Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Border Cafe

I feel like a bad blogger these days. School and work have seriously curtailed my free time (in a good way though!). But nonetheless, another Monday in Harvard, another spot for lunch.

Due to the simple fact that it is a chain, Border Cafe would not normally be a selection of mine. However, it is a small chain (6 restaurants in 3 states). Three locations are here in the Boston area. Last spring, Matt and I went with Jan and Howard to the one in Saugus. I remembered the food was good, but due to a torn contact lens and removal of the other due to a depth perception headache, I ate my meal in a sort of foggy haze. Oh yeah, and Jan and I had margaritas, so that helped too. And yet, in this haze, I still remembered the satisfactory experience of the meal.

Border Cafe in Cambridge is easy to find in Harvard, especially if you have 20 minutes to kill. First you walk into the Coop through the front door. Wander through the first floor, then browse the music and travel books in the back for 20 minutes. Exit through the Coop's back door, and bang a right. You're there!

I grabbed a seat at the bar, which is for me a more comfortable location when dining alone than sitting at a big table solo. Also, service is usually faster at bars, which was the case here. The young man working the bar was fast, respectful, kind, and flawless in his service. And although I didn't have one, appeared quite skilled in his margarita-making skills.

Although the menu has a good selection of entrees, due to all of the sides and accompaniments, I dubbed them too big for lunch, even though affordable. Instead, I selected the Chorizo Flambado from the appetizer menu. The menu guaranteed, specifically for this dish, that if I did not like it, I would get my money back. Good deal. Anyways, the dish is crumbled Mexican-style chorizo baked with green chilis, tomatoes and LOTS of Monterey Jack cheese. Accompanying this sizzling hot heaven of cheese and pork are four warmed small tortillas that were soft and pliable but sturdy. To my surprise, the tomatoes were exceptionally fresh, as were the green chilis...no cans here. I could not finish this appetizer, for three tortillas stuffed with gobs of melted cheese and pork were very filling, especially being washed down by a Wolaver's IPA.

The only improvement I would make on this dish is to actually, dare I say, make it lighter. The chorizo could have been drained better, and if a second, lighter cheese were added, there would have been significantly less oil, which is what made the small dish difficult to finish.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Crema Cafe

On Monday afternoons I take a course at Harvard. Mid-day bus schedules and my fear of being late, even by 30 seconds, cause me to leave home at 11:15. But this gives me almost an hour and a half of time in Harvard Square before class begins at 2. Since 11 is too early to eat a large lunch, especially after a breakfast around 8:30...I have decided to give myself a weekly treat of a late lunch out in Harvard Square.

After a few wanderings and a couple errands, the grumbling in my stomach and the opportunity to eat outside on a cool fall day without having to deal with a waitperson caused me to enter Crema Cafe. The long space with counter service on one side and high-top tables on the other was filled with students, professionals, and professional students. Overheard languages included English, Italian, French and Arabic.

One mark against them is a lack of a refreshing non-water beverage without high fructose corn syrup. With so many options on the market these days for all-natural spritzers, I don't see a reason not to carry them. Especially if you are carrying imported Italian sodas which are a higher price point anyways. The coffee smelled good, not burnt, and the pastries looked fresh and made that day. However, this wasn't a snack I was heading for.

A short menu of salads and sandwiches was made larger by having the option to change up the dish and add a few things. I chose a grilled cheese with gruyere, ham, and caramelized onions. Two large panini presses are attended to by a young woman and a young man. Neither of which could seem to communicate their individual process of keeping track of slips...which at first caused some entertainment, but then pity, followed by frustration. I only narrowly got away with my sandwich after the young man tried to hand it to another patiently waiting woman.

The "panini" sandwich gets a B+. The gruyere was of good quality and delivered the expected tangy, nutty, melty goodness. The ham was unremarkable. To stand up to gruyere, a sliced ham needs a certain saltiness and sweetness to be useful. The caramelized onions were unbelievably rich, dark, earthy and sweet. I only wish the young man had spread them out better on the bread. Only two bites of my sandwich had the caramelized onions due to their placement as globs. Due to its density, the bread was not the best choice for a panini in my opinion. For me, a sandwich that has been on a panini press should be just that...pressed. If very dense bread is used, the sandwich doesn't cohere into a single unit, causing slippage of fillings when bitten into. However, the bread's heartiness at least made me feel that I was getting some good whole grains and fiber into my diet. All in all a satisfying meal that kept me full until a late dinner last night.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Mom's Broth and Chicken Soup

