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.

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Bike the Barns (Madison, WI): An Experience Not To Be Missed

IMG_2809.JPGI went to undergrad in Madison, WI, left for Peace Corps right after graduating, and then returned to the city for a year and a half. After that, I settled in Minneapolis. As is the case for many, Madison had its hold on me during impressionable years. In Madison, I developed a ritual of attending farmer’s markets religiously. I started brewing beer in Madison. I purchased my first road bike (a brown steel frame 1970s Bianchi) and learned to love the hills in the area. These hills had a much different glacial experience thousands of years ago than the flat bike routes of Minnesota to which I’ve become accustomed.A few years after I moved from Madison to Minnesota, the Underground Food Collective started organizing a ride called Bike the Barns. The Underground Food Collective is a group of people doing some very cool things with food, with an intense focus on how to best respect the resources from which our food was grown or raised. Last weekend’s visit to the Collective’s Underground Butcher yielded several treats that came back to Minnesota, such as hot sauce that was fermented in lambic barrels for a year, which is as incredible as it sounds.

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Back to the ride, which is now run by the Fairshare CSA Coalition. After many years of thinking about doing the ride – and joining the waiting list last year – I rode this year.
Madison is always a special trip as my wife and I met there and enjoyed its magic while getting to know each other. In fact, Bachelor Porkchop is a dish that I cooked for her a few weeks after we met. It was a joke at the time but, like the best of jokes, took on a life of its own. A late summer afternoon on the Union Terrace sharing the view of Lake Mendota with a few hundred people after a football game is still one of the best things going.
If you like biking and you like food, do not miss this ride. I have done many organized medium-to-long distance bike rides with varying levels of support, comfort, and entertainment. This is a unique ride, and not just for the beautiful 54 mile course among cows, green fields, endless rows of corn, and rolling hills. During this ride, we visited four active, organic farms that are part of the CSA Coalition. We ate wonderful food that had been prepared using ingredients from each farm, went on farm tours given by people who worked on the farm, and even had a plated lunch at the last farm. One of the tours was via a hayride. All the farms had live bluegrass music. At the end of the ride, the organizers hosted a party with small plates from several Madison restaurants. The weather was picture perfect: 75 and sunny for the bulk of the day.
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Lavender growing in a Snug Haven hoop house
During the first tour at Snug Haven Farm, I quickly realized just how much I don’t know about day-to-day organic farming, despite spending a lot of time hanging out at farmer’s markets. The farmers who spent time with us were very focused on weeding strategies and were completely obsessed with how to get adequate nutrients into the soil. Most of the vegetable farms used hoop houses to extend the growing season. They are so effective that the side doors will be open until it goes below 20 degrees or so, resulting in a harvest of frost-sweetened spinach. The methods and results were fascinating, with a constant balance of technique, labor, and machines always at the forefront. Snug Haven has experimented with burning the soil and solarizing the soil during the hot summer months in hoop houses between plantings and using cover crops to control weeds. They also produce early season soil-grown tomatoes and herbs, and are able to offer tomatoes by June without the use of hydroponics.
A soil burning demo:
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The farms we visited use cover crops that are sometimes partially harvested, like rye, and sometimes are entirely tilled into the soil, like Sorghum Sudangrass. At Crossroads Community Farm, we talked a lot about using fossil fuels to support organic farming. While tilling by hand isn’t practical for medium scale operations, farmers are concerned about the environmental tradeoff of using tractors. Irrigation is also a must, even with wet summers due, to the need for a consistent water supply to avoid “small, funny looking” produce that isn’t salable.
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Tour of the Farley Center – in front of an area growing for local foodbanks

At the Farley Center, 11 farmers use the land of the non-profit organization. They have the ability to sell on their own, sell as part of a CSA, or be designated as the primary or secondary supplier for a specific crop to be sold to Madison restaurants through Farley Center’s marketing efforts. This is where a lot of organic farmers get their start, and a variety of ethnic backgrounds are represented. I thought it was particularly cool that the farmer who led our tour, Ian Aley, is experimenting with Paw Paw trees in an area that can be submerged under water a few times a year. (Check out this great piece on the resurgence of Paw Paw trees from Andrew Moore on the Splendid Table.) I’ll be checking in three years or so from now to see how they grew. The Paw Paw example really highlights the broader theme of crop diversity to protect against bad weather that is devastating to a specific type of crop, and to take advantage of little pockets of land that won’t necessarily support traditional crops.

