What’s Cooking at this Site?

Plants and animals are a generous bunch.

We ask a lot from them. And no matter how we treat them, we receive much in return.

Except for the time that food spends on the shelf or the farm stand table, it is always in motion: growing, swimming, foraging; under the blade; on its way to your kitchen; getting chopped, braised, broiled, boiled, baked or tossed.

Nevertheless, those plants and animals have been holding back on us. Not because they are selfish. No, as many of us are discovering, it’s the same problem at the root of many of our relationships – lovers, spouses, siblings, parents, friends: Basically, because we haven’t taken the time to appreciate them – fully and honestly.

I’m not asking you to bare your soul to a parsnip. (Although cooking a good meal for any of the above-mentioned ‘relationship groups’ will go a long way to patching up old wounds.) I’m asking you to bring your appetite – to share your hunger for discovery with me – here at CambridgeCooks.

This is an exciting time to be cooking. A new generation of kitchen visionaries is emerging: they are neither celebrity chefs nor the “personalities” competing for TV time on the Food Network. They don’t run restaurants with three-month wait lists. Many of them don’t even blog (gasp!) or twitter.

They are visionaries and teachers. They simplify our approach to food and their emphasis is on technique, not recipes. Although recipes often make it easier for us to follow their thinking.

They are growers and innovators. They spend long hours in the field, in the lab, talking, listening, pondering, with nary a camera or computer in sight.

If you listen, they will change the way you think about food. Shop for food. Prepare food. Use food. Toss out food. And if you are relatively new to the kitchen, or your ineptitude is on par with mine, they will give you the courage to cook with a capital C; to use a recipe as a guidebook, not a GPS. To fully appreciate what is in your fridge, or awaiting you on the cutting board.

Pull up a chair, grab your plate, and dig in.

– Lee Goodwin

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Israeli Stage Sets Sail with Provocative ‘Ulysses on Bottles’; Vibrant ‘God Box’ Explores Grief and Faith with Heart, Humor

“Ulysses on Bottles,” Israeli Stage and Arts/Emerson, Emerson Paramount Center, Boston through April 25. 617-824-8400 or artsemerson.org; more information at israelstage.com.

“God Box,” Next Rep Black Box Festival, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, ended April 19.

What better berth for Israeli Stage’s first full production than Emerson Paramount Center? For a few years, Emerson alumnus Guy Ben-Aharon has been showcasing the rich complexity and diversity of modern Israeli theater in staged readings at several area colleges as well as a home base at the Goethe-Institut/Boston.

Now the young producing artistic director is steering a remarkable inaugural production, the North American premiere of Israeli playwright Gilad Evron’s award-winning drama “Ulysses on Bottles” (“Ulysses Al Bakbukim”). Evron’s provocative short play (about 75 minutes) may disturb some theatergoers, but Israeli Stage’s glistening opener instantly stamps the young company as a unique and vital destination on the Hub theater map.

Alluding to Homer’s “Odyssey,” Evron’s play focuses on a former teacher nicknamed Ulysses who has been charged with security violations for trying to sail a raft on bottles loaded with Russian literature for Gaza. If you think “Ulysses with Bottles” was inspired by the recent Gaza-bound flotilla carrying armed terrorists, think again. Evron, writing his play (a 2012 Israel Theater Prize winner for best original play) before that confrontation, declared at a post-performance talkback that his play was actually inspired by the arrest of his own son – an IDF soldier – for refusing to serve in the so-called “occupied territories.” In fact, the playwright indicated, significant dialogue spoken by Ulysses derived from letters he wrote to Israeli authorities insisting that his son needed Russian literature during his six-month detention.

Israeli lawyer Saul Izakov, representing Ulysses pro bono, urges him to sign a statement promising never to try such a sailing again. “If you stop here,” he advises, “you have not betrayed your beliefs.”

Adamant about his position, Ulysses later declares, “I have to convince myself everyday I’m not groundless.” Suggesting that Gazan children end up not doing homework and that the area is becoming “a factory for making non-people,” the former teacher asks emotionally conflicted Izakov, “What does it mean not to read?” and wonders why such issues are not regularly nagging at the lawyer.

