Sunday, June 1, 2014

Their "Nothing" Is My Something

Calzolaio Pasta Company - Wilton, ME

West Summit of Baldpate Mountain, Grafton Notch State Park, ME
     I've heard people say that there really is just nothing in Maine. I refuse to believe that because what they may see as "nothing" is my something. The wilderness in Maine is rugged and desolate, and I like that. I don't belong in the city. I miss the fresh air. I miss the silence and the darkness. Someday I'll get back.
     After a treacherous 5 hour hike to reach the western summit of Baldpate Mountain in Grafton Notch State Park we were... well... starving. Meagan, Karl and I drove in circles through at least 3 cities looking for a restaurant for dinner. There were a few ho-hum pizza shops (<inappropriate judgement) and random gas station "cafes", but we wanted to sit down and have a meal. With spotty cell phone reception, it was hard to search what was out there. After trying a couple different places that were closed, be made it to Calzolaio Pasta Company, which was about 30 minutes away from where we were when we started looking. Looking scraggly, sweaty, dirty and tired, we stumbled into this semi-fancy Italian place that we were clearly underdressed for. At first I felt bad, but then I assumed we weren't the first customers they had that had just come from the mountains. 
Homemade Mozz Sticks
     Their water glasses were beautiful. Their menu was beautiful. Their bread and garlicy, herbed dipping oil was beautiful. The bread seemed freshly baked. Crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. I could've eaten both full baskets of bread myself. What I truly fell in love with right from the get-go was their homemade mozzarella sticks. You never see that. I needed them. They were hands-down the best mozzarella sticks I've ever had. The breading was about twice as thick as normal mozzarella sticks (maybe that's why they were so good) and it was full of a bunch of different herbs. The cheese inside was the perfect temperature and therefore the perfect
degree of gooey. Dipped in their chunky marinara, these sticks were phenomenal. 
Mediterranean  Salad
     For my meal I ordered their Mediterranean salad, and truth be told, I was super pumped about it. Salty olives, three kinds of salty shaved cheeses, and salty marinated mushrooms? I'm in. 


The Holy Donut - Portland, ME

     I have a sixth sense when it comes to donuts. Before learning the name, Meagan, Karl and I walked past a donut shop in Portland, and as I gazed in the window I said "Hoooooooly moly." Just as I finished my thought, I looked up and realized the place was called The Holy Donut, and boy oh boy was it holy sight to see. We immediately walked in. This is not your standard donut shop. Their recipe is unique. In addition to the standard flour, buttermilk and egg blend that normally comprises a donut, they add local Maine russet mashed potatoes as well. They use King Arthur unbleached flour, local Maine dairy, and pure cane sugar. I was in love.
     We got 3 kinds to share: mojito, chocolate sea salt and sweet potato ginger. I'll describe my favorite one first. The sweet potato ginger. It had the delicious sweet potato flavor and sweetness and had a subtle ginger flavor that gave it a certain fresh and spicy taste. The glaze was incredible too. I love when the glaze is a little bit thicker and kind of a step beyond just a glaze. I like when it starts to dry and cracks and will sometimes fall off in chunks.
     The density and texture of the donut was unlike anything I've ever had before. It was dense, not in a fudgy brownie way or a banana bread way, but in a super moist bread way. Ugh... I don't know what I'm saying. It had a bread texture to it, in that when you took a bite, the donut squished down a little bit. Once you let go with your teeth, the dough slowly started to expand, and you could see the stringy fibers of the dough lengthening. Like a soft pretzel maybe? A cinnamon roll? Who pays this much attention to dough? I do. It's important.
     The mojito was my second favorite. It was very similar in flavor to the mojito cupcakes I've made before (duh). The thick icing on top was very lime-y and the cake had all the subtleties of mint and the rum flavor. The woman behind the counter gave us a fresh and warm chocolate sea salt donut which I was super pumped about. It was a little bit more cake like than the others. I lend this to the fact that it was still warm. We all agreed that a tad bit more salt would've been better, and we would've preferred it cold. Regardless, it was still better than most regular chocolate donuts I've ever had.
    I know nothing of the chemistry of dough, but I know what it looks like and how it feels (and how it makes me feel).  In no way were the donuts dry or crumbly. They were so much more filling, satisfying, moist and flavorful throughout. Instead of feeling like you're eating empty calories, these donuts felt significant. Almost holy.


