Musings

* At last, a genuine flip-flop day. Not a day masquerading as a flip-flop day (and working at a college, I can attest that students think every day in a flip-flop day until the snow bites their toes and they break down and break out the Uggs), but a bona fide sunny day that calls for the least amount of shoe you can wear.

* I lunched on pork buns from the Fugu food truck, plunked down in the park in Post Office Square, and dug into the buns and a book. The fact that the semester ended last week and that today was the perfect spring day, combined to form a dangerous vortex in which returning to work was, let’s say, a challenge.

Post Office Square

* Rational for today’s post-dinner snack: guacamole does not keep and those pork buns were small. I will finish off the tub with half a bag of tortilla chips.

* Tonight, even from the humble and not-particularly-beautiful parking lot of Target, the sun set stunned in shades of lilac. Just picture it.

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The line forms around the building

The prospect of the Shake Shack opening in my state (not even my neighborhood, but my state) excited me so much that I forgot I don’t go to things when they open. Movie premiere? You risk moviegoers talking too loudly, tickets being sold out, a packed house; I’ll wait a week. New restaurant? Dying to try it, but not if I have to wait two hours in the cold.

So the NYC-based Shake Shack that’s creeping its way into CT and other random locations (Miami, Turkey) has crept, rather oddly, into Massachusetts. But not into Boston where you’d expect, and certainly not into the Boston Common where I lobbied hard for it to take over the most perfect little structure in the park that would have drawn crowds like their Madison Square Park location in NYC where you can watch the line on a live cam online. No, it opened in a schmancy new development in Chestnut Hill, a tony burb that most people will have to drive to, unless you’re attending Boston College around the corner.

Still, when I was in the area around lunch, I swung by to enjoy a burger and a shake. Only to remember why I avoid new places. The Shack was one of the few storefronts open in the new development, but that didn’t stop a line from forming around the building amid hard hat workers constructing, ironically, a gym next door. The line suggested “You will not see any food for at least an hour.” I balked. And then caved. And waited for an hour before carrying a petite tray with a Shack Burger, fries, and vanilla shake to a table in the sun where I ate every last crinkle fry and thought about getting in line again.

Shake Shack

Shake Shack (Photo credit: Kwong Yee Cheng)

Homemade Devil Dogs

By my count, there are about four million people mourning the loss of Twinkies (quick math), and about two dozen lamenting the loss of Devil Dogs, the dry, chocolate counterpart to its more popular older brother. It’s natural to assume that the predicted rise in milk prices can be attributed to the fiscal cliff debacle. Actually, that wouldn’t be my natural assumption, but it’s true. If Congress doesn’t pass a new farm bill, milk prices might rise like fuel prices. But forget all that. The real reason that dairy farmers might be out of work: no Devil Dogs, no need for a gallon of milk.

I miss the occasional dry dog, even if I only bought a box once a year. Since I was denied this indulgence, I got online pronto to research how to make my own. Caveat: the following recipe will not taste exactly like a Drake’s Devil Dog (can you really recreate that factory-made, unnaturally long shelf-life cake of exceeding dryness?), but it’s pretty darn good. Think whoopie pie in a Devil Dog shape.

I found several recipes online but chose to make the cake recipe from one and the cream filling from another. Shaping the cakes was a clumsy mess and I’m no expert with a pastry bag when it comes to piping the cream, but whatever. Close your eyes, pretend it’s 2012, and devour.

IMG_3591

Things I learn from eavesdropping on college students

I love working at a college where the conversations are, yes, about parties and like, crushes, but where discussion also ventures into the intellectual realm.

Passing students on the stairs the other day, I hear one say something about the delicateness of a fabric.

“Wait, is it ‘delicateness’ or ‘delicacy’?” he asks the girl.

They analyze it, and I have to say, I do too. The state of being delicate can be delicateness but then delicacy works too. Except we use it more to mean a special dessert. I like these kids.

At the dining hall, students can post comment cards with questions and complaints. I’m heartened to see a fair amount of goodwill: “Thanks for my grilled cheese, friendly grill guy!” or “Thanks for the soy milk!” There are complaints of course—no college can escape complaints about the food that is, I’d like to remind students, bought, prepared, and served to them—but it’s also a forum where sketch comedy majors can try out new material.

One card reads “Can we get cuddlefish and vanilla paste?”

“The water was very wet today,” says another.

“I love you guys!” says one surrounded by hearts.

The manager’s response: “Glad to hear you’re drinking your water. It’s good for you. And we love you too!”

