Thursday, October 30, 2008

Weekly Dig: DIY cheese

This article marks a sort of tipping point for me in my life as a budding food writer. After this, I realized that I may have to cut back for my own health. Because on the one hand, who gets paid to eat the best cheeses in Boston? Only the luckiest of lucky people. On the other hand, who has time to work a day job AND take freelance assignments that involve warm ricotta and luscious cheese pizza and mascarpone-stuffed burrata AND also work off all these calories? Not me.

I fear I am much softer around the middle than I was in my sports-playing, dry-toast eating days, which are not so far behind me. Recently I've started thinking about cutting way back on food writing and covering something healthier, like politics (which never fails to make me lose my appetite, although it also makes me want to drink). Or music (where meeting some of my favorite artists and finding out that they were idiot savants made me wonder how Lester Bangs survived the inanity of it all...oh right). Or international events (because a good case of African dysentery or a slog through the meat-eating Middle East would certainly help me lose weight, if not my mind).

I've also thought about going vegan and giving up cheese entirely (that will never happen). Or becoming a macrobiotic Buddhist chef. Or joining one of those quintessentially Bostonian crew teams and rowing down the Charles every morning at 6 am. Or training for the Marathon. Or something -- anything to introduce a sense of discipline and moderation into my psyche, where right now there is only a gaping, unfillable hole of "yum!" and its inevitable consequence ("zzz"). Especially since we're heading into the holiday season. Any food writers have tips on how they keep it all together - and keep off the pounds? Let me know.

Now that I've gotten this dietary rant out of the way, I can say that I actually enjoyed writing this piece. Over the course of one week, I met the following food stars:

- Lourdes Smith, the badass cheesemaker at Fiore di Nonno
- the legendary Lydia Shire, who was far less intimidating than her reputation suggests
- Rocca's very friendly chef, Tom Fosnot, who gave me a great and rennet-free recipe for ricotta (a boon for this cheese-loving vegetarian)
- wunderkind Boston chef Will Gilson, whose food is the best expression of my personal idea of culinary perfection (fresh, seasonal, flavorful, simple, original) I've experienced in a long while.

So for that, I'm willing to shelve my diet complaints (temporarily!) since I got to have my cheese and eat it too.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bostonist: the sushi swiping scandal of '08?

This was an interesting story, and a nice distraction from the abysmal public dialogue around the presidential election, which may or may not erode my sanity before November 4. This Bostonist piece, which centered on Erin Murray's mysteriously-under-the-radar-but-totally-a-big-deal-IMHO article on O Ya's Tim Cushman, brought up several questions that are relevant in any discussion of food, creativity and business:

1) When checking out the competition, what's the difference between "doing research" and "spying"?

2) Are you obligated to identify yourself to your competitors?

3) What's the difference between being influenced or inspired by a food experience, and blatantly ripping off that food experience?

4) What's the difference between a white, affluent guy taking a recipe from another white, affluent guy, and a white, affluent guy taking a recipe from a culture to which he does not belong? (In this case, two American guys making big bucks off the Japanese art of sushi, and one who's also made big bucks off his Spanish and Mexican restaurants).

5) Did the author of this article deliberately break this out around Columbus Day, when I'm already poring over the traditional white-guilt issues of cultural appropriation? Or am I just as bizarrely paranoid as Tim Cushman?

These are of course rhetorical questions, and ones I did not raise in the post. I'll admit that I once spied on various guitar stores around town while doing "research" for my boyfriend (a session that consisted of his friends and I ducking around corners and generally acting as conspicuous as possible while doing our best "spy" impressions and tooling around in our "recon" vehicle, a rented compact Zipcar). And I revel in making dishes at home that I originally tried in a restaurant. But I think those things were harmless in comparison to what Tim Cushman did, regardless of his motives.

As for the latter two questions, I avoided them because I'm quite cautious regarding my knee-jerk desire to connect things back to either postmodern or postcolonial theory, simply for the sake of flaunting my liberal arts degree or reveling in my own probably unreasonable curmudgeonliness.