While Evron’s play vividly refers to Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Babel and other Russian writers well known by the former literature teacher, this talented dramatist appears to be stacking the proverbial deck with regard to Israeli security. A pivotal confrontation between Defense Ministry security officer Seinfeld and Ulysses seems to suggest that the former is a kind of devil. Curiously, Seinfeld maintains that his father despised Stalin (who had Jewish writers like Babel executed), though the officer’s warning about 12 million Gazans in 30 years, dialogue about “human porridge,” and talk of future shootings suggest a troubling comparison with the Communist leader.

Should theatergoers be upset that Seinfeld is a very grim security officer? Of course, they are not. Might the same audience members feel for Evron and his son? Of course, they might. The problem in this well-crafted play – its award notwithstanding – is a lack of balance. There ought to be a reasonable Israeli character asking, “What does it mean for Israel to worry continuously about its existence?”

Didactic and polemical theater generally does not rise to the level of art, but that advisory should cut both ways. What does it say that Evron has Saul’s social butterfly wife (wearing a stylish outfit from costume designer Charles Schoonmaker, with a butterfly motif) seeming oblivious to the needs of Gazans while running an event to help Israeli children?

What does it say that his play has self-centered Israeli law partner Horesh speaking glibly about bombing Gazans? Understandably Izakov will distance himself from their attitudes, but must he also effectively distance himself from Israel’s position between the proverbial rock and hard place as a country that medically treats Gazans despite missile attacks?

Audience members may disagree about what the play has to say about Israel, but there should be unanimous agreement about Ben-Aharon’s expert direction, cast members’ first-rate performances and the staging’s radiant design. Ken Cheeseman arrestingly captures Ulysses’ unrelieved defiance and brings real pathos to his experience coping with prison cell stench and darkness. Jeremiah Kissel sharply delineates Saul’s evolution from his client’s dispassionate attorney to a defender who thoughtfully questions his own principles. His “Que Sera Sera” dance in pink, at his wife’s request at her event, is an instant hoot and arguably the play’s most endearing sequence.

Will Lyman brings alarming intensity to Seinfeld’s fiery face-off with Ulysses. Daniel Berger-Jones makes Horesh properly opportunistic and self-serving. Karen MacDonald has the right combination of admiration for her husband and impatience with his self-questioning. Scott Pinkney poetically lights the bottles above all four sides of the audience in the Paramount’s intimate Jackie Liebergott Black Box. David Remedios’ nuanced sound design effectively enhances key moments of tension and edginess.

Evron’s disquieting play may need more artistic mooring, but remarkable Ben-Aharon and his sterling Israeli Stage crew make “Ulysses on Bottles” a passage worth booking.


Call “God Box” – a disarming solo piece written and performed by Antonia Lassar in the second annual Next Rep Black Box Festival – a very untraditional yet very spiritual shiva. Playing Gloria Adelman, a fictional, grieving Jewish mother, with great heart and unexpected humor, Lassar displays an uncommon gift for both accents and quick character changes as she pieces together the late daughter’s exploration of faith – including Buddhism and diverse cults – with the help of the title box containing important details of that unusual odyssey. The writer-actress’ vibrant telling of a particularly amusing Chelm story – which was the favorite of Gloria’s daughter – is as winning as this brief (little more than an hour) but buoyant celebration of love and life.
-Jules Becker

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Strong Validation for Gay Heroes: “The Misadventures of Spy Matthias” and “Lifers”

The Misadventures of Spy Matthias, Theatre on Fire, Charlestown Working Theatre, through April 4. 617-242-3285 or charlestownworkingtheatre.org

Lifers, Happy Medium Theatre and Argos Productions, Boston Playwrights Theatre, through April 5. 617-353-5443 or bostonplaywrightstheatre.org

