Dinner and Drinks at Union.

I hadn’t seen Darlington in a while, so when she suggested getting together at Union for a light dinner and a few drinks, I was of course looking forward to it very much.  I didn’t even mind the chilly, breezy walk down Washington Street — and as someone who’s almost always shivering, that’s saying something.

union-1Union is divided into two distinct spaces: a dark, moody lounge and a lighter, airier dining room.  We climbed into a high banquette and swung our legs while we waited for our drinks, not realizing that Union was running an anniversary special.  With one of the bar’s $5.00 specialty cocktails — or either a glass of Kelly’s Revenge Shiraz or Chardonnay — you receive a platter of free appetizers.  Ours included calamari, ham and cheese croquettes and mini, open-faced sandwiches.  While the calamari had the satisfying crunch of perfectly fried batter, I wished that the smokey accompanying sauce had been served on the side; its woodsy essence was too overwhelming.  The croquettes, on the other hand, were crisp on the outside and dreamily smooth on the inside — fantastic.

union-2Our gratis starters were actually quite filling, so Darlington and I decided to split a few more small plates rather than order entrées.  What made that a little tricky is the fact that Darlington is a vegetarian, and I can’t describe Union having a veg-friendly menu, so we ordered the few items that either were or could be made vegetarian.  Our first pick was the spinach and semolina gnocchi ($6.95), which instead of being a plate full of  thick little hand-rolled noodles was more of a gnocchi cake.  No matter what shape this dish came in, it would have been extremely noteworthy.  Texturally, the gnocchi was richly  creamy with the teeniest bit of resistance to the teeth.; flavorwise, it was surprisingly fresh and buttery, and I hade to remind myself that I had to save half for Darlington.

union-3In addition to the gnocchi, we decided on the sweet corn risotto with fire-roasted peppers ($9.95), since it was one of the few offerings that the chef could remove meat from; in this case it was chorizo.   I can’t really comment fairly on this, since the peppers added an unbelievable heat to the entire plate and I have absolutely no tolerance whatsoever for heat — not to mention I literally hate the tingly feeling I get when eating hot foods.  I find it so distracting and unpleasant that I can’t even taste anything else.  This, unfortunately, was the case for the risotto.  Darlington seemed to enjoy it though…

Though the menu at Union is heavy on the fish and meat and light on the vegetarian fare, it’s definitely worth a visit.  My cocktail, the Fall Classic (apple brandy, Triple Sec, honey and cider), was so tasty and easy to drink that it alone warrants a return trip, and hopefully soon — though it makes me wonder, what would a Winter Classic be?

Union Bar and Grille
1357 Washington Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02118

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CSA 2008, Week Twenty-Two (AKA The Last Week).

Oh me.  I’m so sad to report that the final week of our maiden voyage on the S.S. CSA went undocumented.  If I were a certain kind of person, I would provide you with an elaborate reason as to why my shutter-finger failed (A car crashed into the house!* My neighbor’s cat snuck in and stole my camera!) but such strange events happen to me so often that I’ve got to say thoxat I’m finding myself really embracing the idea of not having any excuses.  So let’s just jump in…  to the produce:

  • Butternut squash x two
  • Carrots
  • Garlic
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Onions
  • Popcorn
  • Potatoes
  • Rutabagas
  • Salad greens
  • Scallions
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Turnips

As I unpacked, I felt the two butternuts staring me down.  These monsters were so intimidating — one was practically as long as my arm.  I knew that I wanted to maximize their flavor, which of course meant it would be into the oven with them.  What I didn’t want to end up with, though, was just cubes of roasted vegetables, so I decided I would turn as much of my box’s contents into stock.

Recently, I had read a great post over at VeganYumYum that detailed not only the perfect way to make stock, but had some fantastic accompanying pictures.  I really loved Lolo‘s carefree exuberance with ingredients, so I pretty much threw my entire vegetable bin into the stock pot.  I was particularly happy to boil the kohlrabi down into stock, as well as the sweet potato.  In the end, I found myself with eight and a half cups of vegetable stock, which I strained and froze in two-cup quantities.  Later, I pureéd four cups of stock, half of the kale and half of the salad greens with my roasted  squash, until I had a soup with a nice thick consistency that would pair perfectly with a crusty baguette.

Vegetable Broth, from Vegan Yum Yum
Makes about ten cups of broth

“Minimalist” Broth
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 large onions, chopped
1 pound celery, chopped (I had some celeriac, which I used instead)
1 pound carrots, washed but unpeeled, chopped
3 whole cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
10 whole black peppercorns
2 teaspoon salt
¼ cup low sodium Tamari
1 gallon water

(I also used my kohlrabi, my sweet potatoes, my scallions, some of the turnips, and half of the kale.  Lolo suggests tossing in whatever vegetable leftovers you may have in your fridge.)

