July 30, 2007
A fix and a feature

A couple of quick notes -

1. We've fixed the comment template. When you click to comment, no longer will you be taken to a big green blog form. I'd broken the thing a few months ago when I chose to "refresh" the templates in Movable Type. Sounds harmless, right? Not so much. It replaced our look with the default look and feel. Ugh. It took me this long to set aside the time to fix the problem.

2. We have a print-friendly version of our posts available. Look down at the bottom of any post and you'll see the words - "Print-friendly version". Click there to open a new window with a print-friendly version of that post. Comments are currently included on the print-friendly version, though if there is enough feedback against them, I'll work up a no-comment, entry-only version of the form.

Enjoy the fix and the feature. If you see any other broken things or want us to add a new feature, pease let us know in the comments. Thanks.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 12:13 PM | Comments (4)
July 27, 2007
Sad days call for chocolate


I knew the day was coming. I've been waking up early lately, feeling sad. So many elements in our life are in flux at the moment. But one certainty that has been steadily approaching is number one son's last day at the crêche. It's funny: I'm sad on his behalf as much as our own. He won't ever remember how wonderful the creche was. Years from now, if I bring him back and tell him "This is Nathalie. Whenever she came back from her holidays, you ran around her in circles, clapping, because you were so happy to see her again" he will blink and stare at me blankly. In a year's time, he won't know that the boy he's hugging in this photo is named Eli. All part of growing up, but this fond mother is pathetically nostalgic about these things.

Although I could never repay the many kindnesses we have received from the wonderful women have helped look after the boy for the last 18 months, I wanted to give them a token gift of thanks. And so I decided to give the gift of chocolate.

Have you bought David Lebovitz's new book, The Perfect Scoop? No? Me either, but I'm going to get it soon. Because the two books I already own by David have yielded absolutely amazing recipes, the kind of recipes that become old friends you turn to in times of sorrow. The recipes you pass along to your friends with delight. You may tweak them here and there according to the whim of the moment, but you know that the base is perfect. At Christmas, I used his gingersnaps recipe (from Room for Dessert) to make cookies for the women at the creche...and had to translate the recipe at their request after they tasted them. And this time, I turned to The Great Book of Chocolate for a brownie recipe: Kate and Dave's Brownies, which is based on Katherine Hepburn's recipe for brownies. Such is the beauty of passing along recipes. Each person in the chain brings a new element to the base. And what do I bring to them, to make them Kate and Dave and Meg's Brownies? Chocolate raspberry jam.


Dave and Kate's Remarkable Brownies As Tweaked By Meg

115 grams unsalted butter, less a few tablespoons if you are using French butter
115 grams unsweetened chocolate
1 cup sugar (less a few tablespoons if you are using French baking chocolate, which I find tends to be a bit sweeter than US unsweetened chocolate)
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
6 Tbs flour
pinch of salt
1/2 cup almond slivers
100 grams fine dark chocolate, chopped
4-6 Tbs chocolate raspberry jam

Butter and flour a 20 cm square pan and preheat the oven to 325F/160C. Melt the chocolate and butter over a low heat. Remove from the heat and mix in the sugar and then the eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour, salt, almond slivers and chopped chocolate. Pour into the prepared pan and back for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool for five minutes on a wire rack and then spread the jam evenly over the top. Allow to cool another 15 minutes at least before cutting in squares and devouring.

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you where to find chocolate raspberry jam. We received our home-made jar from my cousins Barb and Charlie (I believe) a few years ago and it has been lurking in the back of the fridge, waiting for the day when I would find the perfect partner. And now I have.

You could substitute regular raspberry jam if you don't have generous, talented cousins like mine. If so, I might be inclined to strew a handfull of mini-chocolate chips over the top of the brownies too for good measure.


Posted by Meg in Sussex at 8:23 AM | Comments (5)
July 25, 2007
A Cruel Joke

The Chicago Tribune brings news that Grant Achatz, the 33 year-old Chicago star chef whose Alinea is regarded as one of the very top restaurants in the country, has been diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth.

