Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Flour and Blue Ginger

breads from the lovely Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline, Mass.
Since last I wrote, Isabel went to Chicago with her friend’s church, did good works, returned, and enrolled in a summer dance program. Owen graduated from 8th grade, got a smart phone, had all his baby teeth pulled, and is now at a camp in Massachusetts where I installed him on Saturday. I put sheets on the bed, explained how to do laundry (glazed eyes, not going to happen), bought him a fan, stocked the bureau with a few dozen homemade Chips Ahoy and Biscoff cookies (from Jennifer Steinhauer's Treat Yourself), and chatted with the counselors while he pretended not to know me. Who is this weird lady who’s trying to hug me? Thank God she’s leaving! Perhaps she’s homeless. So sad. 

I stayed with Mark’s parents at their home in Cambridge while getting Owen settled. Cambridge = gorgeous and exotic to a Westerner like me. Every time I went outside there were people sculling on the river and the New England architecture and foliage remain mysterious and fascinating. Hostas? Never seen them in California. No clay tennis courts or old colonial houses either, and no Dunkin' Donuts, though apparently that's about to change

The short trip helped me decide which cookbooks to explore next. 

Someone had given my mother-in-law, Mary, a few slices of a simple, elegant chocolate tart made from a recipe in Joanne Chang's book Flour. She cut the slices into slivers and we all got a tiny piece for dessert one night. That tart was sublime. I plan to replicate it today or tomorrow and decided this is the moment to "do" the Flour cookbook. Five to ten recipes, no more, no less. 

Because Flour contains few savory dishes, I'm also going to be doing Blue Ginger by Ming Tsai, a long-ago gift from my father-in-law. Again, five to ten recipes, no more, no less.

Have you heard of Blue Ginger? It's the name not just of Tsai's cookbook, but of his celebrated Wellesley, Mass., restaurant. I've been wanting to eat there ever since I read a New Yorker profile of Tsai many years ago and have schemed to do so practically every summer that we've gone back to visit Mark's family. To no avail. Sunday, though, the stars finally aligned. Owen was launched at camp and my father-in-law wanted to watch the World Cup and shout at the TV, so Mary and I drove out to Wellesley to dine at Blue Ginger.

Given its glowing reputation and high prices, I expected glamour, but Blue Ginger is casual, situated on a placid suburban street next door to a saddle shop. There were many tempting items on the menu, like a Korean-style fried chicken, but I'd decided in advance that I needed to try Tsai's famous miso-marinated sablefish. It did not disappoint. The white fish separated into big, sweet, tender flakes reminiscent of Nobu's legendary miso-marinated black cod. In fact, I began to wonder if it wasn't identical to Nobu's legendary miso-marinated black cod. According to wikipedia, sablefish and black cod are the same animal and I couldn't detect any difference in the flavoring. Later, I found Tsai's recipe and it's not quite identical to Nobu's, but it's pretty damn close. I guess you could call it a clone.  

Anyway, it was fabulous. But there was a problem.


It was too easy to eat! With a steak or pork chop the same size, you'd be salting, cutting, and chewing for half an hour. Eating this soft, sweet fish was about as challenging as spooning up some custard. A knife wasn't required, and probably not even teeth. Meanwhile, Mary had ordered a dish that contained roughly a pound of noodles plus a busy curry sauce and various interesting crispy and crunchy garnishes. I'm not a fast eater, but I dispatched with my fish in about four minutes and proceeded to consume every crumb of bread in the basket while Mary tried to make a dent in that mountain of noodles. She didn't come close and left with a giant box of leftovers. 

We both agreed that this was a real glitch in our otherwise excellent dining experience. Life is very hard. 

I flew home last night to discover that someone who shall remain nameless had left the gate open and our goats had spent a few hours in the part of the yard where beautiful things  -- bougainvillea, roses, Shasta daisies, two young princess trees, pelargoniums, grapes -- had lately been growing. Not anymore. Gone. Like they were never there. It will be a few days before I can speak of this with composure.

31 comments:

  1. Oh! I'm so sorry for the "disappearance" of your flowers. Hugs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Usually I go outside at some point to take a break, but I can't bring myself to do that today.

