Eating out in the ‘hood

It occurs to me as I stare out the window at the craptastic-ness that is New England winter, that I have been reasonably negligent in my “Dining Out” postings, of which there is only one at the moment… *sigh*… so I thought I would list out a few of the places we’ve been over the last few weeks and offer my 2 cents on why we go to these joints fairly frequently:

1. Gargoyles On The Square (Davis Dquare) –  www.gargoylesonthesquare.com – This place is the shizzle. It is one of my favorite places in Boston because the chef is so damn creative. Two words: Nitro Popcorn. That’s right. That would be flash frozen popcorn, frozen at your table, and served with dessert. Second reason: on the menu right now is a tomato soup served with a FLIGHT OF GRILLED CHEESE. Hells yeah !  Atmostphere in the back is good for date night, but the front bar is way more lively.

2. Blue Fin (Porter Square) – http://www.yelp.com/biz/blue-fin-cambridge – Yummy, inexpensive sushi joint in the Porter Exchange which makes excellent agedashi tofu (which I *love*) and has really fresh tasty fish. It’s big with the college kids so sometimes there’s a bit fo a wait but otherwise it’s good.

3. Yoshi’s (Powderhouse Square) – http://www.yelp.com/biz/yoshis-restaurant-somerville – sushi joint close to home. Not as good as Blue Fin on the agedashi tofu but the fish tends to be nice and fresh.

4. The Abbey (Federal Hill) – Baltimore, MD – I was back in the old ‘hood over the weekend and checked out this newish joint for a burger. It’s got great build-your-own options – I opted for a burger with bacon, fried egg and cheese (mmm healthy!) and the burger was taayyyss-tee.

Here’s to supporting the restaurant owners while the economy is less than optimal !

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When You Want a Light Soup & You’re Tired of Chicken

dsc_0164-12It’s cold outside. I mean, lick-a-pole-and-stick-to-it cold. And what’s better on a day like that than a nice hearty soup? How about a nice hearty soup that isn’t like a lead weight in your stomach? I like chicken soup like the rest of the souls out there, but sometimes I am looking for something a little different – so I make a beef soup which is as light a broth as chicken soup but with a little bit more complex flavor and it also includes a nice bit of wine (c’mon, beef? wine? one pot? almost health-food comfort ?!?).  It’s really easy to throw this soup together, and for those of you wanting to clear out your fridge, this is all kinds of customizable, just make sure you have at least 1 hour to give it a good shot to develop flavors. Here are the ingredients (estimated amounts – I was in a hurry) – you can use beef shanks, shin, or oxtail also in this soup, just make sure you have some bone-in beef involved – and make sure you read the extra notes at the bottom:

1 package bone-in meaty beef short ribs (roughly 1.5 lbs)

1 package boneless beef short ribs

1 cup red wine (use something you would otherwise drink – or maybe day old wine from an unfinished *gasp!* bottle)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 whole white onion

1.5 cups baby carrots (or several large ones cut into chunks)

1 rib celery, chunked

4-5 whole stalks of parsley

3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme (or maybe a scant teaspoon of dried thyme – definitely NOT as good)

1 large clove of garlic, lightly smooshed

2 cups store bought beef broth (or you can add more water and use 1-2 packs of beef boullion)

10 cups of water

salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil

Cooked rice or orzo to add at the end when you are ready to serve

Place the olive oil in a large stock pot and heat under high heat. Add the meat, salt it and allow it to brown lightly, turning to get all sides. Add wine and tomato paste and allow to boil on high heat for 2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and leave the heat on high until the pot comes to a rolling boil. Once boiling, lower the heat to simmer the soup for at least 45 minutes – 1 hour. The longer the better.

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A couple important notes:

1. I will almost never say this otherwise, but don’t salt anything again until you are almost ready to serve. Boullion and store-bought broth are way salty, so you may not need to add much more.

