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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FoodLit: The Plot Simmers and Thickens

What we talk about when we talk about food:

Dishing on Modern Life at WBUR Authors Night Out.
Who: Authors Allegra Goodman, Margot Livesey and Adam Gopnik, in coversation with Robin Young.
What: Food & Philosophy, a fundraising event for WBUR radio.
Where: First Church, Cambridge, earlier this week.  

 

At the outset, it looked liked a Food Network challenge: Create an event from a mystery basket of ingredients. In this case, authors from three different food groups with seemingly little in common.

But introduce a catalyst to bind them together – Robin Young, host of radio program Here and Now on WBUR, the event sponsor – and you end up with a pretty tasty evening: three perspectives, writers who think deeply about food, and a lot to chew on.

Adam Gopnik
Writer, The New Yorker. Author, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.
Among his favorite food fiction: Robert B. Parker’s detective, Spenser, who loved to cook up elaborate meals. (See side note.)

If you’ve ever heard New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik tell stories on The Moth Radio Hour, then you know his self-assured and self-effacing storytelling style hold an audience rapt. One moment, he’s contrasting U.S. and French cooks and the different statements they make by using local ingredients. [Predictably left leaning in the U.S., a window into the “entire (NPR) tote bag of their existence.” Less predictable in France; it could denote a right-leaning statement of French nationalism.] In the next moment, he’s explaining the changing attitude among younger French cooks toward slow food. Or comparing home cooks to cocktail lounge piano players. (Hint: They both get the same requests every night.)

Erudite and amusing, he’s off a few minutes later on the subject of the place of cooking in literature: specifically, how authors use cooking as an activity to set a scene in which their characters can think…. and go on thinking. Years ago, they used driving for the backdrop.

“But in real life, cooking is a substitute for thinking,” Gopnik wryly observed. “You’ve been thinking all day and you want to cook to take a break from thinking.”

If Gopnik relishes cooking as an informal roadmap to literary heroes and heroines, a window into cultural norms and social history, then Allegra Goodman turns to food as appetite: a metaphor for seduction and obsession.

Allegra Goodman
The Cookbook Collector
Among her favorite food fiction: The Wind in the Willows. ‘Especially the boating picnic that Rat and Mole put together.’

The author of the highly-praised novel, The Cookbook Collector, said in an interview: “I am fascinated by cookbooks as guidebooks. We read about what to eat and by extension how to live. One of the central questions for the sisters in my novel:  Can you find a recipe for conduct?  Or do you have to make up your own rules?”

The Cambridge resident acknowledges taking pleasure in perusing complicated recipes with cascading lists of ingredients that she has little hope of actually cooking.

Goodman says the book is about hunger: for money, for material things, for food, for fame, for knowledge, for companionship, for love.

Margot Livesey, another Cambridge author, also writes about hunger, but of a different sort.

The hunger of her heroine, Gemma Hardy – based on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – reflects her aching desire for kindness and family to nourish her soul, and a table at which she feels welcome. Time spent in the isolated Scottish countryside, and as a servant/student at a boarding school, do little to quell that hunger before she takes flight.

Margot Livesey
The Flight of Gemma Hardy
Among her favorite food fiction: Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday. ‘The whole novel builds toward Henry Perowne making fish stew.’ (See end note)

There’s plenty of food in Livesey’s novel, but these meals are best forgotten; lacking flavor or variation, they neither celebrate nor sustain one’s spirit.

Livesey grew up in a boys’ private school in the Scottish Highlands where her father taught, and her mother was the school nurse. She attended boarding school at a young age and felt like an outsider.

Her entire childhood was “a war on food,” she recalls. Constantly reminded of the starving children in India, “I would have gladly sent them the food on my plate if I could have afforded the postage.”