What I did ask was, did Tim Cushman blatantly steal ideas from Ken Oringer and Ting San? Because that seemed like the simplest and least arrogant way to go about things. Especially since the competition between these chefs is likely incredibly fierce and getting fiercer, seeing as the pool of customers willing and able to pay $150 for a plate of teeny pieces of blowtorched endangered tuna is likely shrinking by the minute these days.

(Photo credit: Boston Magazine, featuring Tim Cushman looking like he's ready to hunt down, kill and eat a great white shark right now. Or perhaps Ken Oringer?)

J.J.'s recipe for clam chowder

For my bit on sustainable seafood for Bostonist, I tapped J.J. Gonson, who planned to contribute this clam chowder recipe to the Teach a Man to Fish project. I've edited it a bit: J.J.'s style of writing, especially when it comes to recipes, is wonderfully free-form, almost a stream-of-consciousness. It reminds me of the recipes in I Like Food, Food Tastes Good, a compendium of recipes from indie rockers like Death Cab and Nada Surf that I actually use quite often (Roots of Orchis gives a great recipe for sweet potato biscuits with vegan gravy). For example, Devendra Banhart explains his recipe for "Africanitas Ritas" (basically, fried bananas) thusly: "...add a little bit of cream!! And STIRRRRRR!!!!... SIR LAWRENCE OF ARABIA!... THEN, put it on the frying pan!!!! let it get GOLDEN!!!"

It's fitting that J.J.'s style should fit in with these quirky indie kids. Her sister is Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields, and J.J. herself was a fixture in the Portland, Oregon rock scene for a while, where she wrote songs with Elliott Smith and met her husband, a member of the British band Cornershop ("everybody needs a bosom for a pillow..."). Now Gonson's a mom with two appropriately adorable indie kids of her own, and a personal chef who's been obsessed with organic and local food "before it was cool" (the favorite phrase of every Portlander I've ever met).

So, with that in mind, check her yummy-sounding recipe for clam chowder, made from scratch (as J.J.'s Yelp profile states, "no detail un-overthought"):

Here is my recipe for clam chowder, as I learned it at my mommy's knees in the tiny kitchen, overlooking the Wellfleet bay.

Depending on how many people you plan to feed, you can decide how much of each ingredient to use. For 4 servings, use approximately:

1 onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 clove of garlic
3 lbs of clams steamed in 1-2 cups of water
2 slices of bacon or 1T butter
4T butter
4T flour
3 cups milk + 1 cup of cream or 4 cups of milk
2 large, floury potatoes


1) Steam open clams and other shellfish and reserve liquid.

2) Remove clams from shells and set aside. If you use quahogs or razor or other large clams, cut into bite size bits.

3) Reduce the clam broth over a hot flame until it is reduced by half and quite concentrated (or use bottled clam broth).

4) Heat milk or a combination of milk and cream.

5) Either render small pieces of bacon and use the fat, or use butter, to saute diced celery, onion and garlic until fragrant.

6) Boil and dice potatoes.

7) Make a roux with a ratio of 1T of butter to 1T of flour for each cup of milk you will use, by sautéing flour in butter for a minute, stirring constantly.

8) Over low heat, add hot milk to the roux, a small amount at a time, stirring well to remove lumps. When the milk mixture begins to thicken, but is still quite runny, add all of the other ingredients, along with a bit of fresh thyme and salt and pepper to taste.

9) Bring the whole thing to just below a boil and cook for half an hour to allow flavors to marry. Do not boil or the soup can separate, or "break."

You can use this same recipe to make fish or corn chowder, or any combination, but if you use a very moist fish, like cod, do not use all of the clam broth as the chowder will be too watery!

Yum. So there you go. For the full Bostonist post with J.J.'s take on the Boston fish scene, click here.

(Photo credit: Luna Cruz, via Creative Commons license.)

Bostonist: Know yr pescado!

