Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cafeteria, Boston

This past weekend was absolutely gorgeous here in Boston, and for some reason, whenever it gets nice out- I start craving out door dining. It always seems like a felony to sit inside in bad lighting when the sun is glorious. So Sunday morning, with highs projected well into the 80's and me eager to capitalize on the first half of the day-I insisted on eating outside for brunch.
As we strolled down Newbury Street in search of the perfect patio seating, I realised that I was not the only one to have my genius plan-everywhere people were dressed in their summer best waiting to get into any number of places. Finally though I spied Cafeteria with no line. Located at 279A Newbury Street- its a spot that has always seemed cursed. Restaurants open there to little fan fare and seem to close before you know it. Cafeteria seems to be lingering, so I thought it might be worth a try.
We were immediately seated in a prime spot on their patio for people watching which was definitely a great show to watch that day. We ordered quickly under some time constraints, but the menu seemed really intriguing. Their breakfast pizza, with smoked ham, eggs and Fontina cheese sounded, and looked delicious, but craving a lighter fare, I settled on Truffled eggs on Bruschetta topped with Arugula. I am beginning to notice on restaurant menus that "Truffle" is a word that they like to throw around- apparently its now trendy to use it on the menu- though that is no indication that Truffles are in any way used in the making of the dish. Now to be fair, for $10 I was not anticipating actual Truffles to appear visibly, I was however hoping that the eggs would at least be cooked in Truffle Oil and imparted with a little of the flavor. Sadly this was not the case. I was served regular old scrambled eggs, on a piece of toasted french bread that had been toasted too long and burned on the bottom, topped with a handful of Arugula. Had the toast not been burned, it would have been an ok dish. I liked the combination of the peppery Arugula with the eggs, and the bread was a really nice back bone for it. There was just no need to add the word "Truffled" to the dish though- they werent there, and to be honest I probably would have ordered it anyway but been far less disappointed in it. The toast though- the need to work on- no where have I see that Bruschetta means "burned".
As an aside- did you know that most American Truffle Oils do not contain any real essence of Truffles but are actually completely synthetic? The scene from Father Of The Bride where Steve Martin throws a fit in the grocery aisle because the "Wiener Company" and the "Bun Company" are ripping off the American public comes to mind...
J decided on their French Toast served with fresh fruit and whipped maple cream. He was much more successful with his choice- the French Toast was nice and eggy and moist, the fruit was fresh, though the maple cream tasted more like cream than maple, but luckily maple syrup was served on the side.
Service was quick and efficient, and they readily refilled our drinks without any prompting so they definitely score some points there, though that is definitely their strongest suit.
Will Cafeteria go by the way of its location predecessors? I don't have a crystal ball, but to be honest- I would assume so.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Scallops with Orange sauce, Fettuccine Alfredo, Fillet Mignon and Sugar Snap Peas

Sunday night I decided to go all out on a fun welcome home dinner full of favorite foods, and unique creations. I wanted basically a tasting menu, little plates to share and to enjoy.

I started with a cheese plate including a nice light Jarlsberg cheese, which is one of my favorites for having a very delicate, yet intriguing flavor. The second was a Blue Stilton which I tend to enjoy better than a straight blue cheese which I feel can be overpowering, and therefore gets boring faster than another cheese that you can really savor. Third was Brie-a necessity in my opinion for a good cheese plate- it is the ultimate in decadence and I adore having it with bread, or crackers. Finally was a great great lightly smoked Gouda that I found that was enhanced with walnuts-this was great! It had wonderful contrasts of both taste and texture. Really tasty. To the plate I added some Merlot cured salami, as well as branches of red and green grapes. Fresh French bread and a variety of crackers laid out, and the cheese course was a perfect way to start the meal.

