Thursday, July 28, 2011

Food mysteries of the South Coast of Massachusetts

Delectable Portuguese custard tarts surrounded by barely edible cookies
Interesting and mysterious to me, the juxtaposition of grimy ethnic mill towns and beautiful WASP beach communities you find in this part of Massachusetts. Interesting and somewhat less mysterious, at least if you've read Cheerful Money, that the best food is found in the grimy ethnic mill towns.

I volunteered to cook another summer house dinner the other night and my brother-in-law Chris took me to New Bedford (grimy) to stock up at Sid Wainer, the great specialty market he discovered when he was living in the area. This dark and cavernous place carries all manner of spices, breads, anchovies, exotic fresh vegetables, jellies, chutneys, and imported cheese, but is situated in the most depressing of strip malls. And, I'm telling you, the South Coast of Massachusetts boasts some depressing strip malls. We went to Fall River the other day, and the words Fall River now make my skin crawl -- and not just because Lizzie Borden lived there.

At Sid Wainer, I bought cheeses -- from Spain, Italy, Wisconsin and upstate New York -- as well as an incredible pomegranate-lime jelly to serve with them. You can't buy cheeses and condiments like this at the Wareham Shaw's, where vacationers usually shop. Why not? So strange.
Mostly gone within 20 minutes
After visiting Sid Wainer, we went to a fish market and bought bluefish for $3.69 per pound.  I almost didn't want to buy such scarily cheap fish, but did. At a nearby Portuguese grocery, I acquired the gorgeous cookies and custard tarts posted at top. Lots of enticing Portuguese restaurants, bakeries, and butchers in this area. I want to explore.
An odd grilling technique, but it works.
Back in the beautiful WASP beach community with groceries from the grimy ethnic mill town, I repeated the bluefish dish I made in Cape Cod last week: cover the filets in mustard, lemon and breadcrumbs, grill for 40 minutes. It wasn't as delicious this time, but it wasn't bad, and I served it with my version of creamed corn. (Spicy creamed corn: Scrape corn from cob, soften chopped shallots in butter, add corn and fry, stir in Thai red curry paste and coconut milk, cook until bubbly, add lime juice and cilantro, salt to taste.) There was a moment when I thought the meal was going to be a disaster, but it turned out okay. Maybe too many strong flavors on one plate, but not a disaster.

The Portuguese custard tarts: huge hit! Very similar to the Chinese custard tarts you get in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Bakery, but denser, sweeter, less eggy. Soggier crust, better filling.

But once the tarts were gone we were left with a mountain of awful, chalky, stale cookies. Later, I found a gang of children playing blackjack with a plate of the Portuguese cookies in the middle of the table. The loser had to eat them.
Subset of the kid mafia playing cards

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I have to read The Big House

Kyocera ceramic knife -- you need one.
With no wireless, I can't keep up with this vacation blogging! There's only so much Dunkin' Donuts coffee a woman can drink.

Alright, deep breath.

My husband's family has owned and loved the same Massachusetts beach property for several generations, property that has been divided and now comprises four summer houses for various branches of the family and a fifth that is the year-round residence of a cousin. The property is lovely, heavily wooded and threaded with trails. It has its own stretch of rocky beach. There are outdoor showers, a swing set, screened-in porches, hummingbirds, and many mosquitos. The kids get here and run off in a pack of cousins and aren't heard from until someone idly mentions she might be willing to take the boys to see Captain America at which point suddenly I am thronged and regretful.

Cooking is done for a crowd and people volunteer for meals. The other day I produced a modest dinner: potato chips with onion soup dipburgers, cole slaw, and s'mores bars (baked by Isabel.) My in laws are not really into elaborate food and I try not to overinvest. I succeeded, perhaps too well. I wasn't exactly bursting with pride at that dinner. As always, everyone loved the s'mores bars.

Friday, Isabel and I drove out to the Cape Cod summer home of her good friend Juliet, whose mother is my good friend Lisa.  We swam in the sea, swam in a pond, shopped in shops, and then Lisa and I cooked for her extended family. As the menu took shape, it became clear that Lisa's family is very into elaborate food. We made negronis and served grilled bluefish with mustard and lime, scalloped oysters, salad, corn roasted with agave and soy sauce, and there was a lasagna for the kids. Dinner was late, loud, drunken, and delicious.  As usual, my photograph doesn't do the food, people, or anything else, justice.