Last week I did a post on the Boston-based "Teach a Man to Fish" project. I had heard about it via my Chocolate & Zuccini newsletter, and it turns out that my foodie pal J.J. Gonson knew the brains behind it: Jacqueline Church of the Leather District Gourmet. Before I knew it I was sitting down to some delicious Cantonese food with her at Gourmet Dumpling House, and we were swapping tales of being vegetarian in foreign places (she's not a veggie now, but somehow survived as one for over a year in Germany). As we walked back toward her 'hood and my office through the brand-new park on Chinatown's slice of the Greenway (and I snapped the picture below) we finally got around to discussing her project.

Jacqueline, or "Jackie", started her "Teach a Man to Fish" project a year ago, after diving (ha) into the world of food writing and sustainability. A "recovering attorney", she's new to the food blogging scene, but as a traveler and a conoisseur of world cuisines, she's got her bona fides down (she's even been to Antartica, where I'd imagine the only ones fishing are the penguins). The idea of this project -- at least as I see it -- is to not only hold yourself accountable for what you're buying, but to ask questions of those who are buying it for you - the fishmongers and seafood restaurants of your local scene.

Ideally, your conversation would be pleasant.

"So, where do you get your fish?"
"Oh, we source ours through a variety of small, sustainable, local producers. Here are their names..."

Unfortunately, it does not always go that way. More often, as it did on Wednesday with another place I was reviewing, I asked,

"So, where does your fish come from?"
Waitress: "Uh, I'm not sure! Let me get the owner."
Owner: "Uh, I'm not sure. We get a price sheet every day. It's different all the time."
Me: "Is it local?"
Owner: "It's from all different changes every day. I'm not sure. It's whatever's cheapest, or freshest.." [Trails off]

Or similar. It should be a simple question, but it is anything but simple.

However, as Margaret Anderson once endearingly said,
I wasn't born to be a figher. I was born with a gentle nature, a flexible character and an organism as equilibrated as it is judged hysterical. I shouldn't have been forced to fight constantly and ferociously. The causes I have fought for have invariably been causes that should have been gained by a delicate suggestions. Since they never were, I made myself into a fighter.
This is how I feel often, in so many areas of my life. Shouldn't environmentally responsible food sourcing practices and comprehensive knowledge of ones own vendors be important to every restaurant owner? Why should we, the customers, have to work so hard to make this the minimum requirement for every place we patronize? Why should I have to initiate a conversation with a person who has just given me a good meal, when the conversation may turn awkward if he/she gives me the "wrong" answer? Why do I feel so angry about this when I'm sure in my own life there are things that I don't know, that I could be doing better?

However, the alternative is to not care, to not work, to not take responsibility. So, bloggers like C&Z's Dusoulier and LD Gourmet's Jacqueline Church and myself and hopefully other, more responsible restaurants and fish purveyors will have to fight the good fight, even though I'm sure we would all much prefer to be talking in pleasant tones over a good bottle of (dare I say sustainable?) red wine.

So, with that in mind, I'll be posting next on how chef J.J. Gonson makes her sustainable clam chowdah.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Omnivore's 100

I recently saw this "game" (foodie pissing match?) from the blogger of Very Good Taste on Chocolate & Zuccini, and decided to play along, even though the number I've tried would likely be a bit lower than usual due to the fact that it's heavy on animal products. Luckily (?) though, I was able to try some of these before the Vegetarian Curtain fell across my life. Also luckily (?) I've lived in the semi-rural Southwest, suburban upstate New York and the very urban Northeast, so I've been exposed to a wide variety of strange things, from snake to poutine.

The rules, as Very Good Taste's author describes them:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

Also: hilarious FAQ section here. (Ex. "Q. Why is there so much alcohol? A: Because I’m English.")

Below are my results, as well as descriptions in brackets for those that aren't painfully obvious. This makes my list less easy to read but hopefully more educational for all involved (I learn best by writing things down).

As for cross-out items - I am leaving most of these items open, despite the fact that many are meat-based. While I wouldn't go out of my way to try them here in the U.S., when traveling I think it's good to take a "when in Rome" approach when possible (although not literally, as I once ate at a Burger King in Rome - long story, but you get the idea). So I can't guarantee that in certain circumstances I might not be interested in or obligated to try some of these things based on context (an example: my vegan friend once chose to eat goat stew while visiting with a group of Bedouins rather than turn down what was for them a rare feast, served for her benefit, and I would do the same).