2. If you are using the boullion packest instead of the broth, or in combination with it – I used 1/2 a packet + broth – add it slowly and allow it to simmer for a minute – taste it – see if you need more – you want to make sure it doesn’t get super salty

3. SUPER IMPORTANT – while the soup is simmering on low, you will notice after a while that it gets an oily film on top – this is the fat from the meat. DO NOT STIR THE POT. Use a spoon to skim off a 90% of the fat (leave a little for taste!) as this will give you a lighter, non-greasy soup. Once you’ve removed the fat, stir till your little heart is content. (I do this fat-removal step with chicken soup as well)

4. I like to eat the meat from the soup at room temperature the next day on top of a nice mixed salad with a light vinagrette.

When you are ready to serve, add the starch to the bowl and ladle the soup over top. The meat should be nice and tender too. Sometimes I like to add a sprinkle of Parmesan to the bowl.

Random Bag Night – Chard stuffed with lamb & rice

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This one is sort of a comfort food classic for me, even though I am Italian and this is sort of morphed from a Polish recipe for stuffed cabbage called galumpkis. The recipe take a bit of work up front, but its worth it to get to these warm, delicious steaming bundles of comfort. Swiss chard is a favorite vegetable of mine, mostly because you can add it to so many things and get your green leafy vegetable quota without sacrificing flavor. Lamb is something I’m recently acquiring a taste for, but it’s definitely not a protien I eat on a regular basis. And the “sauce” for the stuffed chard bundles could not be any easier ! Here is the recipe:

1 bunch of swiss chard, stems removed

1 lb ground lamb

1 large onion or 1.5 small ones, sliced

1.5 cups of cooked rice – I used basmati

Handful fresh chopped parsley

1 egg

Generous pinch of salt

3-4 tablespoons of olive oil

1 can V8

2 tablespoons white vinegar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Blanch the chard leaves in some boiling water so that they are pliable (2-3mins). Carmelize onions with a little olive oil and a small pinch of salt until they are nice and brown. In a bowl combine the lamb, cooked onions, rice, parsley, egg and a generous pinch of salt. Mix to combine all the ingredients well.

Take 1 swiss chard leaf, lay it flat on a work surface and take a generous handful of the lamb stuffing and place in the middle of the leaf.

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Roll up the leaf around the filling (like a burrito) and place seam side down in an oiled baking dish. Repeat the process until you’ve used up all the leaves, stuffing or space in the baking dish. The baking dish should be just large enough to fit the chard bundles tightly in a single layer. I used a 9×11 glass baking dish. Pour the can V8 over top of the bundles in the baking dish and add the white vinegar. You may want to add an extra 1/2 can of V8 if you want a little extra sauce. Place the baking dish in the over and cover with tin foil. It should take about 35-40 minutes for the stuffing to cook through.

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Ignoring Winter With a Kickin’ Beet Salad

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There is a never-ending pile of snow on our front lawn these days (knee high as of yesterday!) that seems to be in a cycle of fall-freeze-melt into slush-refreeze-etc, thus is winter in New England (sigh). In an effort to combat this dread cycle and take advantage of all the nice looking citrus and produce flanking the market these days, I decided to make a beet salad. The salad is really simple, and even more so if you cheat and buy the already roasted & peeled beets (Trader Joes and WholeFoods carry them in the refrigerated produce section). It’s a good solution if you like beets and saves you the trouble of staining your hands a nice magenta hue while you’re trying to peel a fresh roasted beet. Additionally, unused beets freeze really well in a ziploc bag. In fact, frozen beets are easier to slice paper thin if you like the whole carpaccio vibe (which would be great for this salad application). Here are the ingredients (feeds 2):

4-5 small roasted beets, sliced

handful of washed greens – I used the watercress pictured up top

Sliced citrus of choice – I used kumquats because I love them

Handful of roasted, salted nuts – I used pistachios (already shelled)

Juice of 1 tangerine (or orange) – I just squeeze this over the top of the salad

Yogurt Dressing (recipe below)

