Sunday, June 29, 2008

Restaurants: Boston Food Finds

Last weekend I had my annual reunion with a group of college girlfriends. This year's destination: Boston. Since we'd all already been on the Freedom Trail one too many times, we decided to make the focus of this visit shopping and, more importantly, eating!

First order of business when we arrived was lunch. We ducked into Croma on Newbury Street and had some delicious panini----chicken and avocado with basil mayonnaise, perfectly pressed and grilled, the real, Italian way (unlike some places that simply toast the bread). We were thinking of heading down the block to Johnny Cupcakes for dessert, which had a huge line outside, until we realized that it was a tee-shirt store and had nothing to do with confections. We still don't really understand the hoopla surrounding these tee-shirts, but I have a feeling if you're older than 20 it is something you just wouldn't get.

That evening we discovered a great sushi bar called Douzo (we're told it's pronounced "DOUGH-ZO") on Dartmouth Street. It was packed, but we were able to snag a high-top bar table in the elevated bar, which had a great view of the entire restaurant. The sushi was fantastic and fresh, and one of our favorites was the "Crazy Roll" which had too many ingredients to remember, but it was delicious. Paired with lots a couple bottles of wine, it was a great place for our first night in Boston.

The next morning we grabbed some coffee and a bagel and headed to Quincy Market/Fanueil Hall for some more shopping, with the intent of walking over to the North End (Boston's Italian neighborhood) for lunch. One of the salespeople in a store gave us a fantastic recommendation for her favorite North End spot, Antico Forno on Salem Street. The restaurant is small, and we almost walked right by it....but it is not to be missed. We realized after we sat down that they were only serving the dinner menu (it was Sunday afternoon), but since none of us were hungry enough for a huge meal, they were nice enough to let us split a few dinner entrees between our group. They arrived at our table with a basket of bread and a dish of olive oil with some plump kalamata olives floating within....and that alone was enough to make me return to this restaurant. The bread was amazing, definitely some of the best I've ever had. The risotto special with asparagus, mushrooms and truffle oil was wonderful----but the Rigatoni alla Bosciaola was easily the best pasta dish I've had in ages. It combined pasta with prosciutto, peas, and mushrooms, and was tossed in a special plum tomato & marscarpone sauce. YUM.

Naturally, while in the North End we had to stop for gelato. Since most of the gelato shops had a television, and it happened to be the quarter-finals of the World Cup (Italy vs. Spain), it was hard to actually get into one. People were spilling out over the sidewalks everywhere trying to watch the game. We finally managed to squeeze into Gelateria on Hanover Street. We all ordered something different, so I was able to taste several of the selections. Grapefruit, which is a flavor I probably wouldn't choose on my own, was surprisingly delicious and refreshing, as was the mango. My other favorite was mint chocolate chip, but I will say the chocolate left something to be desired (the texture was all off and ice crystals dominated).

Later that evening, we had a reservation at Tapeo on Newbury Street, a fun tapas bar with both indoor and outdoor seating. They'd advertised a "Three Tapas plus dessert for $35" special, but then claimed that they weren't actually offering it, even though according to the waiter, "tons of people kept coming in and asking about it". Hmmmm. Not off to a good start.

Because our waiter was so nice and helpful (and this false advertising was certainly not his doing), we decided to stay. Our group ordered a wide selection of tapas to go with our sangria (which was great), ranging from a traditional Spanish Tortilla with potato, to prunes stuffed with goat cheese (my favorite), to tender pork loin with mushrooms and a blue goat cheese sauce. We also liked the scallops in saffron cream sauce, the garlic shrimp, and the basil/tomato/goat cheese spread (there was a lot of goat cheese happening at our table!). We finished with an order of traditional "Churros y Chocolate" (Spanish fried dough with chocolate dipping sauce) and a decadent flourless chocolate cake with three sauces (pistachio, creme anglaise, and an amazing coffee-flavored sauce). We definitely needed to go for a post-dinner stroll to walk off this meal!

The last morning of our visit, we went to a great diner called Steve's Greek Cuisine on Newbury Street, which seemed appropriate since all of our husbands happen to share the name Steve (yes, very weird). So, in honor of them watching all the kids over the weekend, we ended our eating-vacation there. It was a great, no-frills diner, with excellent service.

Boston is a fantastic city----and now it has become one of my new favorite dining-destinations!

