Friday, July 15, 2011

Foodie Heaven

So today I would love to add another member to my 'fabulous food finds of Boston club'. I've been shopping here since I moved back to New England in 2008 and I've lovingly dubbed the establishment “foodie heaven.” A. Russo & Sons Inc. is a retail and wholesale supplier based in Watertown, MA. Normally, I would get excited about a store having a great selection, impeccable quality or fantastic prices... this one had all three. 

Vegetables really do take center stage at Russo's. Their produce selection is unrivaled in the greater New England area with things I've never heard of and have no idea what to do with. I've spent hours walking through the aisles with my Food Lover's Companion Guide trying to decipher exotic and rare fruits and vegetables and what in the world I could do with them. I've almost made a game out of buying one new thing each time I go just to force me to learn new cooking techniques. I've never not found what I was looking for, no matter how obscure or out of the ordinary, which always makes this shopping trip worth the drive.

I've also never purchased a bad piece of produce. Everything they sell is at the peak of freshness and of the highest quality I've seen available at retail and all for incredibly reasonable prices. On my last trip, I filled 4 standard shopping bags for under $35.

Once you've navigated your way through the endless array of produce, they also have a great selection of locally produced dairy and eggs, imported antipasto items, charcuterie and artisan cheeses. Top that off with a incredible on-premise bakery and a huge garden shop to create the ultimate foodie paradise. If you live in the greater Boston area, this is more than worth the drive

Green Papaya Salad... a twist on an inspiration

Isn't in just incredibly frustrating when you go on vacation, try a food that you think is absolutely amazing and then when you crave it six months later, it's located clear across the country? I experienced this frustration last week when I started thinking about this delicious green papaya salad that we had at the Slanted Door when we were in San Francisco last December.

Located in the city's renowned Ferry Building (which conveniently also houses that most incredible farmer's market I've ever seen), the Slanted Door is an Asian Fusion restaurant with a very heavy Thai influence. While our entire meal was great, the fresh crispness of this green papaya salad we had truly stands out in my mind.

When I decided to attempt to recreate the dish, I naturally began by asking my good friend Google to tell me what was in it. Although I found a bounty of reviews on how wonderful the salad was, the recipe has managed to allude publication on the interweb. Once again, I was slightly frustrated, however far from defeated. I may have been working off of a memory from seven months ago, but gosh darn it, I really wanted that salad.

Luckily, I had taken a photo of the salad when we were at the restaurant (yes, I'm a dork who takes more pictures of her food than of her boyfriend) which gave me some visual cues to work off. I knew I needed green papaya (obviously), shredded carrots, celery, cucumber, crushed peanuts and fried tofu strips based on what I could pull out of the photograph. The seasoning and the broth however were completely going to fall on my memory of flavors. Off to the Asian market!

Slanted Door's Green Papaya Salad

I consider myself seriously lucky to have a great Asian market in my town and Boston's Chinatown within a reasonable driving distance. I really have no excuse for not being able to acquire any ingredient I'm looking for when I'm cooking an Asian-inspired dish. This also helps a lot in the realm of inspiration. Sometimes just walking through the market reminds me of being in Japan and I'll find a random sauce or spice that I recognize (and some that I don't) to serve as a springboard for a new dish. Today's revelation... rau ram. It's a Vietnamese-style coriander that gives a fresh citrus, cilantro note. When the shopkeeper described the flavors to me, it sounded like a perfect accompaniment to recreate the refreshing flavors I remembered.

To dress my salad, I opted for a blend of yuzu, soy sauce, fish sauce, lemon juice, sesame and peanut oils and rice wine vinegar. It wasn't a perfect match (the dressing we had in San Francisco was a pale yellow color, mine was a light brown) but the flavors worked well to compliment the crispness of the vegetables.

To make this salad a full meal, I also tweaked the presentation. Rather than serving it as a stand-alone dish, I topped a piece of fresh, steamed black cod with the crunchy mixture to add a protein and texture contrast. 

My Green Papaya Salad w/ Steamed Black Cod

We paired it with a crisp, easy-drinking New Zealand sauvignon blanc from Matua to compliment the brightness of the dish and ensure that none of the flavors would be dulled down. This was definitely an instance where a contrasting pairing would have muddled the salad's profile that I had worked so hard to achieve.

Overall, I'm deeming this experiment a success, even though I wasn't able to recreate the dish exactly. I think I was able to put my own spin on the core flavors of the original and maintain the integrity of what I remembered the salad to be. This is one that's being filed in the recipe catalog.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Whip It

I've written before about how interesting wine blends often catch my attention.  This usually turns out to be a great bit game of trial and error because it's hard to predict what a blend of six or more different grapes is going to produce.  I'm very happy to report that this was one of those trials that did not end in error. 

