Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady - part 3

So I'm back for another installment of my mini series of post revealing some of the fabulous foodie finds I encountered during my week on Nantucket.  This time around, I want to share what may be the best commercial  bakery I've found yet.  That's right, in the battle royale for the best cupcake, Petticoat Row Bakery is a strong contender.  This pristine bakeshop on Centre Street in the heart of downtown is a treasure trove of delicious baked goods.  

First and foremost, I need to give a shout out to the cupcakes.  They were pretty fantastic and not overpoweringly sweet.  The only complaint we were able to come up with was that the cake was super-moist and there was an abundance of frosting that the cake really couldn't stand up to.  I'm not complaining about moist cake or an excess of frosting mind you... just maybe a little more balance. 

I opted to try the Key Lime cupcake and the Peanut Butter Cup cupcake.  The key lime was a tart zip blended into a traditional vanilla cake and topped with a very tasty and sour icing.  My vote for cupcake of the week however goes to the peanut butter cup... a super moist devil's food cake topped with an abundance of icing that was very much akin to peanut butter fudge and then topped with crumbled Resee's cups. 

An honorable mention however does have to go to the macaroons.  I'm a huge fan of macaroons and these were simply wonderful.  They were llightly crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside with sweet cream and fruit jelly sandwiched in the middle.  The day I visited the bakery, their flavors were apricot and mixed berry, both of which were delicious. 

The only downside of finding such a great bakery, it's on an island.  As far as my waistline is concerned, maybe that's a good thing.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady - part 2

I would like to lovingly subtitle this post, "What's Brewing (and distilling) on Nantucket".  Yes, I know it's incredibly corny but this is my page gosh darn it and I'm going to have my fun.  That being said, I would love to tell you all about the great afternoon I spent at the 888 Distillery and Cisco Brewery while I was on the island.  As a side note, there is also a vineyard producing local wines... my advice is to focus your time on the areas they do incredibly well and save your vineyard visits for your next trip to Napa.  The east coast is not renown for it's grape growing and wine making techniques for a reason and my vote is to just let that be. 

Tip #1:  Pack a lunch, bring some take out with you, do whatever you have to do to make sure that you have food available to you because there isn't really any available there (with the exception of a rack of Lays potato chips) and if you're going to make an afternoon out of this, you're going to want something to eat, promise.

Tip #2:  If you didn't bring a bike to the island with you, rent one and ride it out there.  It's less than a 3 mile ride from the town center and it's a really scenic ride.

Tip #3:  Start your day on the distillery side.  Remember that adage from college... liquor before beer you're in the clear?  Your stomach will thank you later for this one. 

So following my own advice, I packed up my muffin from the basket of fresh baked goods at the inn we stayed at (in hindsight, my muffin proved to not quite have the sustenance I was hoping for), hoped on my bike and peddled my way out to the middle of Nantucket.  I started my afternoon at the 888 Distillery.  I'm familiar with some of the 888 family of products from my time at Not Your Average Joe's and what I have tried has actually been pretty solid.  Their line of vodkas is readily available off the island and if you're a fan of vanilla or blueberries, those are the two flavors I would recommend starting with. 

The vanilla flavored vodka is an infusion of Madagascar and New Guinea vanilla beans that are put directly in the bottle (on a side note, once you finish the bottle, save the pickled vanilla beans to scrape for the best panna cotta recipe ever).  When you make a cocktail with the vodka, you'll see little black flecks floating in it. These are not dirt, they're oils extracted from the vanilla bean and they're loaded with flavor.  In my humble opinion, it's the best vanilla vodka available on the market. 

The blueberry flavored vodka is a fantastic shade of deep purpleish blue thanks the the spirit being macerated with Maine blueberries.  Nothing artificial, no chemical flavorings, just legitimate fruit which gives the vodka the most intense blueberry color and flavor imaginable. 

Despite being such a big fan of their vodkas prior to my visit, I wanted to take full advantage of my trip to the source and try something I wouldn't have the opportunity to on the mainland.  As it turns out, 888 has a line of naturally infused liquors that are small batch production and an island exclusive release.  My $10 tasting (which also included a souvenir shot glass) was a line up of Blueberry Mint, Honey Ginger, Pineapple Jalapeno, and Oxacan Coffee. 

The blueberry mint was the same shade as the vodka and being a lower proof, significantly more refreshing and less agressive.  Their signature cocktail, the Figawi Wowie, was a blend of blueberry mint liqueur, lemonade and soda water.  This may be the perfect summer beach drink because I could have downed 10 of them without even thinking about it.    The honey ginger flavor was okay but it was significantly more mild than I would have expected.  It could work well mixed with a strongly brewed tea.  The pineapple jalapeno was really interesting, you could clearly taste the pineapple but there was such a strong heat from the hot peppers that the contrast was pretty intense.  I'm glad I tasted this after the honey ginger because the subtlety would have been beyond overshadowed.  Finally, I tried with Oxacan coffee which I can envision making the most amazing espresso martini.  This stuff put Kahlua to shame because rather than tasting like sweetened coffee syrup, it tasted like... gasp, real coffee.  Sadly, they were sold out of retail bottles so I couldn't take any home with me.  Although, I did pick up a bottle of the blueberry mint.   

Across the courtyard from the distillery, is the Cisco Brewery tasting room, otherwise known as the endless flow of beer for a $10 tasting fee.  The best advice I can give you here is make sure you're visiting at the most non-peak time possible.  The fewer people there, the more you can learn about the beer which, in my opinion, makes the tasting so much more interesting. 

Cisco produces their Sankaty Light, Whale's Tale and Grey Lady beers for off-island distribution, all of which are solid, but the highlights of the tasting definitely came from the small batch, island exclusives.  Some of my personal favorites from the tasting were the Bailey's Ale, the Captain Swain Stout and the Pechish Woods. 

