A Tasty Trip Up North – Part II – Eventide Oyster, Portland, ME

Eventide Oysters
The next morning, after our free hotel-provided breakfast (not worth writing on the Internet about), Anastasia and I set out for Portland, Maine. Neither of us had ever been there, but I was armed with enough food recommendations for a week, kindly provided by some equally food-obsessed Cook’s Illustrated colleagues. We found this Portland to be a quintessential New England seaside town with a dash of that other Portland thrown in for some hippie/indie flavor. After another beach stroll, our seafood yearnings not yet satiated, we stopped for lunch at the Eventide Oyster Co.

Oysters at Eventide

As you enter Eventide, the first thing that catches your eye is a large concrete trough built into the counter, filled with ice and a tempting display of every type of oyster that they have available. (The second thing is the fact that nearly every male employee is sporting some ironic hipster facial hair.) The oyster menu is divided into two categories: “Maine” and “From Away.” We ordered a half dozen Mainers ($15): two Winter Point Selects from West Bath, two Bagaduces from Penobscot, and two North Havens. With each oyster order, you can select two items from the “Accoutrements” list; we chose simple lemon wedges and kim chee ice (which sounded fascinating, but when we asked about it, turned out to be nothing more complicated than frozen and shaved kim chee juice). Our order arrived with horseradish ice instead, but we didn’t bother correcting the mistake. Nastia and I both agreed that while all three oysters were wonderful, the small Winter Points were the best: perfectly swallow-sized, briny, and slightly sweet. We each had a glass of cool, crisp Muscadet with our oysters — a perfect accompaniment. (Eventide’s cocktail menu was very tempting, but it was a bit too early in the day for that.)

The Eventide menu and business cards feature a lovely quote from poet Léon-Paul Fargue: “I love oysters. It’s like kissing the sea on the lips.” And that is the most perfect way to describe the oyster experience: It’s like frenching the ocean.

Maine Oysters: West Point Selects, Bagaduces, North Havens

Maine Oysters: Winter Point Selects, Bagaduces, North Havens

I also tried the Yellowfin Tuna Crudo ($9), served with ginger, scallions, and radishes, and a side of roasted cauliflower with pine nuts and currants ($4). Both were served in charming glazed dishes reminiscent of oyster half-shells. The tuna was cool, fresh, and tasty; but the cauliflower was a bit limp and disappointing. Had it been a bit crisper and more caramelized, it would have been perfect.

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Roasted Cauliflower

Anastasia also ordered the Lobster Roll in Brown Butter Vinaigrette ($13), which was the smallest lobster roll specimen I’ve ever seen in my life; really “Lobster Bun,” may have been a more accurate name for it — it couldn’t have been more than three inches long. She said that it was tasty, but I’m not sure if it could have been tasty enough to deserve the title (by weight) of “Most Expensive Lobster Roll Ever.”

My favorite touch, though, was the giant oyster shell sink in the restroom.

Oyster Sink

A Tasty Trip up North – Part I – New Hampshire

My friend Anastasia and I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip to New Hampshire and Maine last week, and fortune favored our trip with unseasonably warm weather: a cloudless, sunny sky and temperatures in the mid 60s. We started out the day with a leisurely hike through Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield, MA, and then continued with a walk along Plum Island Beach. On the way to Plum Island, we stopped in a small seaside town and I was fascinated by a sandwich board outside of a store advertising 25-cent hot dogs. Twenty-five cents?! Whoever heard of such a deal? Further investigation, however, revealed that the hot dogs in question were decidedly 7-11-ish in nature and probably not worth even 25 pennies. Disappointment. And apparently over half a million persons have so far been disappointed by these dogs.

Hot Dogs - 25 cents

Hot Dogs

By the time we reached our hotel in Seabrook, NH, we were famished and in the mood for some seafood (Nastia’s statement on the subject: “I love seafood: I see food, I eat it.”). We flipped through the binder of local restaurant menus at the hotel and decided on Master McGrath’s, a pub/restaurant that promised — besides “Dining & Spirits” — some local color.

Master McGrath's - Seabrook, NH

Master McGrath’s – Seabrook, NH

As soon as we stepped through the doors into the dimly lit interior, I was charmed. The dark wood paneling, heavy velvet drapery, and dusty, fringed lampshades brought to mind some sort of cross between a bordello and a medieval roadside tavern.

