Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Food Matters Cookbook: A Review and a Giveaway

You've likely heard of Mark Bittman, author of a variety of award-winning cookbooks, including the grandiosely-named How To Cook Everything. (I don't own a copy, so I'll refrain from passing judgment on the validity of the title.) I was not actually very familiar with Bittman's work until recently, when a publicist at Simon & Schuster asked if I'd like to take a look at Bittman's new book and host a giveaway. Well, this is that giveaway! The instructions will be at the end of this post.

The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living is a hefty volume packed full of tips for eating like "food matters" - and as you may have guessed from the title, there are a lot of recipes. 500 of them. Revolutionary? I'm not so sure. I think Bittman just gets a kick out of hyperbole. His writing did convince me, though, that it would be both doable and desirable to shift the ratio of meat and veggies that I eat so that meat becomes a side dish rather than the centerpiece. This book appeals to me because Bittman comes across as an omnivore who knows he will never give up meat entirely, but for a variety of reasons, he works to shift his focus (and the readers') to vegetables. This is something that I can do, and I was surprised that many of the veggie-heavy recipes sounded good to me, a slowly reforming steak-and-potatoes kind of girl. 

Bittman's philosophy towards food is friendlier than, say, Michael Pollan's. No rules here; this isn't a "manual." Instead, it's a friendly, relaxed collection of suggestions for ways to treat our bodies and our planet better. Less animals, less processed foods, more plants. This goes well with the guideline I've always tried to follow: everything in moderation. If I want bacon, sure, I'm gonna have bacon, but it doesn't need to be the daily main course. (Ok, maybe once in awhile...)

The recipes are friendly as well, written in an easy-to-follow conversational tone with abundant suggestions for variations. In fact, I see these more as starting points with hints about how to improvise rather than full recipes. You could follow them as written easily enough, but I found myself using them as little brain triggers from which to develop a full menu.

There are no photographs of the food; I suppose for a book of 500 recipes, there isn't really room for photos. The lack of images disappointed me initially, but I actually think it's for the best. Bittman's secondary goal seems to be to leave the readers more self-sufficient and more confident in the kitchen and the market, and by not providing photos, he forces us to work harder to learn from the book and test our own abilities.

There are many cookbooks on my shelf that I go to for a few standard recipes and then forget about for months, but The Food Matters Cookbook - aside from having so many recipes - has lessons and hints that will always be useful. I'm looking forward to delving into it in greater detail.

Upcoming Events
Bittman will be speaking in Boston twice this month: this Wednesday, November 3rd, at the Museum of Science, and Monday, November 15th, at New Center for Arts and Culture. (Click those links for ticket information and more.)

The Giveaway!
Simon & Schuster is providing a copy of The Food Matters Cookbook to one lucky reader! You have until this Wednesday, November 3rd, at noon (EST) to enter.

(1) Get two entries into the giveaway by leaving a comment on this post about what the phrase "food matters" means to you. (Maximum two entries per person for commenting.)

(2) Get one entry into the giveaway by retweeting any of my Twitter updates regarding this giveaway. (I'm @blumie.) I'll update this post with a link to my tweet once I've posted the first one. (Maximum one entry per person for retweeting.)

So, you can get up to three entries. I'll announce the results on Twitter on Wednesday night after using a random number generator to pick the winner. Good luck!

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of The Food Matters Cookbook by Simon & Schuster, and one reader will also be provided with a free copy. As I am not backed by the budget of a publication, I do occasionally accept free food and products for potential review. Acceptance of these samples and products do not obligate me to write a positive review or any review at all. When I do write, it is my full and honest opinion, regardless of the cost (or lack thereof) of the food or product.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pinkberry's Hingham and Boston Arrivals

Pinkberry has arrived in Massachusetts.

If you're a member of the tart yogurt cult, you might be jumping for joy. I was a few years late to this party, but I do get a strong BerryLine craving now and then. In any case, the opening of another place in this category doesn't interest me all that much as BerryLine exceeds my needs.

Despite my admitted disinterest, I accepted an invitation to attend the opening of the Hingham Pinkberry back in August; I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had a chance to sit down with CEO Ron Graves and try the yogurt.

