Sunday, August 30, 2009

Apples to Apples

This ecofoodie is getting married in a few short days, so my fiance and I have been working on putting together the perfect welcome baskets for our guests. After much hemming and hawing over various options, it dawned on us: what better way to say welcome to Massachusetts in September then some crisp, freshly picked apples?

So, this past Friday, we headed out to pick our own at Honeypot Hill Orchards, in Stow, MA. Yes, it is a little early in the season, but after the Labor Day weekend, there will be countless orchards open for picking. And, like Honeypot, many of them have a full menu of nostalgic fall activities, like hay rides and hedge mazes. A perfect afternoon whether you have kids, or you just want to feel like one again.

The best part, of course, is rewarding yourself after a few hours of hard labor. I've yet to find a sweet treat that quite matches the glory of a hot, fresh cider donut washed down with a little hot coffee. Only two of this half dozen made it past the ride home, and by the next morning there was only an empty bag and a few lone crumbs to testify to their delicious existence. Luckily, we still have a refrigerator full of Sansa and Ginger Gold apples, just waiting to be shared and enjoyed.

Not sure where to go for pick-your-own in your neck of the woods? Click here for a full listing of Mass orchards, and get out there while the getting is good!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Blueberry Birthday

Today, my soon-to-be husband turns 31. What better way to say happy birthday than with some fresh-baked blueberry scones?Berries are such a seasonal treat, so best to take advantage of their sweet-tart goodness while you can! Below is the recipe, courtesy of a dear friend who makes these scones every Saturday for her three equally dear children. She makes them plain, topped with cinnamon sugar or chocolate chips. Indeed, the possibilities are endless with this light, fluffy recipe, so feel free to create your own variation--you can add whatever your little heart desires!

Fruit Scones

2 c flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 c sugar
1/2 c fruit (cranberries, apricots, raisins, or fresh fruit**)
1 1/4 c heavy cream
1 T melted butter
1 T sugar

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together. Add the fruit** (can be frozen). Add the cream. Mix together using spoon. Dough will be sticky. Knead 8-9 times onto a lightly floured board. Gently roll into a 10-inch circle. Spread the melted butter over the top and sides of the dough and then sprinkle sugar over the top. Cut into 12 wedges (a pizza cutter works well). Place wedges onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes at 425.

**If using fresh berries or fruit, fold in when kneading is nearly done.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Forbidden Fruit

Nothing says summer like a bowl brimming with fresh picked tomatoes. This week, thanks to my farm share, our kitchen is home to many forms of tomatoey goodness, including some gorgeous tomatillos. Sadly, for me, I cannot eat a one. Well...should not, at least. In recent years, I've developed some significant issues with acid reflux--I once lost my voice due to the condition--and this longtime favorite food is now verboten.

When we brought home these yellow cherry tomatoes this afternoon, I discovered one had burst at the bottom of the bag. I handed it to my fiance to be eaten immediately. He hummed with delight as he chewed, declaring that the amazing fruit took him right back to childhood days when he picked tomatoes right off the vine from his grandmother's garden. I'm going to eat one, I said, thinking of my own garden-picking days, only to be further enabled by my fiance's response. You should.

I did. And it was glorious.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Boston's Best Sashimi: Savory and Sustainable at Uni

When it comes to seafood, sustainability is a complicated equation. It's not a simple as eating local, as the marine populations you have nearby might be the very ones that are most endangered. Nor can you simply choose one type of fish over another, as much depends on how the fish is caught. The method of catch effects everything from the quality of the fish, to mercury levels, to the amount of resulting bycatch (fish and animals caught accidentally in the gear and discarded overboard). Lucky for consumers, there is the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, which offers thorough, fish by fish seafood recommendations, as well as information on many ocean issues. And just as lucky for us ecofoodies, many seafood chefs are making good use of such on-line tools in order to incorporate sustainability into their restaurant menus.

One such chef, Chris Chung of Boston's Uni Sashimi Bar, is bringing sustainable elements to the many incredible dishes on offer each night at this Ken Oringer restaurant. Chef Chung uses on line resources to research the best choices for the menu, as well as consulting with friends who are marine scientists. He uses Sea Bream instead of Snapper, many types of which are listed in the "avoid" category by Monterey Bay. He also uses Big Eye rather than Bluefin tuna, which is listed as "avoid" because all populations of Bluefin--wild or farmed--are being caught faster than they can reproduce. Chung also only uses pole & line caught fish, which has benefits across the board--little or no bycatch, much less mercury in fish where that is a concern, and also the freshest, highest quality fish on your plate, a high priority for Chung.

Indeed, this meticulous attention to freshness is evident in every dish and every ingredient at Uni, resulting in some of the most incredible flavors I have ever experienced. If you've never tried sashimi before, or if you think you're not a fan, you really must pay a visit to this cozy, inviting nook just downstairs from Clio. I can promise that you will never think the same way about sashimi again.

We started our night with the lobster ceviche, which set some high expectations for the rest of the meal. The layers of flavor seemed endless, creating a perfect medley of sweet lobster and mango, tangy citrus, brightness mint and cilantro, and just a hint of heat from the fresh jalapeno. The variety of textures was also perfection, with a little cucumber providing just the right amount of crunch.

I don't normally go for octopus, as it is so often cooked until its texture resembles a giant rubber band, but when we saw this dish being prepared for another guest, we simply had to try it. Chef Chung layered thinly sliced rounds of octopus onto a square plate, then covered them in a generous mix of sesame, ginger, cilantro, and soy sauce, followed by a drizzle of richly aromatic hot sesame oil. Result: another exciting, well-balanced blend of flavors, and the best octopus I've ever had.

