apple and squash risotto

Sunday, September 25, 2011

At last, decorative gourd season is upon us. Our farm share is now overflowing with squash, apples, and good, honest root vegetables like carrots. I love squash as much as the next guy, but man, it's a lot of work. The peeling, the chopping, the long cooking times; it's not a vegetable for 30 minute meals. It's more of a weekend project than an after-work dalliance. But squash deserves more than your brief attention, anyway.

I've tried squash in many different risotti over the years, but I think this one is the best. In the past, I haven't roasted it before adding it to the rice, and it hasn't developed as much flavor as it should. But squash rewards time and effort. Unlike the tomato, which is hardly ever improved by cooking, squash will thank you for your ministrations.

In other risotto news, I may have changed my mind on risotto rice yet again. At first, I used arborio, because it was the most available. Then I switched my allegiance to carnaroli, but it seems like Whole Foods may have stopped carrying it. This time, when I stopped at Shaw's to pick up arborio, they wanted $8 for two pounds, which may be the most expensive rice I have ever seen. I couldn't make myself do it, so I went to Whole Foods, where arborio is about $3/lb. However, someone in the rice section suggested I try calrose, at a mere $1.50/lb. I decided to give it a try, and the results aren't awful. It's not quite as good as carnaroli, but it may be a slight improvement over arborio. I may be heretical to say this, but sometimes arborio can be too starchy, and the grains lose all of their definition. While the calrose wasn't quite as creamy as I would like, I think it's a great substitute if you can't find the other varieties. I'm not giving up on carnaroli, however. I just need a new source. (I'm considering ordering 12 pounds of it on Amazon, but that seems like a lot of rice to store in a small kitchen).

Apple and Squash Risotto
1 large tart apple, cubed
1 (3-lb) butternut squash
1 onion, chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
2 tablespoons butter (divided)
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary or thyme, finely chopped
salt, pepper
1 cup white wine
1.5 cups rice (arborio, carnaroli, or calrose)
6 cups vegetable stock

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the squash, remove the seeds, and slice it about 1/2" thick. Lay the slices on a cookie sheet, and use your hands to coat the slices with about two tablespoons of olive oil and a few pinches of salt. Spread the slices in a single layer and place bits of butter (about a tablespoon in total) between the squash pieces. Roast for about 30 minutes, flipping half way through, until browned on both sides. Once it has cooled, cube the squash and set aside.

(A note about this photo: it turns out the environmentally-friendly CFL bulbs we used are HORRIBLE for food photography. We've since reverted to standard bulbs and have been happier with the results).

2. Bring 6 cups of vegetable stock to a slow simmer in a saucepan. In a large, heavy bottomed pot, saute the onion and rosemary over medium heat in a tablespoon of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once softened, add the apples and rice. Stir to coat with oil.

3. Add a cup of white wine and simmer until reduced by half. Add vegetable broth, a ladle at a time, stirring occasionally to keep rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Once you've used most of your broth (it should take about 20 minutes), start tasting the rice for doneness. It should be soft on the outside, but retain a bit of a bite in the center. I always prefer my risotto to be a bit soupy, so it oozes deliciously across the plate, so keep that in mind as well. When nearly done, add the cubed squash.

4. Remove risotto from the heat. Stir in about 1/4 cup of cheese and add salt and a tablespoon or two of butter if necessary. Once plated, add more grated cheese.

it's just a little hocus pocus in salem, ma

Friday, September 16, 2011

A few weeks ago, we took a day trip to Salem in order to escape the city, which had begun to feel oppressive in the August heat. Of course, when you think of Salem, you think of two things: the 1993 film Hocus Pocus, starring Bette Midler, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I suppose other people think of the witch trials, but most wealthy Salem residents in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries apparently made their fortunes in the sea trade, and it was they who built the Salem we see today. You can thank sea captains for the gorgeous houses above and below, which are both located on Chestnut Street, a wide, leafy avenue lined with many of Salem's grandest homes.