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I noticed that all of the other diners were elderly and whispered to Nastia that this, in my opinion, was definitely a good sign. An exceedingly friendly innkeeper with a Quasimodo-ish air showed us to our dark wood booth and handed us large menus in sticky vinyl folders. Since we were, according to our hotel’s description, “minutes from the beaches of New Hampshire,” we skipped right over the menu sections entitled “All Time Best Bets,” “Our Program,” and “Hot Box” (is this a menu section or a punishment reserved for unruly diners?) and went straight to “Seafood.” We ordered the Fresh Broiled Scallops ($15.99) and Baked Haddock ($14.99). Both included a trip to the salad bar and were served — coated in breadcrumbs and topped with lemon butter — in brown-and-white ceramic ramekins dating back to at least the 1950s. The fish was fantastic: light, flaky, and tender — not overcooked as fish served in 50s-era ramekins so often is. The scallops were large, sweet, and flavorful, but just the tiniest bit on the rubbery side. Both dishes were accompanied by a pile of flaccid, greyish-green beans that had, unfortunately, had the life cooked out of them. But that’s how they cooked green beans in medieval times, so what the heck did you expect? In any case, two thumbs up for Master McGrath’s — if I ever again find myself in Seabrook, New Hampshire with a  hankering for broiled fish, I know where to go.

scallops

We closed our New Hampshire evening with a bottle of red wine, some excellent blackcurrant dark chocolate, and a hot tub. If only every evening could end that way.

Strawberry Picking Ice Cream

Berry picking in Ipswich.

This past Sunday, I went strawberry picking with my friend Denise. Our trip to Russell Orchards in Ipswich was not very fruitful (pun most certainly intended). The place was pretty much picked over (I meant that one, too). After hours of backbreaking manual labor we’d each managed to collect barely a quart of tiny, sort-of ripe, slightly shriveled berries that had already started molding the next day.

Strawberries picked at Russell Orchards. “Slim pickin’s.”

But Denise was not about to settle for such substandard strawberries, and tried again yesterday at Verrill Farms in Concord. This time, she hit the jackpot: shiny, sweet, deep red, flavor-packed gems. Armed with this luscious new supply of fruit, I was ready to try out my brand-new ice cream maker, the Cuisinart ICE-21.

Strawberries picked at Verrill Farms. “Super berries.”

Besides the poor quality and scarce quantity of berries, the oppressive heat this past week deterred me from making ice cream, since all of the recipes I found called for cooking a custard base. As soon as I saw the words “double boiler,” I was put off. But then I spotted this beautifully simple GourmetPerfect No-Cook Strawberry Ice Cream” recipe and regained interest in the Strawberry Ice Cream project. My only modifications were to sub whole milk for half of the cream (sometimes I find ice creams made only with heavy cream a bit greasy) and to add a bit of vodka to keep the ice cream from getting too rock-hard in the freezer. This was my first go with the Cuisinart, but clearly the yield of this recipe was a bit much for it, since it started overflowing within the first five minutes. Next time, I’ll either halve the recipe or freeze it in two batches. If you have an ice cream maker with a larger capacity (the ICE-21 allegedly holds up to 1-1/2 quarts, but couldn’t contain this recipe, which supposedly yields exactly 1-1/2 quarts), then go for it all at once. As I frantically spooned the excess into a bowl, the ice cream stopped rotating around the blade at one point, and I couldn’t tell if this was because my machine was malfunctioning (hope not) or because I’d poked at it with a spatula, and it was annoyed. We’ll see how the next batch goes.

As for the ice cream itself, it was fantastic: rich and smooth, and a stunning deep pink color. Actually, though completely natural, it was kind of a crazy pink color — it could easily have been described as either “shocking pink” (my mother’s favorite color) or “Pepto-Bismol-y.” Since it was uncooked, it had retained the tang of fresh berries and wasn’t overly sweet. Ice cream success!

Homemade shocking-pink strawberry ice cream.

No-Cook Strawberry Ice Cream
Makes 1-1/2 quarts

1 lb strawberries, washed and trimmed
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
pinch salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vodka (I used Smirnoff 100 proof)

Partially mash the strawberries with the sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a large bowl, using a potato masher. Let sit for 10 minutes. Transfer half to another bowl and puree with an immersion blender until smooth. Mix the two halves back together, stir in the cream and vodka until well combined, and chill in a metal bowl in the refrigerator for about 3 hours, then freeze in an ice cream maker. Transfer to an airtight container (tightly covering the surface with a piece of plastic wrap before putting on the lid) and freeze until firm (another few hours).