The treatment for the cancer to save Achatz's life may cost him his sense of taste.

I can think of nothing more cruel to do to a professional whose work is to delight a particular sense than to remove that sense from him. There are examples in the past - Beethoven went deaf and the painters Goya and Monet both eventually went blind.

I had the pleasure of eating at Alinea during its first week open and was wowed by the food and the imagination required to create it. The word is overused, particularly in the food press, but Achatz truly is an artist who designs the entire experience of eating at his restaurant. Achatz, for example designs not only the dishes but the actual dishes - that is the plates and other serving pieces used to present his food to the public, which he specified and helped create with a design firm.

Here's wishing him the best and hoping for a speedy recovery that spares the sense he most needs to continue his work.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:55 AM | Comments (1)
July 23, 2007
Turning up the Heat on Mario

Heat, by Bill ufordBill Buford has been a favorite writer of mine since I absently picked up a copy of Among the Thugs at a used bookstore many years ago. Buford had the fortitude to not just report on, but travel with a band of English soccer hooligans and try to figure out what made them tick.

In his book Heat, newly out in paperback, Buford takes on Mario Batali and an obsession with authentic Italian cuisine. Buford not only gives us insights into the character of Food Network giant Mario Batali (who comes off as a much cruder, funnier, ruder, and yes, more sexist version of his TV persona), but also gives us insight into the workings of a truly top-notch restaurant kitchen.

Buford submits himself to the process of working as a kitchen slave at Babbo, eventually working his way up to prep and then the grill (and getting kicked off the grill, abruptly and rudely one night). Buford's take on Babbo's kitchen is as a rough but exhilarating place with plenty of drama involving illegal Latino immigrants (one of whom commits suicide ), sociopath kitchen managers, challenges issued and risen to, neurotic chefs, family dinners that unite the staff, and conflicts that divide them.

But Buford isn't content merely to experience Babbo as a way to understand Mario Batali. Buford meets Marco White, a British superstar chef with whom Batali worked and clashed before rising to his own success in New York. Much of Batali's approach, including his more even temper with staff, and his disdain for "French" dishes (those that are too fussy), comes as a negative reaction to White and Mario's time with him.

Eventually, the Batali approach leads Buford to take a trip to Italy to experience authentic Italian food the way Mario Batali experienced it when he was learning. He spends time with the woman who taught Mario pasta, and as the book continues, he spends time going beyond Batali's experience and interning with a crazed Tuscan butcher who recites long drunken stanzas of Dante at him and teaches him the value of slow food done in a way that is disappearing from the world.

Buford's writing is clear, evocative, and compelling, just as it was in Among the Thugs. I loved every page of this book and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in restaurants, Mario Batali, Italian food, or just good non-fiction writing.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:28 AM | Comments (4)
July 14, 2007
21 Days of Pasta: Dreaming of Italy

laloggetta.jpgToday, for the first time in months, I set off with my youngest son for the organic market in the 17th arrondisement of Paris. I was slightly worried that none of the merchants would have shown up, this being Bastille day, after all. But a good number of them were there, and the fact that it is a holiday meant that there were fewer customers to get in my way. So I looked forward to a satisfying morning re-acquainting myself with my favourite stalls and choosing fruits and vegetables at the height of summer delight.

The only problem is that despite what the calendar may tell you, Paris is not in the height of summer. To be exact, since May we have had two beautiful sunny days: yesterday and today. I enjoyed shopping for cheeses and fish (hurrah - wild salmon!) and sausages, but the fruit and vegetable part, which normally would be making my heart beat faster, left me a bit cold. Like the Paris weather for the last six weeks.

