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.

IMG_3108.JPG

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!

IMG_2691.JPG
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.

IMG_2695.JPG

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:

IMG_2699.JPG

  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.

IMG_2716.JPG

IMG_2713.JPG

Tomato Sandwich Adapted from Melissa Clark

 

 

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.

IMG_2566

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.

Foraging for the First Time, Followed by a Forest Dinner

2016 was the year I decided to start foraging beyond my neighborhood. In the past our foraging was limited to plucking lilac from a neighbor’s tree to make the Mother’s Day cocktail. Like many things in life, I was curious but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I started by reading blogs and perusing a few books. After learning that hop shoots are edible, I began foraging two ingredients from my backyard – lilac and hops. Then, serendipity happened. There is a group of people that we get together with every few months for some serious cooking and the May’s proposed dinner menu featured morels. Foraged morels. Collectively, we cut a deal immediately. I would plan and cook a foraged menu after an outing or two during which others in the group would show me the basics of foraging.

IMG_2271.JPG

On a beautiful May Saturday in the southern part of Minnesota that was untouched by the last glacier, I learned to think like a mushroom – dying elms, wet soil, southern exposure due to the time in the season – and we had some luck. Apparently the right soil temperature is in the mid 50s for peak morel growth.

Then we hiked to another spot with perfect fiddleheads and nettles. Then watercress. The friend who taught me the basics also had a spot for ramps and asparagus that we did not have time to visit together but he brought some along for the forest dinner.

IMG_2273.JPG

An important part of foraging is letting nature to continue to do its thing, which requires leaving behind at least half of the fiddleheads and ramps that have grown. Trust me though, we picked every morel we found.

I have been duck hunting a few times and the part of the experience I like the most is being in quiet, beautiful places while looking for the perfect perch. This is often interrupted by loud booms, especially given my aim. So foraging is even better because the forest is inherently quiet.

How did the menu end up?

 

Salad

IMG_2283.JPG

We started with a watercress salad that was garnished with hop shoots from our garden and 12 year Hook’s cheddar. I tried pickling some of the hop shoots and really preferred them fresh. I prepared a buttermilk-based dressing with a balanced Italian olive oil and the watercress leaves that didn’t make the cut for the salad.

IMG_2287.JPG

Main Dish

IMG_2292.JPGFirst I thought about a pasta with a simple and buttery white wine sauce. Would this overpower the morels? A chef friend recommended soft scrambled duck eggs to provide a creamy but non-competitive base for all of our goodies. After consulting the group, we settled on a toned down pasta. I thought about a number of options and landed on a modification of one of my favorite dishes of 2015, mushroom risotto. But I didn’t want to overpower the morels as a part of the risotto. So, instead of a mushroom risotto I decided to do a ramp risotto as the base of the main dish. The bulbs went into the risotto during the cooking process (supplemented with shallots) and then the leaves were chopped and folded in just prior to serving along with the cheese a little butter and a few nettles.  

IMG_2291.JPG

I washed the morels and cleaned the fiddleheads of their papery coating. Next, I cooked both simply in Hope Creamery butter in my grandmother’s cast iron pan (one of my favorite possessions). No garlic, just salt and pepper. I was very careful to make sure that the fiddleheads were al dente for serving and that the morels were still a little firm. Then I briefly cooked the wild asparagus in the butter that had been used for the morels.

The fiddleheads,  morels and wild asparagus went on top of the ramp risotto. Given the theme of the dinner was eating from the forest, most of us complemented the meal with a piece of rare venison.

 

IMG_2296.JPG

Dessert

One of our guests brought homemade rhubarb ice cream, and sugar cookies from Patisserie 46, which was the perfect complement to the meal.

Pairings

We paired a 2012 Hartford Court Seascape Vineyard Pinot Noir with the main course. It was an incredible wine, and had enough body to be beautiful and thought provoking while not overpowering the tastes of the forest.

We also had a few sours from the upcoming Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery. These are something special and worth watching out for as they come on to the market. In the meantime, the talented brewers are collaborating with Fair State on a few beers.

