Wooo, it’s been quiet on this little blog of mine. I am trying to figure out what I am going to be when I grow up, you see. This takes time. My internship is up in a month. If I don’t get a job before then, my butt is going to be a) unemployed or b) folding sweaters at the Gap. And I hate the Gap. I do, with a passion. The job applications and my current work are taking up all of my time, leaving nothing for sleep, much less blogging or the gym. My ever-tighter pants are testament to this. Sigh. They shrank in the wash, I swear.
Though I suppose that all the food related activities around New England in the fall could have something to do with my tightening pants. Autumn in New England is apple picking season. There are loads of farms around Boston growing multiple varieties of apples on short little mutant apple trees that you don’t need a ladder to pick from – standing on your tippy toes will get you to the top of most trees on these farms.
And these trees were loaded with apples. They covered the branches and spilled out on to the ground in a thick red layer. Apples on the ground were no better than banana peels in cartoons when it came to slipping and falling on your rear, but the smell they gave off was stunning, for a yuppie such as myself – like fresh, slightly fermented cider with a smell of grass and farm mixed in. It was intoxicating.
The apples themselves were marvelous. I can’t for the life of me remember which type of apples they were – either Macoun or MacIntosh. Alls I know is that thin bright red skin gave way to blindingly white, juice packed flesh. There is absolutely nothing like the experience of biting into an apple you just pulled off a tree. It's still alive and full of moisture and warmth from the sun and the tree. You can still see that the stem end is moist and green, still alive, still capable of pushing sweet fluid to the fruit from the tree. You don’t get freshness like this in stores. It’s an entirely different experience. The amount of juice in these apples was shocking, watermelon level juiciness, with the sweet juice running down your chin. Better, and sweeter than candy.
The apples weren’t as sweet as the apple cider donuts though, another mainstay of New England autumn. These donuts are spiced with cinnamon and apple cider. The ones at Boston Hill Farm were freshly fried, still warm and crisp, yielding to sweet and spiced on the inside. Unbelievable, New England fall taste.
Did I mention that most of the jobs I am applying to are in London? Yes, London. The UK kind. I will miss New England autumns, if I am lucky enough to make it across the ocean. My fingers, and my toes, are crossed.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Monday, October 20, 2008
I have some pretty freakin' cool friends, I have to say. One of my many cool friends, Travis, whom I met while in grad school, also happens to have a supremely cool job. This job allows him to travel to parts of the world that most could not identify on a map, but happen to have extensive culinary and cultural histories. Having just gotten back from one such place, Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan), Travis wrote me a great long email telling me about all the food he ate while on his trip, pictures included. I was captivated. In addition to being totally cool and having an awesome job, Travis is also an eloquent and engaging writer. I asked his permission to repost his email here in the form of a guest post because a) it's wonderfully well-written and b) no one knows where Uzbekistan is, much less what is eaten there. I think this post will serve as education along with fascination. So without further ado - a cool post from a cool person with a cool job. Feel free to envy Travis (and me, for being his friend). Thank you, Travis!
I returned from Uzbekistan last night. I am struggling with the jet lag, so I thought I would waste some time by sending you pictures and descriptions of a few of the dishes I had while in Tashkent.
First of all, I did eat a significant portion of my meals at small, street side cafes and chaikhanas (teahouses). Most of the food at these establishments is everyday Uzbek or regional fare but still tasty...and definitely cheaper than eating at larger restaurants and hotel chains. I would also argue that because of the turnover rate and hot soups, it is probably a little more sanitary as well.
I did eat plov on several occasions, but did not have my camera with me at those times... so the disappointment is no pictures of plov. Tashkent plov is a heavy affair... laden with mutton and sheep tail fat (the locals contend that several cups of green tea after the meal help the passage of all this fat through the system... call me not convinced). On top of the mutton is the ubiquitous slices of horse meat. Depending upon where you eat it, there is typically a boiled egg or two included (chicken or quail). At one place, they had apricots in the rice, which was quite nice. In Tashkent, the plov isn't an aromatic dish like you would expect from related South Asian rice dishes. The rice isn't as good as jasmine or basmati like in neighboring countries to the West and South.
OK, on to the dishes that do have photographic evidence. First, there are two main soups in Uzbekistan that you can get at just about any cafe or chaikhana: laghman and shurpa. Laghman has large noodles (think udon) in a spicy broth with large chunks of garlic, green beans, onions, and mutton. The actual contents vary from establishment to establishment and from day to day depending upon what fresh vegetables are available that day. Like most dishes in Uzbekistan, it is eaten with "non" (yep, very similar to the Hindi word naan for bread...but this bread is leavened). Shurpa is a little different than laghman in ingredients, but the broth is somewhat similar. Shurpa consists of root vegetable (potatoes, turnips, carrots, etc), onions, and, again, mutton (usually on the bone).
