Returning to Boston’s North End for a Market Tour

After graduating from business schSalumeriaool several years ago, my wife and I spent about a year in Boston. Preparing to locate from St. Paul, we relied on our Google Maps skills to triangulate the perfect home base for a newly carless couple. Fortuitously, we landed in the North End.

While we enjoyed many aspects of living in this historically Italian enclave, this post will focus on the largest benefit – the food. Bachelor Porkchop focuses primarily on home cooking and travel, so I won’t spend much time on the fantastic restaurants except to emphasize they have taught me that the best way to prepare Italian food is simply and with very good ingredients. In fact, this rule applies to most food!

Over five years after leaving Boston, I have a chance to return and revisit my favorite restaurants and little shops where I provisioned so many kitchen treasures. UponBoston Water Taxi landing in Boston I took a water taxi across the harbor to the North End, which feels very bad assed – especially given the $12 fare.

My first stop was Salumeria, which has pastas, olive oils, and sausages I have seen nowhere else. My all time favorite olive oil was in stock (Frantoi Cutrera), as were farro and squid ink pastas. The olive oil has a high level of grass and black pepper in its flavor, which is perfect for an aggressive dressing or the finishing for a substantial dish like a braised lamb shoulder. These pastas make a very simple meal – with a few interesting mushrooms, some fresh herbs, and cheese – a special occasion meal.  Salumeria reminds me of an “old world” version of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, which greatly influenced my interest in food and launched my quest for interesting olive oils and vinegars. Both Salumeria and Zingerman’s remain some of my favorite places to provision.

After a visit to Salumeria, I walked by a few other old favorites. Sulmona Meat Market is a butcher shop where a single person in front of you may result in 20 minutes before you have paid. Why? There are master butchers selecting the right cut of meat and properly trimming it by hand. There are no visible prices and a lot of the cuts are tucked away in a cooler rather than the visible meat counter. This is a shop where customers place complete trust in their butcher and where I learned to appreciate a good butcher, as well.  They are focused on what they do and they’re an old fashioned outfit, so there is no website. I haven’t found another butcher shop like it, although Lowry Hill Meats in Minneapolis is a modern version of what this butcher shop represents.

Next, the subterranean and shoebox-sized fish market, The North End Fish Market, that had an informal oyster shucking class on Saturdays when we lived there – you just paid for what you ate. Sadly, the place that we used to visit for fresh pasta, expertly made charcuterie, and my first taste of proper burrata that had been made by hand in Italy less than 48 hours earlier, had closed its doors. A jolly old man behind the counter always welcomed us when we visited. He treated the shop like he had run it for decades even though it was owned by the local DePasquale empire. (Update: After some web searching, I learned some version of the pasta shop has been incorporated into Bricco.)

And next, I made a mandatory stop at Maria’s Pastries, a cannoli shop that lacks the shine of the famous Mike’s and Modern but makes up for it in product. I picked up some totos, my wife’s favorite allspice chocolate cookie, to make the trip home. On a side note, these are very different than the “totos” that our young daughter enjoys through peak tomato season.

Our year in the North End refined our appreciation for some very simple ingredients. Michele Toper’s walking tour introduced us to some of the favorites I mentioned. Something we still make frequently is a fennel salad, which is long strips of fennel chilled in ice water, drained, dried with a clean cloth, dressed in a grassy olive oil, and finished with salt and pepper. It has the perfect mix of crunch, fresh light flavor, and anticipation for what is next in the meal.

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This salad was a far cry from the braised fennel I knew from growing up in the Midwest.

Finally, I found myself at Cafe Vittoria, located on the North End’s famed Hanover street, drinking a perfect cappuccino from a Cimbali. The small granite tables just inside the very large open windows make a great perch for whiling away an hour and writing a post.

New Tastes & Techniques: Heirloom Tomato Sandwich

This is the first post in a series that highlights new tastes and techniques, which will feature delicious things that are new to me and I think are of value to other home cooks to consider. Of course, you may already know about such things. If that is the case, please share your twist on these favorite recent discoveries!

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Peak summer heirloom tomatoes from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market

Melissa Clark inspired me to think about the best way to approach a tomato sandwich last year, and it was one of the best things I had last year that was new to me. Tomatoes that grow in the north are very special. The quality and availability of summer produce started to peak in Minnesota a few weeks ago. This means heirloom tomatoes are in season and are abundant. During a recent trip to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market, at least a half dozen farmers offered heirloom tomatoes. I remember a few years ago when arriving early and knowing who had what was necessary to get the best tomatoes. Or any heirloom tomatoes. We bought a pile from four producers who we known for at least a few years. One tomato was ready for a sandwich the day we purchased it and the rest were ready within three or four days. The sandwich pictured below used a tomato from Mhonpaj’s Garden.