Pai Men Miyake - Portland, ME

     I always feel so American when I go into an asian food place and order the general tso's chicken. It's just so goooooood! The asian people don't order that. They always get some brothy noodly thing that I wish I would've gotten. They look delicious but I never even think to order them. After tooling around Portland for a little bit, Meagan, Karl and I stopped at a place called Pai Men Miyake for lunch. This Miyake location was four years old and is known for their different variations of ramen in savory broths. We sat outside on a picnic table table facing the road, which resulted in some great people watching. Portland has some real characters.
     Anyway, I ordered the Paitan, which was a delicious, rich pork and chicken broth with pork belly, soy marinated Miyake egg (from their own farm), scallions, ginger and nori (seaweed). The pork belly was basically glorified thick cut bacon that had it's edges of fat crisped up. Astounding flavor combinations from all the different parts, yet it was still very simple. And I was still very terrible at picking up slippery noodles with chop sticks. Damn near impossible.

The Seagull Shop - New Harbor, ME

     Southern Maine is amazing. Check it out on a map...seriously. It's a bunch of peninsulas jutting out into the Atlantic with one or two streets heading down to the tip of each. They often aren't connected and there are millions of islands scattered all around them. It truly is fascinating.
     Anyway, after exploring some of the most beautiful rocks I've ever seen at La Verna Preserve, we headed over to The Seagull Shop which sat next to the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. It had turned into a drizzly evening, so we couldn't see too far out into the ocean, but the view from The Seagull Shop was incredible. You should go check out their website to see just how beautiful it was. It was a tiny little restaurant and gift shop with oceanfront dining. Their entire dining room was about 15 tables out on what seemed like the tiny home's sunroom or porch. It was very quaint and cozy and exactly what I had in mind.  
     First up was a hefty slice of their cornbread served with a side
of coleslaw. Now... Union Oyster House in Boston has won over my heart when it comes to cornbread. Theirs is fabulous. But now I'm torn because this place served up some mean cornbread. It was warm and perfectly sweet, just like I like it. I need to do a side by side comparison.
My momma lobster. Sorry lady :/

     For my meal, I had to order the steamed lobster. Meagan joined in and ordered her first steamed lobster. I realize it's pretty hard to screw up steamed lobster, but this may just have been the best I've ever had. I don't know what they put in the water to steam it, or if it's because it was so fresh (my lobster was still holding on to a little bit of seaweed), but it was perfect. The meat was so flavorful that it didn't need to be dipped in butter. In fact, they didn't even serve it with melted butter.
     The oceanfront dining, cozy atmosphere, and great food was everything I was looking for in a dinner spot. Now if we had only known that it was byob...


Conte's Pizza - Princeton, NJ

     After quite the upsetting and sudden end to racing at NSR 2 this year, Joan, Lauren, Margot and I headed out for some mind altering... pizza. Conte's was absolutely the perfect choice. This is a local hot spot and a favorite for Princetonians. Everyone knows it and recommends it. This is a no frills kind of place. It's simply just some tables and chairs in a room full of good pizza and happy people. When you walk in, they take your order right away, so that by the time you're seated (if you had to wait in line like we did) your pizza is just about ready. 
     We ordered a pepperoni pizza. Pretty standard. It was 100% what I wanted and could've hoped for. Big slices, meat, tons of cheese and enough grease to .... I don't know... but it was a ton. Sometimes pizzas with lots of fun and healthy toppings like peppers, mushrooms, and maybe some meat are good, but sometimes you just want to fill your arteries so full of grease that you can't walk anymore. That's what this was. Well... maybe not that extreme. The little pepperonis were my favorite part. They were mini and the edges curled up when they cooked. So they were like a bunch of little grease pools all over the pizza. I'd swim in them for days. Joan and I both killed 5 slices and I couldn't have been more satisfied. Princeton sure has some real gems. 


