Friday, October 30, 2009

MiniBite: A Pumpkin-y Post

...just in time for Halloween!  Or, early for Thanksgiving!

Pumpkins, pumpkins.  I've tried to acquire a taste for them, but I'm just not there yet.  Once, I did have a pretty good pumpkin soup - served in a pumpkin! - on a Rochester dinner cruise along the lovely Genesee River.  (I'm using the term "lovely" loosely here.  When I rowed on the crew team at the University of Rochester, rumor had it that if you dipped any limbs in the water, they'd come out infected or mutated.  A giant mutant fish did jump in the boat once, right behind my seat, flopping against my back.  I had to stop rowing to toss it overboard.)

Anyway, back to pumpkins.  I wanted to give them another chance this year, so I gladly accepted an offer of a sample* of Pumpkin Pie Fudge from Phillips Candy House, "Boston's Oldest Chocolatier."  Phillips also sent me some chocolate-dipped jack-o'-lantern-shaped Peeps. YES! I'm a big fan of Peeps in moderation, but if you eat too many in a row, they start tasting pretty gross.  I had never tried chocolate-dipped Peeps, so this was an exciting sample to receive!

First, the fudge:
Look, it's in the shape of a pie slice!  Cute :)  And I liked it!  Made of pumpkin puree, it actually tasted like real pumpkin, and it was very nicely spiced.  The chocolate crumb crust balances out the pumpkin nicely.  Pumpkin alone probably would have been too much for my taste, but I'm still on the fence about pumpkin flavor in general.  I'm sure all you pumpkin lovers out there will really enjoy this fudge.

Next, the Peeps!
I shared these with my bandmates before a rehearsal a few nights ago.  "Peeps suck, but these don't suck so bad," said Andy.  So there you have it!  The chocolate is an improvement over regular Peeps.  It was a very mild milk chocolate, so it seemed to tone down the obnoxious sugary Peep flavor that so many people dislike.

According to the Phillips Candy House website, they "continue to make artisan chocolates and other confections by hand and in small batches, using only the finest and freshest ingredients," which is pretty awesome, so I'm happy to report that I really enjoyed these samples.  If you buy anything from Phillips, I'd encourage you to consider a Yoouukk! Bar as part of your order.  Phillips is donating 100% of the net proceeds from this chocolate bar to Kevin Youkilis' "Hits for Kids" charitable organization, which supports charities and organizations focused on kids' health and well-being.

In other pumpkin-y news, I just picked up some bottles of Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, "a full-bodied brown ale with smooth hints of pumpkin and brown sugar," to bring to a Halloween party.  I've never had it, so I'll update this post once I've actually tasted it, but I'm a big fan of several other Dogfish Head beers (60 Minute IPA, 90 Minute IPA, and Raison d'Etre) so I have high hopes for this one.

Some other local pumpkin finds (Except for the last one, I have not tasted these; I've just heard about them or found them online):

-Cinna Punk vegan cupcake at Kickass Cupcakes (Davis Square, Somerville) - "sassy pumpkin spice cupcake with cinnamon frosting"

-Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino at all Starbucks locations (Sorry, I know Starbucks hardly counts as local.) - "a delicious blend of pumpkin and traditional fall spice flavors combined with the finest coffees, blended with ice and topped with whipped crème and pumpkin spice spices."

-Pumpkin and pumpkin pie cupcakes at Sweet (Harvard Square and Back Bay) - Pumpkin: "Sweet's fall classic, fresh moist pumpkin cake topped with traditional cream cheese frosting and topped with a cinnamon sugared pumpkin seed" and pumpkin pie: "Graham cracker crust, rich pumpkin cake and a dollop of homemade whipped cream topping sprinkled with nutmeg complete the Sweet cupcake version of this favorite autumn pie."

-Kaddo at The Helmand near Kendall Square - "Pan-fried then baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce, topped with ground beef sauce."  I've had great food at The Helmand before, but I've never tried this dish.

-Pharsi Ko Tarkari at Mt. Everest Kitchen in Allston - I went to this restaurant with a bunch of friends back in January, and it had just re-opened under new management, so our server kept bringing us delicious free stuff to try in addition to our meals, including a wonderful pumpkin dish that sort of looked like baby food but tasted really good.  "Pumpkin sauteed in veg. oil, ginger, garlic, spices & coriander."

Happy Halloween!

*I accepted a free sample from Phillips: a slice of fudge and some Peeps.  On occasion, I do receive free stuff, and I will always disclose when I'm writing about something I received for free.  I am in no way obligated to write about free stuff I receive, and if I do write about it, I'm not obligated to write a positive review.  This review, along with everything else in my blog, is my completely honest opinion.

Monday, October 26, 2009

EventBite: Fair Trade...and Sea Urchin Cappuccinos?