Farmers’ Market Friday: Green Garlic

Spring has finally, officially returned and with it, the Copley Square Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a few days, I will start my fantastic new job at America’s Test Kitchen, and since I will only be working half-day Fridays all summer (!!!!), I’ll be able to visit the market on my way home, and early enough in the day that it should still have a good selection. Last year, I had to content myself with whatever dregs were left at the end of the day, and most stands were usually already packing up to leave by the time I arrived at the market. I can’t understand why farmers’ markets in the Boston area have hours that make them practically inaccessible to anyone who works full-time, particularly if you consider their astronomical prices.

This first week, not all of the usual stands were there yet. I saw Old Friends Farm, Iggy’s Bread, and a new fresh-pasta stand, Nella Pasta. At the Siena Farms stand, I was fascinated by the beautiful, long stalks of green garlic. I’d never cooked or eaten it before, so I decided to give it a shot. My goal is to try one vegetable or fruit that is completely new to me each week; I love the challenge of figuring out what to do with it. Green garlic — a young garlic plant harvested before the lower part of the stalk has begun to form the bulbous head of garlic cloves — is a particularly ephemeral item that is only available for a few short weeks in the early spring.

I took the stalk of garlic home, somehow managed to angle it into the fridge (it was nearly two feet long, from the roots to the tips of the leaves), and noticed that the leaves started to wilt soon after. The woman I’d spoken to at the farm stand had told me that the dark green leaves are inedible, in any case. You can only eat the pale green and white parts of the stalk, just like with leeks.

Green garlic can be used raw or cooked. I sampled a small piece raw to see how it tastes. The plant itself gives off a strong garlic scent, and it definitely tasted garlicky, but it’s milder than raw garlic cloves, and with less of a pungent, bitter edge. I decided to cook the garlic into a soup with a bunch of young sweet-pea shoots that I’d also bought at the market. The soup that I made turned out absolutely delicious, tasting of springtime, although it wasn’t as smoothly textured as I’d have liked. I blended with an immersion blender for several minutes but could not get the pieces of pea shoot any smaller. Adding dairy (such as cream or crème fraîche) to the soup might help give it a more velvety texture, but I wanted to keep it light and spring-y.

Green Garlic and Sweet-Pea Shoot Soup

(Serves 2)

1 TB unsalted butter
1 stalk green garlic (white and pale green parts only), finely minced
2 cups water or broth (vegetable or chicken)
1 bunch sweet-pea shoots
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice

  1. Melt the butter in a medium-sized stockpot over low heat, and then add the green garlic.
  2. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent.
  3. Add water or broth; season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Cover pot and bring to a boil, then toss in the pea shoots, cover again, reduce heat and simmer gently for about 5 minutes, or until shoots are wilted and tender.
  5. Puree using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor.
  6. Stir in lemon juice and serve immediately.

This would also be nice served topped with a dollop of crème fraîche, either plain or flavored with fresh mint.

William Woodville: „Medical botany“, London, J...

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Fiddlehead Ferns…Spring?

Fiddlehead Ferns with Browned Butter and Prosciutto

Even though it still looks and feels more like early winter than late spring around Boston, an intriguing local springtime item has suddenly appeared in the produce section of my local Shaw’s (of all places)…fiddlehead ferns. I had never bought, cooked, or eaten them before but was really curious to try.

I decided to cook them as simply as possible in order to see how they tasted. I searched a bit for recipes and ended up using the recipe for “Fiddlehead Ferns with Browned Butter and Prosciutto” that I found here: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/4789959.

I liked the texture of the ferns, crisp and with a bit of snap to them. The flavor is hard to describe — the closest I can come to putting it in words is to say that they taste like the forest. The only feature about them that I found off-putting was their appearance. I hate to say it, but they really did look too much like coiled-up caterpillars for my liking. They will not be available for long, and maybe I’ll try them again next year (perhaps battering and frying them would make them more appealing?).

