Archive for February, 2009

Julie and Julia: A Project to Read

I genuinely wanted to like Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously (other editions are titled Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen and, more simply Julie and Julia) by Julie Powell.  I was intrigued by her “Project:” to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1.  It’s an enormous undertaking (especially with a full-time job to contend with as well), and it makes you consider how much cooking has changed in the forty-some-odd years since Child’s book was first published – the techniques, the ingredients (coming by kidneys and bone marrow isn’t so easy these days), and the time and effort most of us put into our meals.

Unfortunately, the Project is just a thread that barely ties Powell’s book together.  She uses the book as a sounding board to share fictionalized stories about her friend’s drunken sexcapades, true stories about her own marriage, and anything else that she feels like talking about – everything from her political leanings to her apartment’s plumbing problems to her laments about her depressing dead-end job.  In between reading e-mails from friends, yelling at her husband, and trying to sleep with another married man, there are some tales of Powell actually cooking some of Child’s recipes.  I wouldn’t even have minded the rest of her stories, but some of them were kind of offensive (and I think I’m usually pretty open-minded)  and most of them weren’t as funny as the book cover would have you believe.  Furthermore, Powell invents a lot of stories about Paul and Julia Child, which seemed unnecessary given the amount of information available on them.  It seems to be a weak attempt to draw parallels between her life and Child’s.

That said, the portions where Powell is actually cooking are interesting.  She places a cooking icon in a modern-day world and we get to see how relevant Child and her recipes are today.  It also causes one to give though to how different food and food television might be if it weren’t for Child.  Some of Powell’s adventures really are amusing – attempting to euthanize a lobster, poaching eggs in red wine and watching them turn blue, or figuring out how to get the bone marrow out of a large animal thigh bone.  The book is a quick read – I probably would have given up on it, but I was able to finish it quickly and move on to other foodie adventures.

Powell’s book is being released as a movie (also titled Julie and Julia)  this August, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep (the movie will purportedly follow Julia and Paul’s lives more truthfully than the book does).  Powell also has another book due in August, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession.


Papa John’s Pleases Again!

I first became a Papa John’s convert (okay, maybe addict is a better word?) in my freshman year of college.  In a coup of brilliant marketing, their phone number was easy to memorize – 564-PAPA (see, I still remember it many years later!) and they delivered until the wee, wee hours.  Nary a weekend went by that Papa wasn’t at the door with his breadsticks.

Then, there were many sad, lonely years where Papa was not within a reasonable distance from home.  My husband grew weary of hearing about the Legend of Papa’s.  He claimed to have tried them and not liked them, but I told him that this was impossible (I’m stubborn like that).  Finally, a local branch opened, and we ordered take-out.  It was like introducing him to a long-lost friend, and it was really important to me that they get along.  To my relief, they did – we all did.  Now Papa is a regular guest in our house.  My husband particularly loves the breadsticks, which are great – they are nothing like the limp, fatty breadsticks of rival chain pizza places.  Papa’s isn’t lazy…they don’t take a bare pizza crust, butter it, and bake it.  This dough was born to be in breadsticks – they are thick and they actually taste like good bread, with no butter or fakey herb toppings.  Even better, there are myriad dipping sauces to choose from – ranging from the healthy (pizza tomato sauce) to the artery-clogging (cheese or garlic) – though dipping sauces beyond one token pizza sauce come at an additional cost.  I should mention that Papa John’s also offers flavored breadsticks, but I’m a purist – I like good, basic, doughy bread.

The pizza is nothing to sneeze at, either.  I am shocked and dismayed when people claim that other pizza chains like Domino’s, Pizza Hut, or Papa Gino’s (wrong Papa!) are better – I don’t think that they come close.  Papa’s is generous with the toppings, they taste relatively fresh for having come from a chain/delivery place, the toppings are proportionate to each other (i.e. it’s not all sauce, no cheese) and the crust is almost as delicous as the breadsticks – and equally great with the dipping sauces.  More importantly, Papa’s is consistent – I don’t worry when we order that it will be an “off night” like I do with other pizza places.

At about $18 for an order of breadsticks and a large pizza (together, enough to feed about 4 people) the price is reasonable.

On the down side – I guess there’s always a down side – but it’s relatively minor…there are no gourmet toppings to choose from – no eggplant, no fancy cheeses, just the basics – though Papa’s does have some specialty pizzas available.  Also, my husband seems to run into at least one snafu every time he places a take-out order by phone (we have yet to try their online ordering) and every time he goes to pick up the order…but it doesn’t stop him from craving and retrieving the pizza and breadsticks.  He is now a fellow convert (or addict).  So, call Papa, and enjoy!


Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires – A Gem!