PS: My girlfriends had a late flight, and checked out JP Licks for ice cream after I left. Here's what they said: " We went to JP Licks (at the original location in Jamaica Plains, hence the JP) and it was amazing beyond belief. I had strawberry rhubarb ice cream that was to die for. Even though you weren't there personally, it's definitely worth blogging about - all homemade, all delicious. Mojito sorbet, cappuccino oreo chunk, oatmeal cookie, Myers rum raisin......I could go on!" There you have it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Trouble with Corn

Up until recently, I'd never given much thought to corn. Sure, in summertime I'll eat fresh corn on the cob any night of the week. But the sweet corn of which I speak seems to have fallen out of favor with big-time growers. Other than the small-scale farms, most corn-producers are growing a completely different variety of corn because it is what garners the most money for them. The corn they grow is not fit for human consumption. It is made into feed for animals which will later become our meat and fish, it is made into ethanol which is in our gas, and it is made into food additives like high fructose corn syrup, which I'm learning is in practically everything we eat today. And the worst is killing us.

I recently began reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which opened my eyes to the way the food industry works. Pollan devotes the entire first chapter to corn, which at first baffled me. Then I read how most of what lines the shelves of our supermarkets can be traced back to corn, in some form. Read the label of almost any processed food and you'll find high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, corn flour, corn oil, and the list goes on and on. There are other things that are derived from corn too, like colorings, leavenings, and preservatives. It is close to impossible to get away from corn if you eat ANY food that is processed in some way.
So why is this so terrible? Basically, our corn crop has become engineered so that it has lost all its nutritional value. Instead, it is processed to become something that adds empty calories and fat to foods, compromising our health, our waistlines, and the quality of our food. Independent Lens, a series on PBS, ran an excellent documentary on this very topic. "King Corn" follows two recent college grads who set out to grow an acre of corn in the Iowa corn belt, and follow it from seed to the shelves of the grocery store. I would highly recommend setting your DVR to record this program (it aired at 2:00am in my market---you have to wonder what was behind that decision). It is an excellent look at this industry, with scientists, food experts, and even Michael Pollan discussing how what was once a simple crop has turned into something completely different.
In an era where Type 2 diabetes has become an epidemic (it used to be called "adult onset diabetes", but so many children are now being diagnosed that they had to change the name), you have to point to the foods we eat. High fructose corn syrup has made its way into just about everything we eat, and we now see how it and other corn-based additives are wreaking havoc on our bodies. We know about the link between increased sugar intake and Type 2 diabetes, and I'm certain that in years to come, there will also be a direct link to the increases in several types of cancer.

I'll leave the scientific explanations to Dr. Pollan and the experts interviewed in "King Corn", but as a mother, a cook, and a person interested in my family's health, I urge you to reconsider the way you eat. I'm certainly the last person to tell you to go "cold turkey" on anything. But I think by simply being AWARE of this issue, perhaps you'll read a few more food labels, think twice before heading to the drive-thru for dinner, and cut back on consumption of sugary drinks like soda. I promise that if you read Michael Pollan's book or watch "King Corn" you'll change the way you think, eat, and live. And as hard as it may be to swallow----this is a good thing for all of us.

Grill-Steamed Corn on the Cob
Serves 6

I love using my grill for everything in the warmer weather, but I don't care for the texture of corn when cooked directly over a flame. By enclosing the corn in little foil packets stuffed with ice, the corn gently steams, giving it the texture and flavor of boiled corn on the cob, without dirtying a pot.

6 ears of corn on the cob, shucked
6 12x12 inch square of tin foil

3 cups crushed ice

Preheat an outdoor grill to medium-high heat.

Place one ear of corn and 1/2 cup of crushed ice on a square of foil. Crimp the edges closed, leaving room around the corn but sealing completely so no steam can escape. Repeat with remaining ears of corn/foil/ice.
Place each packet, seam side up, directly on the grill grates and cook for approximately 20 minutes, or until desired doneness has been achieved.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Restaurants: Zest, Westport, CT

UPDATE: Unfortunately, as of April 21, 2009, Zest will be closing due to the economic downturn. It will be greatly missed, but many of the signature dishes will now be available at its sister restaurant, DaPietro's, also in Westport.

Zest Cafe & Restaurant opened its doors in 2006 in the vault of the former Westport Bank and Trust on Church Lane. Owners Pietro and Janine Scotti, who also own Da Pietro's in Westport have created a unique physical space in which they serve up a nice variety of modern, yet not outrageously unfamiliar dishes. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The decor is fresh and crisp, mixing bright spring greens with muted browns and rich black. Despite being below sidewalk level, the L-shaped space manages to be bright and airy. The menu consists of what the Scottis call "global cuisine", as it is a rather eclectic mix of flavors and styles. However, the chef's Italian roots are definitely evident, as there is a Mediterranean flair throughout many of the offerings.