 

 Spenser: A Devotion to Shelled Beans

Adam Gopnik spoke of the way Spenser (the creation of Boston novelist Robert B. Parker) shelled beans. In this passage, Gopnik writes: “The beans alone establish Spenser’s credibility as a cook. ‘I shelled the beans from their long, red-and-cream pods and dropped them in boiling water and turned down the heat and let them simmer,’ he tells us. A devotion to shell beans, I have noticed, divides even amateur cooks from non-cooks more absolutely than any other food, and they are, into the bargain, a perfect model of writing.”

 

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

Henry Perowne’s Fish Stew from Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday. McEwan had so many requests from readers for the recipe, that he finally published it on his Web site.

You can find the recipe HERE.

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No Venison for the Minutemen? Gluten-Free Patriots? What’s for Supper After a Day Battling the Redcoats

A brief and fascinating glimpse at how the Colonists dined in April, 1775.

It’s Patriots Day and time for a history lesson of a different sort.

We know millions of details about the Shot Heard Round the World. And the brave Minutemen who grabbed their muskets to face down the advancing British columns.

But what do we know of their daily lives? After a long day spent shooting at His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot, what was for supper?

THOSE FANCY IMPORTED GOODS

By the mid-1700s, imported specialty foods like coffee, tea, rum, spices and molasses, were all the rage among those who could afford them. (1)

Before we answer that question, you should know that trendy food did not originate with quiche, bottled water and organic salads in the 1970s.

By the time talk of revolution began to stir among the Colonies 200 years earlier, a consumer revolution of sorts had taken hold. Puritan America, which had embraced moderation and disdained extravagance, had already run its course.

By the early and mid-eighteenth century, fancy imported goods – including heretofore unavailable specialty foods – were all the rage among those who could afford them.

Slowly those goods began to make their way out of seaport communities like Salem and Boston into stores that dotted the New England farming countryside. Treats like coffee, tea, rum, spices and molasses to flavor food.

“Everyone wanted to have them, at least some coffee, some tea, some spices,” explains Keith Stavely, co-author (with Kathleen Fitzgerald) of Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England. Colonists typically traded with these stores and paid for the goods in barter with their farm surplus.

NOT THE HEARTY MEALS WE IMAGINE

But the farmers who faced down the Brits were largely subsistence farmers who rarely ran a surplus. Their diet consisted mostly of milk, beans, potatoes, and a course brown bread known as “rye and Indian bread.” This dense, heavy bread came from cornmeal, or Indian Corn, as it was known; the staple grain of native Americans. Massachusetts Colonists also mixed in rye, the European grain they brought over with them. It was gluten free of necessity (neither grain contained it).

The farmers who faced down the Brits were largely subsistence farmers. Their main daily meal usually featured milk, beans, potatoes, and a heavy, dense brown bread of rye and/or cornmeal. (2)

Their main meal was dinner – the mid-day meal. In addition to the aforementioned, they often turned to another native American staple, succotash: a type of bean porridge that evolved over time to include meat, vegetables and potato.

However, in their day, the porridge or stew included salted meat (most often pork) only if they had some.

This stew was an adaptation of the pottage they were accustomed to eating in England as well as the Indian one-pot meal. It was typically cooked over a fire since most homes could not yet afford to build a brick oven.

They consumed it day in and day out. A simple meal of bread and milk usually started and ended each day.

In the warmer months, they could get fresh game and fish from hunting.  But even by the onset of the Revolution, hunting had diminished the local deer population so dramatically that these farmers had to rely on small game. They also supplemented their dinners with berries in season and perhaps greens from their garden, which they typically boiled.

They added meat (usually salt pork) to their dinner if they were fortunate to have some. Molasses and wheat as a diet staple came decades later. (3)

Pepper and molasses were the high-end extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar of their day. Baked beans – which would have to be baked at the house of a neighbor or a tavern that possessed a rare oven – and Boston brown bread would not have been sweetened with molasses typically until nearly a century later in the 1870’s .

Our Patriot forefathers were not conspicuous consumers because they couldn’t afford it. None of which stopped the British empire from attempting to tax their colonists, beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765. If that tax proved unpopular, imagine the reaction to the series of smaller taxes that followed, culminating in the famous tea tax a few years later.