It’s a place where I can discuss the finer points of The Newsroom (I love you Sorkin, but you’re so damn preachy) and feminism in Girls with students who love and hate Lena Dunham. A place where I can hear two girls gushing over Brené Brown, which turns me on to her TED Talks on vulnerability and shame.

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So, my friends, this is the cliché part where I say it’s not only the students doing the learnin’. There, I said it.

The case of the disappearing turkey

Thanksgiving is not the time to try new recipes, but who has time to do a dry run of an elaborate meal? Plus, I’m a risk taker. A jump-out-of-a-plane skydiver. A zipline-over-the-canyon kind of gal. Well, not really. Regardless, I go foolhardily into new recipe adventures on Thanksgiving with total confidence—my first being Rachael Ray’s stuffin’ muffins recipe that failed. Hard. Instead of crunchy yet moist individual portions of stuffing, the muffins remained wet balls (go ahead, I’ll wait), uncooked in the middle. Still, I liked the idea of making stuffing in cupcake tins, so I brought them to my friend’s house anyway and we had a good laugh. Too ambitious, my desires.

Last year, I made gingerbread thinking it was a brilliant idea to swap out dried old ginger spice for the real thing, freshly grated. Calculations veering on trigonometry did nothing to achieve an accurate substitution amount. Result: ew.

This year, I tried a recipe I’ve had in my collection for a decade but have never made. A rich chocolate tart calls for a special occasion and Thanksgiving seemed just the occasion. But dough and I just don’t get along (it refuses to be dough), so while I managed to at least make a chocolate crust, I failed to note that cocoa powder is not the same as cocoa. You knew that? You could have told me.

I also realized halfway through (seriously, there’s a reason you should read recipes all the way through before attempting, but we’re stubborn, you and I) that the magazine clipping with the recipe was missing the part about how to make the chocolate filling. After Googling around and going for it, I had a rich chocolate tart that was half rich, half dry as unsweetened cocoa.

But no matter. All would be forgiven once everyone saw the adorable turkey figure I stenciled on the tart using a hand drawn turkey silhouette and powdered sugar. Before popping it in the car this morning, I took a peek at the tart only to realize that the turkey had disappeared; the sugar had dissolved into the chocolate, as if embarrassed. Back in the kitchen, I sifted more sugar around the salvaged stencil. Crisis averted. Until I arrived at my friend’s house with the turkey half dissolved again and fading fast.

But this is a day to be thankful. Thankful that I have friends who will pretend the bitter tart crust is delicious and that the cute turkey is still clearly visible even when it’s not. At least I snapped a picture of the sucker for proof. If you too want to attempt this tart using actual cocoa powder, and can somehow manage to roll the dough out to the recommended 4″ x 16 ”  rectangle and find a tart pan that size while not burning the edges and not watching your turkey shape disappear, by all means try the recipe.

On my drive home, a shooting star shot across the sky—a magical moment considering that it was, well, a star shooting across the sky to its death but more so because it was so clearly visible even from a city highway. You’d think I wished for more sense when it comes to baking, but I didn’t.

Squash blossom season

“Hi,” says an eager 10-year-old boy behind a table of greens—lots of Asian veggies—at the Marblehead Farmers’ Market. “Can I help you?”

I spot the basket of squash blossoms, rubber banded in bouquets and know immediately that I’ll be stuffing them with goat cheese and having them for lunch.

“I’ll take these and any advice you have,” I say to the boy and his grandmother.

“Just dip them in flour and an egg,” the boy says, “and saute them in olive oil. I really like them on pizza.”

“How do you know how to cook squash blossoms at your age?”

“My mom,” he says. “Don’t forget to take out the stamen.”

I like this kid. Like that he knows how to properly cook these blossoms that is not in everyone’s repertoire, especially a 10-year-old’s. I like that he knows the word stamen.

“You thinking of becoming a chef?” I ask.

“Maybe,” he says.

“I think you should,” I say. “I would come to your restaurant.”

I recall from last year’s failed experiment that squash blossoms don’t last. They’re fickle little things. One minute they’re perky, they next they’re wilting. I take them home and plunge them in water and get to work on making a simple mixture of flour, egg (a blue one that makes me ridiculously happy) and a little water. I start with this recipe for inspiration and realize I don’t have seltzer water or cayenne pepper, and crab meat seem too much for these delicate flowers, and I certainly don’t want to use ricotta when I can use goat cheese.