A Moveable Feast

This afternoon I joined a guided walk through Forest Hills Cemetery led by Anthony Sammarco, a local historian and author of more than forty books on the history of Boston.  This garden cemetery is one of the most beautiful in the country, aside from holding great personal significance for me (my paternal grandparents are buried here), and I was excited by the idea of a food-themed walking tour, replete with tastings! It was a beautiful, brisk, fall day as Mr. Sammarco led our small group through the turning leaves.

We started at the grave of Thaddeus Clapp, the hybridizer of the Clapp’s Favorite variety of pear, a cross between the Bartlett and Flemish Beauty (apparently there is a giant pear sculpture in Everett Square in Dorchester, MA commemorating this accomplishment). This variety was unique because it was an early ripening pear, making the fruit available at a time of year when it was previously unobtainable. While Mr. Sammarco spoke we enjoyed some slices of fresh pear.

Our second stop was at the grave of Samuel Downer (1807-1881), who achieved fame for hybridizing the Downer’s Late cherry, which conversely ripened about a week after the regular cherry season, extending the availability of fresh cherries. Here we sampled fresh cherries, cherry juice, and gummy cherry candies.

Next up on the itinerary was the final resting place of Jacob Wirth (d. 1892), restauranteur and one of the first to introduce “ethnic” food from his native Prussia to the Boston area at his beer hall in Stuart Street, founded in 1868 and the second-oldest operating restaurant in the city after the Union Oyster House. At Jake’s gravestone we enjoyed some apple cider, the original idea of beer apparently having been nixed by someone behind the scenes at Forest Hills.

Next we visited the grave of Maria Parloa (1843-1909), one of the most popular cooking teachers and cookbook authors of the 19th Century, and co-founder of the Boston Cooking School. At Maria’s grave, a basket of mini Hershey’s chocolate bars had been set out, in honor of the chocolate cookbook that Maria authored (although it was for the Walter Baker cocoa company, rather than Hershey’s).

We then made a pilgrimage to the gravestone of Ruby Foo (1904-1950), the owner of Ruby Foo’s Den, one of the first resturants to offer Chinese food to Bostonians.  Considering the state of Chinese cuisine in the Boston area today (one word: dismal), I was quite curious about what types of dishes Ruby Foo might have served to her customers in the 30s and 40s.  Crab Rangoon could not possibly have been one of them, since that peculiarly un-Chinese concoction was actually invented at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco in the late 1950s. Mr. Sammarco informed us that Ruby’s restaurant was quite popular with the local Jewish population, not least of all because they were banned from dining in many other local restaurants at the time.  Could this be one of the reasons for the enduring love that many Jewish people still have today for Chinese food? Or is it that Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day? At this stop we were offered fortune cookies, another American Chinese food invention (this is fodder for an entirely separate post, so I’ll refrain from commenting further).

We then wandered through the beautifully-landscaped grounds to the plot of S. S. Pierce (1807-1881), the proprietor of a fine-foods emporium that once stood in Copley Square (1887-1958). While munching on cookies, Mr. Sammarco described how Pierce imported upscale foods from around the world and had them delivered to well-to-do Back Bay families by horse-drawn livery coach (Today, Back Bay residents like yours truly use “old lady” wheelie carts to haul their groceries from Shaw’s and Trader Joe’s to their brownstones. Not quite as elegant).

Our final stop was at the plot of the Pfaff family, whose once well-known brewery was at Roxbury Crossing. We learned about the Pfaff brewery and the almost two dozen others that used to stand along Stony Brook from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain. The clear water from Stony Brook (now dry) was used to produce German-style lager beers. By this point, Mr. Sammarco’s assistants had somehow managed to sneak some real ale into the tour, and we enjoyed it on the steps of the Egyptian-style Pfaff Mausoleum.

I had a great time on this tour and learned a great deal – Mr. Sammarco is a vast treasure-trove of historical knowledge and clearly has a soft spot in his heart for anything related to food and dining. I wished I could have spoken to him longer and asked him some questions, particularly about the mysterious Ruby Foo.  I guess I’ll have to do some research of my own!

When the tour ended I took the opportunity to visit my grandparents, Eugene and Lena St. Onge, in the newer section of the cemetery. My French-Canadian grandfather was a chef, and my grandmother told me that they met when she and a girlfriend saw him slicing turkey in the window of a restaurant in Cape Cod one day.  He was tall and handsome, and my grandmother’s girlfriend said to her, “I bet you can’t make him!” and she retorted, “I bet you I can!” and the rest, as they say, is history…