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I sliced the beets and laid them flat on a plate, topped with all the other ingredients above. It’s a really pretty dish, so good to serve to company if you are the entertaining type. A lot of beet salads usually involve a soft cheese of some sort – maybe goat or feta – but I was thinking to go for something a little different, so I made the following dressing. The measurements are approximate since this was sort of an experiment:

3 tablespoons of non-fat plain yogurt

Juice of 1/2 lemon + more to taste (I used 3/4 of a lemon)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley

1 heaping teaspoon dijon mustard

Pinch of salt

Just combine the above ingredients in a bowl, mix well and drizzle on the salad. The result was a gorgeous, citrus-y, tangy dressing and it went beautifully with the slight pepper of the watercress and the mellow sweetness of the beets. Definitely kicked the winter blues in the @ss with this one !

Fish Baked in Parchment – An experiment with dried mystery pepper

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We spent the weekend in Killington, VT on a ski trip with family and friends. As a result, I am feeling both overly dehydrated (too much apres-ski) and chunky (too much junk food). We had a great time, despite the temperatures being below zero when we arrived but the combination of dry heat, vodka tonics, and consumption of chips-dips-cheeseburgers-fries offset with the occasional Gatorade was definitely taking a toll on my stomach. So today when we got back to Boston (and a fresh foot of snow!) we decided to hit the market for some fish to make for dinner. I didn’t really have a recipe in mind so we didn’t pick up any extra items at the store, just the haddock filets they had on special at the fish counter.

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The following recipe kind of came together by chance, since I was originally going to do my default preparation of baking the fish with a bread crumb & herb topping. But when we got home the February Gourmet had arrived and in it was a recipe for Tilapia with chipotle peppers and some cilantro and that sounded reasonably yummy (and not my same old same old). I was too tired to head back out to the store, so I settled for using up some dried mystery peppers we had in the cabinet (pictured at the top) that my husband had used in a soup a while back – neither of us can remember what kind of peppers these are, so I apologize. They are a bit smokey and have a little kick to them but nothing too strong. Here is the recipe in approximate:

1 Lb Haddock filet (or any white fish filet)

1/2 dried smokey pepper of choice (you can use as much as you like – you will eventually find out, I don’t really like peppers, except for some of the chili pepper varieties)

1/2 cup dry white wine

Handful of chopped fresh cilantro

Ground cumin

Olive oil

Salt

Parchment paper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the chopped pieces of dried pepper into the white wine and allow the peppers to soften and flavor the wine. Take 2 large pieces of parchment paper (large enough to make a pouch around each piece of fish) – I had 2 long filets. Place the fish onto the parchment, and give it a generous drizzle of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Pour half of wine/pepper mix on top of filet, reserve the rest for the second pouch. Dust the filet lightly with the ground cumin and toss in half of cilantro. Fold the parchment into a pouch like this:

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Make sure that it is well sealed so that no liquid escapes and the fish can steam with the rest of the ingredients. I placed it into the oven and baked for about 12 minutes. This is harder to do than regular baked fish since you can’t really see it through the parchment and you really can’t open the pouch and then re-bake (ok, you can, but that would be kind of like cheating). Here is the finished version, which I served with some uber-healthy steamed broccoli:

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There was a good amount of broth in with the fish once it was finished and the flavor was reasonably mild. You could add more vegetables – I could have used some lime juice and maybe some scallions or another aromatic if we had them in the house (and I was too lazy to go back to the store). You could also, in theory, add something like cous cous under or around the fish to soak up some of the broth and essentially have a one parchment bag meal. I did discover I’m not really a fan of haddock, so perhaps next time, along with more aromatics, I’ll probably use tilapia or maybe monkfish.

Random Bag Night – Pasta with Sausage, Spinach & Tomato

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We are fortunate enough to have a member of the family (my father-in-law) who has been successful in making his own homemade sausage. Above is a batch of the sweet sausage which we had in the freezer. I mentioned in one of my earliest posts that basic tomato sauce can be modified to add almost any sort of vegetable or protein to it, making the possibilities almost endless. This is one such dish which is an easy modification of the original tomato sauce recipe and all of the ingredients were things we had on hand at home making this a true Random Bag Night since nothing at all was picked up on the way home. For those of you who hate to do dishes (like me), this is just a 2 pot dish – 1 pot for sauce and 1 for the pasta. 