I gently rinse the blossoms, letting the water open them up, dry them, then stuff them with goat cheese. I dredge them in the pancake-like batter and saute them for a few minutes until they brown. I go a little too heavy on the batter—a messy presentation that my 10-year-old friend would not approve of—but they’re crisp and delicious and I eat every last one.

Odd lots

+ At a midweek lunch, my co-workers and I debate Iggy’s vs. Clear Flour bread while sitting in a tiny park in Bay Village taking an extraordinary amount of time to eat egg sandwiches and smell the roses. Is this phlox? Are these mosaic benches from Marshalls?

+ At Otto’s for a slice, I can’t stop laughing when a child dissolves in tears when his slice comes with no cheese, as if his bike were stolen by a thug. I’d cry too, kid. Everything should have cheese, especially pizza.

+ For three days I wear my rain boots, anticipating a flood. Gorgeous days, of course. Today will be the pick of the weekend those same meteorologists said, so I pack my beach bag in foolish anticipation and wake up to what feels like the London soup. Instead, I plan to clean the basement, which does not promise the same fulfillment.

Odd lots remix

> Am I the only person who doesn’t get s’mores? The marshmallows take forever to melt, the graham crackers are dry, and the chocolate melts all over you (well, that part is OK). They never come together in the sandwich promised land and you end up with white marshmallow lips.

> I’m at the gym this week when the irresistible aroma of fresh-from-the-oven cookies wafts by. Let me repeat that: my gym smells like a bakery. Now, I’m not saying I’d prefer the alternative (sweaty man, dank towel, chlorine), but whose idea of a cruel joke is this? You spend an hour lifting stupid little weights and running on a conveyor belt only to have the image of a chocolate chip cookie assault you when you’re vulnerable. I caved, and I’d do it again.

> I’m cat sitting this week for a friend and I have a whole list of things to do with his Maine Coon, Seamus. Oh, the places we’ll go! First, I hear there’s a jacuzzi in my friend’s building; perfect: I can relax while Seamus treads water and sheds some pounds. We’re hanging out on the 4th of July, too, so maybe we can learn the words to Yankee Doodle Dandy (all the verses), while watching the fireworks and waving an American flag. I’ll have to get a basket for my bike for outings and a leash in case we want to walk along the beach. Oh, and we’ll get manicures (he’s a male, but easygoing) and eat pizza and watch movies and maybe even color our hair.

Grilled pizza

If you refuse to get on a plane, train or boat to try the pizza at Al Forno in Providence, I pity you. In light of your resistance, you can try to recreate it at home. The key, besides a little wheat flour and cornmeal in the dough, is grilling—yes, grilling—your pizza. Don’t smirk. It’s genius. New England’s mild winter had me grilling sans scarf. But trust me; once you’ve tried this ultra-thin crust pizza, you would grill in mittens. Tip: be sure to stretch the dough before donning mittens.

Shape is not important as you can see from my South American version.

Be judicious with the tomatoes and trust the chefs’ choices in cheeses. I cannot recommend Johanne Killeen and George Germon’s cookbook Cucina Simpatica enough for all its Italian goodness. In fact, I would require all Americans to buy it, if I could. But if you refuse to go to Al Forno or buy the cookbook (dead to me), the grilled pizza recipe is also here on the Food Network’s site. Serve the pie like they do in the restaurant, with charred grill marks and raw scallion snippets—and don’t plan on sharing.

Chicken alambre

Tacos are a super food, right? Well, the avocado part anyway. And maybe this taco/fajita hybrid looks like nothing special. You’re unimpressed. But come with me on a journey of flavor because this baby is born of bacon grease and chorizo. That’s right, people; this chicken alambre recipe, courtesy of chef Veronica Salazar in San Francisco, doesn’t need any spices or fancy salsa. Hell, it doesn’t even need cheese.

Extra points that my version actually looks like the picture in the Food & Wine recipe. And that never happens.

Feasting on NYC

I love New York (that should totally be a slogan) and recently attended a conference in Queens (trees!) but spent a remarkable proportion of the trip eating—95%, I’d estimate. Eating is usually the point when I go to the city. The beauty of traveling alone is that you can walk past a dozen couples waiting at Momofuku and get a seat for one at the counter where you can slurp ramen with other solo foodies. The guy next to me picks up his bowl to drink the last drop of broth.

“I’m so glad you did that,” I say “because I’m so going there.”

At Ippudo there’s a half hour wait, but hold on, there’s one seat at the counter. When the waitress comes, I tell her I’ll have the pork buns, of course.

