As They Were by M.F.K. Fisher.

I remember when I first read writing by M.F.K. Fisher: it was two years ago, and my friend Beth had suggested I read The Gastronomical Me. At the time, I was feeling very frazzled and frugal — Keith and I were getting ready to buy our first place, and I felt as though I couldn’t spend any money recklessly, not that I consider book-buying reckless spending. Later in the year, I received a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble for my birthday; when I tried to purchase it, the book was out of stock. I truly felt as though I was fated to never read Fisher at all.

But then… my friend Marcella came to visit. Neither Beth nor I had spoken with her about my M.F.K. Fisher woes, and yet what else did Marcella bring me as a gift but The Gastronomical Me. If that’s not proof of something, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I thought The Gastronomical Me was wonderful, so much so that I soon found myself at the bookstore again, this time stacking around myself all of Fisher’s books like a little kid building a fort. I soon realized that it would be truly impossible for me to purchase them all, since there were almost thirty different titles heaped at my feet. That day, I left the shop with only a few items in my bag and a much longer shopping list than when I entered. Imagine, then, how pleased I was last month to find a three-dollar copy of Fisher’s As They Were while wandering the aisles of Powell’s Books for Home and Garden, the Hawthorne District‘s branch of Powell’s Books that features literature focusing on cooking, gardening and crafts.

If you’re a lover of food and travel and you’ve not read M.F.K. Fisher, I urge you to start now. As They Were, as the title implies, is a collection of Fisher’s memories, her recollections of her past — where she lived, whom with and what she ate. I’m a sucker sometimes for nostalgia, and Fisher’s tone throughout the book overflows with it, with a powerful longing for days gone by. Regardless of whether Fisher’s writing is about her funny little kitchen in Provence, traveling by sea or fine dining experiences with children, captured on each page is a fondness and exuberance for life that is simply — well, simply enviable.

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Dinner at Hungry Mother.

I’ve been anticipating the opening of for Rachel Miller Munzer’s new restaurant space for what seems like years. I’ve been such a fervent fan of her eponymous Bay Village breakfast-and-lunch spot Rachel’s Kitchen for ages — you know, now that I’m thinking about it, it might have been the first restaurant I blogged about. Over time, I had heard that Miller Munzer’s original restaurant concept, The Village Table, had fallen through; when the rumblings of a Cambridge eatery reached my ears, the nail-biting and toe-tapping began. After all, I had seen (and smelled, and eaten) what this woman and her husband Alon Munzer could create for breakfast, so I couldn’t wait to see (and smell and eat) what the two could come up with for dinner.

A few months ago, I found out where the future restaurant was located — 233 Cardinal Medeiros Avenue — and my heart sank. Since the it’s right down the block from the Kendall Square movie theater, you would think that anything occupying the space would do a brisk business, but I never thought that was the case. During my years in the area, I’ve seen a handful of bars, pubs and restaurants come and go in that exact spot. I wanted to make sure I was able to drop by ASAP in case the place wasn’t able to put a kibosh to the curse, so when Alyssa and Guillaume asked us out to dinner, I immediately suggested Hungry Mother.

The menu skews towards Southern comfort food, an culinary arena I must admit that, as a child of foreign parentage, I am not at all familiar with. I am very familiar with bacon, however, so I insisted that the group of us place an order for the deviled eggs and with bacon ($4.00). Listed in the menu under “To Tide You Over…” these creamy little egg halves were pretty close to perfect.

I’m trying no to subscribe to the school of thought where, if you like something, you must have more and more and more; shouldn’t you instead savor and relish and thoroughly enjoy the quantity you’ve got? More doesn’t make anything better, after all. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that three egg halves divided amongst three people — Keith abstained — should have been more than enough… but it wasn’t. I wanted so badly to ask for more and more and more.