-Jules Becker

Gay heroes are finding vibrant voice in affecting new plays at two Hub venues. “The Misadventures of Spy Matthias,” a disarming blend of satire, parody and romance by John Byers (the 2013 IRNE Award-winning ‘’The Fakus: A Noir”) at Charlestown Working Theatre, centers on the personal ups-and-downs of fictional gay photographer Matty Olchak as he looks for a lasting relationship. “Lifers,’ a slice-of-life comedy by John Shea (IRNE Award- nominated “Junkie”) and Maureen Cornell at Boston Playwrights Theatre, focuses on the fortunes of co-workers- one an out would-be manager- in a re-opening restaurant. Both Theater on Fire’s stylish “Spy Matthias” and Happy Medium Theatre and Argos Productions’ arresting “Lifers” are so well staged that they instantly serve notice that savvy theatergoers should look to so-called fringe theater for much of Boston’s best new fare and many of the Hub’s best ensemble efforts.

“The Misadventures of Spy Matthias,” set “now and then in Matty’s life and imagination,” takes its conflicted title protagonist on a kind of emotional roller coaster ride-by turns amusing, outrageous and ultimately heartfelt. A compulsive voyeur- whom the play compares to the Jimmy Stewart camera man of the Hitchcock classic “Rear Window”- “only gayer,” the 31 year old adventurer regularly photographs men –many in various states of undress –unbeknownst to them from outside their residences . Quite simply, he seems to be looking in at life rather than fully experiencing it.

That vicarious existence evolves briefly during a relationship with a 20-something actor named Jonah, whose acting ability never matches his impressive physique. For a while, alcohol-dependent Jonah pulls Matty into an addictive misadventure involving a kind of foreplay of fighting that leads to lust without love. Throughout the play, Matty’s judgmental father Ollie greets his son’s generally helter-skelter personal life with tough love that is not altogether unwarranted.  Compounding Matty’s emotional insecurity are other title experiences including an unsatisfying encounter with a shoe salesman with a foot-fetish and a very edgy confrontation with a wheel-chair bound veteran with startling attitude.

Most promising in the long run for Matty is an ongoing friendship with an insightful if vulnerable doctor named Philip Raskin, who dresses up as a cowboy and yodels in a very amusing number. The on-and off dating of Matty and Philip- especially thanks to standout work from Greg Maraio as the former and R. Nelson Lacey as the latter- ultimately becomes the strongest plot link in a play as thoughtful in its own way as Paul Rudnick’s similarly picaresque comedy “Jeffrey.” Will Matty find real love with Philip, who clearly adores him? Skillful playwright Byers makes the curious denouement completely convincing.

Equally convincing is the play’s interweaving of Matty’s title experiences, his dreams and moments of truth with cartoon-like images, wonderfully evoked by projection designer Deirdre Benson. Multiply talented artistic director Darren Evans- producer, co-projectionist and sound designer to boot- sharply paces the switches from present to past in Byers’ short (85 minutes) but dense play as Matty comes to terms with his priorities. Maraio proves very appealing as both restrained and fully life-embracing Matty. Lacey, a sweet hoot in his karaoke number, brings fine pathos to Philip’s own emotional growth.

Janelle Mills displays impressive versatility playing Matty’s ethereal mother Helen-thought to be in Poland as well as tough-talking Ollie. Michael Ryan has the right combination of obsessiveness and languor as Jonah. Adam Siladi as the veteran brings persuasive menace to his unrelenting tone with Maraio’s beleaguered Matt.  Steve Auger has his moments as the shoe salesman.

“The Misadventures of Spy Matthias,” alternately racy, rollicking and reflective, is a Theater on Fire triumph.

Are restaurant co-workers struggling ‘inmates’ of their profession or respected, hard-working colleagues? The John Shea-Maureen Cornell play “Lifers” suggests the former image in its prison-connected title metaphor but eventually reaches varying degrees of validation for employees coping with the 2004-set transformation of an unassuming local eatery into a would-be magnet for upscale sophisticates.  This Happy Medium Theatre  and Argos Productions collaboration makes Shea and Cornell’s authentic sounding and looking  theatrical entree  (about 75 minutes)  so savory that some theatergoers are likely to come back for seconds. Particularly winning is the camaraderie of the characters –save tactless new manager Sherry- who accept each other as if members of an unassuming extended family.