So Matt has been crazy crazy sick this week. For most of the week his throat could only tolerate yogurt and jello. But I did make him a batch of chicken soup. This chicken soup is my mother's recipe, and it is the best soup to have when sick. Although I make my mother's broth when I have chicken parts leftover (usually from the carcass of a roasted chicken), I haven't had the soup in years and years because when I've been sick, I don't have the energy nor patience to make this soup from beginning to end (and as is usual, I'm without a stash of broth in the freezer whenever I get sick). But if you're healthy, it's the best thing to cook, makes the house smell great, and makes the sick one feel a little better. And if you make 2 quarts, and you have two people, put one quart of the broth in freezer for easy soup next time you're sick. The first half of this recipe makes a darn good broth, which you can use for pretty much anything you would use stock or broth in. SO make a double batch, freeze it, and enjoy.

You start with 2 pounds of chicken. Choosing chicken is the only tricky part. Mom would usually use the necks and backs from chickens. But I haven't fabricated or roasted a chicken all summer, so I didn't have any pieces kicking around in the back of the freezer. I have seen from time to time at Whole Foods in their freezer section packages of necks and backs, but I was out of luck on this recent trip. The key is you want pieces of chicken with a good amount of skin and joints, for maximum collagen extraction. This means intense flavor and a silky mouthfeel. Wings can be good for this as well. For this batch however, since I struck out on the necks and backs, I chose one pound of drumsticks and one pound of thighs. I could have just gotten two pounds of leg quarters and divided them myself, but the price differential didn't make it worth it. If you want a deeper, richer flavor, roast the chicken pieces before making the broth.

So...pull out your trusty Big Pot. Mine is a Le Creuset Dutch Oven(cherished Christmas present from Mom last year). Of course, I understand that most folks don't have one of these miraculously appear under the tree for them (heck, I cooked with out one until last year, and my mother prefers her All-Clad, everybody has their preferred Big Pot).

Now that you have your Big Pot out, fill it up with 2 quarts of water and the 2 pounds of chicken pieces (raw or post-roasting). Add an onion cut up into chunks, a couple ribs of celery broken into a few pieces, and a carrot broken up into a few chunks as well. For seasoning you add a big pinch of dried thyme (or a couple sprigs of fresh if you have some), a few whole peppercorns, two peeled and smashed garlic cloves, 2 tsp of salt, and a bay leaf. Slowly bring everything to a simmer and continue to simmer slowly. Total simmering time is about 2 hours. At the half-hour mark, find the bay leaf and discard (if you leave it in too long it gets too strong and overpowering). At the one hour mark, remove chicken pieces from pot and take the meat off of the bones. Let chicken meat cool before putting in bags or containers for fridge/freezer. Return bones and skin to pot. Simmer for another hour. You can skim off any white foamy stuff during any point of the simmer for aesthetics (clearer broth), but it does not make a difference in the taste. Unless I was using the broth for a dish for company where the broth was the main star, I'd stay on the couch to do my Systematic Theology reading and not bother with the skimming.

At the end of the 2 hours of simmering, strain the broth either in a fine-mesh strainer or a colander lined with cheese cloth. Let broth sit and cool. When cool, scoop the layer of fat off of the top of the broth and discard. At this point, you can proceed with making soup or put the broth into containers and into the fridge or freezer. I always vote for the freezer unless you know for certain that you will be using the broth in the next day or two. This way, if you don't use the broth right away, you don't accidentally waste it by feeling like an idiot 10 days later when you come across it in the fridge (not that I've done that, I'm just saying hypothetically....). Defrosting from the freezer is fast and easy in the microwave, so it's just as convenient. Just remember that broth must be completely cool before placing in the freezer.

OK...so the soup is super easy. You'll be using one quart of the broth for this soup. Mince up a little onion (about 1/4 cup), and one rib of celery. Mom usually put a little minced carrot in too, but I'm a big celery and onion fan and prefer them to be the stars in this soup. Put a little olive oil in a saucepan and heat over medium heat, add the onion and celery and saute for about a minute or two. Add broth and bring to a strong simmer. Add 1/4 cup of orzo or pastina and continue at a strong simmer for appropriate length of cooking time for the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, chop up some of the chicken meat you removed earlier. You'll want about 2/3 to 3/4 cup of chopped up chicken, depending on how much chicken you like in your soup. In the last couple minutes of cooking, add the chicken.