All-Star Sandwich Bar - Cambridge, MA

     FINALLY ... I accepted Frances' (my boss) offer to take me out to lunch. It only took me two months of working at Gentle Giant...with good reason. I wanted to get whatever I wanted and enjoy all of it, so I waited until after NSR2. It was sooooo worth it. She let me choose, so I decided on All Star Sandwich Bar. I longed for the pleasure of sinking my teeth into a big sandwich for a long time. Stuff it full of a variety of meats, and I knew it'd be heaven.
Look how pretty!
     The All Star sandwich I chose was their Cubano. The only other cuban sandwich I've ever had was one from the Hubbard Hall cafeteria back at Michigan State, and I liked it then. I knew this one was about to go above and beyond what I experienced years ago. Their Cubano comes with Virginia baked ham, mojo braised pork, jack cheese, swiss cheese, dill pickle slices, cilantro aioli and dijon mustard on pressed french bread. Holy sensory overload batman. The sweet, the salty, the meat, the gooey, the sour, the spicy, the crunchy. It literally had everything. The meat was my favorite part. The mojo braised shredded pork was incredible. I had to look up what "mojo" is. Apparently it's a sauce generally consisting of olive oil, garlic, cumin and paprika. Whatever kind of mojo they used was magic. I'm normally not a super big fan of deli ham. I mean... I definitely like it, but I'm not bursting at the seams when I see it. But this ham so was so good and I absolutely loved it warm (that sounds weird to say). It had a slight sweetness to it that went great alongside the bite of the dill pickle slices. Throw in the dijon mustard for a tad bit of spice and those three things were killer. Oh wait the cheese! Oh the cheese was so gooey and smooth. It literally was the glue of the sandwich. I couldn't place the flavors of the cilantro partly because a million other things were happening. Their bread choice was spot on too. The french bread was pressed and crispy on the outside, but not burnt. I was really impressed with how warm everything was (considering it was a pretty dense sandwich) but the bread wasn't burnt. I have this issue when making grilled cheese. My bread approaches the torched stage but the cheese hasn't fully melted. Hmm... I've never had good patience when it comes to these things.
     In addition to my deliciously salty sandwich, Melanie insisted we order the poutine, so Frances made sure that happened. I'm pretty sure this was my first poutine experience, and according to Andrew, it was fancy poutine. Fancy or not... I do not care. This was incredible. Fries, gravy, cheese curds and green onions. The fries were skinny and softer than I'd normally like, but it was ok because these were covered in heaven's gravy. Chicken gravy maybe? Unsure. The cheese curds were really different than the Michigan cheese curds I'm used to in that they didn't squeak as much when you chew them. These were still amazing, and I loved the addition of the green onions. I don't know what it was about them, but their fresh flavor was a great small addition to each bite that they found their way into. Towards the end of the meal I started to realize and taste how much sodium I was consuming, and it was beautiful.


Marshmallow Cornflake Chocolate Chip Cookies - My Kitchen, Cambridge, MA

Marshmallow Cornflake Chocolate
Chip Cookies
     I like the flakes. Every now and then, a bowl of bran flakes or corn flakes really hit the spot. So when a free box of corn flakes showed up at work, I was quick to snag 'em. I snagged with the intention of a) having a bowl of cereal and b) using them for a marshmallow cornflake chocolate chip cookie recipe. There's totally a lot going on in these cookies, and I was a tad bit nervous. Would the cornflakes get soggy? What happened when the marshmallows got all melty? Were they going to torch quickly?
     With my many doubts, I ventured off on a little cookie journey, which in turn produced some of the most delicious cookie dough I've ever tasted. The cornflakes provided a crunch and the marshmallows a burst of sugar. Throw in some chocolate chips and oats, and it was deadly. I absolutely love oaty cookies. Martha suggested using what she called "cornflake crunch" which was a mixture of cornflakes, butter, milk powder, salt and sugar. I thought that was overkill, so I just used crushed up corn flakes. 
     I have this bad habit of not reading recipes ahead of time. I wind up disappointed when I realize I'm supposed to refrigerate the dough for a couple hours. I just can't do it. I put these in the freezer for 30 minutes or so, and that seemed to work, but I think they probably would've come out better if I had done it correctly and cooled them completely. The recipe I used said to bake them for 18 minutes or until puffed, cracked, spread and browned on the edges. DO NOT bake them for 18 minutes. I found that this was way too long. True... I didn't let them cool completely, but still. I baked my first batch for 18 minutes and, while I'm fine with a little spreading, the marshmallows melted in and around the cookies and almost burned. The whole cookie seemed ok straight out of the oven, but once it cooled, it was quite brick-like. I'll note that they still were delicious... just very hard (excellent crumbled on yogurt instead of granola... haha). 
     The second and third batches turned out much better. I think because they were a little cooler and because I only baked them for 12 minutes or so. They never got puffy like Martha suggested. However, I was absolutely in love with the effect the marshmallows had on the cookie. When they melted, they kind of coated the bottom of the cookie and caramelized once it cooled. In some places, the marshmallow spread out on the cookie sheet and solidified like candy. It was beautiful. They were buttery and the perfect level of chewy. The crushed cornflakes stayed a little crunchy too, giving the cookie a really unique texture. I'd highly highly recommend these cookies. You cannot eat just one, and you won't get sick after 10. I don't believe it's possible.

Marshmallow Cornflake Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups crushed cornflakes
2/3 cup chocolate chips
1 1/4 cups mini marshmallows

1) Cream together butter and both sugars in a bowl with an electric mixer 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl and add egg and vanilla. Beat until combined well.

2) Add flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Mix just until dough comes together, no longer than 1 minute. 