An important part of that acceptance involves out perceptive worker Michael, who occasionally flirts with pre-graduate school straight summer worker Winfield. Under Argos artistic director Breet Mark’s smart helm, Michael DiLoreto captures Michael’s easy comfort level of sexuality as well as his incisiveness as a would be manager who steps in at a pivotal moment of crisis during the re-opening of the restaurant. Audrey Lynn Silia has the right combination of abrasiveness and vulnerability as Sherry. The first-rate ensemble also includes potential ‘lifers’ Marie-played with the right work-weariness by Maureen Adduci- and Doyle, captured with salty snappiness by Peter Brown. Rounding out the fine cast are Lisette Marie Morris’ properly troubled Carla and David D’Andrea’s engagingly unpredictable Wingfield. Marc Ewart’s well-detailed kitchen set is as warm and welcoming as the knowing “Lifers.”

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In the Kitchen with Sarah C.

And thus my dinner plate in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow

even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.

              [excerpt from The Fish, a poem by Billy Collins]

Cooking up rose petals and creating Dyn-o-mite photos

No one ever accused Sarah Scoble Commerford of failing to vary her cooking. Except for her son, Tim, but that was more than two years and 190-plus countries ago.

Since then, the globe-trotting blog that documents Sarah’s dishes – and her response to her son – has delighted a worldwide audience.

When I caught up with her, just two countries shy of the finish line, she was busy constructing a “still” on her stovetop for Yemeni shortbread cookies.

Not content to rely on bottled rose water, Sarah lay a flat a brick at the bottom of her well-scrubbed lobster pot, and placed a small metal bowl atop the brick. Next, she tossed in a couple handfuls of rose petals picked from her garden. The petals lay on the bottom of the pot. Then she poured in just enough water to cover the petals.

Atop the lobster pot, she placed the cover – inverted. Into the cover she piled two or three ice cube trays of ice, then lit the flame on high to boil the water. Once the “petal water” heated, the steam condensed on the underside of the pot cover and dripped into the metal bowl below.

Sarah Commerford mixes in additional flour to her shortbread cookie dough. These cookies smell and taste heavenly.

The resulting rose water was less sweet, less intense, than the bottled version, but still flavorful.

As for the cookies, they were to die for. Cookie Heaven in any culture. They even smelled heavenly.

The previous night, Sarah researched Yemen’s customs, culture and food for the blog post. After she locates a recipe, she typically converts from kilos and grams, and looks for other changes to make; in this case, replacing the Indian clarified butter known as ghee with somewhat healthier canola oil.

For an Angolan dish, Arroz Integral com Manteiga de Amendoim e Bananas and Chicken, she eschewed the red palm oil it called for. “That sh*t is really bad,” she wrote in her posting. “Plus it would be really hard to find around this white bread town.”

As she shaped her cookies, 17-year-old Tim wandered in and brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink. It was his challenge to expand her dinner repertoire that inspired the project originally.

That afternoon, Sarah brought a batch of cookies to her backyard with tripod and camera, re-arranging the plate more than a dozen times. “It’s like Christmas when I plug the photo card into the computer and see how the images turned out.”

If Sarah’s cooking skills were on par with her photography when she embarked on this project, she likely would have quit after Antigua.

The high-quality shots on Sarah Commerford’s blog reflect the time and care she devotes to prepping the food and photographing it.

But she improved by leaps and bounds, and her husband, Liam, rewarded her with a sophisticated D-SLR camera and high-quality tripod. She doesn’t own Photoshop and doesn’t have the time to manipulate her images. “I like the image to look like it does on my plate.”

Nevertheless, the high-quality shots reflect the time and care she devotes to them; rich in color and awash in natural light. They greatly enhance her blog posts, both illustrating her recipe steps and lending an artistic charm.

Attending a photography class helped, but she still glazes over when discussion turns to f-stops. She prefers to devote her attention to props, enhancing her photos with the dishes, fabrics and other items she loves to collect. “I purged the collection [years ago], but it all came back when I started this project.”