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The Valley Floor at Farley Center, showcasing beets, long beans, kale and other vegetables
Prairie Bluff treated us to a hayride and overview of raising grass fed cattle and free range chickens. These portable chicken coops, called pasture pens, can be moved from field to field to optimize fertilization and feeding. Each pen holds up to 65 chickens.
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Prairie Bluff Farm’s movable chicken pens with capacity for 65 Hens
While the farm experiences and the ride itself themselves were enough to make for a very special day, the food was spectacular. Highlights include breakfast empanadas, El Sabor del Puebla tamales, humongous Cress Spring Bakery cheesy scones with chives, NessAlla kombucha, iced coffee, and a plated lunch with salads of fresh corn and tomatoes with pork tacos.
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Plated lunch at Crossroads Community Farm
Were there some big hills? Absolutely. Did the beer taste really good after learning first hand from organic farmers and a few hours of riding in an unforgettable, green, bucolic paradise? You betcha.

Discovering Portland, Oregon and the Willamette Valley

Recently our family visited Portland, Oregon to introduce our two year old daughter to her newly adopted cousins. Our AirBNB was only a few blocks from the famed Portland Saturday Farmer’s Market. Upon stepping into the market, the first stand we visited offered white Oregon truffles, morel mushrooms, large spring porcini mushrooms, and porcini powder that is now a beautiful mushroom salt. When I got home, there were a few morels that I had dried that weren’t as nice looking as the rest of the bunch that also went into the salt, as did the finely chopped ends of the white truffles that we brought home.

We marveled at another purveyor selling foraged fiddlehead ferns and sea beans. The variety of produce was picture perfect and overwhelming, in a way that was different from our favorite St. Paul Farmer’s Market at home. The Pacific Northwest fruit, bread, cheese, charcuterie, homemade pasta, and artisanal liqueurs were also spectacular. Honey Mama’s offered paleo-friendly sweet bars featuring cacao, honey, nut and other natural flavors that were like a much more interesting version of an artisan chocolate bar. We enjoyed a number of samples and took home a few bars, which had to be frozen due to the freshness of the ingredients. The texture was unlike anything I had sampled previously and the flavors of the base ingredients shined.

Our Portland Farmer’s Market provisioning fueled most of the trip. We had two breakfasts of soft scrambled eggs that were no more than a day or two old, complemented by morels and shaved truffles with a sea bean garnish. Farmers market bread, cheese, cherries, and charcuterie stocked our picnic basket for a trip to the rustic Oregon coast where we escaped a very hot Portland summer day. Back at home base, we savored a dinner of fresh pasta with an orgy of mushrooms and other foraged goodies.
Whole animal cooking is important not only to respect the animals we choose to eat but to experience some of the best flavors the animal has to offer.A restaurant trend that I have seen recently (and would love to see more of) is using the parts of fish often reserved for stock, family meal, or the trash. Clyde Common offered “salmon bits”, which consisted of the head & cheek, fin, and the bony part of the belly. Heyday in Minneapolis recently offered a similar dish with Aji that featured collar, crudo made from the belly, and the tail.

As I have observed my favorite chefs over the years, I have learned that my tastes align with those who use restraint in their cooking.  It should be no surprise that my favorite winemakers in the Willamette Valley value restrained and interesting wines over the big and bold wines that are easier to generate big point ratings. The cooler vintages like 2011 and 2007 really begin to shine after a few years in the bottle, and have a muted yet complex body. They will not have the same level of elegance and bold flavor as the 2012s but they may ultimately be more interesting wines. At Stoller, the tasting room team spent a lot of time talking about their wine making process, vintages, future trends, and industry consolidation. Their wines offer very good value for their level of quality. The highs in Portland when we were visiting were over 100 degrees and there is wide concern among winemakers that climate change will result in heavier wines like California, or eventually, shift away from being a world class Pinot Noir production area. This is not weather that the region has planned for, as we experienced in the glass condominium that we rented without air conditioning.