      Delete
  2. As always, you were missed! You are so busy, you make my head spin sometimes. And, you made me laugh. Aren't teenage boys a hoot?! So, I need an evaluation of the Biscoff cookie recipe. If you are familiar with old Weight Watcher terminology, those cookies are a "red light" food for me. I can eat them and eat them and eat them, you get the picture. Oh, and you have my complete sympathy about the yard and the fact that your most desirable plants are no more. Isn't that always the way of it? They'll grow back, won't they?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Biscoff cookies have the same effect on me, but these haven't been a problem. They're a bit soft and very good, but not as addictive as the real thing. Do you know about Biscoff spread? I bought some at Trader Joe's recently and Isabel made cookies using the spread. I haven't tried one yet. I worry what will happen when I do. Sometimes it's easier to avoid altogether than to limit myself.

      Delete
    2. TJ cookie butter possibly as addictive as Nutella. Use caution

      Delete
    3. She used the whole jar in the cookies, so no danger until/unless I buy a new jar. The cookies were good. Not great, but good. (She showed me about a dozen recipes that call for spread.)

      Delete
    4. I made some of those speculoos cookies using the spread. They were fine, but the best part about them for me was the concept of cookie-flavored cookies.

      Delete
  3. had I known you were next door in Cambridge, I might have stalked you (in a nice way). I got your book out of the library after reading a review somewhere random - maybe an airline magazine? - spilled too much on the library copy while trying various recipes, bought my own, and have been following your blog ever since. My husband and I, total opposite types of cooks, both use your book regularly - me for basic things like bread and roast chicken, he for more complicated things like dumplings. At any rate - Flour and Blue Ginger are indeed two of the greatest places out here, and I'm glad you liked them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shoot! Maybe you could have given me some other ideas of places to go -- Betty Ann Food Shop? Have you been there? That's the only Boston place currently on the list, but I'm always looking for ideas since we're in Massachusetts fairly regularly.

      Delete
    2. ack, my reply vanished. Short repeat: Sarma in Somerville (newer, trendier, but awesome) and Seta's Café in Belmont (first go to Sofra, recommended by another commenter, then Seta's, then the more traditional (i.e. owned by older people) Armenian shops in Watertown, and do a giant taste test of things like metch/eetch (my favorite). And if you're in the mood for Chinese, Mary Chung's in Central Sq. Will think of more - but the Armenian taste test is one of our favorite things to do (also, daughters take gymnastics near there so it kills time waiting for them to finish :) )

      Delete
  4. Oh no! It's bad enough when the deer sneak in but your beloved goats!? Bad girls. Looking forward to your thoughts on Blue Ginger.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Such a betrayal! I might have to start milking Natalie again as payback. She owes me.

      Delete
  5. You made me smile today just when I needed it. I clicked on your blog and swallowed your words like sweet flaky fish. thanks. So glad you're back.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have the Flour book and have never made anything out of it because the recipes seem unnecessarily fussy. I also made a big point last summer, when I was in Cambridge, of having lunch at Flour, and was not at all impressed. I didn't think my sandwich or my sticky roll were anything that special. Did I order wrong, or am I just spoiled, having spent all of my adult life in Berkeley, Paris, and Manhattan? I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think if you've lived in Paris you're probably spoiled for everything. Isabel has done some baking from Flour, as have I, and it's been mostly very, very good. Her oreos are the ones I used for my book, with some very slight alterations, and they are great. (But definitely fussy.) And like Akiko says below, Chang's banana bread is outstanding. It's now the only banana bread I make. We'll see how her other recipes turn out.

      Delete
  7. In Hawaii, we call sablefish "butterfish" and it is often sold already marinated in miso. Very easy to make, and easier to eat, I agree. I think it IS exactly the same thing as black cod or at the very least in the same family.
    The banana bread in the Flour cookbook is the best banana bread I have made. I will make no other.
    Always enjoy your posts!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Ming Tsai also calls it "butterfish" and got into some kind of problem with that not long ago. I agree 100% about the Flour banana bread. The book opens to that page. Someone in the blog comments turned me on to it a few years ago and I've never gone back to my old recipe.

      Delete
  8. I recently had black cod for the first time. Yum! It helped that it was a work function where we all got the same dish, so we didn't face the problem you had.