Sarah’s Favorites

Ghraybeh (Shortbread Cookies) from Yemen

Recipe Summary

Yemeni Shortbread Cookies (photo: Sarah Commerford)

all-purpose flour
semolina flour
clarified butter (ghee) or canola oil
rose water
Plus a few staple ingredients

Mix together the butter, sugar, and rose water. Sift together the dry ingredients, stir into the butter mixture and chill dough. Then shape the dough into cookies, arrange on baking sheets, and bake. Complete recipe here.

Rosemary Shortbread Cookies

Sarah Commerford calls these her favorite cookies of all time. They’re from Joanne Chang’s baking book, Flour, which she heartily endorses. The cookies are not too sweet, and have just the right amount of fresh rosemary, “which lends them a sublimely delicate, savory flavor and fragrance – a more elegant cookie does not exist. I’m that sure.”

Rosemary shortbread cookies (photo: Sarah Commerford)

Sarah, a salt freak, substituted sea salt for kosher salt. The larger grain salt provides “little random crunchy bursts of saltiness,” which your tongue will appreciate as much as hers, hopefully.

The cookies use just 8 ingredients: light brown sugar, cornstarch, and fresh rosemary. Also sea salt (optional), Plus a few staple ingredients. Complete recipe here.

If you want to find out why Sarah loves her Salter scale for baking, go here.

Next Post: Bring on the next adventure – Getting to know Sarah Commerford

Read Previous Post Here.

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World Food Trek

[Here, a young Vietnamese cook, hired by a famous writer, speaks to himself:] “Quinces are ripe when they are the yellow of canary wings in midflight….But even then quinces remain a fruit, hard and obstinate – useless, GertrudeStein, until they are simmered, coddled for hours above a low, steady flame. Add honey and water and watch their dry, bone-colored flesh soak up the heat, coating itself in an opulent orange, not of the sunrises that you never see but of the insides of tree-ripened papayas, a color you can taste. To answer your question, GertrudeStein, love is not a bowl of quinces yellowing in a blue and white china bowl, seen but untouched.”
                                                                                    — The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong 

The journey began with Afghanistan two years ago;  Every nation on the planet gets its day in Sarah Commerford’s kitchen

Sarah Scoble Commerford leads a pretty ordinary life, as much as any of our lives can be called “ordinary.”

Four years ago, Sarah’s life was ordinary the way Julie Powell’s life was ordinary before she undertook the challenge of cooking her way through Julia Child’s culinary bible.

Sarah had a similar “ah-hah” moment – what if she could cook her way around the world without ever leaving her tidy, charming Holliston home? Today, 191 countries later,* she nears the end of her epic kitchen journey.

As much as I admire Julie Powell’s fearless undertaking, her writing left me completely underwhelmed. Powell’s life and childhood simply did not warrant the space she devoted to them. I stopped reading – bored and frustrated – long before the halfway mark. (Except for her hilarious recounting of the supper with Amanda.)

There’s her exceptional blog that charts her progress as she ricocheted her way from Azerbaijan to Armenia to Africa (this was an A-to-Z adventure). But there’s no pending book deal. Nora Ephron hasn’t optioned her story. And one can only assume that Amanda Hesser was too busy with Food52 to invite herself to dinner.

Sarah keeps the focus on the food. She instinctively knows when, and how much, to insert herself. Her lack of formal training, or access to the incredible ethnic and import shops found in the Cambridge/Watertown area, makes her achievement that much more extraordinary. Especially in the face of squirrel, alligator, ostrich, and wild boar – none of which she ever prepared before her blog.

In honor of Sarah Commerford’s perseverance, I’m devoting the next few postings to her.  She would insist that she’s no big deal. But believe me, she is and she deserves your attention.

*  The z’s still remain.