Graves is on the left; I believe the two men on the right are the owners of the Hingham location.
The ribbon-cutting at Hingham.
Graves ushers in some children.
I was curious about how Pinkberry intended to compete with BerryLine, which is already firmly rooted in this area. Graves seemed irritated to be placed in the same category as imitation brands and said that Pinkberry, the "first" and the "leader", prefers to look inward and be the best it can be - the products, the store environment, the people - without considering the others. Graves doesn't measure his success based on the competition. Fair enough. "All frozen yogurts are not created equal," he said. (I'm picturing a West Side Story-style rumble between Pinkberry and BerryLine. This elaborate vision includes the throwing of fruit and candy toppings, giant cups of yogurt smashed on the ground, and plenty of singing and leaping gracefully.)

Graves told me of Pinkberry's three areas of focus: a delicious product, a bright beacon-like environment, and happy, energetic service. The environment's pretty cool; I'll give it that. Check out the floor and lamp:

The service has a squeaky clean perkiness about it, much like the smiley sticker hander-outers at WalMart. Personally, I'd rather hang out with the music students who staff the Fenway BerryLine. Large chain overly friendly service creeps me out. (Think Chotchkie's in Office Space.)

Graves scoops.
I'm loving the pink ties.
Fresh fruit toppings.
I got pomegranate yogurt with mochi and some other stuff.
This one is mine. Yum yum!
Graves actually took this photo of me. If he ever gets sick of yogurt, maybe he should look into a photography career!
Obligatory yogurt porn. I got pomegranate yogurt with mochi, gummy bears, pineapple and liquid pomegranate topping.
Graves talked a lot about the "clean finish" of the yogurt - the lack of a milky aftertaste. I've gotta be honest: I actually tasted that milky aftertaste stronger than any other brand of tart yogurt that I've had. The fruit topping (I had pineapple) was fresh and tasty, but the candy (special organic gummy bears and mochi) just didn't live up to my expectations. Each BerryLine store makes their own mochi from scratch every day, and you can really tell, but the Pinkberry mochi seemed like it was part of a monster batch made at some central factory location.

Pinkberry does have a special set of toppings that BerryLine lacks - liquid toppings. I got pomegranate juice, and it was a nice touch. I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that they do take local, seasonal ingredients into account when changing up the flavors.

It's not my intention to be overly critical; if you're part of the Pinkberry fan base or if you've never had it before, you'll probably love it. My loyalties are with the brand that has already rooted itself into Boston and Cambridge, though. I'm glad that Pinkberry started this tart yogurt trend, but for the Boston market, BerryLine totally owns it. I love that they feature local artists and really make an effort to be a part of the community, and I find that their product simply tastes better.

If you'd like to check out the new Pinkberry, it's opening today at 288 Newbury Street (at Gloucester).

Disclaimer: I received a free tart yogurt and toppings at the Hingham Pinkberry opening. Since I am not backed by the budget of a publication, I do occasionally accept free food and product samples. Accepting free food or products does not obligate me to write a positive review or any review at all, and regardless of cost or lack thereof, my reviews represent my own full and honest opinion.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Nerdnite Boston (October Edition): A Geeky Night of Cooking, Science, Art, and Math

Yesterday, a friend forwarded me an email about an event called nerdnite (motto: "be there and be square") - a monthly opportunity to totally nerd out while drinking awesome cocktails at Middlesex Lounge - and it was conveniently taking place last night.

Aside from the fact that I'm a total nerd, I was drawn to the event because the first speaker of the evening was going to be Jeff Potter of Cooking For Geeks fame. I've been following him on Twitter for a long time, and back in March, I tested out a chocolate cake recipe for him.

My attempt at following one of Jeff's recipes back in March 2010. Probably due to poor oven calibration, my cake imploded, but it was still delicious!
As science and food are both major parts of my life, Cooking For Geeks is a perfectly fun and informative resource for me, so I was excited to hear Jeff speak. He focused on a couple main topics: the Maillard reaction and sous vide ("under vacuum") cooking, and he also made us taste a piece of paper that told me that I am a "supertaster." (Oddly enough, I love most of the things listed on that site: raw broccoli, grapefruit juice, dark chocolate. I guess the flavors are intense but also enjoyable for me.)