  1. Place a large stock pot with some olive oil in the bottom over medium heat.  Add all chopped vegetables and stir occassionally for ten to fifteen minutes, or until all are softened.  Pour in water, peppercorns and bay leaf; increase the heat to high and cover.  Cook for 1 hour, decreasing the heat slightly once the whole the liquid begins to bubble.   Finish by adding tamari to taste; let the stock simmer uncovered for another 20 to 30 minutes to concetrate the flavors.
  2. Strain the vegetables out into a large pot or bowl.  Strain out additional solids through a cheesecloth.  Pour into ice cube trays, freezer bags or similar for storage.  The broth will keep for up to one week refrigerated, and up to two months in the freezer.

* Surprisingly, this actually happened.  It was about a year ago, a few houses down.

Ben/Franzen Update.

Things are still going well for my friend Ben, who has been likened to Jonathan Franzen by his local Starbucks barista since JulyThe last I heard, she was reading The Corrections and loving it; now it appears she has gone straight to the phase in the coffee-maker/coffee-drinker relationship where nicknames are given and endearments are exchanged.  Here’s the latest text from Ben:

I am now officially known as Franzen at Starbucks.  As in, “Hey Franzen, how’s your morning?”

As someone who has never had an easy sort of grace with strangers, I’m incredibly jealous of Ben’s rapport with this mysterious and literary caffeine peddler.  Then again, I don’t look like Mr. Franzen — which, as a woman, I think is a good problem to have.

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier.

falling-angelsThis is a novel I picked up by chance, though I’ve read and enjoyed Tracy Chevalier‘s work before.  Not too long ago, I was in the bargain basement of Harvard Book Store with my friend Jamel, looking for my book group’s most recent pick.  I thought (mistakenly, I should add) that Zorba the Greek would be an easy find, but instead I happened upon Falling Angels.  I wasn’t overly impressed with the cover art but still I idly flipped to the first page; after reading a few paragraphs, I knew that I would be immediately have to climb the stairs and make my way to the cash register.  I needed to know how the story would end, particularly after a beginning like this:

I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed.  The head of blond hair beside my was decidedly not my husband’s.  I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.

Well, I thought, here’s a novel way to begin the new century.

Then I remembered the evening before and felt rather sick.  I wondered where Richard was in this huge house and how we were meant to swap back.  Everyone else here — the man beside me included — was far more experienced in the mechanics of these matters than I.  Than we.  Much as Richard bluffed last night, he was just as much in the dark as me, though he was more keen.  Much more keen.  It made me wonder.

Do you understand what I mean?  How captivating, how scandalous, how thrilling — especially when put into context.  Falling Angels is set in Edwardian London (1901-1910), an era also known as the Belle Époque, a time for the European elite to explore all things beautiful and new.

The novel’s plot encircles an array of characters all bond together by birth, position, politics and desire.  Chevalier tackles these themes by telling the story through a succession of first-person narratives.  The perspectives range from beautiful and bored Kitty Coleman, who opens the novel with her incendiary words; her maid Jenny, whose bad judgement and insolence the plot hinges upon; snooty and smug Lavinia Waterhouse, obsessed with propriety at even a young age; and cheeky Simon Field, a grave digger’s son.

While Falling Angels is gripping as a piece of literature, it is Chevalier’s skillful characterizations that is so very seductive.  She effortlessly moves from individual to individual, telling each one’s tales in a voice that is as distinct and clear as her own.  And that is an covetable gift.

CSA 2008, Week Twenty-One.

My friend Ben lives in LA; if the time difference wasn’t trouble enough, our schedules are so vastly different that we have monthly phone dates scheduled in order to keep in touch.  We talk about not only what’s going on in our lives, but also what we’ve been reading, what we’ve been watching and what and where we’ve been eating.  It doesn’t matter that it will most likely be years before I’ll be able to go to Akasha or Pizzeria Mozza, and we both know that Ben won’t be dropping into Hungry Mother or Picco any time soon — we both simply enjoy discussing food.  In fact, I was on the phone with Ben when I walked into my kitchen to see this week’s box from The Food Project sitting on the counter…  including two long green branches.

“Oh my god,” I said, interrupting Ben mid-sentence.  “There are these things next to the stove.  They’re supposed to be Brussels sprouts but —”

“—They’re boughs,” Ben said.

Two feet long and covered with sprout pompoms, they were most definitely boughs.  And I had no idea what to do with them, so I turned to the rest of the box for ideas:

  • Beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Butternut squash
  • Carrots
  • Celeriac
  • Chard
  • Garlic
  • Kale
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Rutabaga
  • Scallions

brussels-carrots-1Apparently, when I was younger I used to love Brussels sprouts; regardless of that, I wasn’t being struck with recipe intervention, so I turned to my magazine collection for help.