Then I started on the "small plates"- a bowl of fresh Fettuccine Alfredo, a perfectly cooked Fillet Mignon, scallops in an orange sauce, and steamed sugar snap peas. Fettuccine Alfredo is one of those classic comfort foods in my book. Terrible for you, but decadent and delicious- its one of those things I can easily become addicted to. The first time I made it was when I was studying abroad in London, and one of favorite girls was celebrating her 21st birthday. Of course in the UK 21 is not a big year to celebrate, but for us Americans we had to do it right. A good pasta base for the night was a great way to start off. When I made it back then I was shocked at how easy it was to make- and when I made it again this week- the same surprise came right back to me. Alfredo is a simple, almost too simple, sauce to make.

I started by making a simple roux of equal parts flour and butter. When the butter had melted completely and the roux was a smooth texture, I began to slowly add cream to the mix to find a good consistency for the sauce. Once I got it to a point midway between thick and thin-perfect for covering pasta- I started to add the cheese. I had gotten a bag of already shredded cheese-which I find easier for melting- of Parmesan, Asiago, Romano and Provolone. I added the cheese by the handful, alternating whisking it to allow it to melt smoothly and adding more cream to maintain consistency. Once I found the perfect blend of both, I added in another handful of freshly grated Parmesan o Reggiano cheese, and then added in just a little nutmeg, pepper and a pinch of salt for flavor variation. The sauce was complete. To continue on the fresh theme, I remade the homemade pasta recipe that I used a few weeks ago. Always delicious- these two together basically created a food rock star- Bono in my opinion.

Several weeks ago I made a compound butter of reduced Malbec wine (a decent, inexpensive Argentinian wine that I find perfect for cooking with due to its sweeter taste), shallots and thyme, mixed with butter. I used this on steak a few times and found it absolutely delicious- though again- rich and decadent. I decided to top a nice piece of Fillet Mignon with this butter to enhance a simply seasoned piece of meat without overpowering it. Here was my fatal flaw though- I had, wrongly, assumed that the butter would last as regular butter would. I was wrong. I excitedly removed it from the fridge ready to dress my steak with it after grilling it to perfection, and sadly found that it had gone bad. On the plus side- Fillet Mignon is so beautiful that it doesn't need much dressing, but it did look a little lonely on the plate waiting to be eaten. I added some fresh pea shoots to perk it up a little.

Playing on the Surf and Turf theme- I decided to make scallops as the surf section. To start I made a simple sauce of garlic, sauteed with just a tad of butter, fresh thyme, orange zest, fresh orange juice and then at the end- a splash of Cointreau. I cooked off the alcohol and then put the mix aside. Using the same pan I melted another small pat of butter with orange zest, then I added five big sea scallops to the pan. Scallops are great because the cook fast, and they are just so beautiful when they crisp and brown on the top. Within about a minute and a half I pulled the scallops out of the pan and plated them, then into the hot pan I poured back in the sauce that I made earlier. The reheating in the super hot pan cooked it further, and deepened all of the flavors. It was sweet without being too sweet, and had this really nice and round orange flavor from the different additions. The thyme gave it that nice flavor change that you want in a good sauce. Spooned over the scallops it was a really well balanced dish of acidity and sweetness while allowing the flavor of the scallops to still sing their own tune. I have to admit- I dipped everything I ate that night in the sauce it was so good- from steak to peas to bread.

Finally I quickly steamed up some sugar snap peas, a favorite, for a little simple and honest clean vegetation to the meal. Crisp, naturally flavorful, and full of hidden nutrients- these are just a great addition to any meal.

The meal was delicious through and through-full of interesting flavors and simplicity. The scallops stole the show I feel, which was sad for the normal highlight -the Fillet Mignon. I will definitely be inclined to make this meal again, though to save my arteries and my love hate relationship with the gym- Ill make it in pieces paired with some lighter additions.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mare, North End, Boston

With my sister home for the Easter holiday this past weekend, my family and I headed out to Mare, on Richmond Street in the North End for dinner one night. Owned by De Pasquale Ventures, proprietor of other well known North End eateries, such as Umbria and Bricco, as well as the North End's own magazine- Scene Boston, Mare is based on the principles of true, organic seafood and produce from the United States and Italy. With the world looking more and more towards "green living" and reducing our carbon footprint the strides that Mare has been taking to ensure that all of its offerings are natural and sustainable from entrees to dessert to wine, are leading the way in the Boston restaurant scene. However, not only is Mare able to ensure that they are utilizing only the freshest ingredients from sources that they know and trust, but they are creating delicious and inventive meals.