Bailey's Ale was a hoppy, malty, well-balanced ale with strong citrus zest undertones that managed to add to the beer without making it too fruity.  Completely drinkable, but still full of character and great for summer.  The Captain Swain Stout was the first beer to be produced at the brewery and is still going strong today.  It's a dark, chocolate malty beer that is loaded with flavor.  I'm a huge fan of Irish stouts and this completely held up to the high expectations I had going into it.  Normally, fruit based beers aren't my thing but the Pechish Woods had such a tart, sour undertone that the peaches acted more like a balancing agent than a fruity punch.  Overall, some really interesting beers and I look forward to seeing what they have on tap next time I'm on the island. 

Check back for my third installment of Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady and learn about one of the best bakeries I've found yet in my search for the perfect commercially baked cupcake. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady - part 1

So this past week, I had the pleasure of accompanying James to Nantucket while he was attending a finance equity conference... life's tough, right? I have since decided to write a mini-series travel edition to highlight some of the amazing foodie finds I encountered during my stay.

Now this was my first trip to Nantucket and I must say, we did encounter our fair share of overpriced busts throughout the week from just not knowing better. The island isn't exactly friendly to a budget vacationer's wallet so trial and error here can get a touch pricey. Luckily, the first "gem" I'd like to share with you all came with zero risk. Unlike me, this was not James' first trip to the island (in fact, he worked on the ferry all through high school and college so he made several trips there on a daily basis). Our first (and last) stop was to The Straight Warf Fish Store, located right next to the ferry dock, for their filet of fish sandwiches.

I was forewarned of the simplicity of this sandwich as to not be put off by it's lack of ingredients. I'm typically a fan of interesting flavor combinations, but I've definitely learned that there are somethings that you just don't need to mess with. This sandwich was a prime example... two slices of day boat fluke on a toasted roll, served with a lemon wedge, house-made tartar sauce and a bag of Cape Cod chips, all for less than $10. This may be the freshest fish I've ever eaten... as in, it was swimming approximately 4 hours before I ate it. The fish is pan seared at extremely high temperatures so it gets a crispy edge without any breading. Again, playing into the simplicity of this meal.

As funny as it sounds, the tartar sauce may have been the best I've ever had. Yes, I'm raving about tartar sauce.  This was no haphazard mixture of jar mayonnaise and pickle relish, this was a velvety, blended-from-scratch sauce with a subtle zip from the pickle that complimented the fish perfectly without overpowering it.  It was kind of amazing.

Also noteworthy is the abundant seafood selection available at the Straight Warf, as well as the immaculate cleanliness of the establishment.  I wish we had packed a cooler and brought back some Wellfleet Oysters or Littlenecks with us.

Post sandwich, take a stop by The Gazebo bar next door and try a Nico's Cream Soda... 888 Vanilla Vodka and ginger ale.  Yes, it continues my rave about simplicity but sometimes, you just shouldn't mess with a good thing!

Check back for Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady - part 2: See What's Brewing (and distilling) on Nantucket!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Favorite Food Finds

I've been wanting to take a few minutes and tell you all about some of my favorite "hole-in-the-wall" food finds in the greater Boston area (sorry if you're not local, I'm including websites when possible).  Now these are places I make a point to go out of my way to stop whenever I head down towards the city and they absolutely get my seal of approval for being worth going out of your way to stop in.

First, there's Penzey's Spices on Mass Ave in Arlington.  This find was recommended to me about a year ago by two of my coworkers, Mel & Jimmie, both of whom I would include in my "foodie" circle of friends.  The shop carries over 250 dried herbs and spices, including many of their own house blends.  A trip here is a great reason to toss all of those old, flavorless spices (you know the ones I'm talking about... that spinning rack that came pre-filled with a sorry excuse for spices) and replenish your kitchen's spice rack.  You'll thank yourself the first time you cook with them.  Some of my favorite products that I make sure to stock up on each time I shop are the Sandwich Sprinkle (a peppery salt blend that adds a great kick to rice, salads and what do you know... sandwiches) and the Garam Masala (an aromatic North Indian spice blend that works wonders on chicken dishes).  Visit their website at www.penzeys.com and sign up for their free catalog.  They print seasonally and include a coupon for a free spice jar.  You can also order online if a trip to Arlington isn't in the cards for you.

My second stop is one that I refuse to miss out on, under any circumstances.  And the best part about it... it's two great finds in one.  Right in the heart of Inman Square are two adjacent shops, Christina's Homemade Ice Cream and Christina's Spice & Specialty Foods.  Sometimes, I think it's a good thing that I don't live closer because I would weigh 300 pounds because their ice cream is simply amazing.  Their flavors rotate seasonally but they have a handful of staples that are pretty consistent, one of which you have to try... my personal favorite, Burnt Sugar.  Think of a rich, decadent toasty caramel blended with sweet buttery cream.  It's sinfully amazing all on it's own, no toppings required.

Post ice cream binge, I could spend hours in the tiny room next door that is Christina's Spice & Specialty Foods.  It's a bounty of international and hard to find spices (make sure you pick up some Egyptian Dukah spice), imported oils, vinegars, loose leaf teas, dried mushrooms and rare chocolates.  One of my favorite things about the shop is their selection of South African spices, snacks and condiments.  It's the only place in the U.S. that I've been able to find Ms. H.S. Balls Chutney (a sweet sauce that's the South African equivalent to ketchup), bobotie spice (a base of spices used to make a classic lamb and egg dish) and biltong (think beef jerky, only 1,000 times better).

The flavor board at Christina's Homemade Ice Cream

Authentic South African Biltong