Sarah’s Favorites

“Doubles, Barra with Channa and Cucumber Chutney” from Trinidad and Tobago

Layer the chutney on the chickpeas, then top with hot sauce: West Indian awesomeness.
(Photo by Sarah Scoble Commerford)

This is a sort of sandwich with homemade bread, chickpeas, cucumber-lime-habanero-cilantro chutney, and tamarind hot sauce. Sarah ranks it among the top five dishes of her project and calls it “incredible….Partly because it’s unique, delicious and captures the smells and flavors of this beautiful West Indian country.”

I’ve outlined a few ingredients and preparation steps to whet your appetite.

The barra dough is shaped into 36 small balls and fried in canola oil. The recipe calls for all-purpose flour, saffron powder, and ground geera (cumin, preferably roasted).

The channa calls for chick peas or garbanzo beans, ground coriander, chive and turmeric powder (among other ingredients), which are mixed and boiled.

The Cucumber Chutney includes cilantro, chives, scotch-bonnet (habanero) pepper, and fresh lime juice.

The Tamarind Hot Sauce includes hot peppers, vinegar, fruit juice and tamarind pods, which must be peeled and deseeded. These are tricky and sticky to work with, but delicious, Sarah says.

After all that, you layer the chutney on the chickpeas, then top with hot sauce: West Indian awesomeness.

Find the complete recipe Here, with photos illustrating the various steps.

Next post in the series: In the kitchen with Sarah C.

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A ‘Dream’ Kitchen Brings Forth a Dreamy Appetizer

[Because of] the Vietcong’s unsporting habit of cutting the roads, only a pathetic trickle of first-class produce reached the capital, Saigon. Somehow, though, there was always plenty of pho, the restorative anise-scented beef or chicken noodle soup, delivered to your door for breakfast by frail-looking vendors, and that was ample compensation.

                                                                             — R.W. Apple Jr., The Dining Room Wars

A pea mashup on lime bruschetta flavors an Inman Square kick-off celebration

A few of those crowded into Rival’s new kitchen studio last night in Inman Square. The marketing agency will use the space for shooting client videos and hopes to sponsor community events, as well.

Many cooks fantasize about building their “dream kitchen.” (I’m not one of them – I love mine.)

Lynne Viera, a self-described kitchen gadget addict and marketer for a wide array of food enterprises, built herself one heck of a kitchen in the middle of Inman Square in Cambridge. One imagines her energetic marketing staff wandering down from their swank offices several floors above to rustle up something fresh, colorful and tasty for lunch (or dinner, when deadlines demand late hours).

Jody Adams improvises by extracting lime pulp and juice with a spoon handle.

But Lynne has bigger plans for the space, which she kicked off last night by inviting over several food friends to provide cooking demos. Among them were Jody Adams of Rialto, who brightened up an already well-lit room with her sparkling personality and a delicious appetizer. So delicious, I’d urge you to try it yourself as soon as you can rustle up the required ingredients. (Details and recipe link below.)

Lynne’s Rival marketing agency will employ the in-house kitchen studio to produce content for clients (and perhaps sponsor community events).

Lynne Viera, of Rival, in her new kitchen studio with Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern, Harvard Square.

I expect to write more about Lynne’s experience in helping companies to market their food products, as well as her impressive instructional video site, how2heroes, which contains hundreds of recipes from many, many chefs.

If you want to see what goes into building a dream kitchen, Rival’s amusing 2-minute “video” (actually, a timelapse film they created using 3,000 photos shot from start to finish) is entertaining and worth a look.

Also worth a look – and a taste – is Jody Adams’ Sweet Pea Bruschetta with Lime Toast, which she cooked up with husband Ken Rivard for their richly photographed Garum Factory blog.*

The bruschetta, which they describe as “anti-poobah food” (y’know, nothin’ fancy), is brushed with lime juice and olive oil, a dollop of creme fraiche or mascarpone, and then topped with a mash made from peas, chervil and mint, and leeks.

Sweet Pea Bruschetta with Lime Toast
(Photo: Ken Rivard,
Garam Factory.net)

Food Notes: You can substitute frozen peas for fresh pods. [Before you poo-poo or poobah them, consider that Christopher Kimball (Cook’s Illustrated) actually prefers frozen to supermarket shell peas. They can be sweeter and better tasting if you ignore the cooking instructions printed on the package.]**

If you can’t find fresh chervil, don’t substitute dried herbs. Instead, try parsley or fresh basil.