3) With the mixer on low, add cornflake crunch and chocolate chips; mix until just combined, 30 to 45 seconds. Add mini marshmallows and mix until just incorporated.

4) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Portion dough out onto prepared baking sheet. Pat tops of cookie domes flat. Wrap baking sheet tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 week. Do not bake cookies from room temperature or they will not hold their shape.

5) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line additional baking sheets with parchment paper.

6) Arrange chilled dough at least 4 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Transfer to oven and bake until puffed, cracked, spread, and browned on the edges, about 12-15 minutes. Let cool completely on baking sheets.


Cabbage, Lime and Peanut Salad - My Kitchen, Cambridge, MA
Cabbage, Lime and Peanut Salad

     After that pizza and a couple cookies post racing, I was ready for a salad. Not kidding. Smitten Kitchen posted about a cabbage salad with peanuts that I wanted to try. I had cabbage to use up, and I love peanuts more than 99% of the things in the world. She used some red cabbage, so hers looks really pretty. Mine still looked pretty though because I added shredded carrots and green onions. I loved how fresh and unique this salad was and the bold cumin and lime flavors were key. Also, it was definitely worthy to be considered a meal. 
     The woman from Smitten Kitchen suggests salting the cabbage and letting it sit to pull out some of the moisture. I wanted to eat this right away, so I skipped this step. My salad turned out fine, but I'm sure letting it wilt would've lent to quite a different textured salad. I'm going to include that instruction, but know that I don't think it's completely necessary. I was able to keep this salad in the fridge and slowly eat it throughout the week for lunches, but it was definitely best that first day. As the days went on, it lost some of the lime flavor. 

Cabbage, Lime and Peanut Salad 

1/2 small green cabbage, shredded (about 6 cups)
1 tablespoon salt
1 bunch fresh baby spinach, stemmed and cut into 1/2-inch wide ribbons (about 4 cups loosely packed)

3 green onions, sliced
2 large carrots, shredded
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from about 2 small limes)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup peanut oil (I used olive oil)
1/2 cup roasted unsalted peanuts
Freshly ground black pepper

1) In a large bowl, toss the shredded cabbage with the salt. Transfer the cabbage to a colander and let it drain for two hours. If it's too salty afterwards, rinse and pat the cabbage dry before mixing it with the other ingredients.

2) Put the salted, drained cabbage in a large bowl and add the spinach. 

3) In a medium bowl, whisk the lime juice, mustard and cumin together. Add the oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly until the ingredients are thoroughly emulsified. 
4) Toss the salad with the dressing and add the roasted peanuts. Season to taste with salt and pepper.


Roasted Grape and Goat Cheese Stuffed Sweet Potatoes - My Kitchen, Cambridge, MA
Not super pretty, but definitely super tasty

     I've been on a sweet potato kick recently. They're great for athletic performance la di la di, they're delicious. I've had a pin for roasted grape and goat cheese stuffed sweet potatoes that I've been wanting to make for a long time but haven't because I never buy grapes. Why? Because they're like buying freaking diamonds. I cannot believe how expensive they are here. So finally I found some grapes on sale and snagged them. I realize roasted grapes may sound weird, but think about it... they're sweet. So when they heat up, their sugars leak out and get all caramelized (I don't know the technical terms for what happens, so I'm just going to assume you know what I'm talking about). Just like sweet potatoes! That goo that oozes out and slightly solidifies is gold.
     This recipe comes from a blog called How Sweet It Is. She's got mush prettier photos than I do, so I'd suggest going there. Regardless, these babies are delicious! The sweetness of the grapes, sweet potatoes and honey is balanced out by the slight bite of the goat cheese. I didn't add as much honey as she did because I figured the sweet potato and grapes would be enough. See my recipe below!

Roasted Grape and Goat Cheese Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

2 sweet potatoes
1 cup red, seedless grapes
1 teaspoon canola oil (or other high heat oil)
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
2+ ounces goat cheese
Pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg

1) Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Poke holes in sweet potato with a fork and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until potatoes are tender to the touch. Once they're done, pull them out and cut a slit down the middle of each sweet potato. Let sit until cool enough to handle.

2) Increase oven temperature to 450 degrees. Toss grapes with a drizzle of your oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Put them on a baking sheet and roast for 20-25 minutes, or until grapes begin to burst. Remove from the oven and let cool.

3) Once the sweet potatoes are somewhat cool, gently scoop out the insides with a spoon, trying to keep the skin intact. Add the insides to a large bowl and mash with your goat cheese, cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey if you feel like it. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired and scoop insides back into the potato skins. At this point you can re-warm the potatoes (if you let them cool completely) in the oven. Once they're at your desired temperature, top with remaining goat cheese and grapes and serve. 


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