Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Cooking Class at Central Market

First of all, merry belated Christmas and early happy New Year! I hope you’re all having a wonderful holiday season.

Now, before I get into babbling on about today’s subject, I feel the need to make a brief comment on the therapeutic powers of cooking. I am having a particularly shitty week (sorry about the rough language, but its true). It’s a long story and I won’t bore you all with it, but needless to say, I am feeling rather depressed. However, each night this week I have come home after a long day at work and spent some time in the kitchen. Last night I made a mushroom lo mein; tonight it was a carrot frittata with fried potatoes. I don’t think I mentioned that I joined a winter CSA – Pete’s Greens, based out of Craftsbury, VT. Every Wednesday I get a great share of veggies and other local products, so I have been coming up with a lot of different ways to use them. I have kind of a routine when it comes to cooking. First, I always have music playing. I usually let iTunes create a playlist based on my mood – tonight was Norah Jones and James Morrison, a nice jazzy, mellow feel. Next, I don my apron (I got a really cute one for Christmas that makes me feel like Audrey Hepburn). I review my recipe, if I am using one, and finally start prepping. I listen to the music and do not have too much time to think about whatever is bothering me, because I need to concentrate on what I am doing so I do not burn/slice myself. After all is said and done, I then get to enjoy the “fruits” of my labor (sorry, bad pun). There is something soothing and comforting about the whole ordeal, and I feel a lot better afterwards.

On with the subject at hand…You may recall that a few weeks ago I mentioned a cooking class that my father and I were going to be taking while I visited my family in Texas for Christmas. Well, we took it and it was awesome! The food we learned to prepare was fabulous, the class was structured really well, and I came away from the experience with a lot of new tips and techniques. The theme of the three hour course was “A Night in Paris,” which was based on a meal the head of the cooking school had enjoyed while in, you guessed it, Paris (and no, NOT Paris, TX). There were a total of about 20 participants, which were then divided into two groups of five or six pairs. Each group was led by one of the staff. Our teacher, Rebecca, was great. She was friendly and really knowledgeable about all sorts of foodie things. I enjoyed her company and her instruction. The class was structured so that each pair in the group focused on one main component of the meal, while still being able to watch and learn from everyone else. My dad and I worked on the warm shallot dressing for the duck salad, and got some great pointers regarding knife skills.

At the end of the class, once everything was all set, we got to sit down and enjoy a full three course meal – and it was excellent. Oh, did I mention that wine was included, too? The food was served to us on china and it was like being at a restaurant, except we’d had a hand in preparing everything! The first course consisted of the previously mentioned duck salad with warm shallot dressing, as well as a chicken and pistachio mousse with traditional accoutrement. The duck breast was prepared in a stovetop smoker and was some of the best I have ever had – seriously. Plus, now I have to get one of those smokers, because it was super neat. And the mousse. Oh my god, was it delicious. I have to admit, I had only had chicken liver mousse/pate one time before, and I did not care for it…it was a little too chickeny, you know? That was not the case the other night. This pate was more a mix of chicken breast and livers, then studded with whole pistachios and wrapped in bacon. They served it was these really yummy garlic toasts, sweet pickles, and Dijon mustard. I was full after the first course, and there was still so much more to come!

The second course was a seared rib eye topped with a chive compound butter, sautéed veggies, and duck fat roasted potatoes. Yes, you read that correctly. Did you know that you can buy rendered duck fat, the same as you can get a stick of butter? What a revelation! That one ingredient added so much flavor to the simple dish – and then the potatoes were drizzled with truffle oil. Does it get more decadent than that? This course was also served with baguette slices and French butter to smear on them. Let me tell you, that butter was THE BEST butter I have ever tasted. It was President brand, made in France with big crystals of sea salt. I kind of wanted to just eat a big spoonful of the butter alone, it was that good. It reminds me of one of the early scenes in the movie version of Julie and Julia, when Julia Child is served her first French meal – fish in a beurre blanc sauce, and she leans over and simply exclaims, “Butter!” It was that good.