If you want, add a little red pepper flake. This is good if the goal of the soup is to clear out one's sinuses. Also, if you want to make it more garlicky for the same purpose, add a small clove of minced garlic to the saute with the celery and onion.

Serve plain or with a little grated parmigiano.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lemon Scallion Shrimp Bruschetta

Technically, bruschetta is not considered a meal. As a type, it falls into that wonderful collection of pre-meal dishes and substantial snacks for Italians, which includes such wonders as tramezzini, antipasti, and bruschetta. However, as is my usual inclination of changing habit from time to time to suit my tastes, I make this bruschetta into a full on meal of itself. Simply by making enough for 6 people as a snack, and dividing it between 2 for dinner. Add a little side salad, and ecco, cena.

I didn't come up with the idea for this bruschetta on my own. There are shrimp bruschetta recipes in at least 4 of my cookbooks. The difference between mine and theirs? No garlic. I use garlic with shrimp in many different dishes, and I wanted to change it up a little (surprise surprise). For the bread part of this dish I used small ciabatta rolls from Stop and Shop. They have a nice crust, but not too hard, and a soft airy interior that grilled up nicely in the grill pan.

So, the shrimp. I am crazy about the IQF (Individual Quick Frozen) Shrimp that comes in a bag. The best part of it is that it makes shrimp a pantry item in essence. And anything that makes my life a little more streamlined and efficient, I'm a fan of.

I counted out about 3 shrimp (I keep the medium shrimp on hand) per ciabatta roll half. I completely shell the shrimp (if you bought fresh, devein as well, the frozen ones are already deveined). In a saute pan, heat a couple TBS of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add a minced shallot and saute until translucent. Add the shrimp to the pan and cook just until pink and curled, but not cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add 1-2 TBS of butter, 1/3 cup dry white wine, the juice of one lemon (before juicing, run lemon across a microplane to get the zest to be used later), and about two-thirds of a small bunch of scallions sliced on the diagonal, 1/4" thick. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring frequently to keep the shrimp from sticking, until sauce is reduced by about half, and there is no discernable smell of alcohol in the sauce. This will take about 2 minutes. Just before sauce is done cooking, add a pinch of red pepper flake (or more than a pinch if you need to clear out your sinuses).

Meanwhile, slice the ciabatta rolls in half, brush with olive oil, and grill in grill pan (or place under broiler) until browned and beautiful. For the two of us, I used five rolls, giving us five bruschetta each. Place roll halves on a plate, place 3 shrimp atop each roll, spoon sauce over top. Add a little lemon zest, and the remaining scallions. Then dive into sweet, buttery shrimp with the perfect essence of lemon and green onion. Serve with the same wine you cooked with (I used Black Box Pinot Grigio), or a refreshing clean lager.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Beer-melized Onions

I said awhile ago that I would post about how to make beer-melized onions. It is truly quite simply, but makes intensely flavorful and savory onions. I utilize them mostly for panini and pizza, but really, they could be used anywhere cooked onions are used.

So...slice up an onion into 1/4" thick slices. Put onions into a sauce pan with a little olive oil and start to sweat the onions over medium-high heat (I use a nonstick one for ease of removing onions, but it isn't necessary).

When onions begin to soften, add beer and drop the heat to medium-low, cooking until the beer is evaporated/in the onions.

How much beer? Depends on how much onion you have. For a small-medium onion, use about 2 ounces. For a large-huge onion, 3-4 ounces. What kind of beer? Pretty much any ale will do. General rule is that you don't want something that is too hoppy. Too many hops in a beer will impart an unpleasant bitter flavor in this preparation. I've used everything from red ale, to brown ale, to saison, and plenty in between. If it has a good malty base, it works well for this. Last night I used Smuttynose Brown Dog Ale, and I'll be trying this with an Octoberfest soon.
The first photo is of when the beer is first added to the onions,the second photo is half-way through cooking, and the third are the finished onions.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Onion Apricot Pasta

This is a fast, weeknight dish, but intense and satisfying. I had seen a recipe for Pasta with Rosemary and Onion-Orange Marmalade and although I liked the recipe as is, I of course wanted to change it up to suit my tastes. Like virtually all my pasta dishes (except stuffed and baked ones), the sauce takes either the amount of time or less as it does to bring a pot of water to boil and cook the pasta.