Luckily for me, three of those weeks were spent in a place where the calendar and the weather agreed on the time of year: Italy. The day after we arrived at La Loggetta in Chianti, the Critic and I set out on an exploratory mission to find a grocery store. We drove to the outskirts of Sienna and followed signs for ipermercati (they had a helpful little shopping trolley symbol on the signs for non-Italian speakers like us). And we found a foodie's paradise. Imagine: we left a cold, drizzly Paris where "in season" fruit was not yet in season and the sun did not show its face. And we arrived in Italy, where fruit and vegetables were gloriously in season. True, the sun did not show its face for the first few days, but with juicy tomatoes and peppery olive oil on hand it did not feel like mid-winter. I started a food diary on the trip, which unfortunately and due to circumstances well within my control (surely I should have managed not to lock the keys to the car in the trunk of said car, with the laptop?), I was unable to keep up. But I do have the list of food we bought on that first expedition: three varieties of tomatoes, bell peppers, lettuce, fennel, cherries, peaches, apples, lupini beans, dried peppers, hot peppers, eight kinds of cheese, two kinds of ham, bacon, cereal, anchovies, capers, sausages, three kinds of bread and a basil plant. Pasta types: 125 (tortiglioni), 44 (sedani), 206 (fiocchetti), 61 (farfalle), 61 (ditali rigati), 4 (vermicelli).

On that first shopping trip we bought three kilos of pasta. We ate it all and a kilo more, bought over the course of the stay. I had decided in advance that I would try to stick to local cuisine when cooking - after all, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" must also apply to Chianti. I even brought a cookbook of Italian recipes, thoughtfully given to me this year by the Critic for my birthday just before we left.

And you know what? By the end of it, I was not yet tired of pasta. In fact, as a result, I've increased the variety and quantity of pasta I get from my twice-a-month trip to the supermarket.

And purely as a favour to the reading public, I'm going to spend the next few weeks reproducing some of the dishes I tried and sharing them with you. Starting, today, with turkey in a creamy rosemary and lemon sauce.

Creamy, lemony turkey and pasta (serves two)

I found the basics of this recipe in a food magazine in a doctor's office outside Radda in Chianti. It seems that doctor's offices the world over are all the same and you can find out of date magazines in every waiting room. I can't read Italian, but it has enough words that are similar to French or English that I understood the basic concept of "cream, lemon, rosemary, poultry" and thought it sounded delicious. And so it is. The Critic was not blown away by it, but I thought it was delightful: very fresh tasting and light, despite the rich cream.

(And for those who are curious why I spent precious hours of our holiday in a doctor's office, it was because I was bitten below the eye by a mysterious insect and my face had swollen up until, the Critic tells me, I looked like an Ood. It's better now.)

300 grams turkey breast (chicken can be substituted, but turkey is particularly good with the strong citric and rosemary flavours here)
2 Tbs finely chopped fresh rosemary
juice of half a lemon
3/4 cup light cream
generous pinch of sea salt
1 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs butter
garnish: freshly grated Parmesan

Suggested pasta: farfalla or fiocchetti or rottini, i.e. something with curves and bumps to catch and hold the sauce.

This dish is not only delicious but quick and easy, taking less than half an hour from prep to serving and needing only seven ingredients (my friend Zena's definition of an "easy recipe"). Start the water boiling for your pasta first. Then slice the turkey in small bite-sized pieces. Heat the olive oil and butter in a frying pan until they begin to froth. Add the turkey and allow to brown a bit before stirring the meat. By now, your water should be boiling. Measure out your pasta (about 250-300 grams, enough for two) and toss it in the boiling water. You can add a glug of olive oil if you like; I never notice much of a difference when I do.

Add the chopped rosemary to the turkey and stir for a few minutes, until the aroma of the rosemary starts to waft through your kitchen. Turn down the heat a bit and add the lemon juice. Use it to stir up the browned bits of turkey that have stuck to the bottom of your pan. You could stir in a bit of white wine at this point, too, if you have any on hand. Pour in the cream and stir. Taste the sauce: it may need more lemon or more salt or rosemary or maybe all three. You want a punchy sauce, because when it is absorbed by the pasta it will lose some flavour.

When the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the sauce. If your frying pan is not large enough to accommodate the pasta, scrape the sauce in a large pasta bowl before draining. Toss immediately with the sauce. Taste again for salt (remembering, however, that your guests will be adding Parmesan, which is quite salty) and serve.