A random pick up on a liquor store stop, The Whip, is a blend of 43% semillion, 21% sauvignon blanc, 21% viognier, 7% muscat canelli, 5% gewurztraminer and 3% orange muscat.  The initial flavors are very similar to a white Bordeaux but mellow out on the palate much quicker to a fruity crispness. Sauvignon blanc is definitely the prominent grape in aroma and flavor leading to strong grassy, citrus notes of grapefruit, lime zest, blood orange and lemongrass. 

We paired the wine with last night's Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps which worked okay.  The combination of strong flavors in the wraps really overwhelmed the wine and took away a lot of it's pop.  The wine honestly didn't need food to round it out in the first place and would work well as just stand-alone Tuesday night wine.  If I was going to pair it, I would make sure that the dish was light in flavor and complimented the citrusy notes in the wine... maybe a lemon chicken or a fresh summer salad with a grapefruit vinaigrette. 

The Whip is is produced by Murrieta's Well out of Livermore, California.  For retail information, you can visit their website here.

Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps

So James and I have been trying to find healthier options for our during the week dining and last night, I took some cues from a few restaurant dishes I've had in the past to create an interactive meal with under 600 calories in a full 3-wrap serving.  There are quite a few components that go into these wraps, but I promise, it's something anyone can put together.  I'm going to break the recipe down into nine parts to make it more manageable.  

1.  Take one head of Boston lettuce, trim the base and separate the leaves.  Take the larger, outer leaves and reserve them for your wraps.  You can use the hearts of the lettuce for a salad later on (no reason to waste anything).

2.  Heat 3 cups of water in a sauce pan until just before it comes to a boil.  Submerge 1/2 package of cellophane noodles (these are available in the Asian section of your supermarket) in the water.  Soak the noodles for 3 minutes.  Once they're soft, use a pair of kitchen scissors to trim them to a manageable length (I like to cut them into thirds).  Transfer the noodles to a strainer and rinse with cold water.  Drain thoroughly and set aside.

3.  Take 6 chicken tenderloins and lightly season them with salt and pepper.  Grill them to 165 degrees in the center (take care not to overcook them, no one likes dry chicken).  Remove them from the heat and place in the refrigerator to cool.  Once chilled, dice the chicken into 1/2 cubes and toss with 1 tbsp sesame oil, 1 tbsp pressed ginger juice (or finely ground ginger) and 3 tbsp soy sauce.  You want to serve the chicken just cooler than room temperature so if you put it back in the refrigerator be sure to take it out prior to dining to allow it to warm up a bit. 

4.  Take 1/2 of a red and 1/2 of an orange bell pepper and slice them into 1 inch long narrow strips.  Slice 2 stalks of lemongrass and soak in warm water for 30 minutes.  Toss your peppers in 3 tbsp of the lemongrass water and set them aside.

5.  Take 2 medium size carrots, peel and shave them into julienne strips (or you can cheat a little bit and use 1/2 a bag of matchstick carrots).  Place them in a bowl with 2 tbsp of Sambal Olek pepper sauce and 2 tbsp yuzu (a savory, almost citrusy Asian sauce).  Stir them well as to coat every strip of carrot.

6.  Peel 3 baby Persian cucumbers (you can use regular English cucumbers but you will need to de-seed them).  Slice them on a bias into thin strips.  Toss them in a bowl with 2 tbsp soy sauce and sprinkle them with black and white sesame seeds.

7.  Tear 8 fresh basil leaves into quarters and set aside. 

8.  Take 1/2 cup of pea shoots and slice into 2 inch cuts.

9.  In a saucepan, combine 3 tbsp creamy salted peanut butter, 1/2 cup of chopped unsalted cashews, 2 tbsp yuzu, 4 tbsp soy sauce, 3 tbsp Hoisin sauce, 2 tbsp dry vermuth and 1 finely chopped garlic clove.  Melt the peanut butter and add all liquid ingredients.  Simmer together for 8 minutes, stirring frequently.  This is your peanut sauce for the wraps.

Now that all of your components are assembled, all you have to do is combine them in your lettuce leaves to create your wraps.  You can portion each of the ingredients however you like based on which flavor profiles you prefer.  I tend to go a little heavy on the carrots and cucumbers which gives the wrap a nice amount of heat and also counterbalances it with the coolness of the cucumber.  Whichever balance your decide upon... happy wrapping!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady - part 5

So this will be my final installment of Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady.  I've saved my favorite find for last however and I'm really excited to share this with you all.  Ambrosia Chocolate & Spices located on Centre Street is this amazing shop that I happened across during one of my afternoon walks around the town center.