Before delving further into the nerdalicious portion of this post, I should pause and tell you that Middlesex has an awesome cocktail list. I nursed a Chartreusian Mule throughout the night: green chartreuse (a LOT of it) with ginger beer and lime. Tasty and strong.

Ok, back to the science.

The Maillard Reaction
You like your cookies a nice golden brown around the edges, do you? Thank the Maillard reaction for that. In very basic terms, it's an amino acid reacting with a sugar, typically under the influence of heat. In less basic terms, it's the amino group of an animo acid reacting with the carbonyl group of a sugar, which results in an unstable glycosylamine which rearranges to form a ketosamine, which can then react in several different ways, ultimately resulting in a wide variety of molecules that produce a wide range of odors and colors associated with the browning of food.

Jeff showed a neat series of photos of a cookie baking, so we got a clear picture of what happens as the cookie reaches certain temperatures. One of the first noticeable changes, for example, is that the cookie flattens out when the butter in the dough begins to melt. Eventually, you start getting the browned edges. I didn't make note of the temperatures because I was in a bar, drinking, and I think it would cross the line even at nerdnite to whip out a notebook and pretend this was a lecture.

To learn more about the Maillard reaction, check out the website of the International Maillard Reaction Society. Yep, there's a such thing as the Internation Maillard Reaction Society, and it appears they have an International Symposium every 2-3 years. Awesome.

Sous Vide
Think of the best steak you've ever had. Was it perfectly rare or medium-rare on the inside but wonderfully seared on the outside? If so, it was probably cooked using the sous vide method, a technique that allows you to cook at a lower temperature than usual for a very long period of time to get a food to the proper interior temperature without messing with the texture or integrity of the ingredients. To achieve this, the food is placed - often in a vacuum-sealed bag, although this is not really necessary - into a water bath with a controlled temperature. Since the temperature is controlled, you could leave food in there for hours if you'd like, and it'll come out perfectly. This is useful for steak because it allows you to almost separate the cooking of the interior and the exterior. Using sous-vide, you get the interior to the appropriate done-ness, and then you can very quickly sear the outside in a hot skillet (for example) to get that beautifully crunchy crust while maintaining the rare inside. Sous-vide is also a particularly good method for cooking eggs.

The second speaker at this month's nerdnite was Ben Jordan, a biologist who talked to us about his visual representations of mathematical questions. Cool stuff.

I'd definitely go back to nerdnite. It made me realize that I'd love to find some bizarre way to combine my love of science, food, music, and photography. Hmmm...

For more nerdnite information, check out the website, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. Maybe I'll see you at the next one!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pumpkin Potluck Party

We still haven't had an apartment-warming party, but we've squeezed in a few dinner parties in the new place. We've got a big dining room and a nice drop leaf table, so it's a perfect set up for five or six people.

Dining room + Autumn = Pumpkin Party!  

To be honest, I've never been a huge fan of pumpkins. Toasted seeds started to grow on me a couple years ago, and I've had a few pumpkin soups and breads that have been very good, but I've never really gone out of my way to eat pumpkin.

But for some reason, I decided to throw a pumpkin potluck party on Sunday, and you know what? I loved every dish!

To get into the spirit, I attempted to dress up the cat. She was not very enthusiastic about this.

Sierra the Pumpkin-Cat
For food, we ended up with toasted seeds (one bowl of normal seeds and one bowl of extra hot ones sprinkled with ghost chili powder), two pumpkin breads (one with cranberries, walnuts, and raisins and one with chocolate chips), a vegan pumpkin soup (served in a pumpkin and topped with sage and toasted seeds), pumpkin gnocchi (from Russo's) in a sage brown butter sauce, and kaddo bourani (from a recipe posted on Chowhound based on a dish from The Helmand). We drank Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale.

I guess pumpkin's not so bad after all! I would definitely eat any of these dishes again. Happy autumn!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tater Tots and Balkan Rock

My arteries will not allow me to embark on a Tater Tot Quest, but that's OK, because I doubt any restaurant could top Cambridge Common. (Yep, I've had the famous tots at Garden at the Cellar, but they just didn't do it for me.) Cambridge Common makes them perfectly crispy, just like the ones you devoured in the high school cafeteria back in the day when you could consume buckets of grease and your metabolism would keep things under control. Ah, the good old days.