SIMPLICITY REPLACES CONSUMPTION

By then, as conflict deepened between the colonies and England, so did opposition to any trace of extravagance and luxury. The pendulum had swung the other way. Suddenly, indulging in foreign teas, china ware, spices – all equated with British and foreign manufacture – were out. The “honest simplicity” of domestically produced goods was in.

There are stories of patriots trying to shame their less-conscientious brethren into giving up tea and other verboten items completely.

Once anti-British sentiment took hold, these farmers were pressured to give up minor imported 'luxuries' like tea and spices, even black pepper.

As tough as their meals were at home, it was even more difficult for the Minutemen when they began their long struggle for independence on April 19. “Johnnycakes were a type of flatbread; part of a long tradition of preparing corn meal, which they learned from the Indians. In its simplest form, you could keep it forever in your knapsack,” Stavely explains.

At least their everyday beverage was a step up. They started out drinking beer and ale, not only for the obvious reasons, but also because they could depend on it to be cleaner than water. However, apple growing proved so successful in these parts that cider soon supplanted alcohol. And apple cider took its rightful place as the drink that fueled the American revolution.

We’ll continue our tour of Colonial cookery on Independence Day.

PATRIOTS DAY RECIPE: COOK LIKE THE COLONISTS

Until then, click over to the blog of Northern Hospitality authors Stavely and Fitzgerald (here) for their Patriots Day selection: Catharine Beecher’s Beef or Veal Stewed with Apples. This is a 19th century version of a fairly typical 18th century meal.

Stowe, the older sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the author of several books about household management, was considered the Martha Stewart of her day, according to author Kathleen Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald successfully updated the recipe on their blog, (here). She reports, “Cooked slowly together, these unassuming ingredients achieve unexpected flavor and complexity.”

And pick up a copy of their wonderful book at your local bookstore, while we’re still lucky enough to have them. [Read previous post (here), and more (here)]

We owe a debt of gratitude to Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald for their wonderful insights into Colonial life discussed here.

Credits:

(1) By Hy. Sandham
Source: Idyls and Pastorals: A Home Gallery of Poetry and Art
Copyright 1886  D. Lothrop & Co., Boston
(2) The Minute Men Called to Arms, By Jennie Brownscombe.
Reproduced from the Harry O. Eichleay collection.
(thanks to Norman J. Meinert)
(3) Minute Men Leaving the Home of Captain Isaac Davis, April 19, 1775
by Arthur Fuller Davis. Owned by Acton Memorial Library.
(4) By Abel Parker
(5) Fitzgerald/Stavely
(6) Catharine Beecher, 1848. Courtesy the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

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East Coast Grill’s Chris Schlesinger: Cooking Essentials & Putting a Chef to the Test

The news broke in mid-January that Chris Schlesinger is selling his famed East Coast Grill to head chef Jason Heard, general manager Robin Greenspan, and another manager, James Lozano.

For those from out of town and the few locals unfamiliar with Schlesinger: He opened the Grill in 1985. He quickly established a reputation for cooking on a wood-fired grill – innovative at the time – and has authored numerous books on cooking and adding heat to food.

What’s next for Chris Schlesinger? ‘I’m planning my first summer off since I was 15,’ he says. ‘It’s a brutal business.’

His restaurant also attracted ambitious chefs over the years, and helped launch several careers. A James Beard award in 1996 for best chef in the Northeast confirmed what locals already knew.

Schlesinger is adamant about the new owners’ commitment to maintaining the traditions of the restaurant while bringing new energy to it and introducing new ideas. After all, he acknowledges, he has spent relatively little time behind the stove for more than a decade, as he pursued book projects, opened additional restaurants and built the business.

He insists that nobody is better equipped to take over the Grill than the trio of cooks who have spent years learning the business and the techniques that go into every dish.

