bright citrus tang. I love the vibrant rosy colour, too!

So many sorbet recipes call for water to make the simple syrup, but I like a more intense flavour and colour, so I prefer to use only juice. I also adore the flavour of honey paired with fruits, so for citrus sorbets, I try to use honey in place of granulated sugar whenever possible. According to David Lebovitz (The Perfect Scoop), honey gives frozen desserts a smoother texture, too, due to the higher concentration of sugars.

If you made New Years resolutions to get healthier, exercise more, or at least try to eat better, then this is the perfect dessert for you. If you didn't bother with those kinds of resolutions, you can eat even more sorbet in one sitting!

Blood Orange Sorbet

3 cups (24 ounces/710 ml) freshly squeezed blood orange juice
3/4 cup (6 ounces/177 ml) cup good honey or 1 cup (8 ounces/227 g) white granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (28 grams) finely grated blood orange zest
2 tablespoons blood orange pulp (optional)
pinch of salt

Make a simple syrup by warming 1 cup of blood orange juice with honey or sugar over low heat, stirring frequently, until the honey or sugar has completely dissolved.

Remove from heat and stir in zest and salt. Stir in blood orange pulp, if using.

Pour simple syrup into a bowl with the remaining 2 cups blood orange juice and stir to combine.

Chill mixture thoroughly, then freeze according to your ice cream maker instructions. Initially, the sorbet will seem fairly soft, but it will firm up considerably in the freezer.

If you don't have an ice cream maker, don't worry- you can turn this into a granita! Pour the chilled mixture into a shallow pan and freeze, stirring with a fork every 30 minutes, until slushy- about 2 hours.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Anijsblokjes / Dutch Anise Blocks

For as long as I can remember, my mom has kept at least a few long, thin tubes of Dutch anijsblokjes, or anise blocks- anise-flavoured sugar cubes used to make anijsmelk (anise milk)- in the spice cupboard. So of course, it follows that when I was a child, my mom and I often enjoyed anijsmelk in place of hot cocoa. Now that I live across the country, she sends a few tubes, which I hoard unabashedly, each year with my Christmas presents (thank you, mom!). I know that hot milk is something most people consider a children's drink, but I still love it, especially when transformed by a little something extra.

Not surprisingly, I love black licorice, pastis and ouzo, anise oil, and fennel in all forms; however, I will be the first to tell you that these sweet cubes are, strangely enough, very different. Drop one or two anijsblokjes into a mug of steaming hot milk and stir to help the wide, grainy cubes dissolve quickly. When you raise the cup to your lips, a sweet, subtle, almost floral scent swirls under your nose. Very delicately flavoured and not overbearingly sweet, anijsblokjes transform hot milk into a fragrant, soothing, perfect-for-cold-weather nightcap. Even L likes them, and he hates black licorice- and if that's not a selling point, then I don't know what is!

I've seen anijsblokjes in a few European grocery stores around the country, and a quick search turned them up in stores online as well. If you are lucky enough to spot them on a shelf near you*, be sure to give them a try. If you're feeling extremely generous, you are always welcome to send some my way, too!

* Unless you live in Holland, of course, in which case you can probably find them anywhere. I am supremely jealous.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

New Year's Eve at La Morra

This year (well, last year, technically), we spent a memorable New Year's Eve at La Morra in Brookline, where we enjoyed a four-course meal complete with well-chosen wine flight. The meal was fabulous, as always, and we had a fun time with the chef, waitstaff, and other diners. I don't know what it is about holidays that makes people especially warm and friendly, but I like it! Alas, I didn't take pictures- I was too busy savouring the food!

To start, Chef Josh Ziskin sent out an amuse bouche- a shot of the most incredible, elegant, light, creamy parsnip soup I have ever tasted. He topped it with celery oil and a celery leaf, and oh man, it was scrumptious. L doesn't even like parsnips (crazy, I know), and he really enjoyed it.

For the first course, I chose the the Fried Oysters (with microgreen salad)- it seems that the clams that were on the original menu weren't available, or weren't good enough to make the cut that day- and L had the Seared Foie Gras (with short rib bomboloni and mostarda di frutta), accompanied by a light, white 2006 Vietti Roero Arneis.

If you are a vegetarian, you might want to skip this paragraph. We'd recently happened upon an episode of Chef Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations (so we are now experts, of course!) that showed some of the duck feeding techniques for fois gras, and even though it makes me uncomfortable, it wasn't nearly as gruesome-looking as I'd imagined, though I do admit that people could easily abuse the process and animals on their own farms. Yes, the way fois gras is cultivated still bothers me a bit, and I don't know if I would order it regularly- I prefer to choose meat from local farms that I am 100% sure has been humanely raised and slaughtered, I will not eat veal, and I usually pass up the fois gras on principle- but I have to admit that L's dish was handled and cooked beautifully, and it really was incredibly tasty. I do see why some chefs will fight tooth and nail for the right to serve it! As for my dish, the oysters were plump and juicy, coated with a very thin, crisp tempura-like batter, fried to perfection, and served very hot atop a small, refreshing microgreen salad dressed with a foamy vinaigrette.