“And you, sir?” she says turning to the guy next to me. He looks confused.

“Oh, we’re not together,” I say. “Unless he’s paying.”

He is not.

I watch the chefs pan-fry slices of unctuous pork and nestle them into cloud buns, then eat with abandon.

Mostly though, I look to the sky.

Where the boys are

Uninspiring billboard

A billboard after my own heart

The High Line

Provocative exhibit made me feel all “Rear Window”

Neon half-marathoners in Central Park

While in Central Park watching runners exhaust themselves, I make do with a Belgian waffle with chocolate from Wafels & Dinges that runs a food truck at Columbus Circle on the edge of the park and one inside the park by the zoo. If you think two identical trucks within a few blocks is excessive, you’d be wrong; by the time you finish one waffle you need another. If you think I’m exaggerating, you’d be wrong again.

Stuff I did on winter vacation that you don’t care about

I baked some double chocolate chip pumpkin cookies for an amazing cookie swap and almost—almost—went home with more cookies than I could handle. I tried some strange and tasty cookies (cardamom, green tea, goat cheese), gave some away, and shared some at our unusual office Christmas swap.

My co-worker and I chair a fun committee at the office (we’re serious about fun) and this year instituted a white elephant Yankee swap. Gifts could be small, preferably lame, and must be derived from one’s office. I wrapped up a CD and a skull and bones eraser and unwrapped a plant that was whisked away in the swap. I ended up with a testy wireless mouse that I had unloaded months earlier on my co-worker. Ah, the circle of office life.

I read more issues of Rachael Ray’s Every Day magazine than I care to admit. She’s chipper that one, but she puts out a good magazine.

Every year I make my sister a calendar with photos I’ve taken, surreptitiously, of her dog, Molly, in various states of ridiculousness. This year’s theme was “What’s on Molly’s head?” What was on Molly’s head, you ask? A colander, apple, myriad stuffed animals, coffee filters, salad bowl, and a hat. Doesn’t it seem like she really, really enjoys it?

On yet another mild January day, I walked through the near-barren orchard and watched a hawk pluck a mouse from the field, the scent of sour apples lingering.

I read some good books over vacation but the best one by far, Salvage the Bones, took me through the last days of the year. More on that in my upcoming book wrap-up.

I pressed my face to the window watching for deer in my sister’s backyard. She and her husband spot deer posses traipsing through the yard, their hoof prints pricking the yard. I’ve yet to see one of these phantom deer.

My sister and her husband took me on a hike through the woods in the backyard where the famed deer live. Sometimes a hike can be a walk.

I Christmas shopped with my mom, a near-70 Energizer bunny, and had to sit, more than once, with the old people on the bench of the outdoor shopping center while she forged on.

I rented a million movies and finally saw The Muppets and appreciated the numerous nods to the 70s and 80s and the fact that there are enough lovers and dreamers who welcome back the Muppets with a big furry hug.

Roasted radishes

When Ina tells you to cook something, you try it. And because radishes are bitter little bulbs, roasting promised to mellow them a bit. The process is simple: get yourself some radishes. (Aside: I got mine at the farmers’ market, in the rain, which was bad enough, until I realized that I missed the flash mob that descended on the market moments later.) Cut them in half and put them cut-side down in a roasting pan. Drizzle olive oil and scatter some salt on top. Roast for 18 minutes at 425 degrees. Swirl some butter in a pan and add the radishes for a couple of minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in a teaspoon of lemon. Eat. Did I love it? No, but it’s hard to give radishes a purpose for being aside from the mandoline-slice or two in a salad. Though in a medley of roasted veggies they would be a nice colorful addition.

Raw

Roasted

Ready

Food truck festival

While my mom was visiting earlier this month, I convinced her to hit the Food Truck Festival in Plymouth, and though she initially thought we were visiting a truck stop, she soon got the picture when a cluster of gourmet food trucks circled their wagons around the crowded green at the Pine Hills community, doling out tacos with grass-fed beef and Kickass Cupcakes.

Apparently, Boston is loosening some restrictions on truck ventures, so Boston should no longer be the poor little sister of New York and LA that have embraced the idea of the wandering canteen. We’ve got Clover and a few others, but I can’t wait till we have enough to warrant a whole show on the Food Network. Working in Boston, you’d think the options are plentiful, but Subway, McDonald’s, D’Angelo’s, Rock Bottom, California Pizza Kitchen, and some suspect places in Chinatown, do not a good lunch make.