Trader Joe’s and Russo’s have the best price on Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery creme fraiche.

Rialto’s Jody Adams adds peas to leeks and herbs before mashing the mixture.

*Garum, since you asked, was a very popular, but expensive and pungent Roman fish sauce – not unlike the popular Vietnamese fish sauce of today. Don’t feel bad; nobody in the crowd last night knew its meaning, either.

** If you want to prepare frozen peas as a separate side dish, try sautéing them (still frozen) in a large nonstick skillet along with some aromatics and a little sugar. If you add butter to the pan, you might want to pour off the water first as the peas thaw.





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A Painter’s Palette in the Kitchen: Do We Eat with Our Eyes?

We all know one of those extreme eaters, the friend who travels to exotic places and performs the gastronomic equivalent of running with the bulls. These people live for the goat’s eye, the snake’s heart, the putrefying cheese, the crispy insect. I’d like to be one of them, but it’s not gonna happen.
                                                                     – Tom Perrotta, The Squeamish American         

La Tartine Gourmande’s Béatrice Peltre revisits her childhood in the French countryside for memories and inspiration.

If you’re not yet familiar with Béatrice Peltre, you ought to be.

As one of the Boston area’s most successful food bloggers, Béa has built a showcase to her healthful and creative recipes, her food styling, her stories of growing up in the French countryside surrounded by a family in love with food and cooking, and her darling 3-year-old Lulu – half the age of the site itself, her first steps and first taste of les madeleines duly recorded and blogged.

It is the food styling and presentation that has led to the stunning photography that helps attract tens of thousands of fans to the site, La Tartine Gourmande. And now, Béa has published a book by the same name.

So why was I torn about whether to attend her appearance at Harvard Book Store Monday evening?

Peltre: An aesthetic approach to food

Well, I was skeptical, if not downright suspicious, of someone who appeared to make it all look so easy. Someone who reminded me a bit of Martha Stewart, who writes lovingly of her gardens and rustic homes as she pulls off her barn jacket for another wreath-making session, when you know full well her typical day is spent bossing around a huge staff, reading profit/loss statements, and griping about some deal about to go down the tubes.

Reviewers have gushed about Béa’s lovely home, her lovely food, her lovely accent, her lovely looks, lovely childhood…. you get the idea. It’s that haze of orchard-to-pie existence where nothing ever turns moldy in the fridge that leaves me A) wondering what’s wrong with my life, or B) wondering if it’s true indeed that practically any problem can be put right with a sprinkle of aged balsamic vinegar and a few grinds of fresh tellicherry pepper.

Add to that my impatience with “food personalities” who package and brand themselves; who care more for entertaining than educating. Sorry, but that’s my prejudice, and chefs/cooks like that make me cranky.

In Béa’s case, I was afraid she cared more about presenting a storybook than a cookbook. And the video trailer for the book, with its “gentle, plucky” soundtrack and images of her artfully arranging apple slices before sun-streaked windows and bouncing along meadows with husband Phil and Lulu in tow, did little to dispel my fears.

Styling the inspired life of Tartine Gourmande. (Photography by Béatrice Peltre)

I am happy to report that Béa did not live up to her advance billing. Her presentation at Harvard Book Store barely registered on the cranky meter. (And her video is actually a kick to watch.]

Aesthetics rule for her, and she is unapologetic about the role they play in her dishes and recipes. After all, she says, “You eat with your eyes first.”

“I need a set of colors and a set of ingredients I want to work with,” she says of her recipe development process. “I work around a pallet of colors and flavors. I think about shapes, like a painting. And I try to be original.”

Her early photos were terrible, she acknowledges. And she made the mistake of many food bloggers: trying to turn every meal and experience into a post, cramming as much as possible into her site.

But she taught herself photography and food styling, upgraded her camera equipment, and worked hard at the blog. “I was very passionate about it.”