Tater Tots from heaven
Cambridge Common also has a great beer selection and decent burgers, but more importantly (for me, anyway), it's connected to the Lizard Lounge, where we attended an epic show Tuesday night.

It was the second-to-last show of the Bury Me Standing residency, put together by marimbist/composer Vessela Stoyanova and drummer/composer Nate Greenslit. I had previously seen Nate perform with HUMANWINE, and it was a pleasure to see/hear Vessela for the first time. She is a terrifyingly good marimba player - playing "Happy Birthday" in an outrageous time signature of 17 was no problem - and her face radiates sheer joy as she plays. They put together an amazing night with many guest players, many of whom played with more than one band on the line-up. At times, the stage area was packed with ten or even fifteen musicians, even including three upright basses at one point. Totally impressive.

Molly Zenobia with THREE(!) upright basses. (Gotta give Joel credit for taking this photo while I was sitting lazily in the back of the bar.)

What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? started out the show. A band I'm in, The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, played a show with them at Church earlier this month, but I sadly had to leave before their set as I was (a) sick and (b) wanting to run away from my first ever creepy groupie. (See my bandmate Sophia's lovely comic for the full story.) I was excited to finally see them, and I wasn't disappointed. Lead singer Brian King has an impressive range and an arsenal of different voices, and the band's songs have a dark wit that is endlessly entertaining.

What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? and a volunteer from the audience
Next up was a short set from Molly Zenobia (pictured above). I couldn't see from where I was sitting, but I think she was playing a harmonium or similar instrument while singing eerily. It was a very interesting performance.

Next, Vessela, Nate, and a revolving group of guest musicians played an intense Balkan set in every unusual time signature imaginable - even "seven-f***in'-teen," exclaimed Vessela. The set was full of energy, and some audience members even started up a Balkan line dance. (It resembles the Hora, but more complicated and rhythmic.) For their last song, they covered System of a Down's "War?"; my bandmate Sophia Cacciola (drawer of the aforementioned comic) (also of Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling) sat in as guest vocalist.

Vessela and Sophia covering "War?" by System of a Down
I was so excited to see the last band, Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band, which I'd heard of from past HONK! Fest line-ups. I was only able to stay for the first few numbers of their all-Balkan set, but I was totally blown away. Throw everything you know about marching bands out the window. This is a totally different experience.

The existence of a line-up like Tuesday's has landed Lizard Lounge a spot in my mental list of awesome music venues, and I heartily encourage you to check out all of these musicians.

And if you go to Lizard Lounge, be sure to stop by Cambridge Common for some tater tots first!

Cambridge Common:
Cambridge Common on Urbanspoon
Cambridge Common

Lizard Lounge:
Lizard Lounge on Urbanspoon
Lizard Lounge

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Columbus Day Weekend: Music, Food, Family, Friends

Columbus Day weekend was just a normal two-day weekend for me, but I squeezed in as much fun as possible!

On Saturday afternoon, Joel and I walked over to Davis Square to catch some of HONK! Fest, which we sadly missed last year. (HONK! is a festival of "activist street bands", which often means marching bands with unusual instrumentation, unusual costumes, and a whole lot of energy.) Check out my slideshow for a glimpse of the awesomeness:

Then, we hurried into Providence - and got stuck in massive traffic, of course - to meet up with Joel's parents at one of our favorite Providence restaurants, Red Fez. We were in town to see Joel's brother Dan's old band, Zox, play a reunion show at Lupo's (and Dan's new band, The Stepkids, was one of the opening bands.) It was an early show, and by 11pm, the grumpy staff was shoving us out the door to transition the place into a skeevy nightclub. Gross. The show was pretty fun, although I can't figure out why people up front felt like crowd surfing even to the quiet acoustic numbers. The after party was at Local 121, a restaurant and bar focused on local, sustainable ingredients. We eventually got tired and decided to head back to Boston, but on the way back to the car, we stopped by Haven Brothers Diner (founded in 1893!) for some late night street meat. A diner on wheels, it has a small seating area inside, or you can order at the side of the truck and eat outside. It was chilly; we squeezed inside. The fries were great, but Joel got a strange-colored hot dog that wasn't very good. Homeward bound. Much less traffic on the way back.