When I visited for a late lunch, the waitstaff was attentive and very patient with my talkative group of friends. The menu itself was mouthwatering, and I literally couldn't decide between several dishes. The "composed salads" were interesting and included combinations such as Salmon au Citron Salad with poached salmon, organic mesclun, orange segments, and citrus salsa. My friend ordered the Steak Lover's Salad which was studded with bright grape tomatoes and avocado slices.

Although the wraps looked delicious (in particular, the Bayou Wrap caught my eye---which included marinated shrimp, avocado, cucumber, julienned carrots, and Bibb Lettuce), but the signature Zest Panini was calling my name. Grilled eggplant, prosciutto, fontina cheese and pesto were layered between grilled bread and included a small salad of mesculn greens. It was wonderful. They also have a nice selection of burgers, club sandwiches, and "main dishes" for those wanting something more substantial like lasagna or steak frites.

The dinner menu is even larger, and features a nice variety of starters (don't miss "Pietro's Priceless Meatballs"), salads, pastas, plus "sea" and "land" selections (the Veal Osso Buco and Lasagna were two of my favorites). Be sure to check out the nightly specials too. On a recent visit there was an appetizer of fresh grilled sardines. Sardines tend to get a bad rap, but you need to think outside the can! Fresh sardines are out of this world if prepared correctly, as they were at Zest. Grilled whole (yes, that means head and tail still on---very European!), they were served over a bed of greens and slathered in a wonderful lemony olive oil. They were absolutely divine, and that is not a word I use very often.

My most recent visit was for brunch, at which time both breakfast and lunch items are available. The full breakfast menu (available until 11am) was definitely more extensive, but everyone in my family was perfectly happy with the pancakes, fritattas, and eggs available during brunch. I was also happy to see notations indicating that the eggs are organic, as are the bacon and sausage (which are also nitrate free).
Lastly, Zest even has a very nice children's menu. Yes, there is still mac and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs and "chicken bites" for your picky eaters, but for kids whose palates may have evolved a bit, there is a petite fillet mignon, a petite fillet of salmon, and fish and chips for any mini-anglophiles out there. I loved that the kids menu included "raw vegetables and dip" as an option too---- a quasi-salad for the little ones. Although I wouldn't initially have thought of Zest as being a kid-friendly restaurant, the whole concept of being inside a former bank vault is a hit with the kids. PS: There are a limited number of etch-a-sketches available for little ones to use while at the restaurant. How very green of Zest!

Zest is a great addition to Westport and Fairfield County. I love the space, I love the colors, I love the vibe. Most importantly, I love the food. Definitely put a little Zest in your life!

8 Church Lane
Westport, CT
Monday-Saturday, 8:00am-10:30pm (breakfast, lunch, and dinner)
Sunday, 8:00am-9:30pm (brunch from 11-3)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Why I Love Trader Joe's

No, I am not on the payroll at Trader Joe's. Nor am I getting any kickbacks or free groceries from them. I just love Trader Joe's for a million reasons, and I'll give you a few of them here.

In my cooking school, when someone asks where to find a certain ingredient we're using during class, the answer is more often than not "at Trader Joe's!" Although the store here in Fairfield, Connecticut is probably less than a quarter of the size of our supermarkets, somehow I just seem to find so many more things to buy there. Yes, I still need to hit the supermarket for the Special K I eat every morning, the Pepperidge Farm "Thin" Whole Wheat bread my kids love, and Hellmann's mayo, but I pretty much buy everything else at TJ's.

So why do I love it? I love that they have so much organic produce, meats, dairy and grains, and they are priced not to break the bank, which you could easily do with organics in a regular supermarket . I love that most, if not all of their meats and dairy are hormone free and use no antibiotics. I love that so much of the fish (frozen or fresh) is wild-caught rather than farmed. I love that they offer lots of nitrate-free deli meats, bacon, and hot dogs, again, at decent prices. I love their terrific selection of cheeses, which are, once again, really well priced. I love that they have lots of "short-cut" items, like pre-chopped mirepoix (trio of onion, celery, and carrot), pre-sliced mango, already-assembled veggie kabobs, and freshly cut stir-fry veggies. I love their free-trade, organic coffee (we favor the Bolivian Blend or the one with the orange parrot on the front).'re getting the picture.