This makes enough for two people (as do most of my recipes).

Start, of course, by boiling water for pasta. The two short and stubby pastas I like to keep around are Campanelle and Farfalle. I like the Campanelle because its little "cone" picks up pieces of even chunky, non-tomato sauces, and the Farfalle is great because all sorts of sauces stick to its "wings". I use about 6 oz. dry of either for this dish. I also add my salt to the water when it comes to a boil because I believe the science behind the pitting of pots if you add the salt when the water is cold.

Now, the original recipe calls for pancetta, which I used the first time I made this. And last night I used a couple slices of bacon I had kicking around in the fridge, but drained off the fat almost entirely before adding olive oil to cook the onions in. Usually I make this recipe without the pancetta or bacon, this way it is more of a "pantry meal" and is also healthier (and makes it vegetarian).

So, if you want to, use a couple ounces of pancetta, cut it up into a large dice, and render it in a non-stick sauce pan over medium high heat until browned. Drain off fat, add a couple TBS of olive oil. If you aren't using the pancetta, just heat the olive oil until shimmering.

Next, add one onion, sliced 1/4" thick and a TBS of roughly chopped fresh oregano (or a tsp of dried). Cover pan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and tender. Add a couple TBS of apricot marmalade. I use Whole Foods 365 brand Apricot fruit spread. It has three ingredients: apricots, white grape juice, and pectin. I think if a sugar-based fruit spread was used, especially something with evil high-fructose corn-syrup, that would make this dish cloying and not savory.

After stirring marmalade into onion mixture, turn off heat. When water boils (if it hasn't already), add pasta. Cook to al dente. When pasta is close to done cooking, ladle about a 1/4 cup of water into the sauce pan, and stir around.

Drain pasta, put back into pot, toss with sauce and a few grinds of black pepper (not tons, just a touch). Serve with lots and lots of grated parmigiano or grana. If you didn't use bacon, a nice way to add a richness to the mouth feel and taste of the dish is with toasted pine nuts. Or add them even if you used bacon for a super-decadent dish.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bar Harbor Beer and Beer Brats

Our Beer Adventures in Bar Harbor were successful and frequent. From our first night at West Street Cafe and with a pint of Bar Harbor Real Ale to our last night at Lompoc Cafe with multiple pints of other beers made by Atlantic Brewing Company...we drank varied styles of beer, but all of good quality. Matt's favorite is the Coal Porter by Atlantic Brewing Company which he says is roasty and chocolaty. My favorite is the Bar Harbor Real Ale made by the same which is malty, but with a nice mellow hint of hops, but not too bitter. I also really enjoyed the Thunder Hole Ale made by Bar Harbor Brewing Company. Although not a Bar Harbor-brewed beverage, Matt enjoyed a couple different Peak Organic Beers at Mache Bistro (that was a night of two glasses of Spanish bubbly for me).

We brought home so much beer. Aside from a few six packs and bombers currently making their way from the fridge to our stomachs, we brought home a few beers that need time. Like a fine wine, these beers will become better with age. Amongst them is a bottle of a braggert from Atlantic Brewing Company. A braggert is a half-breed of a beer and a mead. Made with 2000 pounds of honey put in along with the grain bill, it is sweet, but not cloying or syrupy like I find most meads to be. Just sweet enough, but with an edge that makes it perfect for sipping. I'm thinking a little apple pie or creme brulee to pair. Although drinkable now, we are going to wait at least a year before opening this exquisite libation.

Last night I made some beer brats with homemade beer and Raye's Bar Harbor Real Ale Mustard. Paired with Bar Harbor Real Ale, they were quite amazing. I steamed the brats (okay, I used Irish Style Pork Bangers from Whole Foods, but the ingredients are quite similar) in a steamer basket for 20 minutes over about 8 ounces of homemade saison. The brats were then grilled in my grill pan over medium high heat for 10 minutes, with lots of turning. I then made beer-melized onions, also with the saison. Into a roll with a lot of mustard, wash it down with some Bar Harbor Real Ale, and it's perfect for watching a Red Sox game on an early fall evening.

Since we returned home with a finite amount of Real Ale, we didn't want to sacrifice a bottle for cooking. However, we decided that if the beer brats and mustard were so amazingly good with a mismatch of beer for cooking and condiment/drinking...we're going to dedicate a bottle of the Real Ale next time to discover what is truly the taste of nirvana.