On Sunday morning, I headed back to Rhode Island. My cousin David was in from Florida with his wife and kids: two-year-old Joel and six-month-old Anna. I hadn't met either of the babies yet, so my parents and I drove to my aunt and uncle's house in Warwick, RI, where the family was gathered.

My mom with my new cousin Anna
Another Joel!
While spending the afternoon in Rhode Island, I got a text message from my friend Jennie: "We're toying with the idea of having a beer-bottling, homemade ice cream, cedar plank salmon, popover party tonight. Anybody into that idea?" Um, yes.

When we arrived at Jennie's later that night, we were greeted by her adorable dog, Allie, who pees on the floor whenever visitors show up.

First on the menu, not a part of the enticing text message, were fried green tomatoes. Yum! Jennie and her boyfriend Travis are both from the South, so they know what they're doing when it comes to fried green tomatoes.

Jennie recently acquired a popover pan and ice cream machine from a moving sale, hence the dinner theme. Next up, popovers!

And salmon for the main course.

We finished up the meal with some homemade pear ginger sorbet that Jennie made in her new ice cream machine. Delicious.

Spnork? Knifoon? Forspife?
We watched a bit of the beer bottling process (Jennie and Travis made an IPA) before we had to head home. Alas, some of us did not have Columbus Day off.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Mystery Meet in the Dark: Blind Dining at Hampshire House

I wait and wait for my eyes to adjust. There's no possible adjustment; not a sliver of light sneaks in. The walls could be inches away or a football field away for all I know, until my ears begin to pick up on the acoustics, hinting at room size. Echolocation would come in handy here.

I feel a bit of claustrophobic panic rising up: the air feels heavy, like a sauna, as the darkness is so all-encompassing. Oh, there's a person right there. Right there, too. Where am I? Loud piano chords interfere with my perception of what's around me, so I focus on my place setting. Fork on the left. Napkin in the middle; napkin now on my lap. Knife on the right. Most important: gin and tonic at the tip of the knife. Good. Wait, where'd my fork go? I recover it from Joel, to my immediate left and in a mischievous mood, and I retaliate by jabbing at him with it, because stabbing each other with utensils in the dark is surely a safe game.

Wait, how'd we get here?

It's Mystery Meet Number 4, and unlike the first three, this one had two elements of mystery: the location and the special theme. (I attended the inaugural Mystery Meet at Ten Tables in Cambridge.) In the weeks leading up to the event, clues were released, one at a time:
  • This Meet will provide a mysterious and groundbreaking culinary experience – guaranteed to be a first for the city of Boston!
  • This tradition can be traced back to a visually-impaired German bovine.
  • David Lee Roth, Michael Crichton and Uma Thurman have lived in the same neighborhood as this restaurant.
  • Zurich, 1999
  • a.k.a. “Melville’s”
The first clue intrigued me; the second one gave away that the event would be dining in the dark. ("Visually-impaired German bovine" led me to google "German blind cow", which led me to blindekuh, the famous blind dining restaurant in Zurich and Basal.) Google helped with the third clue as well; the answer is Beacon Hill. The fourth clue confirmed what I already knew from the second, as that is the logo of blindekuh, which was founded in Zurich in 1999. As for the final clue, Melville's is the name of the fictional restaurant above Cheers. I located the Beacon Hill Cheers on a Google map but couldn't figure out what was above it in real life. Turns out it's a function venue called Hampshire House. This event sold out in about five minutes flat. Gotta be quick!

The first part of the event was in a normally lit cocktail lounge, where we were given big name tags with the snazzy Dining in the Dark logo on the back. (For what? Turns out they'd be in front of us on the tables so the waitstaff could address us by name. This is useful when a full plate of food is coming flying at you.)

Joel, my brave dining companion.
We peered into the dining room, a candlelit library.Wait, candles? Maybe we won't be totally in the dark.

After some well-lit mingling and cocktail time, we were handed heavy duty blindfolds, divided into four tables of seven or eight people each, and instructed to place a hand on the shoulder in front of us to be led to our seat. At some point during the walk, my hand slipped away and I stood aimlessly, turning my head side to side as if I could actually see. A waiter grabbed me and led me the rest of the way.