But I'm not joking about Hocus Pocus. Before we took our trip, we reviewed a list of the filming locations so we could be sure to include some in our itinerary. The movie has turned into a running gag for us, because when Richy was taking his first trip to Boston from New Jersey, he decided to watch Hocus Pocus on the bus, as it was the film that most evoked Massachusetts for him. Why didn't he choose Mystic River, The Departed, or another great Boston film? It remains a mystery. But his strange choice lent us a great theme for our trip. I'm not sure we would have visited the Ropes mansion (below), otherwise. The Ropes mansion was built by a local merchant in 1727, and also served as Alison's house in the movie. It's surrounded by a garden that's open to the public for a leisurely stroll.

After our arduous walk, we were quite famished, so food was in order. Thankfully, we decided to try A&J King Bakery.

Richy had a sandwich with roasted red peppers and fresh mozzarella, while I had a Vietnamese-inspired pork sandwich.

Both were excellent, on good bread with high-quality ingredients. The sandwiches were served with pickles, but they weren't just any pickles. At some point, lemon juice had clearly been added to the pickling liquid, and they were delightfully refreshing. We will be making them eventually, if we ever find mason jars.

We finished with a buttery peach tart which was the equal of anything I've had in Boston.

Refreshed, we embarked on the Hawthornian leg of our journey. Below, you'll see the customs house where he worked for a while, and which inspired the introduction to The Scarlet Letter. It is seated in a commanding position on the harbor, surrounded by historic homes and brick sidewalks. We also visited the nearby House of Seven Gables, which inspired Hawthorne's novel of the same name.

(Wandering about afterward, we thought this sign was too humorous to pass by without comment. Is this pig happy to be eaten? Possibly.)

Desirous of more rural surroundings, we took a scenic drive along the coast through Beverly and Manchester-by-the-Sea (try saying that 5 times fast, or as Richy said, "Imagine writing that on your Christmas cards every year), where we discovered the Coolidge reservation.

The reservation was smaller than we originally thought, and a hike quickly brought us to a hilltop with views of the sea below.

But one of our favorite spots was this path, below, a long arcade roofed with tree branches, that led to a small lake.

Finally, we arrived at "Ocean Lawn," a grassy expanse sloping toward the ocean, the former site of a marble mansion, with views of dramatic cliffs and wildflowers.

The Coolidge Reservation was a fortuitous discovery, and a fitting way to end our day. We felt very fortunate to stumble upon it. Each stage of the reservation: the woods, the pond, the lawn, and the beach felt like a different set piece created for our own enjoyment. That each area was in such close proximity to the other felt almost absurd, and like an answer to the craving we each felt for a bit of nature. Even if the modern world kept creeping in, at both Salem and the Reservation, it was easy enough to imagine yourself in another time.

spalted maple coffee table

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A long time ago, in a faraway land called New Jersey, Richy decided to build a dining table for his first apartment in Boston. It was a small studio, so he decided to stick with something on the small side. He searched high and low for a nice piece of wood and fell in love with a slab of spalted maple from Boards and Beams in Fairfield, New Jersey. Unfortunately, Fairfield is located in a space-time vortex where everything appears bigger than it actually is, so when Richy carried his prize inside, he realized it was way too small for a dining table. And so it languished in a basement, unused and unwanted, until we started thinking about the coffee table we would need in our new place.

We arranged a highly-choreographed rescue expedition. Tear gas was involved. We made it out mostly unscathed, but at some point a scratch appeared on the surface of our precious cargo. We decided to investigate refinishing methods, which turned into a months-long process. We wanted something that would enhance the spalting, but also provide long-lasting durability. (Mini science lesson: spalting is the pigmentation left behind by a fungus that colonized the tree!)

Thanks to a thorough vetting process, we discovered the magic of Waterlox. If we sound excited about this, we can assure you, we're not as excited as this man, whose boundless enthusiasm inspired us to try it out for ourselves. Waterlox is a tung oil-based finishing product that brings out the natural patina of wood but, unlike Danish oil, also adds a layer of protection, making it water and chemical-resistant.

The first step, though, was to prep the tabletop. We started with 80 grit sandpaper to remove the old finish, and then moved on to 100, and finally 120 to buff out all of the minor imperfections. Next, we cleaned the surface with mineral spirits to remove any dust created by the sanding process. (Tip: applying the mineral spirits will darken the wood and give you a good idea of what your piece will look like after finishing with Waterlox.) We were finally ready to apply our first coat.