We four decided to split an appetizer as well, opting for the shrimp and grits ($9.00). Guillaume, Frenchman that he is, had never had grits, and this sounded like too delicious a version to pass up. Grits, or coarsely ground corn, are very Southern; Hungry Mother amped up the Southern-ness by serving it alongside two other Southern items: tasso ham and maque choux. Both can trace their origins to Cajun cuisine, and they added a nice jolt of flavor to the plate. I’m surprised we were all able to share so well. We did, however, ask for extra bread to sop up all the remaining juices, of which there was plenty to go around.

As soon as I saw it on the menu, I knew I was going to order the catfish ($17.00), but not for the regular reasons. See, I don’t really like catfish, and I thought that if I was going to trust anyone to serve me a catfish that might have the potential to change my mind, it would have to be Chef Barry Maiden. (Think about it: if Rachel’s Kitchen can get me to wax poetic about a bagel, what could Hungry Mother make me say about a fish?) Here’s my verdict: fantastic. The fish had a crispy and golden cornmeal crust, and was tender and flaky beneath — a nice combinations of textures. You can’t really see it in the picture, I’m now realizing, but also featured on the plate were some really delicious collard greens. I’ve been told that collards are normally quite bitter but these were sweet and citrusy, two of my favorite flavors. Some Carolina Gold Rice middlins (literally broken grains of rice) and a mustard-caper brown butter sauce finished everything off.

After eating all this food, I simply did not have the capacity in my belly for dessert. If that hadn’t been the case, I most likely would have tried the watermelon sorbet; it is summer, and I can’t think of anything more refreshing on a hot night than that. Another exhilarating thought came to mind as Keith and I said our goodbyes and goodnights: is the jinx of 233 Cardinal Medeiros at its end? Has a restaurant finally come along that will last the long haul?

God, I hope so.

Hungry Mother
233 Cardinal Medeiros Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141
617.499.0090
hungrymothercambridge.com

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CSA 2008, Week Seven.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”

All right, so maybe that’s a smidge dramatic or odd, but what can I say — sometimes I like a bit of odd drama. The truth of the matter is that our weekly CSA box has gotten to be so big, that the time has come to take photographs of single items up close and personal. This week’s box had the following bona fide pile of incredible vegetables:

  • Beets
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Japanese eggplant
  • Parsely
  • Pepper
  • Tomato
  • Turnips
  • Salad mix
  • Scallions
  • Spicy salad mix (primarily of arugula and mizuna)

Here’s a picture of my gorgeous little turnips, some of which were barely the size of my thumbnail. This photograph came about when I was soaking these in a bowl in the sink; I was about to give each one a nice scrubbing and then dock their spindly tapered tails like a breeder with so many puppies, when I decided to take the shot. I thought the light was just so nice. Afterwards, I used a tried-and-true recipe that I’ve come to really enjoy, but with a few herb substitutions and the juice of one lemon. Both versions I thought were delicious, so if you’re going to try it out, I really urge you to think about adding lemon if you’ve got a liking for citrus the way I do.

Later in the week, I roasted the beets to toss in a salad with goat cheese, toasted walnuts, strawberries and a quick balsamic vinaigrette. I hadn’t ever used beets before, though for years I had read about using the juice as a dye for things such as paper and Easter eggs. I got the proof as to the permanence of their juice as I peeled and cubed the beets; not only were my hands stained, but so was my T-shirt. Luckily it was one I’ve never been overly fond of, but now it appears as though I have memento of my first foray into beet cookery.

Roasted Beets and Salads, adapted from Alice Waters‘s Chez Panisse Vegetables

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Remove the tops of the beets, leaving about half an inch of stem; wash the beets thoroughly and put them in a baking pan with a splash of water. Cover tightly with foil and bake for forty-five minutes to an hour, until they can be easily pierced through with a sharp knife. Uncover and allow to cool.
  2. Peel the beets and cut off their tops and bottom tails. (This is where you will inevitably stain your hands.) Cut the beets into halves or quarters, depending on their size; sprinkle generously with vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Add a pinch of sugar if the beets are at all bitter. Do not add any oil until the beets have sat for at least half an hour and have had a chance to absorb the flavor of the vinegar. Adjust the seasoning.