 

Beet Salad Three Ways

This post combines the larder, fermentation, simple oven roasted beets, and a few other finds.

IMG_1895.JPGBeets are an amazing vegetable with many uses: thinly shredded to complement a salad, sautéed greens for a side dish, and roasted beets that can be their own salad. A salad featuring beets can be transformed to something amazing with a couple of beet preparations. A mixture of red and orange beets adds a lot of pop to a plate.

Fermented beets: I shredded some beets and fresh horseradish, a black radish and and salt. This all went in a very clean mason jar and sat on the counter for about a week with a very loose lid. It did bubble over a few times…. (You could also use shredded beets that aren’t fermented.) The Wedge Table often has fermentation classes, and Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation is a go-to print resource.

Pickled beets: There are a lot of pickling recipes on the Internet, and beets are one of the few things I prefer to pickle for long term storage versus refrigerator pickle to be able to always have them on hand. Traditional pickling (some people call it canning but that isn’t quite accurate) leaves cucumbers and red onions – two staples in our house – a little soggy for my taste.

Roasted beets: I will typically wrap them in foil and put them in the oven until they are soft. When I am using my Big Green Egg I will also throw them on when smoking something or even cook them afterwards as the grill maintains its temperature for at least an hour after putting out the fire.

The dressing is about two parts olive oil to one part vinegar with a little salt and pepper. I use a sherry vinegar and a fully flavored olive oil but almost anything will add its own flavor.

Micro greens are a lot of fun. They add color, a little flavor, and a lot of pop to a dish. When I can find them I like Weed’s Greens.

Whenever I am in Midtown Global Market – often to attend a cooking class featuring a local chef at Kitchen in the Market – I usually stop by Salty Tart for bread and or treats as well as Grassroots Gourmet. One of the best things Grassroots Gourmet has is Marieke Gouda from Wisconsin. Nettled and truffled gouda are some of my favorites. This time a thin slice of the nettled gouda is nested on top of the beets and dressing.

Presentation is important, especially with vegetables. Slicing, layering, and making sure that everything is placed on the plate  on a way that is visually appealing. That’s about it.

 

Winter Root Vegetables from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market

IMG_2108.JPG
Winters are long in Minnesota. To thrive here, it is important to embrace winter. For me, this means cross country skiing, playing with our daughter in the snow, and walks around Lake Harriet with a stew in the oven that will be ready when we arrive home. It also means limited fresh vegetables. The easy answer to limited vegetables is to buy from other climates. Leafy greens like chard and spinach are a fixture at coops and our winter table.

It is also still possible to find good local root vegetables in the winter, and a fixture at the winter market in St. Paul is Schwartz Family Farm. The owners of the farm have figured out how to preserve their harvest throughout the winter by keeping it in soil. While we’re seeing signs of winter departing, this year’s root vegetables are still months ahead of us. They also brave the weather on Saturday mornings to provide access to their pristine produce in the dead of winter.  On Saturday mornings at the St Paul Farmer’s Market, you will find a variety of food treasure, including amazing sheep milk cheese from Love Tree, fresh root vegetables from Schwartz, and a variety of meat and eggs from Bar 5.

Schwarz Family Farm.jpgBy limiting focus to what Schwartz has available, I have learned to love turnips this winter. Baked in thick slices, pan fried in cubes or smoked in planks or half moons. Piccolo,  a champion of seasonal cooking, often has smoked turnips on their menu in the winter, which has been a great inspiration. Schwartz also has beets, carrots, potatoes and rutabaga throughout the winter.

IMG_1836.JPGGo simple, and roast some beets, carrots, and turnips covered in olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe some Aleppo pepper at 425 until soft with a slightly charred exterior. This might take a half hour, depending on thickness. You could cube and serve at this point, or mix with a cooked grain and a light dressing (apple cider or champagne vinegar would work well here). Throw in a handful of fresh herbs if you have them. Wheat berries are very inexpensive and add a nice crunch to the experience. For a real treat, smoke half of the vegetables and roast the other half.

What will you be doing with the last of your winter vegetables?