I also had a very common Kazakh dish called Besh Barmak (literally "five fingers" as it was traditionally eaten with the hands). It is a heavy dish consisting of diced horse meat and boiled noodles. Think of it as a horse stroganoff without the sour cream and mushrooms. Because the dish can get dry, it is generally also served with a steaming bowl of what can only be described as "horse consomme." If you are wondering about the flavor of horse just let me say it is somewhat "gamey" and very reminiscent of how the actual animal smells.
When the horse broth was being brought to the table before the main plate, the waitress was about eight feet away and I thought to myself, "yep, that definitely smells like horse." The odor completely filled your nose with a deep, musky animal scent. It was overwhelming. Usually on the side is a small container of yogurt that can also be mixed into the dish... thus almost completing the transition to a stroganoff-like dish. Few spices were used on the meat and probably consisted of mostly coriander... which I wasn't really expecting.
I also had the opportunity to eat at a really good Korean restaurant. Now you might be thinking, "what the hell?" when I mention Korean food in Tashkent, but you have to remember that after World War II, Stalin relocated vast numbers of North Koreans to Central Asia. Many of these communities still exist and there are still cultural, familial, and business relations with Korea. I ordered the bi bim bop as you usually cannot go wrong with that in a Korean restaurant. I wasn't disappointed.
Bi bim bop is one of those "some assembly required" Asian dishes that allows you to personalize the dish to your own tastes. In addition to the large, sizzling stone bowl containing the egg, rice, meat, sprouts, and spinach, there was a number of smaller dishes of "salads" (as the wait staff called them) to modify the dish. Central to this was the homemade kimchi. It was very nice, but not overwhelmingly spicy. As you can see in the photo, there were a variety of other salads to either have individually or mix into the bowl. I ate most of them!
I hope you enjoyed the descriptions... feel free to pass them along to anyone that might be interested in Central Asian cuisine... or just interested in novel foods.
P.S. I really hope I matched the correct picture to the description. If I didn't, please correct me Travis!
Sunday, October 12, 2008
I may whine about Boston every once in a while, but I love it. I love it especially now that I have a car. Riddled with scratches, cracked taillights, and other city kisses though it may be, it’s my connection to the many farms that surround the city. Now that it’s fall harvest season, the farms are kicking into over drive, pulling up millions of varieties of squash (only a slight exaggeration), potatoes, greens, and apples. I took advantage of both the car and the season to visit a farm, in true to type yuppie fashion.
Red Fire Farm, located in a teeny town about an hour and a half west of Boston, hosted a fall harvest festival this last weekend. Farm festivals are like cat nip for yuppies such as myself - interact with the farmers, spend a day outside, eat really good food, pretend to be in touch with nature - it makes for a good day.
The farm stand itself looks like nothing more than a regular house in a neighborhood. Walk through to the back though, past the tables loaded with garlic, squash, and locally produced milk, and the house opens up to fields with the backdrop of stubby mountains, turning leaves, and a quiet calm.
German extra hardy garlic, on sale at the farm stand
It was so quiet! Almost shocking to someone such as myself, used to the background buzz of the city. The smell all around was wonderful – heavy on cut grass, with slight tinges of natural fertilizer, if you know what I mean. Not in any bad way, but in a way that reminds me that I am never out in nature. Really, never. I am not much of a nature-girl. Which brings me to the mosquitoes.
Never in my life have I seen so many mosquitoes at the same time, at the same place. They swarmed. They conspired against me, I am certain of it. They could tell that I hadn’t been that close to “nature” in years. If it wasn’t for the kindly yuppies sitting next to me who gave me the kind and generous gift of a bug repellent wipe… well, I am not sure I would be sitting here typing now. I would be a giant, pink, itch-filled balloon praying for a swift death. I am itchy still, mind you, I just don’t want to die. Not at all. I keep remembering the evening and it makes me smile.
The harvest feast began with a squash tasting – butternut, carnival, spaghetti, two types of kabocha, and others I had never heard of. All grown on the farm, all cooked till sweet and smooth. It was really interesting to taste the range of flavors in one vegetable. The word squash all of a sudden seemed rather limited.
We made our way to the tables set in the farm fields under a tent, set with a small pumpkin, cider pressed on the farm that morning, and a hard cider donated by a local company. Everything we ate that night, save for the lasagna noodles, was grown on the farm. How incredible is that? The yuppie in me rejoiced. The repressed hippie let out a 'Yippee!'.
The meal began with small (biodegradable) bowls of squash and apple soup made by a local shop.
For the entrée, we were offered a choice of delicata squash stuffed with rice and topped with mozzarella, or a squash lasagna (my choice). The lasagna was stuffed to the brim with sweet and creamy squash, flavored with just a hint of sage and other herbs. The tender whole wheat lasagna noodles were barely perceptible amongst the mounds of squash, but lovely topped with melted fresh mozzarella.
The mixed greens salad was so crisp and fresh that I was shocked by the crunch. The roasted vegetables had sweet and white potatoes, red and golden beets, eggplant, cauliflower, and bell peppers, oh my. All sweet and packed with flavor, the kind of flavor you don’t get with vegetables that have lined supermarket shelves for an unknown number of days.