She still is, but she blogs more selectively nowadays. She expanded to styling and photographing professionally for various publications and businesses. And she landed a book contract, which required many hours of experimentation and recipe refinement.

While the dishes harken back to her home in France, where her grandparents farmed and everyone in her family owns a vegetable garden, the recipes “revisit,” or adapt, the food with which she grew up.

Many of the recipes contain coconut milk and other Asian ingredients like lemongrass, which she discovered in Thai cooking while residing in New Zealand. But except for cranberries – her most exciting local food discovery – she has adopted little from this side of the Atlantic.

A bout of gluten intolerance may have impacted her cooking more than anything since leaving her native France. It forced her to experiment with a wide variety of grains in her baking – so much so that nearly all her book recipes are gluten free. Millet and quinoa come closest to wheat flour, she says, but beware of cup-for-cup substitutions. “It’s going to be bad,” she warns.

It’s also going to be crumbly, unless you add corn starch or certain kinds of rice flour. Either read her book for guidance or conduct your own experiments.

As for her aesthetic approach to blog, book and video, she acknowledges that looks can be deceiving. “Yes, it looks very easy, but it’s not. Sometimes a single image takes five minutes, sometimes two or three hours. I put a lot of time into it and I have to be very organized.”

There’s much to consider in addition to the food: light, fabrics, props, plates. “It may look incidental,” she says of the final result, “but it’s not.”

Tartines, the namesake of her blog and book, are akin to an open-faced sandwich with various toppings. The French traditionally eat tartines for breakfast at home, with butter and jam, although any sweet spread will do. In general, her nation much prefers lunch to breakfast, which generally gets short shrift there. “Growing up, nobody skips lunch, and everyone talks about food,” she recalls.

The thin slices of bread in a tartine can support any sort of topping, leading Béa to experiment with many variations. Marinated fennel with radishes; broiled eggplant and baked tomatoes; and Spanish piquillo pepper and avocado – the last two combos atop ricotta cheese.

“I am a real ‘tartine’ girl,” Béa writes, recalling the tartines her mother prepared for her growing up. “There is a whole world attached to mes tartines. I cannot explain it.”

A typical day of meals for her still sounds like something out of Saveur: Fresh apple juice, fresh muesli with fruits and nuts in the morning, with green tea and toast – “I love to spread avocado and feta on top.” At lunch, a vegetable tart with salad and soup, a chocolate cake, and a fruit tart or clafoutis. A risotto with seafood and baked apricots with coconut milk and lime juice for dinner.

Clearly, hers is a kitchen where fruit tarts, not Pop-Tarts, hold sway. (Has someone told her about the Joylicious™ world of flavor and fun she’s missing out on?) An audience question about scrapple – that Pennsylvania Dutch dish of pork scraps, cornmeal and flour – left her confounded. And she acknowledges that England was the first place she encountered eggs and granola for breakfast.

She’s already at work on the concept for her next book. Feeding her blog and business, as well as her husband and daughter, will keep her hands full, as well. One comes away wondering why our life cannot more often resemble the life of La Tartine Gourmande; a life (to paraphrase Béa) of semi-sweet memories and stories wrapped around recipes.

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What We’ll be Serving Up

In the days that followed, the farmers dutifully (and skeptically) planted Napoli carrots and spread the almond dust over the rows….Ferran Adrià may have espresso foam and olive oil capsules, I thought, but he doesn’t have carrots pre-infused with almonds.

                                                                                               — Dan Barber, The Great Carrot Caper

Here’s a quick look at what we’re writing about at the CambridgeCooks kitchen table.

On the front burner:

We profile food blogger and photographer extraordinaire Béatrice Peltre, as well as report on her appearance at Harvard Book Store.

On the back burner:

We’ll profile two local favorite stores: Fresh Pond Market, and Arax Market, as soon as we can convince the owners of both groceries to stand still long enough for a photo.

We’re also working on pieces about two cookbook authors who made appearances recently: the ever-herbivorous Didi Emmons, and fish chef/seafood sustainability advocate Barton Seaver.

Stay tuned and check back often.

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