Prepared this way, the beets are ready to join other ingredients into a salad. The following are some suggestions for combinations:

  • Beets, sherry vinegar, orange zest, tarragon and crushed garlic.
  • Beets, sherry or balsamic vinegar, blood orange segments and mâche.
  • Beets, balsamic vinegar, shallots and toasted walnuts.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

I remember the first time I had read The Handmaid’s Tale — I was twelve, I was at my grandparents’ house in the Philippines, and I had found a beat-up copy amongst my mother’s things. My mother’s books were always forbidden to me, mostly because she read (and still reads) the sort of literature that includes a lot of bodice-ripping, flashing eyes and strong, muscular arms. There was something about the cover of Margaret Atwood’s novel, though, that I couldn’t resist, and for about a week or so, I would sneak-read it whenever I stole a chance. I ended up smuggling the book back to the States with me, buried deep within my T-shirts and shorts.

For me, The Handmaid’s Tale has held up over the years; its dystopian and distant future always makes me think about what we consider to be important and how much of that actually is expendable. The novel, interestingly enough, takes place in Cambridge and Harvard Square, areas I never imagined at age twelve that I would eventually become intimately familiar.

Atwood tells the story of a mother who has been — over the course of a short period of time and an internal war within the United States — separated from her young daughter and husband, who may or may not be dead. She goes through what I suppose could only be called behavioral rehabilitation so that she can learn her new role in society, and what it means to be a handmaid. In the story, some women have somehow become barren, making children especially precious and valuable. The narrator and her equals are used for reproduction; they are the few whose ovaries are still viable, and are allocated to high-ranking members of the military. The narrator is given the name “Offred,” which I always inevitably read as “off-red” even though I now know it is actually intended as “of-Fred,” as in “belonging to Fred.” Fred, as it happens, is the name of the military official to whom Offred is designated, though she refers to him solely as The Commander.

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is about more than women’s roles in society, though it is incontestably about exactly that. Atwood writes about the power religion holds over us, as well as the multiple meanings behind the word and the act of sex. She writes about motherhood, daughterhood and sisterhood, as well as the traps our own minds will set for us during a time of great distress. Told through a mixture of haunting flashbacks and equally disturbing depictions of the novel’s present, The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately describes the lengths some women will go through to survive.

Starbucks Employees Are Literary Like Me!

Here’s the thing about my friend Ben: he’s an avid reader, a voracious film-goer and a lover of music. He also, in my opinion, happens to look a great deal like Jonathan Franzen, but blonder. I’ve never ever informed Ben of this, for no particular reason, so imagine my delight when I received the following email from him:

from: Ben
to: Nayiri
subject: My afternoon conversation with a Starbucks barista.

Barista: Grande iced soy latte for Ben.
Me: Thanks.
B: Do you know who you look like?
M: No. Who do I look like?
B: Do you know the writer Jonathan Franzen?
M: I do.
B: That’s who you look like.
M: Oh. Well… thanks… I guess…?
B: [shrugs] He’s a good writer.

Hysterical.

Dinner at the Paramount.

I hadn’t seen my friend Lauren in months, so I was really excited to meet up with her for dinner at The Paramount on Charles Street. Now, The Paramount is kind of a sentimental place for me — I used to live around the corner on Beacon Street during college; my friends and I used to walk over all the time for their huge breakfast plates on the weekend. Since then, The Paramount has gone through a few changes, mostly in décor, but it’s still a spot I like to visit every now and then for old time’s sake.

I was absolutely starving, so I knew that I was going to be ordering a lot of food. The nice thing about The Paramount is that the salads and the pastas come in half- and full-sized portions, so you as a diner can sample a few dishes without feeling as though you are going to explode at the end of the night.