Ed. note: This post originally appeared on, which no longer exists. There was a delicious slideshow to go along with it! I'll migrate the slideshow here soon.

I bet you've never had a sea urchin cappuccino before...unless you attended Green Mountain Coffee's Eat, Drink & Be Fair event this past Wednesday at the Artists for Humanity Epicenter. The event was a celebration of Fair Trade Month, and organizers aimed to raise awareness of the importance of buying Fair Trade products. (Fun fact: October is also Vegetarian Awareness Month and National Dental Hygiene Month, so it seems like a good month to be conscious of what you're putting in your mouth.)

The event centered around a cook-off among four top Boston chefs: Richard Garcia of Tastings Wine Bar & Bistro in Foxborough, Will Gilson of Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge and The Herb Lyceum at Gilson's in Groton, Peter McCarthy of EVOO in Somerville and Za in Arlington, and Jay Silva of Bambara in Cambridge.  This wasn't just any cook-off, though.  All chefs made extensive use of Fair Trade ingredients, especially coffee.

Several of Green Mountain Coffee's Fair Trade partners were in attendance, including Arcadio Daniel Galindo, the president of the Association Chajulense Val Vaq Quyol, a Fair Trade co-op in remote Chajul, Guatemala.  Galindo spoke of the importance of all members of the "chain" of Fair Trade coffee - the producers, the roasters, and the consumers.  After a few quick speeches, though, the focus was on the food.  The four chefs and their sous chefs served up tiny plate after tiny plate of their signature dishes, and a catering company was on hand to serve several other hors d'oeuvres and dishes featuring Fair Trade ingredients.  Cocktails included Moroccan Tea Mojitos and Apple Cider Martinis, and Long Trail Brewery beer was also featured.

The winning dish, as judged by a panel that included Lindsey Bolger, Head Coffee Buyer for Green Mountain, belonged to Chef Peter McCarthy: Green Mountain Fair Trade Dark Roast Coffee Marinated Hudson Valley Moullard Duck Breast with Verrill Farm's Parsnip Puree, Pete's Pickled Pumpkin, Royal Gala Apple and Espresso-Vanilla Chimichurri.  (By the way, it was delicious, although it didn't quite match the uniqueness of Chef Richard Garcia's sea urchin cappuccino, which was served with lobster beignets.)  Green Mountain donated $1000 to the charity of Chef McCarthy's choice, The Food Project, a Massachusetts organization whose stated mission is "to grow a thoughtful and productive community of youth and adults from diverse backgrounds who work together to build a sustainable food system."

The location, the airy and beautiful Artists for Humanity Epicenter, was well chosen.  In October 2005, the Epicenter was the first Boston building to receive LEED Platinum certification from the United States Green Building Council in recognition of its designers' commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility.  Although Fair Trade and green buildings seem to go hand in hand, recycling was oddly absent at the event.  We asked a member of the catering staff where we should leave our beer bottles and were told that they would just be thrown out.

The chefs really managed to show that food can be more than delicious and beautiful: it can have a conscience, too.  Though Fair Trade Month is nearly over, the idea is worth keeping in mind year round.  And with Boston on track to become an official Fair Trade City in the near future, it will become easier than ever to find restaurants around Boston serving Fair Trade food.(And if you’re looking for a place to try those sea urchin cappuccinos, look no further.  Chef Garcia’s recipe is available online [PDF].)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Slice o' Vegan at a Peace o' Pie

Ed. note: This article originally appeared on, which no longer exists. I'll migrate the slideshow here soon, but for now, here's the text and one photo:

Allston's Union Square, already home to a vegan Asian restaurant called Grasshopper, welcomed a new vegan restaurant this month: Peace o' Pie, a pizzeria. Since October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, I decided to put my meat-eating ways aside for an evening and give vegan pizza a try. I brought along my friend Julia, a pescetarian, to get an opinion from someone more used to eating meat substitutes.

Despite the fact that we accidentally arrived a few minutes before opening, excitedly grabbed menus, and sat down, the staff was very friendly and let us stay. We scoured the menu for awhile, eventually settling on a medium pizza with an organic whole wheat crust, half topped with pineapple and half topped with vegan apple sage sausage, which is made from seitan. Peace o' Pie's standard crust is made from unbleached wheat flour, but the whole wheat substitute is available for medium pies. On Thursdays, a gluten-free substitute is also available. The standard cheese is Vegan Gourmet. In addition to pizza, we ordered cheesy breadsticks made with Daiya, a soy-free cheese made with tapioca flour. Daiya can also be ordered on the pizzas instead of Vegan Gourmet.