For the second course, we both chose the Timballo, which came with a light red 2005 J. Hofstatter Pinot Nero “Mezcan”. When I looked at the menu the day before- yes, I am that kind of food freak- I was wavering between that and the risotto with clams on the original menu, but since the clams had bowed out for the evening, it was an easy choice.

If you've never seen Big Night, you should run out and (at least) rent it this instant, and you will know why we both picked the timballo! Chef Ziskin's recipe didn't seem quite as complicated as the version in the movie, though it was clear that it took a lot of work to make. The pastry dough encasing each individual timballo, which resembled muffin-shaped, sealed meat pies, was sweet but surprisingly complementary, though it was a bit on the dry side; this could have been remedied by the addition of a bit more tasty bolognese- we found only trace amounts of the deliciously rich, fresh sauce in both timballos. Generously-sized pieces of braised meat and fabulous homemade pasta, however, were wonderfully flavoured, tender, and cooked with interesting spices that neither of us could identify. I loved the light and airy texture of the tiny, beautifully pan-fried meatballs, though L sweetly insisted that he prefers the meatballs that I make at home. They're also tiny, but unlike these, mine contain enough crushed garlic to kill a small mammal, and L swears they taste just like his Italian grandmother's meatballs.

Feeling quite full at this point, we were nevertheless served our third course with a lush red 2000 Colle Dei Venti Barolo- L had the Wood-Oven-Roasted Lamb Sirloin (with braised lamb and pecorino arroncino) and I chose the Pheasant Breast Stuffed with Fennel Sausage and Cavolo Nero (with foie gras and chestnut budino, pheasant and vin santo sugo with kumquat syrup). The lamb was impeccable, with a gorgeous, herbed, woodsmoke flavour that had me- the one person in the world who doesn't like the taste of lamb- happily accepting forkful after forkful. We both agreed that the hot pepper stuffed full of tender, succulent braised lamb was wonderfully flavoured with a great spicy zing, and L was thrilled that the lamb steak was served on the rare side of medium-rare, which is exactly what he thinks medium-rare should be. The pheasant was very juicy and flavourful, topped with its own addictively crisp, savoury skin and a delicious lashing of sweet-tart candied kumquat sauce, and stuffed with a moist, tasty mixture of greens, ground pheasant and fois gras. It was accompanied by a fluffy, custardy chestnut budino, or bread pudding- happily, some crusts were in the mix- that won us both over immediately.

For our dessert course, I wasn't up for anything more than the airy, tart, and sweet Trio di Sorbetti- prickly pear, white peach, and mixed berry sorbets served with fresh berries and a few small biscotti. Somehow, full as I was, it was so refreshing that I ended up eating the entire serving! L went the somewhat light route too, and had a luscious lightly-Baked Apple with a nice caramel sauce and toasted almonds. Desserts were served with a sweet, heady, floral '05 Moscato...

During dessert, out came the party hats, honkers and tiny streamer-firing crackers, and, of course, a dry, fizzy Prosecco for toasting! When midnight arrived, the two of us and two other couples remaining in the ground floor dining room were invited to troop upstairs to the small second floor dining room with the chef, waitstaff, and bar/kitchen crew for a loud and raucous toast (the ONLY way to toast, in my opinion) with the remaining diners, who had already begun to happily belt out all kinds of New Years songs!

After midnight, Chef Ziskin was out and about, pouring Prosecco left and right, and, when I managed to catch him to thank him for yet another fabulous meal, he was nice enough to share the recipe for the parsnip soup (score!). He probably thought I was nuts, but I guess I was feeling a bit bold after all that wine! In any case, he indulged me, which was very kind. The soup turned out to be stunningly easy, which just goes to show that simple dishes are also often the best. I wrote down the recipe as soon as I got home, so I'll be experimenting with it- hopefully I remembered everything correctly- and I'll post it once I've got the flavour and texture right. I could eat huge bowls of that soup each and every cold winter night.

Thanks to Chef Ziskin and his staff, L and I ended the night stuffed full of amazing food, excitedly gabbing about why we love La Morra so much and how we need to go back more often, and happy to start the new year on such a high note.

In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we're going back on January 13th for a 5-course homemade pasta dinner! I'm definitely excited!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

I do think New Year's resolutions can't technically be expected to begin on New Year's Day, don't you? Since, because it's an extension of New Year's Eve, smokers are already on a smoking roll and cannot be expected to stop abruptly on the stroke of midnight with so much nicotine in the system. Also dieting on New Year's Day isn't a good idea as you can't eat rationally but really need to be free to consume whatever is necessary, moment by moment, in order to ease your hangover. I think it would be much more sensible if resolutions began generally on January the second.

-Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary

With warmest wishes for a hangover-free,
happy, healthy, plentiful and peaceful new year. Welcome 2008!

С новым годом!
C пожеланиями на замечательный 2008!