I kept that in mind when I decided to start with the grilled apple and blue cheese salad, which was tossed with candied walnuts, mesclun greens and a balsamic vinaigrette ($5.00 for a half-portion). The blue cheese was tangy, the walnuts had just the right amount of sweetness and the greens were nice and crisp. It was a satisfying start to the meal.

For my entrée, I selected the spinach and cheese ravioli, which was served under a veritable coating of the roasted tomato and basil cream sauce ($7.00 for a half-portion). Generally speaking, I don’t like heavy dollops of sauce encumbering my food; before I had even taken my first bite I found myself eyeing my plate and determining the best way to scrape off some of the plentiful sauce. In the end, I did end up eating most of it, but not for lack of trying. I couldn’t help but think that the ravioli’s fresh flavors were a bit smothered by the overpowering sauce.

It was a hot and sticky evening, so Lauren and I decided to cool down with some milkshakes after dinner ($4.00). I chose chocolate and Oreo, and was so very pleased to see that it was served in a tall glass. (I have, on many occasions, dreamily described the perfect hot fudge sundae. It always includes a parfait glass and a long spoon; so this was very exciting for me.) After I gave my Oreo garnish to Lauren — I don’t like the cookie itself but love it smashed up in ice cream or, apparently, in milkshakes — I all but dove in. While I was incapable of finishing the drink, it was definitely the most perfect way to end dinner, and certainly worth a visit to The Paramount in itself.

The Paramount
44 Charles Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02114
617.720.1152
paramountboston.com

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Breakfast at Crema Café.

Darlington and I are breakfast buddies.  Our schedules can be tricky to match up, but now and again we seem to find time to squeeze in an early morning bite.  We try as often as possible to rotate between our usual haunts, and this time we found ourselves at Harvard Square’s Crema Café.

Crema Café takes up a space formerly occupied by an Au Bon Pain, something I personally find thrilling because I:

  1. can’t stand Au Bon Pain; and
  2. happily welcome independently-owned businesses, particularly those opening their doors in chain-dominated areas like Harvard Square.

Unlike its predecessor’s in-and-out set up, the café’s layout encourages lingering over a cup of coffee and a scone.  There’s ample seating inside — including at a large and battered farmhouse-style table — as well as smaller tables set up outside, directly in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows.  After ordering, Darlington and I headed up to the loft, another seating area overlooking the main floor.

The menu at Crema focuses mainly on baked goods such as muffins, croissants, biscotti and other cookies.  If I’m going to take a moment to eat breakfast, I need more than a sweet to get me going; I decided to go with a toasted sesame bagel with caper cream cheese and lox ($2.25, plus 25¢ for the caper cream cheese), because I can rarely resist a bagel with lox and cream cheese.  I also ordered a medium caffe latte with a shot of vanilla ($3.10, plus 50¢ for the flavor shot).  I’m proud to say that I was able to carry my latte, with its lovely marbleized foam, up the stairs to the loft without spilling a drop.  That’s quite a feat for a twinkle-toes like me.

My breakfast bagel was good, though nothing spectacular; it certainly satisfied my lox craving, albeit temporarily.  If I were to order it again, I would most likely eschew the caper cream cheese for plain; I expected that the capers would add saltiness to the cheese, but even I was surprised by its intensity.  If I were getting an onion or garlic bagel without lox the caper might be the way to go, but once the already-salty fish is added to the mix, it is almost overwhelming.

What makes Crema such a lovely spot is most definitely the aesthetic of the café, as well as its ambiance and friendly employees.  The feeling you get while nursing a cup of something warm is that, should you feel so inclined, you could while away the morning without anyone uttering a word to coerce you into buying another scone.  Could you ask for anything more from your neighborhood café?  I don’t think so.

Crema Café
27 Brattle Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.876.2700
cremacambridge.com

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