As for Schlesinger, you can find him this summer in southeastern Massachusetts pursuing a journey of gardening improvisation [‘Garden designers come by, take a look, and ask me, ‘What the fuck have you done?’], working on a few consulting gigs, and assisting with the transition of the Grill to its new owners.

A veteran of several restaurant ventures, it looks doubtful Schlesinger will attempt a new eatery anytime soon. As he told WBUR’s RadioBoston recently, “When I had one restaurant, I wanted two. When I had two, I wanted one. You have to build a big organization to do that.”

A follow-up to his latest cookbook, co-authored with local writer John Willoughby in 2010, looks equally uncertain. “Do people use them any longer?” he asks. “With everyone going online, cookbooks need more than recipes. They need a personality.”

The same could be said for restaurants, and the Grill is known for its hospitality and the enthusiasm of its staff. “As Dolly Parton says, ‘It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,’” Schlesinger explained to RadioBoston. “A lot of hard work goes into making it look casual and make people feel comfortable.”

Schlesinger also recalled the genesis of his devotion to grilling and spice. On a vacation to Barbados years ago, he ran out of money. “We had to start eating local food. Probably the spiciest thing I’d eaten ’til then was Tabasco sauce. It was such an impressionable experience. A lot of the world grills on an everyday basis.”

His Hell Bone features a Scotch Bonnet chili pepper and yellow mustard; the best combination of heat and full flavor, he insists. While the Hell Bone has earned a permanent place on the lineup, “an unbeatable salad with avocado, hearts of palm, pumpkin seeds and cilantro vinaigrette” has vanished, complained one diner on Chowhound.

                                                * * *

Chris Schlesinger sat down recently with CambridgeCooks to dish on matters of the kitchen. He talked about why salt still shines, the importance of technique over recipes, and the key aspect to treating your food, no matter how you cook it.

Cooking essentials, and what he looks for in a chef:

CC: What are a few things that a cook needs to know?

CS: Technique is more important than recipes. Nobody here cooks with measuring cups.

You need the essentials: Roasting, sautéing, grilling, pan frying. Braising is great, and vastly underrated.

We test our cooks on A) How you salt. B) How you test for doneness.

Salt: You wouldn’t believe how much we use here. It’s such an important flavor enhancer. In general, people use too little of it; they undersalt.

My understanding is that it contributes to high blood pressure in a small percentage of the population that’s salt sensitive. We consume way too much in general, but there are probably a lot of other culprits [affecting our health]. I’d rather give up alcohol than salt.

Pepper: The key is the freshness of the pepper. I like to use a coffee grinder to pulverize it. When I need cracked pepper, I use the heal of a sauté pan.

[In a NY Times column a while back, Schlesinger and co-author John Willoughby wrote about the spice]:

“Pepper might be called the little black dress of Western cooking, but for a long time it’s been a pretty shabby outfit. Smart cooks are selecting among exotic options like Lampong, Sarawak, Malabar and Tellicherry. Freshly ground, these are as different from supermarket pepper as saffron is from sawdust.

 “Tellicherry pepper is widely considered the finest variety. But both it and Malabar make excellent all-purpose peppercorns and seem to go particularly well with beef.  Sarawak seems to go well with lamb and chicken.

“When you bite into chunks of coarsely ground pepper, they explode with flavor and heat. For the biggest chunks, crack the peppercorns by rolling a heavy sauté pan over them, back and forth, while bearing down. For a somewhat finer texture, pulse the peppercorns three or four times in an electric coffee grinder (particularly useful when grinding large quantities). Or use a good pepper grinder at its coarsest setting.”

‘A lot of the world grills on an everyday basis.’

[CambridgeCooks Note: The problem, of course, is finding a good pepper grinder. Even one recommended by Cooks Illustrated is adequate at best. Have any readers found a great one (preferably non-electric)?  Also, expect to pay $14-$18/lb. for Tellicherry peppercorns. You can find small quantities at Harvest Co-Op or Christina’s Spices. Penzeys Spices in Arlington is another good source.]