I stumbled upon Ruth Reichl’s books purely by accident.  It was a happy accident that has me working through all of her books (though working is really the wrong word) anecdote by anecdote, recipe by recipe.  She is, in my eyes, the foodie of all foodies.

My first Reichl book was Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (though this is not the first of her books, if you wish to read them chronologically).  The premise of this particular book centers on Reichl’s work as a food editor to the New York times; a job with serious responsibility and serious implications.  Reichl had worked previously as a food editor, but never for such a high profile publication with such power to make or break a restaurant.  After uprooting her family and moving cross-country, Reichl quickly learned that restaurants across New York City were all but stalking her  – her picture and personal information were widely circulated (rather unnerving!) prior to her arrival.  Admirably, Reichl did not let this stop her or affect her ability to garner honest reviews of restaurants of all calibers.

Her inventive solution was to design and don disguises when dining in restaurants that she wished to review.  Reichl often returned to restaurants several times, often in different disguises.  The results are fascinating, and often hysterical.   Her candid revelations shed light on some of the most famous restaurants in the city (and, often, the country) and, in turn, about society.   In the process, Reichl learned a lot about herself and those around her.  Reichl has a way with food, and with words; you can practically taste the food that she describes.  Many of her reviews are reprinted in the book and she shares several recipes as well.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone with an interest in food or the restaurant world.  Even non-foodies will enjoy her observations.

Reichl is editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine and has authored three books, with one more due out in April (I can’t wait!).  She has also co-authored and edited several other books.


Hot Trends in Food!

Food trends come and go and some come back again, just as fashion trends do (witness Fashion Week in New York this week where the 80s are on parade again).  I’m no expert on either, but I have noticed several new trendy ingredients and concepts…

In no particular order:

-Celeriac, or celery root.  I was confused on this one for a long time, and I’ll admit it – I thought it was actually a part of the more familiar vegetable, but it is an entirely different, though related, vegetable.  I find its taste milder and more pleasant than celery, but sweeter and more flavorful than a potato.  It’s a gnarly looking beast of a vegetable – it looks sort of like a large radish before it is peeled and cooked.  You may see it sneaking up on menus, mashed on its own or mashed with potatoes or other root vegetables like turnips.  It can also be used in soups.  I first tried it mashed sans other veggies at an upscale restaurant in western Massachusetts in early 2008, and didn’t see it again (or think about it) for months.  More recently, I’ve seen celeriac/celery root on other restaurant menus, on a recent Food Network challenge on TV, and in several recipes in a recent issue of the Food Network magazine (clearly, I keep the channel in business!)  I like celeriac and look forward to seeing it more widely avaialble in stores so I can try cooking them, although their barky exterior is a little off-putting and daunting!

-Hot drinks – and I mean this literally.  I love spice, particularly in the cuisines I expect it from like Indian or Asian cuisines.  I’m not sure how I feel about pepper and chili and jalapeno flavors in my cocktails, though – it seems counterintuitive, like using alcohol to try to put out a fire.  I haven’t tried very many of these types of drinks, though, so my verdict is still out on this one.  I can sort of see how spice might complement a margarita…I guess I’m just afraid that the alcohol will make the heat linger longer than I want.  I plan to get more daring with these types of drinks, though.

-While I’m on the topic of cocktails, adding mild teas to mixed drinks seems to be another trend – green tea, even more exotic teas like hibiscus tea.  I like tea once in awhile, but not in my cocktails…seems too virtuous, I guess, to have green tea in my cocktails.

-Molten chocolate cakes.  This one may be on its way out as I see fewer of these listed on high-end restaurant menus, and more and more on chain restaurant menus.  I like them, I can’t complain about chocolate oozing out of the middle of my cake, but it is a little predictable.  I recently tried something called Chocolate Pate at Moonstone’s in Chelmsford, MA, and I’d like to see this become a trend – mmmmm.

-Pomegranate is another trend – I’ve had pomegranate reductions on duck, pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top of food, and pomegranate flavored cocktails (these are sweet enough not to seem too healty or virtuous).  I think pomegranates will stick around as long as people keep talking about what a “super food” it is (it is believed to help prevent myriad problems from Alzheimers’ Disease to cancers).  Acai berries (also high in antioxidants) seem to be the new “super food” on the rise and are being used in some of the same types of applications.  I haven’t had a chance to try many foods/drinks with acai yet.