As if that wasn’t enough food, there was also home made pumpkin pie with freshly whipped cream. The pie (whole wheat crust) was super smooth and not overly spiced, nutmeg coming to the front. If I had any room in my stomach at all at this point (did I forget to mention the cider donut I had before the squash samples and the rest of the meal? Oh yea, there was a cider donut) I would have tried to whipped cream. As things stood, I barely dragged myself away from the table, stuffed to the brim and reluctant to leave the farm, with its crickets and bugs in the background and nighttime farm smells.
Parting shot of the tent on the farm. I was sad to leave, yet excited to get to my cortisone cream.
It could have been the romance of the farm and fresh air, or it could have been the crisp hard cider, but everything tasted so freakin' good. So fresh and alive, made with care by dirty hippie farmers, none older than me and all committed to the cause of local agriculture.
Monday, October 06, 2008
I have to live in a city. I just have to. The sight of the strip malls and carefully spaced cookie-cutter housing developments of suburbia makes me itch and wretch, in that order. I was raised in a city, I live in a city, I’m a city-person through and through. I love everything about the city. Except…
... the absence of grilling. There is no grilling when you live in an apartment. No back yard, no grills in parks, no place to act out my love for all things grilled over a flame. You do what you can. You hop on a boat to an exotic and grill-friendly destination. You force your friends with the rare back yard and other adaptations to invite you over - and often.
You have to give in to the city, because it won't give in to you. You adapt, and you embrace. You stick a grill on your balcony, porch, roof, windowsill, whatever. It’s not entirely legal, it’s not entirely safe, but you’ve gotta do what you gotta do.
My grill, on my pseudo-balcony/fire escape/extended windowsill
It’s a piece of crap propane grill. I feel like I am in constant threat of explosion, even when the thing isn’t on. I would have preferred charcoal, but open flames are unsafe enough right outside of your apartment window - glowing embers that don't go out for hours are not the smartest thing in the world. It heats unevenly and weakly. I’ve hardly used the grill, but it’s there. It's not the best grill in the world (or in Target), but it’s comforting to know I can always turn to it at will to get that bit of char flavor I love.
As far as city adaptations go, this one ranks somewhere below keeping a dog in 600ft apartment and above accepting the fact that your car will be dinged and scratched within 10 minutes of being in the city. Feel free to contribute your own city adaptations in the comments, if you are so inclined.
Friday, October 03, 2008
It is rare that I find myself inspired by bar food. Regular, run of the mill, anonymous, non-fancy bar kind of food. Rare, but not unheard of.
I spent a horribly rainy afternoon in an Irish pub by my house, watching a British soccer (oooh, I mean futbol) match, drinking beer (like it’s abnormal to drink beer at 3PM on a Saturday. In a bar. Please.), and snacking on surprisingly good French fries. A lady who was quite obviously a regular at the bar (which is sad in its own right, for a Saturday afternoon) recommended I get a side of curry sauce for the fries, a British tradition I have never quite understood. However, when informed by a haggard-looking bar regular, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, that I should be eating my French fries covered in curry sauce, then that’s what I do.
And you know what? It was pretty good! I have absolutely no idea what was in it, besides copious amounts of cream, I am sure, but it was smooth and slightly sweet, it was perfect for dipping thin, crunchy fries. Not nearly spicy enough, but it never is. Right there, on the spot, facing the onset of tipsiness and autumn, I started to crave curried squash soup.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the next few days. I made it the first chance I could, with the autumn squash that has been arriving in my Boston Organics boxes as of late. Smooth and rich, with a bit of a kick and freshness from the herbs, it was autumn, right there, on my table. I am not entirely ready for autumn yet, but it appears I am ready for the food. It’s going to be soups and more soups from now until next June. Good thing I wasn't craving the potato skins. [Shudder].
Curried Squash Soup
1 med acorn squash and 1 med dumpling squash (though you could use one large butternut squash instead – it is fabulous with curry powder - or all acorn, whatever you have)
1 large onion
2 tbsp curry powder
chili powder, to taste
chicken stock or water
handful of fresh cilantro
3 or 4 stalks of green onion
- Preheat onion to 425F
- Cut squash open, quarter, and scoop out the seeds.
- Rub with olive oil, salt and pepper, place cut side down on baking sheet and roast until tender and browned. Try to stop yourself from tearing off all the brown, sweet, crunchy bits and eating them on the spot. You need them to make the soup sweet(er). Let cool and scoop out flesh. Or burn your fingers, if you’re me.
- Chop onion roughly and sautee in olive oil till soft and translucent, about 5 min.
- Sprinkle with curry and chili powders, stir about and allow the spices to toast for a few minutes.
- Add cooked squash, squish it a bit and stir around till you get bored. Then add chicken stock/water to cover the squash by about an inch.
- Add salt and simmer for about 20-30 minutes.
- Puree and thin out with stock/water to desired consistency
- Toss in herbs, season with salt and paper.
- Photograph aggressively.
- Eat on couch, blanket on lap.