Doneness: Most people don’t cook their food long enough. You’ve got to manipulate it [to determine when it’s done]. At home, I cut into it, or use a thermometer, poke it, look at it. I come at it from different angles. For roasts, I still poke it with a skewer and run it alongside my lip [to feel how hot it is]. I bend a piece of fish or a chicken thigh [to see if it’s done].

I encourage people to cut into their food. Some people warn that you’re losing essential juices when you do this, but you’re not losing that much. It’s not a balloon.

Fear of Mistakes: Everybody is caught up in recipes. You read the old French food books, and they give you ingredients and technique but no measurements. I like them for technique, not for the morality: ‘This is right. This is wrong.’ It’s hard for me to watch people being scared of doing it ‘wrong.’

Number One Tip for Grilling:  Have one portion that’s really hot, and one that’s not so hot: Create different heat zones.

Advice for Cambridge apartment dwellers prohibited from grilling on their porches: Use a black pan on the stovetop instead. It’s all about the crust rather than the smoke. So long as you use high heat. Get a hard sear on it.

Are better pans worth the price? It’s not about the pan. You should see ours. Sure, they are better quality. But it won’t necessarily produce better food.

— Lee D. Goodwin

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Cooking Up the Past: How to Bring New England Succotash, Penny Loaf Pudding, and Oyster Pie into Your Kitchen

Honey, How old is that fish in the fridge?

The cod? I think it’s from 1856.

That’s how I imagine dinnertime conversation in the home of Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald.

The food of colonial America never held a special fascination for me until I stumbled upon their recently published, Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England.

The book, combined with the authors’ blog, serves up a fascinating main course in pre- and post-colonial history, with an equally intriguing side dish of archaic recipes, and modern-day adaptations with step-by-step instructions.

The husband-and-wife team of Stavely and Fitzgerald – librarians turned kitchen sleuths – wisely preserve the sometimes mysterious language of the original recipes, while offering translation and commentary.

Keith Stavely dishes up a plate of colonial America. His new book is full of archaic language, culinary curiosities and fascinating historical footnotes.

They take the same approach to updating the recipes: moving them from the fragile pages of dusty books and the confines of historic preservation museums to the modern kitchen. But they stay true to the spirit of the page. If the recipe says to smother a lamb shoulder with butter, toss oysters into a chicken pot pie, or add lard to the pie crust, by God, that’s what they reach for.

Take Manchet bread, for instance, a 1615 light wheat loaf. Keith and Kathleen provide historical context for the recipe, and a bit of personality about the recipe’s author (in this case, an aristocrat). Incidentally, the scarcity of wheat back then would have made this a rare treat both in England and the newly-settled colonies.

So here we are, exactly 400 years later, and the duo is happy to report that the bread is still worth the effort: “a perfect balance between the lightness of white bread and the firmness of whole wheat…virtually irresistible.”

The blog also scores points for clarity of recipes. Photos illustrate the detailed instructions every step of the way – sufficiently simple even for a baking novice like me. Keith and Kathleen write well (another plus), and provide entertaining translations for such archaic instructions as “scorcht [the dough] about the wast;” that is, lightly cut all around the circumference with a sharp knife.

While every effort is taken to replicate the original recipe, the couple are not strict reenactors; they are not out to duplicate the process down to the smallest detail. They wisely employ their standing mixer to form a “well mowlded” dough, or in the case of roasted scrod, a Weber grill to replace their lack of fireplace and hearth.

The Cambridge transplants, who now live in Jamestown, R.I., were at the Newton Library last week, where they talked colonial cuisine, and generously shared tastes of Amelia Simmons’ Plumb Cake from 1796, topped with fresh whipped cream. Attendance at their fairly frequent speaking gigs is highly recommended (See schedule here).

Kathleen Fitzgerald cuts into a Plumb Cake that first appeared here in 1796. She’s proving that old recipes can teach us plenty about our country’s founders and food habits, as well as be adapted to modern kitchens.