As everyone knows, when you talk about food you often segue into talking about happy memories, so I've included some of those here, too.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding [a.k.a. blood sausage]
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp Eh. They're the rats of the sea. No desire to eat rats either, incidentally.
9. Borscht [cold tomato soup - which reminds me of the "Chuckie Gets Skunked" episode of "Rugrats" in which borscht is used as a miracle deodorizer]
10. Baba ghanoush [eggplant dip]
11. Calamari
12. Pho [a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup]
13. PB&J sandwich (I like mine with fresh raspberry jam and crunchy fresh-ground peanut butter on white bread, with a glass of milk)
14. Aloo gobi [a staple "Indian buffet" dish made with potato, cauliflower and various spices]
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses [an unpasteurized cow's milk cheese washed in pomace brandy]
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (my dad makes his own amazing, very alcoholic wine from the fruits in his garden!)
19. Steamed pork buns (I have to make do with the red bean and lotus buns, which are just as tasty in their own way, I'd imagine)
20. Pistachio ice cream (Eastern Standard used to make their profiteroles with pistachio ice cream, hence my love for them)
21. Heirloom tomatoes (see this post)
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras [duck or goose liver pate; I am tempted to cross this off due to the cruelty of the methods sometimes used to produce it, but as not all fois gras producers engage in these methods, I would like to try it sometime when I can be sure of the way it was done]
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese [from wikipedia: 'meat slices in aspic (gelatin made from meat stock), with onion, black pepper, allspice, bayleaf, salt and or vinegar, from the head of a calf or pig (sometimes a sheep or cow). It may also include meat from the feet, tongue and heart.']
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper [one of the spiciest peppers in the world, often used in Caribbean "jerk" dishes]
27. Dulce de leche [Portugeuse milk-based syrup - am hoping to snag some next time I am in Inman Square]
28. Oysters
29. Baklava [The best I've found in Boston is at Yada Yada, made by grandma Shpresa]
30. Bagna cauda [An Italian warm dip made with garlic, anchovies, olive oil, butter and sometimes cream, served with raw vegetables like fondue. I haven't tried this yet, but am going to remedy that immediately.]
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (woot Boston)
33. Salted lassi [an Indian yogurt-based beverage; I've only had the sweet, mango-flavored kind, not the salty, cumin-flavored kind]
34. Sauerkraut (woot Buffalo)
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar (you can be sure I'll knock this off the list at some point)
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O (Heather and Margot - I love you)
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal [a notoriously hot Indian curry, popular in the UK]
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more (on an unforgettable anniversary with the b.f.)
46. Fugu [I'm not a Russian Roulette kind of girl, and this is the infamous, potentially deadly Japanese blowfish dish - which I remember from this Simpsons episode where Lisa drags her family to a weird - to them - restaurant...Lisa and I are pretty much the same person, even though she's a cartoon.]
47. Chicken tikka masala (the b.f.'s favorite thing ever)
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi [tasty pickled Japanese fruit; I'm going to seek this one out asap]
53. Abalone [huge edible sea snails - if you're like me, you remember the girl in "Island of the Blue Dolphins" speaking of nothing but abalone for pages and pages, it seemed]
54. Paneer [simple Indian cheese; I want to learn to make my own]
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle [egg-based dumplings or noodles]
57. Dirty gin martini (file this under, "really, I haven't had one of these?" But this can be easily remedied, as I love gin)
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine [French fries topped with gravy, cheese curds, and sometimes sausage]
60. Carob chips [carob is a legume from the Mediterranean region, eaten by humans as early as ancient Egyptian times]
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads [the thymus glands of lambs, cows or pigs]
63. Kaolin [a kind of edible clay...but hey, it's vegetarian!]
64. Currywurst [hot pork sausage in curry sauce]
65. Durian [an enormous fruit whose odor food writer Richard Sterling describes as "pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock"]
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis [from wikipedia: "sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally boiled in the animal's stomach for approximately three hours]