When you walk in the shop, you're greeted by an immensely friendly staff behind a glass display case of handcrafted, artisan chocolates.  The selection of chocolates rotates through a variety of of spices and florals that give the chocolate an incredible amount of flavor without overpowering the delicacy of it.  On my visit, I was able to try white chocolate truffles with jasmine, milk chocolate with rose and dark chocolate with angelica root.  The chocolate was silky in texture with a creamy finish and each truffle was portioned to be a perfect little treat.

The back wall of the shop is covered by a gorgeous wooden cabinet filled with locally grown, organic spices.  There's an unbelievable variety ranging from crafted blends to your basic staples and more exotic selections.  My purchases for the day included a jar of their "Garden Blend" (their variation of a classic Italian spice blend with a great fennel aroma), some beet powder and a bag of whole mace.

They don't have a website at the moment, but you can find them on facebook and they do ship their products.  Definitely worth checking out if you're on the island...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hidden Gems of the Grey Lady - part 4

So it's rare that I'm ever excited to eat multiple meals at the same establishment during the same week.  One exception to this general guideline was the Corazon del Mar Latin Kitchen.  One of James' coworkers had recommended the restaurant for it's extensive tequila selection and fish tacos.  Although these both proved to be great additions to our meal, they were far from highlights on either of our visits.

Our Tuesday night began at James' company sponsored clambake... a bountiful array of overcooked seafood, dry chicken quesadillas and what may possibly have been the most horrible "clam chowder" I've ever tasted.  I'm a New England girl and I love my chowder... this was the consistency of oily skim milk with some bland potatoes floating in it... not even remotely what I consider chowder.  Needless to say our palates were not peaked and we decided to press onward after a few dark & stormys at the open bar. 

Enter Corazon del Mar... we began our meal with a dish of padron peppers.  Our server described them as a Russian roulette game of the pepper world.  Essentially one in every 20 peppers packs a punch with the other 19 having a mild, vegetative quality.  They were served slightly blackened in a light olive oil and finished off with a pinch of sea salt and lemon.  Super simple, but delicious enough that we not only ordered them again the following night, after returning home I made a two hour trip down to Watertown, MA to my favorite produce store to buy them and prepare them myself at home.

Our second course was a traditional scallop ceviche with siracha and fresh lime.  Clean, crisp and perfectly sliced which allowed the scallop to truly be the star of the dish. 

Next we had serrano ham wrapped mejool dates.  I'm not typically a fan of ham, but serrano ham is this delicious, bacon-like product that surpasses all that one would expect ham to be.  If you haven't tried it, add it to your bucket list.  The dates were stuffed with manchego cheese and guindilla peppers for a slight bite on the finish.  Overall, they were a really great balance of sweet, savory and spice. 

The true star of the evening however was the kobe beef and serrano ham (there we go the serrano ham again) stuffed empanadas topped with pomegranate seeds, arugula and walnut cream sauce.  Think of a personal-sized, deep-fried pot pie.  When you got all the components on your fork, they worked so well together that I really don't have words to fully describe the food-gasm this created.  The only downside... it was a one night only special. 

Aside from a few repeats, our second meal at Corazon del Mar was rounded out by the fish tacos that were our original impetus for visiting the restaurant in the first place, Mexican corn and fluke crudo.  The fish tacos were good, not incredible, but good.  The fish was incredibly fresh, lightly battered in Tecate beer batter and paired with a chipotle mayonnaise.  The flavors were crisp but couldn't compare with the empanadas. 

The Mexican corn was a very similar recipe to one I use at home quite often.  Fresh corn on the cob marinated in lime juice, cilantro and smoked chipotle spice, however theirs was topped with a creamy cotija cheese sauce making it a slightly less healthy version of mine but significantly more decadent. 

Against the prior night's scallop ceviche, the fluke crudo was the clear winner.  Both were expertly sliced and extremely clean, but the fluke had an amazing day boat freshness that couldn't compare.  Definitely worth trying!

Pair their incredible food with an extensive tequila list (including Maestro Dobel Diamond... a personal favorite) and you have a great find of a hidden gem.  This is one restaurant I can't wait to go back to!!!

**Side note: I apologize for the lack of photos, the lighting was poor and everything I tried to photograph came out too dark to post.