If you are the kind of person who usually has lemons and poultry on hand and, like me, have a rosemary plant, this is the kind of last minute dinner you can whip up on short notice. It isn't low calorie. But it is delicious.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 8:13 AM | Comments (4)
July 9, 2007

Obrycki's is a Baltimore institution on Pratt Street, just East of Broadway. Everyone comes to Obrycki's at some point. You go to any guidebook on Baltimore and they'll mention that Obrycki's has been serving crab to the Baltimore faithful since 1944.

That's a long time, and like many long-time restaurants, the atmosphere is a little dated. We went one afternoon for lunch and I felt like I was stepping off the street and into a wood-paneled set from an episode of Quincy. No, we didn't see Jack Klugman, but it felt like we could have. I doubt the decor has been updated since the 70's, and that's OK for a place with the history of Obrycki's. It's just shocking to see surviving decor from the pre-fern bar, pre-TGI Fridays shot-and-a-beer era.

Seafood is the specialty at Obrycki's They have other dishes, but the action here is in the ocean. We decided to start with clams. I pictured a mound of clams, and was sorely disappointed. For $6.95, we got six clams. Six. The preparation was simple - steamed with butter and lemon. They were very good, but since when are little neck steamers as dear as oysters? It's not exactly fair to compare retail prices to restaurant prices, but two days prior, I'd purchased 50 identical clams for $16.95 at Frank's Seafood. That's 33 cents a clam, instead of $1.16. I wouldn't normally object if they'd done something special to the clams to merit the price, but they were simply steamed open and served with butter and lemon. Note to management - give us a dozen next time and I won't feel so shorted.

I will admit I'm at a disadvantage in reviewing Obrycki's because their most popular and famous dish is anathema to me - crabs. Fortunately, my brother-in-law is not allergic to crabs and he ordered the softshell crabs for lunch and I ordered the scallops with a double helping of the vegetable of the day instead of potatoes.

At the tables around us, patrons smacked away at large piles of small hard shell crabs with wooden mallets. Conversation was kept to a minimum as the mallet-wielding diners alternated smacking the crabs and stuffing their face with the meager meat in each animal. They all seemed very pleased with their overgrown sea-bug meat.

When our entrees arrived, I was shocked at the mound of bright green broccoli that accompanied my scallops. the scallops themselves were fat, perfectly cooked, and soaked in butter with shallots and garlic. This is an old-fashioned way to enjoy scallops, and though my heart jumped with butter-shock at every bite, I enjoyed the dish greatly.

My brother-in-law's softshell crab was a surprise. I've only made softshell crabs once, but I was instructed that proper preparation involves cutting off not only the gills and apron of the crab, but also its beady little eyes and face. At Obrycki's the front of the crab was untouched, and Greg was actually pleased to find an eyeball still attached (which he promptly popped in his mouth). He works in food-service and it was refreshing to him to see food that was obviously prepared fresh and locally rather than prepped in a factory and shipped frozen. He also seemed to be very pleased with his crab.

Service was friendly and acceptable, but not stellar. Our bread basket only came, for instance, as we were finishing our meal. The bread was too late to take the edge off our hunger before our lunch entrees, but the fresh warm rolls were just in time to soak up all the butter, shallots, and garlic left in the scallop pan. Breadless to start, we were also left too long without drinks in the middle of the meal.

The final bill was substantial - about $40/person without alcohol. Obrycki's charges a premium for its history that is perhaps appropriate to its status among Baltimore's historical restaurants, but not one I'd be willing to pay too frequently.

Overall, I would return to Obrycki's, but would advise my crustacean-eating friends to get the hard shell crabs and whack away with the provided mallet. I also wouldn't plan on doing much substantial walking or even moving around for a couple of hours after a meal there.