I’ve always had a thing for cooked carrots, since something happens when they meet heat  — their  flavor intensifies in such a way that I literally have to hold myself back from eating them all.  Carrots and sprouts make a lovely combination, since the richly sweet carrots compliment the bitter green sprouts perfectly.  The shallots, of course, add a mild oniony flavor, the butter a welcome luxury and the cider a pleasant tang.  It’s a dish whose simplicity is its high point.

Carrots and Brussels Sprouts, from Gourmet
Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons chopped shallot (from 1 medium)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 pound carrots, cut diagonally into ½-inch-thick pieces
1 pound Brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

  1. Cook shallot in 2 tablespoons butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add carrots, Brussels sprouts, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown, three to four minutes.
  2. Add water and cover skillet, then cook over medium-high heat until vegetables are tender, five to eight minutes. Stir in vinegar, remaining tablespoon butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

Possession by A.S. Byatt.

In our apartment, Keith and I have six bookshelves, all of which not only hold books in typical on-their-spine fashion, but also books stacked on top of books and even more piled on top of each case.  As if that’s not enough, I’ve also got books squirreled away underneath the coffee and bedside tables, and heaped on the storage unit in our front hallway (which, it should be noted, is also our only hallway, so the use of the word “front” is completely unnecessary).  Considering the sheer amount of books we’ve accumulated, it should be no surprise that  amongst those there are a couple dozen titles that either Keith or I haven’t read.  A.S. Byatt‘s novel Possession is one of those books.

“Have you read this?” I asked Keith earlier this month.

“No,” he said, “I couldn’t get through it.”

For the two of us, this is usually a pretty telling sign.  Our tastes are different enough — I tend to hover around contemporary fiction and nonfiction, with some deviation, while Keith skips around more — but when one of us tells the other that we’ve had trouble getting past a certain page or part…  well, let’s just say we’ve both tried to read Thomas Mann‘s The Magic Mountain without any success.

Possession was a very rare exception, and I really think that the only reason why I persevered with it was because I’d read some pretty incandescent reviews; I thought, Is there something I’m missing? Though the answer to that question is a resounding no, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some issues with the novel.

Here’s a basic outline of the plot:  Briton Roland Michell is a scholar whose work focuses on the (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash.  While researching some of Ash’s personal notes, Roland uncovers his version of a treasure trove: the draft of what appears to be a love letter from Ash to an unidentified woman.  Through even more research (this is a novel about a scholar, after all), Roland learns the mystery woman’s identity: Christabel LaMotte, another (fictional) Victorian poet.  Roland’s discovery leads him to yet another scholar, Maud Bailey, who not only specializes in LaMotte’s works, but also is one of her descendants.  During the course of the novel, not only is the extent of the Ash/LaMotte love affair is revealed, but Roland and Maud’s as well.

At its essence, Possession is a romance; it says so right on the front cover in capital letter.  It is also quite boring.  Well, maybe boring is too harsh a word — the story is extremely interesting, and would have been even more interesting to me had the book been a hundred and fifty pages shorter (it comes it at 576).  Does the reader truly need paragraphs and paragraphs of backstory on practically each minor character?  Is it necessary to endure whole chapters dedicated to things such as the diaries of LaMotte and Ash’s contemporaries?  What about fables and poetry?  At first, it’s fascinating — How creative!  What imagination! — but it descends into something like dissolution, slowly tearing the novel apart, and ultimately alienating the reader entirely.

Brunch at Cottonwood Café.

Brunch can be tricky, particularly at a restaurant that only offers breakfast foods only on the weekend.  The Cottonwood Café is open for lunch and dinner all seven days; brunch is served only on Saturdays and Sundays, offering eggs Benedict, huevos rancheros and migas underneath the dining room’s arched ceiling — which, incidentally, looks as though it is lined with crimped steel mesh.

cottonwoodThe migas ($8.25, plus $3.95 for a side of steak) appeared to be a safe bet — theoretically exotic enough to match up with Cottonwood’s Southwestern theme, but not so bold as to send the unadventurous running.  Unfortunately, what you end up eating, though, is a plate of glorified scrambled eggs beaten with scallion and tomato.  The oddly enough, the eggs were a surprise, in that they were sweet: they had the tinned sunniness of canned corn.  Even less luck was had with the accompanying spicy hash browns, a depressingly mushy spoonful with absolutely no hint of the kick usually associated with spice.

Regardless of the overwhelmingly disappointing food, Cottonwood is something of a Boston institution, having inhabited its corner of Boylston and Clarendon for over ten years.  its age certainly shows with its dated eighties nouveau modern décor — did I mention that the ceiling is crimped?  The aesthetic is either overly angular or overly curvaceous lines done in melony pink, dusky blue and glossy black.  Not only is an updated look needed, but also some general maintenance as well; countless dents, dings and scratches marked the tables in walls.  Maybe with a sleeker appearance would mask the cuisine.

Then again, maybe not.

Cottonwood Café
222 Berkeley Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116

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