    Those breads look amazing. I look forward to reading about your adventures with both cookbooks. I have made nothing ambitious but I did make snicker doodle cake which was received with great enthusiasm. And I got to take dinner to a friend's house, which allowed to make, gasp, something with a sauce on it! (my kids will only allow tomato sauce, and only if it's on pasta and completely smooth. yes, they would love if I just opened a can of Hunt's for them)

    In short: I am very glad to see you back. And I'm sorry about Owen's extractions and about the destruction of your garden.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A snickerdoodle cake? Yum.
      Isabel is 17 and still suspicious of most sauces. Do you think a dislike for sauce is innate? I grew up in a sauce-less house and started cooking as a teenager in part so I could eat sauce.

      Delete
    2. Well, after I'd spent a couple of days cooking out of Around my French Table, Phoebe did yell out once, "Why is my food always covered with some disgusting SAUCE now!?" (This in reaction to the garlicky breadcrumb-broccoli, who could not like that, I ask you) So perhaps it is innate. I've become a lot more skilled at the sauce-on-the-side technique, although that doesn't work with the garlicky broccoli, alas.

      The snicker doodle cake is dead easy. It's this James Beard cake:
      http://www.jamesbeard.org/recipes/snickerdoodle-cake

      except those amounts go into an 8x8 pan, not 9x13.

      Delete
  9. I made tahdig! It came out looking just like it is supposed to. I loved it, my husband not so much. I found the New Persian Kitchen in the library, and the tahdig recipes alone may be enough to make me buy a copy. Now a question: when I have used saffron in the past, I use a couple of threads, but Shafia pounds hers in a mortar and pestle and measures by the half teaspoon or so. Is this right? This is so much more saffron than I have ever used.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, the saffron is usually pounded with a pinch of sugar in a mortar & pestle. A half teaspoon sounds right. Just putting a few threads in without pounding them won't give that saffron essence the same way grinding it will.

      Delete
    2. I'm so glad the tahdig worked! It's one of my favorite discoveries. I confess, I did not pound the saffron when I made her saffron rice. I started to, but it didn't crush. I have my mother's old glazed ceramic mortar and pestle and it's terrible. I should get rid of it, but am sentimental. Saffron is so expensive. I brought some back from India a few years ago and I just used the last of it. I wonder if it's possible to get good deals on saffron on the internet. I'll check. It's certainly cheaper to buy vanilla beans and cardamom seeds online.

      Delete
    3. You have to toast the saffron for a bit before you pound it, then it crumbles right up. My friend, whose parents are from Morocco, taught me her mother's method, which is to lay the saffron on a pot lid for a few minutes.

      I have bought saffron at Trader Joe's that isn't too terribly expensive.

      Delete
    4. Yes, I think Trader Joe's carries it. I have a giant box of saffron that I rescued from a condemned building years ago. Not sure how long it lasts, but it's still sealed in its box.

      Delete
  10. That bread looks so lovely!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was delicious, especially the pumpkin seed fougasse.

      Delete
  11. Next time you're in the Cambridge area, stop by Sofra Bakery. Interesting and inventive baked goods (and breakfast and lunch items) that are mostly Middle Eastern-inspired. Some of my favorites have been the sesame caramel sticky buns, sesame cashew bites, spinach lamejun, yogurt elderflower soda, rhubarb sharbat, and muhammara.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Somebody could make a fortune with a "fail-safe" lock to keep goats in their own yard, or dogs in the house instead of running loose, (you name whatever scenario applies, instead of requiring an ordinary human to take care. Maybe Quirky could manufacture it. It's one of life's great disappointments: having to rely on someone who does not share your priorities . That's the saddest part of it. The plants can be replaced. So sorry. Perhaps that someone could help you re-plant your garden and that way perhaps better understand how important it is for you. After all, Natalie was only doing what goats do, eating everything in sight. I'm so looking forward to your comments on cooking from the chosen cookbooks. And, in closing, my feeling about using saffron (or any other precious thing), use it generously and don't try to scrimp and save. Enjoy it (and life) with abandon!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I am glad you're back! I missed the blog. I recently stumbled across this book on Amazon - haven't read it myself yet but it reminded me of your kids :) Sounds like maybe things have gotten better since the pig's ear salad days??

    http://www.amazon.com/French-Kids-Eat-Everything-Discovered/dp/006210330X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1403882784&sr=1-1&keywords=french+kids+eat+everything

    ReplyDelete