I will say that I also love the staff at TJ's. Unlike at some other stores (okay, most other stores), here the staff here actually knows what they are talking about. They know the products, have tried the everything, and can make great recommendations. They are friendly and helpful, and seem (gasp!) genuinely happy to be working there. No bored faces and blank stares here! They even know how to bag groceries---- no bread on the bottom or "one-item-per-bag" you get elsewhere. And speaking of bags, they even have a weekly raffle as further incentive to bring your own (although if you forget yours, the brown paper bags with handles are far superior to the white plastic ones).

Here is one of my favorite "all-Trader Joe's" recipes. I bring this dish to lots of parties and they are always among the first things to be gobbled up! Now you know my secret!! Trader Joe's!

Marsala Cocktail Meatballs
Serves a crowd
I got this recipe from a tasting that was held at Trader Joe's one afternoon.

1 jar Trader Joe's Marsala Sauce
12 oz sour cream
2 bags Trader Joe's Mini Meatballs, defrosted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a 3 quart casserole dish, combine Marsala sauce and sour cream. Add defrosted meatballs and stir to coat with sauce.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until meatballs are heated through and sauce is hot. Serve warm.
Note: Alternatively, this may be prepared in a crock pot. Simply combine all the ingredients and heat on low until heated through.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Grilled Eggplant Panini with Tomato & Olive Spread

Long before I ever believed that I could get paid for developing recipes, I would peer into my refrigerator and attempt to create a dish from whatever random foods I found on the shelves. I enjoyed the challenge of making something delicious from unlikely pairings of ingredients.

Tonight was one of those nights, when come dinner time, I didn't have a plan. I had a handful of grape tomatoes that weren't going to be fresh for much longer, some basil in a similar state, a couple eggplants, and a hunk of mozzarella cheese. These ingredients all have a place with one another, but I was in the mood for something a little out of the ordinary.

I pulled out my mini-prep food processor and whirred together the tomatoes, basil, and a few kalamata olives, which I always keep on hand. Add in some olive oil, salt and pepper, and I had a fresh, colorful spread which would give a little kick to my eggplant. It was a nice evening, so I fired up my outdoor gas grill and grilled rounds of the eggplant until they were soft and delicious. While preheating my panini press, I brushed olive oil on some homemade flatbread I'd picked up that afternoon, placed it on the press, and began to assemble my panini. Onto the flatbread I smeared a couple tablespoons of the tomato spread, followed by the gloriously grilled rounds of eggplant, and topped with a thick slice of fresh mozzarella cheese.
The result was a delicious panini that had my husband raving (yes, my husband eats eggplant). If you don't happen to care for eggplant, you make the panini with other grilled veggies like zucchini squash, peppers, or portabella mushrooms. Carnivores can substitute grilled chicken breast, but I'd strongly recommend trying it with eggplant. You may be surprised by the results!
Grilled Eggplant Panini with Tomato and Olive Spread
Serves 4
For Spread:
1 cup grape tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh basil
1/4 cup kalamata olives
Olive oil
Salt/pepper to taste
Add the tomatoes, basil and olives into the work bowl of a mini-food processor. Pulse to roughly chop. Add olive oil, salt and pepper and pulse again until a chunky spread is formed. Set aside.
For the Eggplant:
1 large or 2 small eggplants, cut into 1/2" to 3/4" rounds
(Note: by leaving the skin on the eggplant, it helps it to not fall apart on the grill)
Preheat an outdoor grill to medium-high heat.
Brush each side of eggplant rounds with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
Grill for approximately 3-5 minutes per side, until softened and grill marks appear. Set aside.
(Alternatively, you can grill these on the panini press to save a trip outdoors.)
To make the panini:
8 slices country-style bread (Italian, peasant, etc) OR 8 pieces of flat bread
8 slices of fresh mozzarella cheese
Olive oil for brushing
Preheat panini press to high heat.
Brush one side of each piece of bread with olive oil.
Placing the oiled side down, lay one slice of bread on heated panini maker.
Spread 1-2 tablespoons of the tomato & olive spread on top of the bread.
Place one layer of grilled eggplant rounds over spread.
Place 2 slices of mozzarella cheese over eggplant layer.
Top with another slice of bread (this time, oiled side UP). Close panini maker and press until heated through (cheese should be melted), and bread is nicely grilled.
Repeat with remaining 3 sandwiches.
Cut in half and serve hot.