1727 E. Pratt St.
Baltimore, MD 21231
+1 410 732 6399

Mon - Thurs: 11:30 am. to 10:00 pm.
Fri & Sat: 11:30 am. to 11:00 pm.
Sun: 11:30 am. to 9:30 pm.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 2:10 PM

There are a few perks of moving to the East from Chicago, and one of them is access to fresh seafood straight from the Chesapeake Bay. Not far from where I live is a wholesale food complex. Most of the giant warehouses are closed to the public, but in the seafood warehouse, one store is open - Frank's Seafood.

If you go before Noon, there's a $2 entry fee, which is a bargain. Frank's isn't a big place in terms of square footage, but among local seafood resources, it's a giant. None of the other local markets even come close in supplying fresh fruits de mer.

On the day I visited rockfish, swordfish, hake, flounder, scallops, clams, mussels, salmon, tuna, tilapia, Chilean sea bass, a couple of different types of fresh oysters, and many other types of fish were on display. Some items not local - like huge frozen snow crab legs - were also available in the small freezer section. I brought my little cooler in, they filled it with fish and ice, I paid up (ouch - you pay for freshness), and brought my treasures home.

My brother-in-law recently came to visit. He comes from Louisville, Kentucky on the mighty Ohio river. Louisville is a good place to find fresh catfish and other lake and river fish, but they're an awful long way from anyplace where mussels and clams grow wild (majestic herds of clams, sweeping across the veldt. Swim free! As free as the- oh, sorry mind wandered there for a minute...).

My goal was to fill him full of fresh seafood over the three days he was here. I think we succeeded. Several types of fish were in this Italian-style stew from Joan Nathan's New American Cooking cookbook. I'm making it again this weekend for my in-laws and may change up the recipe a bit. As is, it was delicious but I wouldn't have minded just a little more tomato and fennel flavor. I had to make a couple of substitutions to the original recipe as it is somehow impossible to find frozen fish stock in this area, and I am personally unable to eat shrimp. Feel free to try it either way.

The book this is from, by the way, is a great resource for regional cuisine. The book notes this particular fish stew originates in San Francisco, though the recipe is from Larsens' Fish Market on Martha's Vineyard on the other side of the country. Whatever coast it comes from, it's likely to please.

Cioppino adapted from The New American Cooking, p. 273-4, Knopf, 2005

3 tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 leek, white and some green, cleaned and diced
1 fennel bulb, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced (seeds optional)
2 cups white wine
4 cups clam broth
4 cups fish stock (or veg stock if fish stock is mysteriously un-locatable)
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (though I may increase this next time)
salt and pepper to taste
36 clams
36 mussels
(the original has 24 clams and mussels and a pound of shrimp. I've upped the clams and mussels and eliminated the delicious looking creatures that make my throat close up. If you're not allergic to shrimp you may add them in as well)
1 pound sea or bay scallops - if omitting shrimp add a little more
1 pound cod, monkfish, swordfish, any firm fleshed fish, cut in 2-inch chunks
4 tablespoons cilantro or flat leaf parsley for garnish

The book recommends making the broth ahead of time (24 hours if possible), reheating it and then adding the seafood. I made it all in one go, and it turned out delicious, though a day of mellowing in the might have improved the intensity of flavors in the broth. Try it both ways.

Heat the oil in the bottom of a large soup pot. Add all the vegetables and and sautée until the onions go translucent. Add the wine, bring to a boil and reduce by 50%.

Add the clam juice, fish stock, and tomato sauce and bring to a boil again. Add a little tomato paste as well if you want more bottom to the dish. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Taste, add salt and pepper to taste.

At this point, you may stop and cool the broth, holding it for 24 hours to let the flavor develop. If so, then the next day, bring it back up to a boil and then -

Add the clams. Only the clams. When the first one starts to open (and I mean OPEN not just kind of open), add the mussels, shrimp, if using, scallops, and fish chunks and cook 2 minutes or so until the mussels have opened wide.

Ladle into bowls, sprinkle with parsley or cilantro, and serve with garlic bread.

Make sure guests discard any clams or mussels that have not opened - they gave up the ghost before they hit the stew and may be bad. And a bad shellfish is nothing to mess with.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 1:48 PM | Comments (2)
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