It was fun, really! 
I'd never cooked or eaten bluefish before, and was very pleased with the recipe, taken from a Cape Cod cookbook on Lisa's shelf. You put the fillets in a foil pan, smother in mustard and lemon juice, then cover in bread crumbs, and grill for 40 minutes. I liked it so much I'm making it tonight for my in laws.

For dessert: another batch of s'mores bars.

Thank-you, Anne Thornton.
Sunday, Isabel and I drove to Boston to make a pilgrimage to Flour, the bakery owned by Joanne Chang, the author of Flour, a newish cookbook we like a lot.

Good bakery in desolate-on-Sunday neighborhood
We got there 8 minutes before it closed. I didn't even have to ask her -- Isabel jumped out of the car while I parked to be sure we got an order in. My girl.

Hazelnut cookie was best.
She bought a hazelnut cookie, an oreo, and a raspberry crumb bar. The hazelnut cookie was unbelievably good, the oreo tasted just like the ones we've made from the cookbook (amazing), and the raspberry crumb bar was tasty. Like Baked, Flour is a homestyle bakery -- a place you go to buy high quality treats you could conceivably and easily make at home, especially when the owners publish an excellent cookbook.

Coincidentally, Flour is just around the corner from Sportello, a Barbara Lynch restaurant. Lynch wrote a wonderful book I cooked through last year -- Stir -- and since Sportello was just about to open for dinner, we went.
And such small portions
I'm hesitant to say anything negative because I'm having a very happy vacation and we loved Stir, but, okay, twist my arm. We were the first ones in Sportello and there were paper towels all over the bathroom floor, the trash basket was overflowing, and everything on the menu was a little too expensive. Maybe a lot too expensive. Isabel's flat pasta with bolognese sauce cost $24. My porcini ravioli cost $25. The salad was, if I remember correctly, $14. All good, not great. Maybe that's what it costs to keep a restaurant afloat, and maybe this was an off night. I don't know.

Anyway, I still recommend the cookbook.
Sportello is very handsome and very white.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Travels, part 1

The photo is of Di Fara Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York, but this wireless connection is brought to you by the Dunkin' Donuts in Marion, Massachusetts. That's how far I've traveled and fallen behind.

 I don't know exactly when or why the idea was first planted in my head, but I have wanted to go to Di Fara for years. (And years.) On Saturday I collected Isabel from camp in NYC and she agreed to make an expedition to Di Fara. It took us an hour on the subway and when we got there at about 1 in the afternoon, the place was packed.  I ordered two cheese slices to go and assumed it would take 20 minutes. We waited an hour and a half.  An elderly man was making all the pizzas himself, very methodically, and people were taking pictures of him. I felt shy about doing that, but I did photograph his handiwork.  

I wouldn't wait 90 minutes for it again, but it was outstanding pizza. Thin crust. Lots of basil flavor. Oily. Delicious.

After our late lunch, Isabel wanted to go to Baked, the owners of which wrote two of her favorite cookbooks (Baked and Baked Explorations.) The bakery is also in Brooklyn, but very far away from Di Fara and there was no subway line in operation so we rode several crowded buses to get there. This ended up taking another hour and a half.
I'm so glad she's my daughter and enjoys riding public transportation in sweltering heat for many hours to visit farflung eating spots. I can't imagine a better vacation day or a better companion.

Sweet and salty is their thing.

At Baked, we ordered, clockwise from left, a peanut butter crunch bar, a sweet and salty brownie, and a sweet and salty cupcake. All was tasty, but we liked the peanut butter crunch bar best. In the end, we agreed that we wouldn't ride the bus for these treats again. Baked is a good neighborhood bakery, but you can bake like this at home, especially if you have the Baked cookbook.

On the other hand. . .

Midtown location
Sunday, we went to Momofuku Milk Bar and you can't really bake like this at home, unless you are a demented genius. Milk Bar was a 5 minute walk from where we were staying and there was no line, no wait, no bus ride. But I would ride buses and wait in line 1 1/2 hours to get treats from Milk Bar.
Cereal milk soft-serve
This stuff was not just delicious, it was crazy. We got crack pie, candy bar pie, cereal milk soft-serve, and a compost cookie which contained crushed potato chips and coffee grounds, among other weird ingredients, and was diabolical in its deliciousness. I wanted to go back the next morning and buy a black sesame croissant, but didn't have time.