The aforementioned scrode (1850) and bread, along with Marlborough Pudding Pie (1796) and several other dishes, can be found in their delightful Northern Hospitality cookbook, here, as well as at their cookbook blog, here.

More to come on this fascinating project.

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Still the Best Deal in Town for Cooking Classes – Free!

The best deal in town for cooking classes continues at Whole Foods, at the Fresh Pond store. This week, Quicia Davis worked up two dishes – a Lentil Chili and a Kale & Squash Soup – in just under one hour. Both dishes won rave reviews.

Why are these classes so great? Quicia, a Johnson & Wales grad, is lively, entertaining, and knowledgeable. She’ll answer your questions (even those not related to the dish at hand) as she chops onions and simmers soup. She’s also full of straightforward, down-to-earth advice on products, the healthfulness of food, dietary issues and more.

The simple vegetarian chili from this week's class uses lentils instead of beans. It won universal praise from many cooks who have tried it.

In addition, class size is kept small so you can crowd around the burners and be part of the action (you don’t get to slice and dice, but you do get to sample the completed dishes).

Next Tuesday, January 31:  Meals for Four Under $10.  Featuring Pecan Crusted Toasted Tofu  You can register by phone by calling the store at (617) 491-0040.

This simple vegetarian chili uses lentils instead of beans. Brown lentils work best, Quicia suggested, since they will hold their shape even when tender after cooking. That said, she prefers red lentils in general for their color and ease of cooking, and green lentils for their earthy flavor.

For her class preparation, Quicia reached for a package of sprouted lentils, which are easier to digest and provide better textures. (They’re also more expensive. But she used only half the amount – an 8 oz. package of Tru Roots sprouted lentil trio, which contains a variety of lentil types. As a result, she also cut the tomatoes by half: one can instead of two.)

This recipe elicited nearly 100 comments on the Whole Foods recipe Web site. Lots of suggestions and variations, and nearly universal praise for its good taste and ease of preparation. This is one popular recipe.

We put those many suggestions through our food mill and sifted them into categories to be easily digested (they follow below, after this recipe. We’ll append Quicia’s comments to those suggestions on the post shortly.)

Lentil Chili

Serves 8

This simple vegetarian chili recipe uses lentils instead of beans. Brown lentils work best as they will hold their shape even when tender after cooking. Serve over brown rice or with whole-grain hearth bread.

Ingredients

8 cups low-sodium vegetable broth, divided

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 large red bell pepper, chopped

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

4 teaspoons salt-free chili powder

1 (16-ounce) package brown lentils (about 2 1/4 cups lentils)

2 (15-ounce) cans no-salt-added diced tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Method

Bring 3/4 cup broth to a simmer in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell pepper and garlic and cook about 8 minutes or until onion is translucent and pepper is tender. Stir in chili powder and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add lentils, tomatoes and remaining 7 1/4 cups broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, 30 minutes or until lentils are almost tender. Uncover and cook 10 minutes longer. Stir in cilantro and serve.

For lentil novices like myself, here’s a quick chart outlining characteristics, cooking times, and serving suggestions for various members of the lentil and split-pea family.   Green and brown lentils are often sold as common or standard lentils.

Here are suggestions and tips from readers of the Whole Food recipe site:

Vegetable Variations:

Diced carrots; Celery; Corn (someone suggested about 1 cup); Green tomato.

Fire-roasted tomatoes added a great flavor.

Several cooks added sweet potatoes with great results.

One can of regular tomatoes and one can of tomatoes with green chilies.

Fresh tomatoes, but add some salt.

Rainbow chard (added in the last 10 mins to retain some crunch).

Spice Variations:

2 tsp Cumin

1/2 to 1 tsp Dry Mustard & 1/2 to 1 tsp Cumin

1 to 2 extra tsp Chili powder

Chipotle powder [One reader used 2 tsp of Chipotle chili powder instead of 4 tsp regular Chili powder, which added a nice, smoky flavor.]