Homemade granola

Given the price of granola, you’d think it was laced with gold leaf and scattered with pearls. In fact, the ingredients are simple and it’s ridiculously easy to make. I did a lot of recipe-shopping on food blogs to find just the right inspiration. I avoided any with dried fruit (too squishy!) and any that screamed sticky. And I like my granola to be like me: nutty, so I settled on this most perfect granola recipe at the drool-inducing La Tartine Gourmande where the photographs would make you want to eat food you think you don’t like.

Homemade granola allows you to control the ingredients: you like rice puffs: go crazy. You like a granola where chocolate is the main ingredient? Do it. You like Craisins? Who are you?

I didn’t have honey, and don’t like a super-sweet granola, so I just used a little maple syrup. Also, it was touch and go when the almonds started to brown, like a second after I had last checked on the batch, so watch it carefully. Then carry it around in little snack containers so you can feel all frugal and fancy.

Priceless

Half pound of nutrient-rich sockeye salmon from the Pacific Northwest: $9

Delicate asparagus stalks flown in from California: $5

Organic Meyer lemon grown in sunny grove in Argentina: $2

Dinner for one from Whole Foods: $16

Salmon and asparagus with lemon at Market Basket: priceless (well, $4.13)

When one Thanksgiving isn’t enough

Sometimes one heaping plate of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, carrots, squash, beans, and cranberry sauce seems . . . inadequate, so you stroll back for seconds all confident—that is, completely oblivious to the bodily trauma that will ensue. But on rare occasions, even a glutinous second round will not satisfy your bottomless stomach that harbors secret cavities that you fill like a squirrel fills its cheeks just before winter. So when one Thanksgiving is not enough, you rejoice over the promise of your friend’s legendary post-holiday feast, made up of an eclectic group of friends she’s collected over the years, where you realize that that meal on the last Thursday of the month was a mere warm-up for the giant bowls and platters that will now be laid out in front of you. You are glad there was a day of rest in between.

You marvel at the 25-pound bird whose skin is so perfectly browned that it could be the turkey that fled the photo shoot for Gourmet‘s Thanksgiving cover, if Gourmet still existed. But in the kitchen, with shallots sautéing, peperonata warming, and the stuffing demanding a second platter, you think Gourmet has been resurrected and that somehow you are now living in its pages as the scent of sage and thyme mixes with the wild aroma of turkey. Your friend is a genius in the kitchen, and for this you are grateful.

After the feast, your body is sated, but the mind lingers on odd questions: how is it that your friends have enough chairs for 25 people? Leftovers, really? Will there be a day to recover before dessert?

No rest for the full. Before normal breathing resumes, someone remarks that the clown-car oven has suddenly begun dispensing a number of pies and you steel yourself for the inevitable. Her wife has made the desserts (oh, the apple and pear galette) and you wonder how you can smuggle both chefs home while making them feel that it is their choice to devote their lives to cooking for you, like this, every night. You will write to Santa tonight.

Cheese, the other white meat

My boyfriend has always been interested in cheesemongering, because well, that’s the kind of guy he is. So for Christmas this year, I signed us up for a Cheese 101 class at Formaggio, the aged Gouda of cheese shops. Their classes are popular, so it wasn’t until last weekend that we finally secured a spot in the one-night session where we were admitted to the store after hours for a primer on cheese.

Tip: one should not go hungry to a cheese tasting, because it’s not, as we hoped, a smorgasbord of cheese, but a tasting, as the name implies. Frankly, I drifted off a few times while staring longingly at my cheese plate, a small saucer of four slivers of cheese. As I went to munch on one, the cheese guy must have read my mind; he cautioned against eating ahead, lest anyone be left cheeseless when he came around to discussing that variety.  To reward myself for such restraint (I’m not gonna lie; I wanted to reach into that cheese case and gnaw on a hunk of cheddar), I bought an interesting looking chocolate bar by the Mast Brothers of Brooklyn (with fleur de sel…mmm) and a nice portion of a fancy goat cheese. Still not sure if the goat cheese was amazing or if it just felt that way because I was starving. I must have been starving because even the description of the cheese as being coated in vegetable ash didn’t deter me. And it was pretty delicious even at home.

In addition to learning about the history of cheese (developed by accident), we got to peek inside the cheese cave beneath Formaggio where I must admit, the dense presence of so many stinky cheese wheels was overpowering; I fled upstairs into the brightly lit store where the pretty cheeses sat smartly in the glass case adorned with little signs, declaring themselves to be from all over the world.