Luckily, Waterlox is very forgiving and takes well to all sorts of application methods. We used a foam brush, although you can also make an applicator by stuffing a rag inside nylon stockings. You can see in the photo above how the character of the wood comes alive even after the first coat.

After applying each coat, we let it dry for 24 hours. We found that our piece of maple was very thirsty, and it took several coats before the finish was completely even. The wood continued to darken slightly with each coat and began to develop a glossy sheen. If a glossy look isn't your thing, you can apply a layer of Waterlox's Satin Finish over your last coat of the Original Finish. (Tip: the Original Finish is needed first, though, to ensure water resistance.) The gloss level on the Original will diminish slightly after a few months. Although our original plan was to dull the gloss with the Satin, we are kind of digging how the table is developing over time.

We liked the idea of mixing raw steel with the rustic look of the wood slab and decided on 14" hairpin legs to complete our project.

Raw steel needs to be treated immediately to prevent rust from developing. We generously applied Johnson's Paste Wax to each leg, waited 20 minutes, removed the excess wax with a rag, and buffed the entire surface. (Mini science lesson: the paste wax fills the crevices in the steel and prevents oxidation from occurring.)

We offset each leg base plate (which are L-shaped) about 1" from the corners of the wood slab. Using the base plate as a guide, we marked each screw location with a pencil, removed the base, and drilled a pilot hole for each screw with a 9/64 drill bit. Next, using 1.25" 10# pan head screws (use the longest screw possible) we attached each leg.

After all our hard work, our table is proudly situated in the center of the living room, patiently waiting for its pal, the sofa. And thus, Richy's lapse in spacial judgment has turned into a conversation piece with an interesting story.

on re-creating restaurant dishes

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Months ago, when it still felt novel to walk to a restaurant sans-jacket on a warm evening, we ate at Bondir, which was around the corner from my old apartment in Cambridge. Dinner was lovely and subtle, from handmade buckwheat noodles with grilled squid, poached lobster, and shaved vegetables, to black bass roasted in duck fat with seared sugar snap peas, scallions, and marjoram froth.

The whole meal really inspired me to think about using fresh herbs and shaved vegetables to add flavor and texture. Most of the herbs were left whole, lending different essences to every bite, while the thinly sliced vegetables added crunch. If you go to Bondir, don't expect big flavors, rather, impeccably sourced ingredients which delicately play off one another. I also loved how these aspects made every bite taste different, keeping each forkful interesting.

With all this in mind, months after I first tried the dish, I set out to re-create "Hand Rolled Tagliatelle with English Peas, Cousa Squash, Radish Leaf Pesto, Fresh Ricotta." At the restaurant, the noodles arrived carefully twirled in the center of the plate, with the accompaniments artfully arranged around it. It looked great, but this made it difficult to eat. And while practical for a small course as part of a larger meal, it's not really feasible for an entree-sized portion. And so I settled on this:

Hand Rolled Tagliatelle with English Peas, Cousa Squash, Radish Leaf Pesto, Fresh Ricotta
For the ricotta
1 pint half-and-half
2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the radish leaf pesto
2 handfuls radish leaves, washed, dried, and stemmed
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil (or another neutral oil), plus more as needed
1/4 cup chopped almonds
Pinch of salt

For the pasta
1 lb. linguine
2 radishes, thinly sliced
1 small cousa squash (or zucchini)
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 lb. shelled peas (I used thawed frozen peas!)
About 40 fresh mint leaves
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano

1. Make the ricotta: Combine the half-and-half, milk, vinegar, and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat and stir briefly. When it begins to bubble, turn the heat down and watch for the curds to separate. It will be done when you see the curds with clear liquid bubbling around them. Pour the contents of the pot into a fine-mesh strainer (or cheese cloth over a colander) and let drain until you're ready to use the cheese (you should be left with about a cup).

2. Make the pesto: Combine the pesto ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth, adding more grapeseed oil to achieve the desired consistency.

3. Bring salted water to a boil and cook the linguine. Reserve about 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water before straining.