Cayenne

1 to 2 tsp. of Cajun Creole seasoning

Smoked Paprika

1/2 tsp of Crushed Red Pepper Flakes

 

1 tsp salt

Redmans sea salt

Couple of shakes of Cinnamon

1 tsp. of Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa powder

Couple of shakes of Herbs de Provence.

Oregano with two extra cloves of Garlic

Beans, Chiles and Sauce Variation:

Chipotles

Black beans

Tblsp of Cholula (hot sauce based on a special blend of red peppers, piquin peppers, and spices)

Herb Variation:

Extra cilantro. Or for those who don’t care for the taste of cilantro (cilantro leaves a chemical taste among some people who lack an enzyme that breaks it down, according to Quicia), replace it with parsley, minced fresh chives, or basil.

Soaking the Lentils:

A Whole Foods employee suggested: Soak the lentils overnight in water to cover. (Or even for a few hours). This way the lentils absorb water, and upon heating, cook both inside out and outside in.  Drain and then prepare the recipe using 6 cups of liquid. You can use more liquid if needed. Lentils will not be “tough” that way, as some readers remarked.  One reader who soaked them overnight warned that her chili cooked in just 20 minutes (cooking for the recommended time would produce soup or mush).

Someone cautioned that cooking times can vary drastically depending on the exact type of lentils. If you soak lentils in warm water for 4-5 hours, another reader said, they should cook in 10 minutes.

Crock Pot Variation:

As a big fan of Slow Cookers, I plan to try the suggestion of a Whole Foods employee, who recommended the following:

If you soak the lentils overnight first, you can cook it on high for 4-6 hours. Otherwise, I would cook on low for 8 to 10 hours at least.

Broth Variation:

7 cups of veg broth instead of 8 cups

More Comments:

– Several cooks said the flavors really meld together the next day.

– For people who can’t eat tomatoes, someone suggested increasing the amount of red bell peppers. For those who can’t eat bell peppers, you might want to increase the tomatoes.

– Top it off with a dollop of Fage Greek Yogurt (similar to using sour cream)

– Someone used green lentils, soaked them overnight, and said they were perfect for the recipe.

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The CambridgeCooks Shopping List ver. 1.0

This is by no means the definitive shopping list for Cambridge and the surrounding area – not yet anyway. But it has aspirations and you can help by contributing your best finds, as well as your comments & corrections. (In many cases, you can read more details by clicking the tags at the end of this post.)

“Best” is a tricky term to throw around. Favorite is more appropriate. Some people are willing to pay a bit more (or a lot more) for best quality. I can’t pretend to know your priorities. (For example, I rarely spend an extra dime for “organic.”) But whatever you hold dear, remember that higher price and fancy label will not guarantee you a better product (especially true with olive oil, for instance).

In the future, we’ll cover specific food items and profile stores in more detail. For now, here’s a general guide to shopping around.

There's a wealth of great food sources in Cambridge and surrounding towns - if you know where to look. Some offer better quality; others better prices.

Favorite Stores:

Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge) – Among the treats that owners Ihsan & Valerie Gurdal pack into their tiny space are the best collection of olive oils and vinegars in the area, along with the best advice. Jams, crackers, meats, cheeses – difficult or nearly impossible to find elsewhere, crowd the shelves. There’s lots more to discover here. Not many bargains, but some good values if you seek them.

Savenor’s Market and Fresh Pond Market (Cambridge) – Great sources for specialty meats.

Russo’s (Watertown) – A great selection of fruits and vegetables for generally less than you’d pay at a supermarket. Lots of high-quality “exotic” produce and terrific prepared foods. Also, the best value for fresh figs, squash, and apples. Off the beaten track, about a mile from Watertown Square on Pleasant Street (which runs parallel to Route 20) toward Waltham.