The following are the ingredients for the sauce:

3 cloves of garlic, smashed

1/2 onion, sliced thin

sausage – I had about 1/2 lb, sliced

2 generous handfuls fresh spinach

1 can tomatoes, crushed

Basil – 1 Tblsp dried, 5~6 leaves chopped if fresh

Olive oil – enough to coat bottom of sauce pan

salt & pepper to taste

Coat pan in olive oil, add garlic and onion and saute on medium heat until the onions have softened (maybe 3 minutes). Add sausage , browning it lightly on all sides – approximately 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, a pinch of salt and the basil. Allow the sauce to simmer on medium-low heat while the pasta cooks. When the pasta is close to being done, add the spinach to the sauce and stir in until it is wilted. The sauce should look something like this:

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I used rigatoni with this sauce – any sort of short pasta like that, or ziti or penne would work. Linguini & spaghetti wouldn’t stand up to the chunks of sausage. I know people think all pasta tastes the same, but the shape really does matter when it comes to pairing pastas with sauces! Most often, you see the shorter pastas with the meatier, thicker sauces, and the long, thin pastas with the lighter sauces (like clam sauce, or carbonara). The shape determines how the pasta holds the sauce and that, in turn, affects the flavor. (I could, of course, be completely talking out of my @ss right now, but have you ever seen penne with a white clam sauce !?!?)

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This kind of modification of basic pasta sauce will work for many other combinations. For example, you can start with the garlic, onions & olive oil and add cauliflower & tomato, or zucchini & tomato, or eggplant, black olives & tomato, etc. etc.  You get the idea. There are many permutations for making delicious and interesting pasta dishes.

Pears, Part 2 – Another Savory Pear Creation from Sunday

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Yesterday’s pear adventure did not just entail the soup I wrote about in my last post (the leftovers of which I am currently eating with some whole wheat cous cous thrown in when I reheated it – Yum!). My husband executed the second half of our pear extravaganza by making braised pork shoulder with pears and thyme. He also manages to slip some vanilla into the recipe which was really surprisingly good with the pork. This recipe, which resulted in succulent flavorful pork which almost tasted like beef, was taken from a cookbook we received as a wedding gift. The cookbook, entitled The Herbal Kitchen, Cooking With Fragrance and Flavor ( http://www.amazon.com/Herbal-Kitchen-Cooking-Fragrance-Flavor/dp/0060599766/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1231804456&sr=8-1) was written by Jerry Traunfeld, who has a restaurant outside of Seattle. Judging by the cookbook alone, if I ever get to Seattle I am going straight from the airport to his restaurant.

The cookbook not only gives you many unique ideas on how to use fresh herbs, but also some information on the ideal conditions for planting the herbs, information on how to clean and keep herbs, etc. This is a man who truly loves fresh herbs – and who can blame him, right? It is an inspiring read (we like to grow herbs in the summer) and the recipes are EASY and DELICIOUS.

We used a boneless pork shoulder which braised for about 2 hours with some white wine, some chicken broth, thyme, and some bay leaves. Onions and garlic added an earthy flavor, but the pears (barlett) and 1/2 vanilla bean totally stole the show. The pears, which were diced, became meltly sweet mounds which paired perfectly with the slightly salty meat. The meat itself took on the vanilla flavor in a very subtle way (if I didn’t know it was in the recipe, I wouldn’t have guessed it was vanilla flavor) and was completely fork tender. As you can see from the picture above, the braising liquid made an excellent sauce to sop up with the crusty bread my husband made earlier in the day.

Definitely an excellent and unique meal, and if you are a fresh herb fanatic then check out the cookbook – it’s a great one.