Our waiter, who was extremely knowledgeable and friendly, presented us with an amuse bouche as we surveyed the menu. A single slice of a Granny Smith apple topped with a dollop of a mixture of Ricotta cheese and garlic, with a single leaf of thyme was light, refreshing, and incredibly well balanced. The crisp apple showed off the creaminess of the cheese, and the flavors played really well off of each other. It was a delicious start to the meal.

We chose two appetizers to split- the first a favorite of my mother- fried squash blossoms and the second- a favorite of my sister and I- grilled octopus. The squash blossoms were fried in a light, tempura like batter, stuffed with a ricotta cheese mixture. Unfortunately our taste buds were hoping for a little less filling to allow the blossom to shine a bit more, but all in all they were light despite the frying, and satisfied the desire for something decadent. The grilled octopus was really a treat. Beautifully cooked, fork tender, and boasting its beautiful red color it was served with a bit of pesto and a potato mousse. The pesto provided the acidity that you want with grilled seafood, and the mousse was really outstanding. It provided this wonderful stability to the dish without overpowering it with starch. It was perfectly light and smooth, and wonderfully complimented the octopus. As an appetizer- this set the bar very high for Mare in my mind. Octopus is difficult to cook well as it can very easily turn to rubber, but this was so well done, with such a beautiful flavor on its own, that it really shown.

I selected to have Lobster Paccheri di Grangnano for my main. This was described to me, since my Italian is non existent, as a half lobster served with large round noodles in a light tomato sauce. The menu described it as also containing thyme and a mushroom ragu. The positives? The lobster was perfect. A full half, still in shell, very lightly seasoned to allow the sweetness of the lobster to come through- it was beautiful. It absolutely satisfied my craving for lobster. The noodles were large and round as described, and still perfectly al dente. The negatives however were present in this dish where they had been missing from the Octopus appetizer. The light tomato sauce/mushroom ragu to be served with the pasta was overpoweringly salty. It ruined the pasta. The mushrooms were sadly taken down by the sauce as well, and unfortunately there just weren't that many of them. I was hoping for a beautiful, chunky ragu enhanced with the lemony thyme- this was just not the case. I didn't taste thyme at all in the dish.

Luckily though, my entree was the only down point in the evening. My sisters salmon with crispy artichokes and lentils was delicious and very well cooked. My mothers scallops with lemon angel hair, arugula and garlic cream sauce was really wonderful. The scallops were well cooked- still slightly raw in the center and the sauce was a really nice enhancement. They were both very pleased.

We ended our meal by sharing their Vanilla Bread Pudding served with gelato and a saffron caramel sauce. The caramel sauce was the star of this show. Sweet with just a hint of salt and that beautiful saffron it was too good to waste even a drop of it. The pudding was good, though a spongier texture that I was looking for, and I have to say I didn't really even waste my time with the gelato. The caramel was just too good to get distracted from it.

All in all, I really liked Mare. The room was clean, though small, and its huge windows offered a beautiful view of the Old State House and Boston. The chef obviously has an inventive style and makes some delicious and exciting pairings. Mare has definitely succeeded in its goal of utilizing only the freshest and most natural ingredients, its a choice that you can tell from the quality of their food. I look forward to returning.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Beef Short Ribs with Crunchy Oven Fries and Sugar Snap Peas