Pizza people should go to Di Fara, lovers of the Baked cookbook should go to Baked, but everyone should go to Milk Bar.

On Monday morning, we rode the train to New England and are now staying at the beach house of my in laws, which is lovely and peaceful.

It's wicked humid here, but the views are pretty.
This morning my mother-in-law's sister, Meg, made johnnycake with special stone-ground white cornmeal. It's just this very wonderful cornmeal plus liquid, stirred into a paste and fried in butter. When she described it to me, I thought, okay, whatever, doesn't sound that great.
For the terrible picture hall of fame
But it is the best thing I've eaten since the compost cookie. Next week I'm going to the mill to buy some of this magic cornmeal and learn to make johnnycake myself.

On another subject, I have a story in Slate on the subject of food TV shows.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Amateur hour photo shoot

Composed, professional, maybe a little mean.
Today my sister came over and shot possible author photos for my forthcoming book. The photos are due tomorrow and I put them off until the last possible minute in the hopes that I would lose all twenty-two of my cookbook-writing/mother-grieving pounds. I lost seven. Of the sixty or so pictures Justine shot, I disliked fifty-seven. But I liked these three pictures a lot. If you disagree, don't say anything.
She looks nice. I'd have an Aviation with her.
Rad cookbook collection
I've been neglecting the blog. For the last few weeks my kids have both been gone and I've been finishing up with the emptying of my mother's house (I turned over my keys to the real estate agent yesterday), correcting proofs of the book, turning in assignments, milking a goat, yelling at a goat, debating selling a goat, and preparing to leave at 4:30 a.m. on Friday on a big trip with many stops and packing requirements. When I spring clear of this quicksand and actually get out the door, I plan to visit with long-lost friends and family, take walks, read books, look at lions, and write blog posts. Friday can not come soon enough.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Books, books, books

Grown-up furniture in my very own house.
My childhood home is almost empty. On Thursday, all my mother's furniture came across the Golden Gate Bridge to my sister's house and mine in a truck. Finding places for serious brown antiques in houses that previously contained no serious brown antiques has been a challenge for both of us, one we take seriously. Our mother loved her things. During chemo sessions she liked to talk about who should get what and where everything should go in our houses. It made her happy and peaceful.

In addition to a lot of brown furniture, my mother had thousands and thousands of books. Books in practically every room of her house. There were strict systems for where books went. She relegated tacky-looking paperbacks to the shelves along the staircase to the basement and, of course, that was always the best place to find something you actually wanted to read. Something by Toni Morrison or Len Deighton or Herman Wouk or Judith Krantz. These were mostly books my sister or I brought home as teenagers.

Boring, handsome, old books -- noble books that her father gave her -- went in the living room. When I was a child, I remember one of my mother's friends ribbing her about the pretension of keeping pompous books you didn't read in the living room. I thought he had a point, but I also remember thinking he was being pompous in his own way. I took the boring, handsome books from my mother's living room and put them in my living room. It's not pretentious. This is just how I grew up thinking a living room should look. And it looks great.

Although. . .

What are the sources of the Japanese tradition?
Meanwhile juicy paperbacks and contemporary books are in the room where we watch TV. These are mostly books that were already in my house.

I love that The L Word  is about an inch away from The Fabrication of Farmstead Goat Cheese. I keep intending to put these books in some kind of order, but maybe I won't.

The cookbooks, of course, are absolutely in order. I could not stand to have a disorderly cookbook  collection!

When we put in this shelf eight years ago I swore I would cull before I let the cookbooks overflow.

But I didn't.

The books have overflowed to the jam shelf and a new shelf we lodged in the skinny space between the stairs and a wall and they are starting to pile up on the floor. The pile is only getting higher because 
there were about thirty cookbooks to be taken from my mother's house and I couldn't resist any of them. 

I finally found this, which I had been hunting for madly a few months ago. It contains the recipe for the first cheesecake I ever made when I was about twelve. I did not remember that the cheesecake contained dry milk, which sounds dismal to me now, but I swear it was the best cheesecake ever. I am going to bake it again soon.

And then there were cookbooks I wasn't looking for, but which I can't let go of.

I could never cast aside a cookbook that contains such gorgeous pictures:

See, I am helpless. Being a hoarder of cookbooks helps me empathize with people who are hoarders of everything, which, by a miracle of fate, I am not.

Happy 4th of July, everyone.