Market Basket (Somerville) – If you’ve traveled in Central or South America, you’ll feel at home here. If you go when it’s busy, which is most of the time, it can feel a bit chaotic. But it offers the best price on meats, poultry, and fish, and the best weekly discounts on groceries, including fruits and vegetables. Most of it is excellent quality (although not always the pristine quality you’ll find at Whole Foods). One word of caution: watch the register tape at check-out. Items sometimes ring-up at the wrong price, or they are moved to a bin advertising a price that belongs to another. If they ring up “wrong,” save your breath and don’t bother arguing. Just return it at customer service (if you don’t catch it in time), or chalk it up to experience.

Massis (Watertown) – One of several outstanding Armenian and Lebanese grocery stores along Mt. Auburn Street (home to one of the largest Armenian populations in the United States), and a wonderful source of Middle Eastern packaged and fresh foods, as well as select bulk items. (Arax and Sevan nearby are other local favorites.)

You’ll find the brothers (or their parents) who own this place to be very knowledgeable and helpful; a great excuse to work on developing your Middle Eastern repertoire.

Sofra (Cambridge, bordering on Belmont and Watertown) – Located down Mt. Auburn street from Massis, Arax and Sevan, this bakery and café pushes geographic boundaries from Lebanon to include the cuisine of Turkey and its neighbors. A limited but excellent collection of hard-to-find spices (including some special house blends). They also offer insanely good mezzes, or appetizers – along with some of my favorite sweet and savory pastries. Under the guidance of master baker Maura Fitzpatrick, they are always inventing new treats. (Many, but not all, inspired by the cuisine of the eastern Mediterranean.)

Between Sofra and Formaggio, it would be a toss-up for friendliest & most helpful staff. Great atmosphere, but once it gets cold and outdoor seating disappears, it can be tough to find a table.

Harvest Co-Op (Cambridge) – Not only the greatest collection of spices, flours, rice, grains, and beans, but you can purchase just the quantity you need. So there’s no excuse to buy a jar of over-priced spices in the supermarket that sits in your cupboard and goes stale. That’s reason enough to support this fine collective enterprise. They’re also open til 10 PM nightly. [Christina’s Spice in Inman Square and Penzy’s in Arlington provide good alternative sources for spices).

 

By Category:

Bakeries –

Boston may boast better restaurants, but you won’t find better bakeries on the other side of the river. Within a few square miles we’re blessed with:

  • Hi-Rise Bread Co, the aforementioned Sofra, Iggy’s Breads of the World, Flour (a Boston export and relative newcomer), and Rosie’s, all in Cambridge
  • Danish Pastry House in Watertown and Medford
  • When Pigs Fly (a Vermont export), The Biscuit (formerly Toscanni’s, formerly Panini) and Petsie’s Pies, all in Somerville, the last two competing for best scones
  • And the venerable Vicki Lee Boyajian in Belmont.

Spices  Harvest Co-op (Central Square); Christina’s Spice (Inman Square) and Penzy’s (Arlington). Harvest allows you to purchase just the quantities you need.

Specialty: Sofra (Cambridge – hard-to-find eastern Mediterranean and specialty blends). Massis, Arax and Sevan (Watertown – Middle East spices).

Bulk Items  (flours, rice, grains, beans): Harvest Co-op (Central Square); Whole Foods (various locations).

Specialty Items  (olive oils, vinegars, jams, crackers, cured meats, cheeses); Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge); Cardullo’s (Harvard Square); Russo’s (Watertown).

Fruits and Vegetables  Haymarket (Fridays & Saturdays only, Haymarket T stop, Boston); Russo’s (Watertown); Market Basket (Somerville); Whole Foods (various locations).

Meats  Specialty & Quality: Savenor’s Market (Cambridge); Fresh Pond Market (Cambridge).

Best Prices/Supermarket: Market Basket (Somerville).

Best Prices/non-supermarket: International Food Co. (Hallal).  [Haymarket, Boston (617) 918-9988]

Fish  Quality:  Fish store in Huron Village

Best Prices/Supermarket: Market Basket (Somerville).

Best Prices/non-supermarket: International Food Co. (Hallal).  [Haymarket, Boston (617) 918-9988]

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