Peace o' Pie's pastel walls and shiny silver tables reminded us of a diner, although the service was at a much more relaxed pace than that of a diner. We waited nearly a half hour for our pizza, somewhat understandable since it was being made from scratch, but hopefully the pace will pick up a bit when it becomes busier. At 5:30 on a Tuesday night, it was already getting fairly full.

At last, our breadsticks arrived: hot, soft, garlicky, and wonderful. The Daiya was melted across the top. "You can barely tell it's not cheese," said Julia between bites. I was tempted to forget about the pizza and order more breadsticks. Soon after, we got our pizza. Visually, it looked just like non-vegan pizza. The cheese and sausage gave nothing away about their non-dairy, non-meat origins. The soft whole wheat crust was satisfying and neither too thick nor too thin. We both started with the sausage half of the pizza, the ultimate test. The texture was slightly different than meat sausage - a little bit more even and processed, missing those tiny globules of fat that make meat sausage so meaty. The flavor was very close, although rather mild. Julia found the sausage to be excellent compared to other meat substitutes that she has tried. The Vegan Gourmet cheese looked just like dairy cheese, and the taste was fairly similar at first, but as I moved on to my second and third slices, my stomach realized it was being tricked and the cheese became less satisfying. The sauce was tasty throughout, though. "It's a sauce made with a lot of love," remarked Julia. We both agreed that the pizza could use a little bit more seasoning. The ingredients all tasted fresh and healthy, but they lacked a kick. Also absent: grease. If you're used to pizza dripping with grease, Peace o' Pie's pizza might be unsettling at first, but your arteries will probably thank you.

Although as a non-vegan, I prefer the taste of dairy cheese and meat on my pizza, I would definitely return to Peace o' Pie just for those breadsticks. For those that don't eat dairy and meat, Julia found this pizza to be a good substitute for the "real" thing.

Peace o' Pie also offers salads, calzones, and delicious-looking home-made vegan desserts (that we were unfortunately too full to try.) And in addition to using 100% vegan ingredients, most of which are organic, Peace o' Pie makes an effort to recycle or compost as much as possible. They also used eco-friendly materials when remodeling the space, including a sustainably-produced bamboo counterfront and a countertop made from recycled office paper.

Visit Peace o' Pie's website, become a fan on Facebook, and follow on Twitter.

Peace o' Pie on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 16, 2009

Prezza: Rustic Tradition Meets Fine Dining

I reviewed Prezza, an Italian Restaurant in the North End, for North End Scene Magazine.

Rachel Blumenthal - Prezza

Prezza on Urbanspoon

An Underground Dining Adventure in Union Square

This piece originally appeared on, accompanied by a slideshow. The site no longer exists. I'll migrate the slideshow here as soon as I can track down the photos on an older computer.

The cryptic invitation arrived in my inbox a few weeks ago and was promptly snatched up by my spam filter, where I almost didn’t notice it. “You are most cordially invited to dine,” read the subject line. It was from JJ Gonson, a personal chef and locavore whom I had met once at a food blogger dinner many months ago. Upon opening the email, I realized I had received something any food enthusiast would be thrilled about: an invitation to an underground dinner. Not literally taking place underground, although that would be an interesting experience, these secretive dinners occur at random times and in random locations, operating in a way that is somewhere between a large dinner party and a small restaurant. Diners find out the actual location shortly before the event begins, bring their own alcohol, pay a suggested donation, and often find themselves seated at a table of strangers, being served endless courses over many hours.

This particular event, part of a series Gonson calls ONCE – One Night Culinary Events, was autumn-themed, featuring local, seasonally appropriate ingredients. It took place on Friday, October 9th, a gloomy, rainy night. As my dining companion and I arrived at the mysterious location near Union Square in Somerville, we had no idea what to expect. We entered the loft-like room which had been rented from a local woodworkers’ co-op for the occasion, and we were immediately hit with the rich smell of hearty autumn foods being prepared by a busy army of five or so chefs, including Gonson. Nearly forty place settings were spread out across a collection of dining room tables, desktops, and small TV tables. As the chefs put the finishing touches on the first course, diners found seats, got to know each other, and started opening up the wine they brought with them.

As the chefs began plating and serving the first course, an amuse-bouche consisting of two savory profiteroles, Gonson warned us to pace ourselves, because we would be served a total of nine courses over the next three hours or so. The first course featured local maitake mushrooms, also known as the “hen of the woods.” The mushrooms were the only major ingredient to make a repeat appearance elsewhere in the dinner, hiding in the thick base of course three, a potato leek soup featuring locally smoked bacon, served in a charmingly mismatched assortment of bowls and mugs. The other early courses were a beet salad (featuring all parts of the beet) with Bayley Hazen blue cheese and a creamy radish risotto with crispy kale. The rice in the risotto was one of the only non-local ingredients of the dinner.