My table clumsily decided to introduce ourselves. Shouting over the din of the clattering piano, there's Heather and Harrison to the right. Glenn and Katrin of Wine Dine With Us to the left. And of course Joel, to my immediate left, still stealing my stuff.

There was narration, something about a jungle. Lost jokes ensued. So did a loudly posed question probably on many diners' minds, "Who's playing footsie with me?" We traveled through each course, tentatively at first and then growing bolder with our hands, mapping out our plates and the textures of the mystery foods we would trust enough to consume.

I blindly took photos throughout the meal; view the following slideshow for a laugh:

With one sense cut off, the others seemed hypersensitive. The music seemed uncomfortably loud through much of the meal, smells were strong, and most importantly, tastes were intense. Much of the food was seasonally appropriate: autumn squashes and such that usually seem bland to my palate. I was surprised to enjoy most of them more than ever before.

First Course: Samplings from Our Cauldrons
Off to a strong start! All three soups had bold flavors I was surprised to enjoy immensely. Before I became a food blogger, I'd never dream of eating anything containing words like "cream of parsnip"! (This photo was taken after the meal, blindfold off, lights on.)

Trilogy of Gingered Organic Chantenay Carrot Soup, Caramelized Pumpkin Soup & Cream of Parsnip with Chives
Second Course: Textures from the Ocean
The wonton crisp was heavenly, reminiscent of the delightfully greasy, crunchy noodles served before the meal at Chinese restaurants. I totally cleaned the plate. (This photo was also taken after the meal.)

Skillet-seared scallop and shrimp, garnished with a wonton crisp, green apple, lemon thyme on a bed of arugula
Third Course: Roast Beast and Trimmings
This one was the weakest link. The chicken was cold (probably so we wouldn't burn ourselves) and unpleasant. I wasn't a fan of the zucchini or squash, but the carrot was alright and the potatoes were the sole high note for this course. (This photo was taken with the blindfold on, which explains why half the plate is missing, but I got lucky on the lighting!)

Pecan-crusted chicken breast, oven-roasted red bliss potatoes with rosemary miniature zucchini, squash burst, and carrots
Fourth Course: Heavenly Sweets
Heavenly is right. Turns out Hampshire House has a cookie night...weekly, I think, but I didn't grab the brochure and the information doesn't appear to be on the website. Apparently they're searching for the best cookie recipes in the world. The three that came with dessert were definitely high up on the list. Drool. (Photo taken with blindfold.)

House-made bittersweet crackle, double chocolate chip cookie and cinnamon ice cream with an oatmeal crisp
After devouring dessert, we were invited to take off our blindfolds at the sound of a chime. Wait, the wall's all the way back there? There's a table over there? It took some time to adjust to the actual layout versus the layout I had perceived while blindfolded.

Overall, the evening was lots of fun. I was hoping for more challenging foods; the overheard "I'm eating a chicken heart!" was sadly untrue, and none of the courses proved very daring. Three out of four were solidly enjoyable, though, especially with the flavors amplified by lack of sight.

The narration and music make the whole thing a bit hokey - more vaudeville than educational experience about what it's like to be blind - but I think that's ok. If I ever find myself in Zurich or Basal, I'd love to visit blindekuh, and I have a hunch the experience would be a lot more intense and a better approximation of what it's like to live without sight, but I don't think that is (or necessarily should be) the goal of TeamBonding's Dining in the Dark experience.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pasta-Making Newbie

A few months ago, I attempted to make ravioli by hand. It was a complete failure. I didn't have a pasta machine, and I was unable to roll the dough thin enough by hand, so I ended up with thick, doughy, not-at-all-cooked-through ravioli. I was discouraged for awhile and abandoned all thoughts of glorious homemade pasta. (Instead, I'd settled on many occasions for someone else's homemade pasta - Dave's Fresh Pasta - which really can't be considered "settling". That stuff is amazing, and I could easily live on it. Plus, Dave sometimes carries the-best-cupcakes-in-the-world from The Chocolate Tarte.)