-Cured meats, otherwise known as salumi (that’s not a typo – I’ve recently learned that salami is a type of salumi, though).  I’ve seen these promoted as a new trend, but I’m not sure I’m buying them as a trend.  I think cured meats like prosciutto and pancetta are becoming more widely available and people love smoked meats – some of these meats are basically gourmet bacon – and smoking familiar meats like turkey certainly adds new, complex flavors.  But I think salumi is only going to increase in popularity as it finds its way to supermarkets everywhere, and I don’t see these foods going away…so I’m not sure it’s truly a trend.  My husband and I hope to visit Seattle over the next year, and I would like to visit the Salumi store, owned by Mario Batali’s dad, Armandino Batali…he’s probably most responsible for introducing Americans to the term salumi.

-Comfort foods – this is a whole entry onto itself – so, stay tuned and enjoy lots of trendy foods!  :)


Greatness at Grafton Street

Opposites often attract and work well together, as evidenced by Grafton Street, a marriage of bar food and fine dining in an upscale pub environment.  My husband and I ate there for the first time on Saturday night to celebrate some personal milestones.

Grafton Street has clearly found success in Harvard Square; we made reservations nearly a week before and time slots were already limited.  We arrived to find a bustling, trendy restaurant and bar within walking distance from the Harvard T stop (on the red line).  The crowd in Grafton Street was an eclectic mix ranging from young couples on early dates to groups of middle-aged friends catching up.  I enjoyed the atmosphere, although the proximity of the bar to the restaurant area was a little distracting, mostly because of the TVs.

Given that we were celebrating, there were no-holds barred in ordering up several courses of food, and, of course, fun cocktails to wash the food down with.  Grafton Street has a nice list of beers on draft,  a decent wine list, and several unique cocktails.  I ordered a drink that I now unfortunatly forget the name of (and cocktails aren’t listed on the website); I can say that it was a mix of sparkling wine, fresh raspberries and some other fun libations.  It was served in a small champagne flute, but other than the portion being smaller than hoped for, it was good.  It was less sweet than expected – actually pleasingly tart.  My husband ordered a sangria which had nice, complex flavors of fruit and wine.

We started our meal with Roasted Pear Salad and One Magnificent Cheese.  The Roasted Pear Salad had an excellent dressing and the pears were cooked to perfection.  The generous slice of Great Hill Blue Cheese didn’t hurt, either.  One Magnificent Cheese was as advertised – magnificent!  It was a large wedge of Lamb Chopper sheeps’ milk cheese served with honey, candied walnuts, and grilled bread.  The cheese was slightly dry to bite the way that a good parmesan is, but was much creamier in the mouth with a slightly sharp consistency that paired perfectly with the sweet honey and nuts.  (Can you tell that I love a good cheese?)  My cheese reverie was interrupted by our dinner entrees arriving earlier than anticipated, leading us to feel a bit rushed.

For the main course, I had Pan-Roasted Duck Breast which was cooked in a pomegranate reduction and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.  On the side was a sweet-potato and confit hash mixed with spinach (I had expected the spinach to be a separate side from the hash, but it worked together).   My entree included three perfectly cooked medium-rare slices of tender duck breast, and one leg (another surprise).  The duck had the perfect amount of fat to flavor it but it wasn’t overly fatty and it had a wonderful flavor.  The pomegranate seeds added a nice texture that popped in the mouth.  The sweet potato-spinach hash was alright but not evenly seasoned – some bites were very salty, and some lacked seasoning altogether.  I also split a side of mushroom risotto (it was a gluttonous meal) with my husband and it had the same inconsistent seasoning – some bites of the risotto were offensively salty and altogether it wasn’t a very good side dish.  The risotto wasn’t creamy or soft enough and it was overwhelmed by a very heavy gravy-like sauce. 

My husband was perhaps smarter than me on this evening and ordered a lighter meal of a Cuban sandwich with fries.  The fries were downright disappointing – not crisp enough on the outside, and rather mealy on the inside.  My husband liked his Cuban but found the aioli was not spread evenly leading him to feel like each segment of his sandwich was of a different variety.  The mustard-seed aioli and pickles alternatingly overwhelmed the rest of the sandwich to me, but I’m not a Cuban aficionado like my husband (who would have preferred less of the spicy aioli). 

This meal would not have been complete to me without dessert.  We split the flourless chocolate cake.  The menu stated that it was served with coffee ice cream and a coffee-white chocolate chip cookie, but our cake came – without warning – with mint chip ice cream and a cookie that was more like a shortbread sandwich with chocolate filling.  All three elements were delicious, but they did not complement one another.  The mint was too sweet to pair with the cake and the shortbread just introduced a buttery element that didn’t work.  However, the cake was wonderful, it was rich like a typical flourless chocolate cake but slightly less dense and creamier.  I really enjoyed the soft texture and dark chocolate flavor.

Service was good and our meal came to approximately $100 after tax and tip.  While Grafton Street fell short on a few items, I would definitely make a return trip to this Harvard Square establishment.  Next time, I look forward to trying the pub fare with a good draft beer.