Finally came dessert, a vanilla soufflé with crème anglaise sauce. Need I even say more? I did learn about vanilla bean paste, which is just the inside of the vanilla beans that you usually have to scrape out, mixed with a little water and sugar and bottled. So good, and so convenient. The neat thing about the class is that it took place over the Central Market grocery store, so after I was able to go buy the garlic toasts, the butter, and the vanilla bean paste. A quick comment of the soufflé – now, it was delicious, there is no denying that. However, to me it tasted an awful lot like a Dutch baby, which I have mentioned in previous blogs. Plus, Dutch babies are much less labor intensive – I do not see why I couldn’t just make a Dutch baby, top it was crème anglaise, and call it a night. In fact, I plan to do exactly that this weekend. Yum.

The whole class was a great experience, and I hope I get to do something like it again. My dad and I both really enjoyed ourselves and learned a lot in the process. Overall, a success!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Birthday in Boston

Running behind, as usual. Work is uber insane these days, and the semester is wrapping up, both of which make me feel overwhelmed and super-stressed. My escape from the craziness? A trip to Boston to celebrate my birthday, of course!
My 24th birthday was a couple weekends ago, so Danielle and I headed down to Beantown to celebrate. I had never been before, despite the fact that my grandparents have lived in Massachusetts for forever and I’ve been in Vermont for over a year now. I was really excited about the trip, and it totally paid off. We got into the city on Saturday evening and headed to the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. All the building and shops were done up for the holiday, glittering with twinkle lights and fresh garlands. Street performers were playing Christmas carols, and overall the effect was enchanting. We had been planning this trip for a couple of weeks, and I’d put a lot of thought into the dining selections (I mean, come on, this is me we’re talking about). I decided on the Union Oyster House for my birthday dinner and had made reservations in advance (which turned out to be very smart on my part). I have to tell you, this dinner made my top ten list of best meals ever. The restaurant is housed in an old, historic building, which was also decorated for the holidays. They claim to be the oldest restaurant in the country, but this presents a bit of a conundrum. A couple summers ago, my dad and I were in Philadelphia, and we ate at the City Tavern (another top ten dining experience). The thing is, they also claim to be the nation’s oldest restaurant. Who knows which is true? Regardless, both meals were excellent.
As the name implies, the Union Oyster House specializes in seafood. Being the oldest restaurant in Boston, at the very least, they also have a traditional New England spin on most of their dishes – items like cornbread and Indian pudding were on the menu. As I scanned the extensive menu, I was really having trouble deciding what to order. I am a huge seafood lover, and everything sounded good – I’ll take on of those, and one of those, a couple of those…Suddenly, the “shore dinner” caught my eye. Clam chowder, steamers, a lobster, new potatoes, corn on the cob, and dessert – literally a sampling of everything I wanted! Of course, it also happened to be the most expensive thing on the menu, but you know what? It was my birthday! I ordered it, and it was worth every penny. I got to wear one of those lobster bibs, and my dinner came to me on a huge plate, complete with a bowl of melted butter for dipping – heavenly. I do not know if I have ever been so satisfied with a single meal in my life. Danielle ordered mussels, which were fabulous, and a lobster stuffed with lobster topped with lobster – paradise. To make the whole experience even better, the waitress comp’ed Danielle’s dessert and my Irish coffee!
The next day, we took some time and explored the city. I wanted to see some of the historical sites, so we walked some of the Freedom Trail and went to see the Old North Church – which just so happened to take us right through Little Italy! Again, I want to emphasize how beautiful everything was with all the Christmas decorations and garlands and red bows. I think it really made the trip extra special. On our way back through Little Italy, we stopped in at Mike’s Pastry. Oh. My. God. I am not sure if a more dangerous place exists – rows and rows of gorgeous baked goods. I walked away with some coconut macaroons and the biggest cream puff I have ever seen. They packaged it all in a pretty box and tied it with a bow. I felt kind of like Audrey Hepburn – the whole experience had that kind of vibe to it.
The rest of the day was spent shopping and eating and driving, and it was fabulous. We stopped at the Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, which is a specialty food shop. I walked away with the most random assortment of goods –cream of tarter (which I have had a heck of a time finding in my local shop), a bottle of peach nectar, and chocolate bar studded with sea salt, a panettone bread (which makes the best French toast ever), and a pint of really good raspberries – overall, a great haul. It was a great weekend and the most fun I’ve had on my birthday in a long time.