The tasting experience at Elizabeth Chambers featured a vintage utilities building with a beautiful courtyard. My wife and daughter joined for this tasting, and our daughter delighted in the lush courtyard with space to run. We enjoyed their 2012 Freedom Hill Pinot Noir with our Farmer’s Market bounty.

Domaine Serene‘s reservations-required Exquisite Tour and Tasting is not to be missed. A guided behind the scenes tour and tasting of their top wines outlines how they have been a leader in putting Oregon wines on the map, and the quality of some of their lower production wines rivals any Pinot Noir I have tasted. Their owners are native Minnesotans.

Another trend in Portland is urban winemaking using sourced fruit. As much or more of the fruit was coming from Washington’s Walla Walla valley than Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which features a lot of Rhone style grapes. We visited Enso and did a wide tasting. The most interesting wine we had was 100% Counoise. Like Mourvedre, it is a Rhone grape that is blended into Chateauneuf. On its own, this version was like a beautiful Pinot Noir got it on with a funky Loire Cabernet franc, and an interesting and irreverent child emerged.

A few other notable experiences in the region:

IMG_2516The 747 waterslide at the Evergreen Aviation Waterpark, which can and should break up a day of wine tasting. You can also check out the Spruce Goose first hand.

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Multnomah Whiskey Library features over 1,500 bottles of spirits, thoughtful cocktails, and knowledgeable bartenders who will geek out on spirits with you and even suggest a recipe to try at home with a particular spirit. This is technically a members only club but when I was there you could ask if there was room, and Monday’s are open to non-members.

Blue Star for donuts. I don’t get very excited about donuts anymore (when I was a kid there was nothing better), but this was an exception. Their brioche dough based donuts are like nothing else I have tasted.

Our daughter’s favorite experience on a 100 degree day was the splash pad at Director’s Circle park.

The Rouge taproom looked a little corporate as it is a small chain but the 15-20 unique beers on tap, as well as their liquors, offer the chance to taste some interesting combinations that you won’t see elsewhere including a sour brewed from yogurt and a soba beer brewed under the instruction of Chef Morimoto.

You will have to find your own coffee haven. The hipsters have apparently moved past Stumptown, which is still a gold standard for my tastes.

The World Barbecue Cooking Contest – Memphis In May

I had the opportunity to visit Memphis in May earlier this week and experience the World Barbecue Cooking Contest. Given how long barbecue takes to make, there was plenty of time to discuss barbecue approach and philosophy with members of the competition teams. While teams were generous with their knowledge one topic was taboo. The ingredients in a barbecue rub are top secret – don’t even think about asking for ratios. They were quick to share advice on commercially available rubs including Sweet MoneyVictory Lane, and Peppered Cow. One guy who had a few trophies from past years suggested adding Black Cherry KoolAid to the rub. Upon further reflection, and while this suggestion may be a lark, I recently had a phenomenal Dr. Pepper reduction from a very well respected Twin Cities Chef, so this isn’t as crazy as it first sounded.

I use a Big Green Egg regularly and am familiar with the basics of smoking. Many of the teams made their own smokers, and some of my favorites were all re-purposed vehicles, including:

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In case you are in the market for cooking for 50+ people the most common smoker that I saw was the Backwoods Smoker out of Dixie, LA. However, the most fanatical people build their own. I heard stories of vintage refrigerators, boiler equipment, and even old boats as re-purposed smokers.

If you are curious about how a re-purposed smoker van that no longer has an engine or a steering column gets put into position check out this video:

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Some of the best cooking tips that I will be sure to implement throughout the summer are below. Everyone I spoke with thought the magic smoker temperature was 225 degrees, even for some cuts I wasn’t expecting. Wrapping meat in foil or butcher paper is very common, and it ended up being more than just to control timing of serving. Warning – if you don’t use an instant read thermometer like a Thermapen to measure internal temperature a lot of this will be technical. Thanks to The Grand Masters of Cooking Disasters, Pork Illustrated, The Danish National Barbecue Team, Central BBQ and Clint Cantwell in particular for the tips.