Recently I have been all about achieving my cooking goals- utilizing ingredients, or methods I haven't tried before, and mastering them. Over the weekend I found beautiful short ribs at a local butcher shop- and since Ive never made short ribs before, I decided that it was about time I made them.
Short ribs are a really great cut of meat. They are more tender, and much meatier than a pork rib which I often find doesn't contain that much meat. The typical way to serve them is braised, or slow cooked in liquid.
Normally I hate to follow recipes when I cook- Id prefer to experiment with what I feel tastes right, and "wing it". However- I wanted some guidance in making the short ribs so I went recipe searching. I found one that included making a puree of mirepoix- and since I love using my Cuisinart- I decided that was the one for me. From there- I made the recipe my own.
To start, I heated a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in the bottom of a big skillet pan, and added fresh thyme to infuse the oil. Once it was hot, I lightly salted and peppered the ribs, and then added them to the pan. I browned them on each side and then pulled them from the heat.
As the meat was searing, I started to prepare my puree. I rough chopped carrots, celery, an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, placed it all into the Cuisinart and began to puree it. Once most of the big pieces were gone, I added in thyme, oregano, sage and parsley to the mixture and continued to the puree the vegetables. Once their consistency was basically of sand, slightly granular, I poured the mix into a double boiler pot oiled, and cooked it over medium high heat for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. I added just a small amount of salt and pepper to this mix. Once the juices really started to flow from the veggies, I added a cup and a half of a good dry red wine, and two cups of beef stock. After that came to a boil, I gently placed the ribs into the pot, loosely covered it, and lowered the heat to a simmer. They were then ready to cook for about three hours in that liquid.
I decided to make some oven potatoes for a side dish, so I went to work peeling the potatoes, slicing them into strips, and then I boiled them until they were soft. After removing them from the hot water, I rinsed them under cold water to stop the cooking process, and then laid them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. I tossed them lightly in vegetable oil, chopped garlic, thyme, oregano, hot pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Then I put them off to the side until it was closer to dinner time.
Finally, I rough chopped some more garlic, placed it into the bottom of a small sauce pot, placed my steamer basket on top, and added water til it just reached the level of the bottom of the basket. Then I just removed the tops of some sugar snap peas and added them to the pot- when it was time to eat, they would just need to be turned on and steamed for about 6-7 minutes.
The great thing about braising is that it leaves you a fair amount of time to relax while its cooking. Side dishes were ready to go, and I had a good 45 minutes to an hour before I had to do anything else. So relax I did-iTunes got some good business from me.
Finally though, it was time to put the potatoes in the oven. I knew they would take about a half hour to forty five minutes to crisp up in a 400 degree oven so in they went.
The three hours were up so I pulled the ribs from the pot. Now I know that short ribs are supposed to be "fall off the bone" tender, well- the bones were no long even a part of meat. I placed them on a plate, covered them with tin foil and put aside. Then it was time to start working on my gravy for them.
I strained the veggie puree from the stock, then made a roux of butter and flour. Then I added the hot stock to the roux and mixed it with a wisk to eliminate any lumps. As it began to thicken, I added a few tablespoons of dijon mustard to add some extra flavor.
Once the gravy was completed, I turned on the sugar pea pot, allowed them to steam, and then pulled the potatoes from the oven. Brown and crispy these looked delicious.
I pulled the meal together by placing a couple of short ribs on the plate, spooning some gravy over the top and then sprinkling some thyme for color. I placed some potatoes and the peas on the side, and a very pretty dish was served.
It is not often that I like to say that I'm impressed by my own cooking, but this was an easy meal that really pulled together well. The meat was tender and incredibly flavorful. The gravy had a really beautiful flavor to it- complete with a great tang from the mustard that complimented the earthy vegetables in the puree. The oven fries tied in beautifully- lots of good flavor that mimicked the flavors of the ribs, crispy on the outside, soft inside. Really delicious-and a good dunker for that fantastic gravy. The sugar peas at least gave the idea that it was a slightly healthy meal- light and crunchy- a perfect compliment to the rest of the meal.
I will definitely be making a lot of this meal, and I'm sure Ill vary it up quite a bit along the way. It was more than delicious.

Restaurant Reviews: A dead art?

Last December I declared 2023 the year I would return to food writing.  It was a bold statement (even now as I look at my last published dat...