Recently, I got an email from CSN Stores - an online megamart for home, office, and school supplies/decor/appliances/whatever-else-you-may-need - asking if I'd be interested in reviewing a product of my choosing. I just moved into a new apartment, so I couldn't say no to a free kitchen appliance. I was given an $80 gift certificate to pick anything from their 200+ stores. After a long ice cream vs. pasta debate, I settled on a pasta machine. Time to give it another try!

I scanned the selection and settled on the CucinaPro Pasta Fresh 5 Machine, which is conveniently $79.99, plus free shipping. (Note: It appears to be out of stock at the moment.) The "5" refers to the five different types of pasta that it can make with the included attachments: angel hair, spaghetti, fettuccine, lasagnette, and ravioli (very small ones).

Complaint #1: Worst. Manual. Ever. This thing is full of typos and awkward wording, although I do appreciate the redundant reminders that cooking is great because you can "eat your mistakes." There are no assembly instructions, just vague pasta-making instructions. As a total newbie, I had no clue what to do with the various pieces of the pasta-making machine. In the image on the box, the attachments are spread out around the machine, so it took some time to realize how the attachments actually attached.  I'm still a bit baffled by the ravioli attachment; that one will take some extra work.

Complaint #2: The clamp and the crank are a bit finicky as well. They don't lock into anything tightly, they just sort of balance on a lip. The whole apparatus feels a little shaky while it is in pieces. Once my roommate, Deb, and I finally figured out how to assemble and clamp it, though, it felt sturdy.

First, we sent some paper towels through to clean it out.
Clamped securely to the table! The leftmost part is the fettuccine/angel hair attachment.
Well, if pasta doesn't work out, this thing could have a second life as a paper shredder...
Mmmm...paper fettuccine!
Once it seemed to be in working order, it was time to think about the dough. Ignoring the manual, I consulted my Essential Pasta cookbook, which was a total bargain at Borders a few years ago. (I have a couple others from the series - Essential Fingerfood and Essential Seafood - that are very helpful. They all feature beautiful color glossaries, many easy to intermediate recipes, and other useful information.)

First: the magic flour/egg well.
Success! Minimal egg-al leakage!
Next: the mixing of the dough, which I found a bit tricky. I think I mixed in too much flour too quickly.
Almost ready to knead...
Finally: the kneading. The cookbook told me to knead for at least six minutes and to look for slightly glossy dough. Here it is, almost ready to rest:
Ever so slightly glossy!
I let it rest for a half hour, and then it was time to attempt to use the machine. I split the dough into quarters. The first quarter was a bit messy as the dough teared near the end on the last roll through the machine.
First attempt!
For the rest, I made sure to use flour liberally, and there was a lot less sticking and a lot more pretty pasta.
Second attempt!
Deb, who does much more cooking than me, was a lovely sous chef and very neatly untangled the fettuccine strands as I worked with the remainder of the dough.
Neat little piles of fresh pasta, ready to be plunged into boiling water.
We let the pasta sit for awhile and made a simple tomato sauce with sliced chorizo and onions - a recipe from the same cookbook.
If only you could smell this through your computer/iPad/whatever...
I also attempted to make a topping of crispy basil. I had many fails before I came up with three somewhat usable leaves by sheer luck.
Crispy basil FAIL.
Finally, we ate!
Fettuccine with chorizo and crispy basil
I'd say it was pretty successful!

As for the pasta machine, after the initial difficulties, I was actually very satisfied with its performance. I can't say anything about the other four types of pasta yet, but the fettuccine was relatively easy to make. The thickness seemed appropriate, and it wasn't too hard to avoid tearing the dough. For 80 bucks, this thing is a good deal. I've never used another pasta machine, so I really have no basis for comparison, but I'd certainly recommend this one to a friend...along with some helpful assembly tips.

Disclaimer: As noted above, I received an $80 gift certificate from CSN to put towards the purchase of a product of my choice to review. I did not receive any other compensation. All reviews on Fork it over, Boston! are my honest and complete opinion, regardless of the cost or lack thereof of the product, restaurant, or service. Receiving products, food, or services for free or at a discount does not obligate me to write a positive review or any review at all. All products, food, drink, or services received for free or at a discount are noted.
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