69. Fried plantain [a relative of the banana...mmm, just had this last night!]
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette [pig intestines]
71. Gazpacho [cold tomato soup]
72. Caviar and blini [fish eggs + a thin crepe - too bad they don't serve this at Zaftig's]
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost [a sharp Norwegian goat's milk cheese - putting this on my Formaggio Kitchen fantasy shopping list]
75. Roadkill. Not unless I was truly starving.
76. Baijiu [A Chinese liquor usually distilled from sorghum, a grain]
77. Hostess Fruit Pie (Says the author, "It was these or Twinkies, and I don’t want to encourage anyone to eat a Twinkie.")
78. Snail (another example of "when in Rome", but of course it was "when in Provence" excellent move, I'd say)
79. Lapsang souchong [Smoked Chinese tea - expensive and getting more so]
80. Bellini [peach + prosecco cocktail]
81. Tom yum [delicious Thai soup made with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, shallots, lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind, and crushed chili peppers]
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky [Japanese snack food - basically sticks dipped in chocolate]
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse Again, not unless I was starving. I draw the line at companion animals. No cats, no puppies, no horses. No thanks.
90. Criollo chocolate [chocolate made from the rarest, most expensive, most finicky cacao bean]
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa [a North African hot sauce]
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano [a delicious sauce with about a kajillion ingredients, including "dried chile peppers (commonly ancho, pasilla, mulato and chipotle), ground nuts and/or seeds (almonds, indigenous peanuts, and/or sesame seeds), spices, Mexican chocolate (cacao ground with sugar and cinnamon and occasionally nuts), salt, and a variety of other ingredients including charred avocado leaves, onions, and garlic. Dried seasonings such as ground oregano are also used. In order to provide a rich thickness to the sauce, bread crumbs or crackers are added to the mix." - wikipedia]
96. Bagel and lox [salmon, for you goys]
97. Lobster Thermidor [I love the wikipedia entry here: "a French dish consisting of a creamy, cheesy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolks, and brandy or sherry, stuffed into a lobster shell, and optionally served with an oven-browned cheese crust. The sauce must contain mustard (typically powdered mustard) in order to be true to the original recipe and to have the distinctive Thermidor taste. Lobster Thermidor was created in 1894 by Marie's, a Paris restaurant near the theatre Comédie Française, to honour the opening of the play Thermidor by Victorien Sardou. The play took its name from a summer month in the French Republican Calendar, during which the Thermidorian Reaction occurred, overthrowing Robespierre and ending the Reign of Terror. Unlike the recipe, the play was not a critical success and is rarely performed."]
98. Polenta [boiled cornmeal]
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee [one of the most expensive coffees on the market and the base of the Tia Marie coffee liqueur]
100. Snake

This means I've eaten 52 out of 100. Not bad for someone who's not really an omnivore at all. I'm already making a mental Vegetarian 100 list...although it looks like some folks are way ahead of me.

Friday, October 03, 2008



Last night as we prepared to watch the Palin/Biden debate, the b.f. came into the kitchen and dropped a very exotic-looking envelope on the counter for me. Inside was the new copy of the Insight Guides' Boston SmartGuide, which I compiled earlier this year!

And by compiled, I mean slaved over for three feverish months on nights and weekends. To create the SmartGuide, I adapted some of Insight's older copy on Boston, did a lot of new research, and wrote pages and pages of new copy, including dozens of new restaurants (natch), new music venues, new museums and a guide to the environmental issues facing New England (although for that segment I was able to lean heavily on the expertise of the Conservation Law Foundation and am so grateful for their help). Apparently, Europeans (the main audience for the Insight series) really care about their carbon footprints, et. al. when traveling - which of course is awesome.

The book will not be on shelves until December, but you can pre-order it on Amazon, if you are so inclined. In fact, I promise that if you purchase this book and later have any questions (or just need a good restaurant recommend), you can comment here and I will do my best to respond personally. (Just don't ask me for, say, the year during which the Old State House was built, because I've already forgotten it. Sigh.)