4. Quarter and slice the zucchini. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a small frying pan and add a crushed clove of garlic. Remove when it begins to brown. Add the red pepper flakes and zucchini and cook until lightly browned. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and set aside.

5. Return the pasta to the pot and mix it with the pasta cooking water and a drizzle of olive oil. Add the pesto, peas, zucchini, and grated Pecorino Romano until all is thoroughly mixed.

6. Portion the pasta onto dinner plates and garnish with the shaved radish, mint leaves, and ricotta cheese.

It was quite a bit different than the restaurant version. I can't remember exactly what they did with the cousa squash, but I have a feeling that it may have been raw. I thought I could bring a bit more flavor to the dish by cooking it, but it didn't add much to the finished pasta. I might omit this next time. When making the radish leaf pesto, I decided to minimize the amount of olive oil because I wanted to allow as much of the radish flavor to come through as possible. A neutral oil was really key to this, and it came out tasting very fresh and clean. Next time I might actually add more mint and radish, but I was quite happy with the number of peas and the amount of ricotta. We washed this down with cucumber water, which I highly recommend. Simply combine sliced cucumber and water in a pitcher, put it in the fridge, and drink it an hour later. It's incredibly refreshing and a great alternative to plain old water.

there's no place like...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

After some tense negotiations with the previous tenants, we finally got the keys to our new home, and we moved in last weekend with Irene on the horizon. Though it was vacant for two months (a rarity in Boston's September 1st-driven rental season), our dream apartment wasn't in quite the condition that we hoped...

The paint was peeling off the wall in the kitchen, and when Richy pulled at it, he cleared a few square feet of wall space. ("Uh, Chris? Is this supposed to happen?")

Project #1: Fear not. It's nothing that a scraper, spackle, and a power sander can't handle.

Whoever painted the walls last time (in 1996?) didn't seem to mind that it also got all over the ceiling. They also didn't seem to bat an eyelash at the overhead dust, dirt, and grime.

Project #2: First-time ceiling painters Richy and Chris valiantly attack the ceiling with rollers on sticks, brushes, and ladders. What they don't realize is that no drop cloth in the world is big enough to prevent a rainstorm of paint from showering on the hardwoods (and on them!).

Project #3: Scrape all of the ceiling paint off the floor.

If you ever decide to turn off your refrigerator, you may want to leave the door open. If not, you may cause an infestation of black mold, which, I can assure you, is not a visitor you want at your housewarming.

Project #4: Bleach. All of the bleach.

After enduring a rainstorm of paint, one may decide to take a shower. But wait. Will this shower make me dirtier than I was before? Is this mold? Mildew? Both?

Project #5: Bleach bleach bleach. So much bleach Chris burned a hole in his finger when the rubber gloves kept breaking. (Fun fact: commercial bleach products contain lye, which can eat through your skin. Who knew?)

And then the water stains. These were persistent water stains. We slapped on a coat of paint, then another. And another. Chris's mom told us about a primer called Kilz that you're supposed to use to cover stains, but it seemed like the sixth coat would cover it.

Project #6: Seven coats of paint on the water stains. Lesson: Don't underestimate the Kilz.

This photo gives you a good idea of how dirty the walls were. The kitchen was splattered with food and oil, there were black marks everywhere. Double sided tape. The walls were kind of like a post-apocalyptic landscape in Benjamin Moore Linen.

Project #7: Ben has another color that suits us a bit Moore. Simply White in matte for the walls and Simply White in pearl for all of the trim.

And all of our hard work paid off! The big reveal...

We really think Simply White is the perfect shade of white. It looks so much cleaner and, because it is a crisp white, it doesn't turn too yellow under the recessed lighting.

But as you can see in the bedroom, Simply White is still warm enough when bathed in natural light that it doesn't feel too stark or cold.

When we started this project, I don't think we had any idea how many hours it would take to paint the apartment. It took over our lives for a week, but we're really happy with the results. Every once in a while, we still pause to remark upon how much better it looks. Most of our friends have asked why we didn't just ask the landlord to fix the place, but we wanted everything ready so we could move on to bigger and better things, like the super-cool vintage armchair we just bought and the DIY coffee table that we will tell you about soon!
© 2011 homing in » all rights reserved