The kinmedai was as beautiful as it was tasty, with a rich, smoky flavor that you would never expect from its delicate appearance. Like everything else we sampled, it was nicely complimented by the crisp, subtle flavors of my Ginko-Bai martini, made with Plum-infused sake and a Mountain Peach. Too yummy for words.

The desserts, which come from the menu at Clio, were as artful as the sashimi. My favorite? The cherry capsule: a frozen cylinder of cherry cracked open to send an amaretto caramel streaming onto the plate, surrounding a perfect scoop of sweet cream ice cream. No less amazing was the chocolate biscuit (pronounced bis-QUEE), which held its own delicious surprise: the warm chocolate cake revealed a sweet caramel center, all of which was complimented perfectly by some salty peanut ice cream--yes, it really is salty!--and the crunch of a few chopped peanuts.

Sadly, I have no dessert photos to show you here, but perhaps that is a blessing in disguise. Their gorgeousness, along with that of the sashimi plates, is much better appreciated in person. So grab some friends or that special someone and make your way over to Uni. You will be so very glad you did!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Frozen Basil, Two Ways

As someone who has never even been able to raise a healthy houseplant, I continue to be very proud of my first successful attempt at gardening, however small. And, after a big harvest for pesto a few weeks ago, my six not-so-little basils are going stronger than ever. This weekend they were already in need of another round of picking, and given that we already had a huge bag of basil from our farm share, I decided it was time to try my hand at freezing a batch for the winter.

Google "freezing basil" and you will find a wealth of options and recommendations, many of which conflict: freezing whole leaves is fine, freezing whole leaves produces black, useless husks; freeze basil in oil, freeze basil in water; freeze it in a sheet, freeze it in cubes. Each writer was as adamant in her views as the next, so I finally decided to conduct my own comparison trial.

After pulsing half of the basil in the food processor, I generously filled an ice cube tray with the chopped leaves and poured water over each one. Result: success! The cubes, which popped easily out of the tray, are full of vibrant green basil that looks as fresh as when it was picked. (Click on the picture to get a bigger, better view!)

Next, I blended the other half of the basil (about 2 cups) in the food processor with about a quarter cup of olive oil. The result was a denser mixture that filled about half as many cubes as the first batch. While not quite as pretty (the frozen oil takes on a yellowish hue) or as crisp (the cubes are a little crumbly) as the cubes of basil and water, I'm optimistic that these little nuggets will do well in pasta sauce or salad dressing a few months from now. Of course, it's hard to say which method is really the best until that time, but for now I am enjoying that fact that I have a bag full of summer flavor in my freezer, just waiting to brighten up a cold, snowy day.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

From Substance to Spectacle

I will be the first to admit that I love a good food show on a lazy Sunday morning. As someone who loves to cook and loves to eat even more, I find myself regularly transfixed by Tyler Florence or Paula Deen--who wouldn't stop to watch someone make (and eat!) deep fried butter balls? All along, however, I've had an uneasy relationship with this kind of television, telling myself that it's an hour well spent--I'm learning something!--but knowing somewhere inside me that I'm walking away with very few additional skills or ideas, if any.

Enter Michael Pollan, who more than validates this feeling in his most recent article in The New York Times Magazine, "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch: how American cooking became a spectator sport, and what we lost along the way." In it, he tackles a current paradox in our food culture: how is it that Americans are so eager to spend hours watching shows like Top Chefand The Next Food Network Star but spend less time actually using our kitchens than ever before? He traces the development of food television from the inspiring and unedited Julia Child to the current slew of shortcut-filled "dump-and-stir" shows on the Food Network. No longer are cooking shows designed to educate those who love to cook, argues Pollan. Instead, they are designed for those who love to eat, including competition-based shows like Iron Chefand Chopped, which are breathless, down-to-the-last-second affairs more akin to sporting events than a cooking lesson.

One thing we do get out of the Food Network, according to Pollan, is "culinary fashion," picking up fancy words like crudo. And, while such terms can provide the appearance of sophistication when ordering from a menu, they don't really improve our cooking skills, as illustrated by a recent incident in my own kitchen. As I prepared dinner for a dear friend who happens to know a great deal about food, I asked her opinion on how to best prepare basil. "Do you chop it or tear it?" I asked, having seen an episode of Rachel Ray wherein the host stated that some people prefer to tear it, as the knife can cause bruising. "I know you're not supposed to chop it," I said, as though I really knew a lot about the matter, "but I really like to do a nice chiffonade." My friend raised her eyebrows and smiled. "What's a chiffonade?" she asked, and we both had a good laugh at my use of such a fancy word in such an everyday setting. Yes, it's true the the thin ribbons of a chiffonade can make basil look extra pretty, but as my mother used to say when things didn't look the way I wanted them to on my plate, "It still tastes the same." In other words, what matters most in cooking is really the substance of what we create, a truth that we've lost sight of in many arenas today, the Food Network being just one of them.

In life, there is a place for just about everything in moderation, but Pollan's article has certainly added some weight to that funny Food Network feeling that I get when watching their programs. I can't say that I'll resist the temptation of tonight's finale episode of The Next Food Network Star, but maybe the next time I get the urge to plop down in front of some random food TV I'll head for the kitchen instead. Not only will I wind up with something delicious to eat, but I'll be much more likely to learn something along the way.