Pork Shoulder

This was the one that surprised me the most. I usually cook to 195 or 200 degrees to be able to pull it, but removing from heat at 178 degrees allows for the fat to render just enough to then seep into a pan while the shoulder is resting. The result is a succulent shoulder that is basting in delicious juices. I was invited to try it and the guy who gave me this tip was most proud of the fact that he had cooked $1.99/lb pork shoulder to this result. It was the best damn shoulder I have ever tasted. Another interesting tip was to smoke with beech wood for flavor and apple wood for color.  

Ribs

While I have heard of the 3-2-1 method I have been very happy with my ribs on the Green Egg and didn’t mess with what was working well. I also have the luxury of cooking 2-3 racks at a time, so I can pull them off when they hit 193 to 195 degrees with a great result. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and when I was invited to try the results my perspective on wrapping ribs in foil during the cooking process and adding liquid such as apple juice to create steam shifted considerably. Previously, I believed steam would destroy the bark I had worked so hard for on my ribs. If I can reproduce the results that I tasted there will be nice bark, even moister meat, and cleaner separation from the bone.

Brisket

Trimming is everything. The best brisket has all fat that won’t render removed and is trimmed to at least 1 inch in height. The part that will be chopped versus sliced should be separated at 183 degrees so the flat won’t dry out. Everyone wraps their brisket – some in butcher paper and some in foil for at least 2 hours prior to serving after it comes off the smoker. The best brisket joints in the country wrap to distribute moisture and use butcher paper for its breathability and lower level of steam to maintain the beautiful bark they worked so hard for, and this is the approach I plan to take the next time I smoke a brisket. The closest I came to getting through the BBQ rub barrier was the advice to start the seasoning process with smoked sea salt and pepper and then applying the Brisket rub as a second step. Of course, Brisket rub should have much less brown sugar (or turbinado) than pork.

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Chicken

In the past I had smoked at 350 to 400 degrees with the theory that the skin would be crispiest with this temperature. I was advised to stick to the magic 225 degree level, and increase the marinade time to 2 hours for a low acidity marinade and 1 hour for a higher acidity marinade.  

Steak

Clint Cantwell, who is Kingsford Charcoal’s Director of Smoke and Fire and Editor of Grillocracy.com was making some great cowboy ribeyes with a coffee rub using only indirect heat at about 400 degrees. The steaks were about an inch and a half thick. I had typically used a reverse sear (indirect heat first with very high heat for a nice crust) but these were some succulent steaks without the reverse sear.

Pork Belly

The Danish National Barbecue team was in attendance. While they were competing in the traditional US categories I really wanted to learn about traditional Danish Barbecue. After some pleasantries, we talked about Stegt flæsk which is essentially pork fat in parsley sauce. Pork Belly is cut to 1/3 of an inch, salted on both sides, and smoked until crisp at the magic 225 level (about 45 minutes) and finished with parsley and potatoes. I am particularly excited about this experiment. IMG_2346.JPG

Some tips if you are considering attending the event:

  1. Technically, the competition teams can’t share their food unless you are an invited guest and the food vendors that are open to the public are primarily the carnival rotation that put out high quantity and moderate quality food. To get around this, sign up for the Kingsford Tour of Champions which allows you to judge a number of booths, sample entries, and hear from the teams first hand. If you get this opportunity just remember that competition barbecue is like the Pepsi Challenge – one taste is amazing but a whole meal could be overwhelming. And adjust accordingly for your backyard smoking.
  2. If you are a true enthusiast, spend time just after the gates open to meet people, share stories and learn. This may result in invitations to return when the food is out. Just don’t expect it, and be prepared to share what you have tried, where you have succeeded, and what didn’t go well for you. You will get advice on how to do better.
  3. If you are completely hardcore, find a way to join a competition team.

Some unsolicited advice for the event organizers: have the category winners talk about their creations during the award ceremonies. There is some amazing cooking going on that needs to be shared.

Finally, the competition isn’t only about the food. There are some seriously well thought out and executed themes and props to create the atmosphere where even someone from the North will have a great time. Here are some of my favorite images:

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