As my cooking evolves, simplicity has become increasingly important. It is very easy, and flavorful, to hide behind a robust ancho and paprika based rub but it is more satisfying to complement and intensify the flavors of featured ingredients instead of competing with them.

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This version of the sandwich allows the main ingredients to shine and involves acidity (the perfect tomato that is enhanced with layers of salt), which dances with something tangy (pickled red onions or ramps), and is supported by flavorful fats (a thin layer of Dynasty Thai Hot Chili Mayonnaise and great olive oil, ). These flavors combine and overtake two slices of Levain bread from Patisserie 46. The bread is spongy, absorbent, and has a crust that stands up to the messy goodness while the interior yields to the crushed tomato, oil and mayo, and acid from the pickled ramps or red onions.

The tomato sandwich is so simple it doesn’t really need a recipe.  However, here are two versions that are worthy of consideration:

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  1. If you are lucky enough to have pickled ramps: spread a thin layer of thai mayonnaise on the bottom layer of the bread, stack layers of very ripe heirloom tomatoes while sprinkling with a little salt and drizzling with the most fabulous olive oil you have. Crush the tomatoes with the back of a spoon as you go to release some juices. When the stack is high enough that you can barely get your mouth around it, top with pickled ramps. Slice in two and enjoy the messy goodness.
  2. If you are not lucky enough to have pickled ramps, follow the above instructions until you have a piece of bread with stacked tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. Rub some crushed garlic into the top piece of bread and cover the tomatoes with pickled onions. This one inspired enough tomato lust that I didn’t think to take a picture until the sandwich was long gone.

What to do with the rest of the tomatoes? Try gazpacho (chop everything by hand for the best flavor and use a little sherry vinegar) and go for the simplest version of sliced tomatoes with a little salt, great olive oil and a few leaves of basil that is complemented with a small piece of grilled meat.

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Tomato Sandwich Adapted from Melissa Clark

 

 

A Proper Larder

Over time, a home cook builds ingredients. I started by buying spices. Then interesting olive oils and vinegars. Mustards – not as many as Wisconsin’s zany Mustard Museum, but quite a few none the less.  A second freezer comes into the equation. Friends will occasionally offer game they have harvested. Stock gets made, and frozen. Mushroom ends and carcasses are frozen for “stock day”. Spicy mayo is discovered. Making preserved lemons is really easy, and they are incredibly versatile. Experiments in pickling and fermentation. Learning how much I like refrigerator pickling, and how much I have to learn about fermentation. One year, the gas company relocated our gas meter from an inside closet to outside our home. For my birthday, my wife put in shelving to supplement the other places in the house that I stash the components of the larder. Within a few months it was full.

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Here are my essentials. While some are expensive, only a little is used at a time and these ingredients can represent some of the best bang for your buck in home cooking.

  • Home made stock
  • Preserved lemons, which are better after a few months of rest (lots of recipes are available on line – the simplest are quartered Meyer lemons packed in salt and the juices from the lemons, possibly with a little fresh lemon juice and a pinch of sugar to top off your clean mason jar)
  • Refrigerator pickled red onions
  • Fermentation experiments
  • Pickled beets
  • XO sauce, Momofuku style, or chopped cured ham ends.
  • Hot sauce. Current favorites are Mazi Piri Piri and Co-op Hot Sauce . The perennial classic that I grew up with (and always have on hand) with is Clancy’s Fancy, which has been made in Ann Arbor MI since the 1970s.
  • A nice assortment of spices. Recently I have been using a lot of sumac; aleppo pepper has been a long time favorite, and I keep a few blends on hand.
  • Honey. There are many great local purveyors, and Beez Kneez has a very cool zip code series and they are great advocates for honey bees.
  • Interesting olive oil and vinegars. We haven’t purchased salad dressing in a long, long time. Two or three olive oils with different flavor profiles on hand (peppery and sharp, full bodied, or soft and smooth) can dramatically enhance a dish or some simple greens. A white wine or champagne vinegar is my go to for salad dressing, and the best bang for your buck is probably a sherry vinegar. Balsamic is a nice treat and can really range in flavor profiles.

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When watching Mind of a Chef Season 2 in my basement during a cold winter on a stationary bike Sean Brock pronounced that “he who dies with the biggest larder wins”. To modify his statement, “s/he who dies with the most interesting, and highest utilized, larder definately wins.”

It goes without saying that the freezer is a natural extension of the larder. Check out Mark Bittman‘s brilliant overview of the power of the freezer.

More to come in how I use these. They are the foundation for my cooking.