Instead of feeling painfully full after the first four courses, we found ourselves in another kind of agony. The fifth course, simmering and bubbling quietly in the kitchen area, had a smell almost too delicious to bear, and our table watched hungrily as the lobster ravioli in butternut squash puree was finally delivered…to each table before us. At last, the raviolis arrived on our plates and disappeared quickly. The butternut squash was almost dessert-like in its sweetness but paired perfectly with the lobster filling. The notes I jotted down during this course are brief and to the point: “OMG.” The next course was the largest and most traditionally entrée-like. Beef short ribs which had been marinated in local wine and were cooking since 11am that morning were served with root vegetables and sautéed Brussels sprouts that even the most stubbornly anti-Brussels sprouts child would happily eat.

The last three courses all had elements of dessert, although courses seven and eight were sneaky about it. The seventh course was a traditional-looking flan with a big surprise – it was made of turnip. Gonson described it as “savory custard.” It was certainly an interesting combination. The eighth course was a buttery puff pastry pinwheel stuffed with arugula and a young local cheddar cheese. Course nine, a true dessert, was a sweet apple and cranberry crumble.

Although some consider underground dining dangerous in the sense that these dinners operate almost like restaurants but without the licenses and inspections, dinners like ONCE feel more like a large dinner party with friends that you just don’t know yet. They also tend to offer incredibly fair prices for large amounts of delicious food, asking for a suggested donation that just barely covers the groceries. For information about future ONCEs, which aren’t quite as secretive as others out there, check out Gonson’s website. For information about other more speakeasy-like underground dinners, start befriending some foodies, and maybe one day you’ll get that cryptic invitation.

Lobster Ravioli in Butternut Squash Puree

Cuisine En Locale on Urbanspoon

Sportello: An Italian Diner in Fort Point

It's possible to find great Italian food in Boston beyond the borders of the North End. Head out to Fort Point, just steps from the Financial District, and you'll find the lunchtime mecca of the local businesspeople and artists. Sportello is a tiny restaurant offering simple yet gourmet Italian food in a minimalist diner-like setting. Located at 348 Congress Street above the innovative bar named Drink, Sportello is sleek and modern. Seat yourself at a gleaming white counter or head straight to the bakery corner, where you can stock up on cupcakes and cookies or pick up $6 boxed breakfasts that include tea or coffee, granola, a scone, a hard-boiled egg, and house-made preserves.

From your counter seat, you can watch the chefs cook calmly in the tiny, spotless kitchen. The ingredients seem to appear from thin air; everything is tucked neatly away. Everything about Sportello is clean and shiny, a grease-less version of the classic greasy spoon. While you peruse the menu, which doubles as your place mat, your friendly server will arrive with fresh, soft bread and a mix of olive oil, ricotta, and preserves for dipping.

The stars of the lunch and dinner menus are the soups, which will set you back about $9 but are large enough for a light meal. The most popular winter dish is the spicy tomato soup (see photo to the left), rich and creamy with a swirl of chili oil, accompanied by a grilled cheese crostini. Now, in warmer weather, it's replaced by a chilled tomato soup with poached shrimp and piperade. Also on the summer menu: a chicken and summer vegetable soup with basil pesto.

Salads and paninis are also available on the lower end of Sportello's somewhat pricey menu. For $13, try the broccoli rabe panini with pecorino, prosciutto, and cherry peppers. The crispy bread is buttered just enough to be delicious without greasiness, and the bitter broccoli rabe helps tone down the saltiness from the cheese and prosciutto. At night, the paninis disappear, so be sure to head over at lunch time if you're in a sandwich mood.

If you're willing to ignore the diner-style ambiance and spend more for your entree, try a pasta, meat, or fish dish. The papardelle with sauce bolognese and fried basil is an Italian spin on diner comfort food: mild, filling, and a little bit oily. At $17 for lunch or $22 for dinner, you might initially wonder if it's worth the price, but the sauce - a mix of veal, beef, and pork and finished with a bit of chicken liver - will win you over. Unfortunately, the fried basil, which is delicious, only makes an appearance as one measly crispy leaf on top of the mountain of wide noodles. Other entrees include salmon with summer beans and bacon; farfalle with clams, mussels, and radishes; and swordfish with tomatoes, capers, garlic, and parsley.

Desserts like the chocolate budino tart with sea salt and olive oil or the warm bread pudding with house-made jam and honey caramel may tempt you, or you can head over to the bakery across the room for a cupcake or pastry. Or, if you're bothered by the fact that you've already spent too much money in what is essentially a diner, head downstairs to Drink and have a drink. But for a neat little restaurant on the edge of the Financial District, perhaps the prices aren't really that unreasonable, and the quality of the food does rival much of what you can find in the North End.

Sportello on Urbanspoon
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