Saturday, March 30, 2013

Butternut Squash Ravioli

The beginning of an awsome
ravioli dish
I've got a fever and the only antidote is butternut squash raviolis. I don't know what the hell is wrong with me, but I've been thinking about these things for a few weeks now. It's a dish that was popular and on every menu about two years ago. Now you still see it, but people got a little squashed out, and moved onto things like sweet potato pumpkin gnocchis and raviolis stuffed with mushrooms and cheese (also delicious), among other Italian goodies. But today I'm going to pay tribute to the days when I first tried these delicious morsels and make myself a butt load of butternut squash raviolis with goat cheese and a sage and pecan brown butter sauce.
The filling recipe is loosely based on a recipe from Gourmet, and can be found online on Epicurious.

Cook down onions and garlic


2-pound butternut squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon poultry spice
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 log of fresh goat cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper
Butternut squash filling,
nearly ready
After having cooked a massive butternut squash in a 425 degree oven for 45 minutes and allowing to cool, and also sauteing a chopped onion with a few cloves of minced garlic in a tablespoon of butter, I allowed these two items to cool and combined in a large bowl. To that bowl, I also went ahead and added a little ground nutmeg, and instead of the recipe's original ingredient of hard, aged goat cheese, I'm using about half a log of fresh chevre. Mixed all together along with the poultry spice, Parmesan, and a bit of salt and pepper, and then smoothed with an immersion blender, the filling is ready for it's blankets of fresh pasta. Into the fridge it went until the time to form the raviolis.


3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
4 extra-large eggs

Making pasta
For the pasta itself, I'm going to stick with my tried and true recipe from Mario Batali. It's fairly easy, and encourages you to knead your pasta by hand properly. Kneading pasta is a pretty darn awesome thing. Makes me feel capable and like I'll never starve to death. Furthermore, it's therapeutic seeing a sticky mess, folded and mashed and pressed and worked with your palms turn into something truly delicious. After having played with your dough for around ten minutes, it's wrapped and rested for twenty minutes before heading to the pasta roller. I roll to setting 5 on our machine, but up to about the second or third to thinnest setting seems to do the trick on most pasta machines. Also, at this point, you may want to fill up a large pot of water and heat to boiling (since it will take a while). Salt the pasta water liberally after it's heated up.
Forming the raviolis
Once your pasta is rolled, take about a tablespoon of the filling and dollop onto the sheet of pasta. Leave approximately 2 inches of space between each mound of filling. Brush all spaces with a bit of egg wash (1 egg and a touch of water), and gingerly add a second sheet of pasta, taking care to press out as much air as possible. I like to slice excess pasta away from each ravioli, so that there's only about a half inch to an inch of pasta around each orb of filling. Repeat this process until you're out of pasta or out of filling, whatever comes first. (Just as a side note, you're likely to have more filling than pasta. The filling can be added to chicken stock to make a wonderful butternut squash soup.)
Raviolis, ready for boiling
After dropping the pasta into boiling water, it should only take a couple minutes to cook. The rule of thumb is that once they float to the top, they're cooked. Then you can add the raviolis directly to the sauce, which in our case was a brown butter sauce with sage and pecans. 


5 tablespoons butter
dash of lemon juice
10 sage leaves
1 cup whole pecans
Parmesan and salt and pepper as you like it

Brown butter sauce with
sage and pecans
Just before your pasta water comes to a boil and you're ready to drop those babies in, it's worth heating about five to six tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Once the butter froths and just before it turns brown, add in about ten sage leaves, and a cup of pecans to toast up a bit. After your pasta is cooked, you can remove them from the water and dump directly into your brown butter sauce. Give it a toss, add a little Parmesan, and you're done!
Butternut squash raviolis with
brown butter sauce
These raviolis are a serious cloud pleaser. The homemade pasta is a delight to chew, and the noodles soak up all of the sauce beautifully. That filling is creamy, it's sweet, and it's a touch nutty and cheesy, playing beautifully with the fragrant sage and all of those sweet pecans. I'm not sure that it really gets any better than that. The salty, sweet combination that is well worth all of the work. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Return to Ebenezer's: Pride of Lovell, Maine

Ebenezer's in Lovell, Maine
Ebenezer's is in direct competition with Novare Res in Portland to be my favorite beer bar in Maine,or for that matter, the North American continent. But I can never truly choose. Like snowflakes, they are unique and I don't think you could replicate either bar in any other area than the one that they are currently located. But Ebenezer's holds a special place in my heart for a few reasons. Number one: they're located in a little town where there's really little else. Number two: while a warm summer evening, sharing beers with locals and tourists on the porch is great, there's nothing I'd rather do on a frozen winter night than hunker down with a good beer and some soak it all up, quality grub. Third, and most important: the sours. So many Belgian sours.
Great atmosphere
On this particular occasion, after a day of skiing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, tired but determined, we made the half hour driver over to Lovell to taste as many beers as we safely could. This is an easy task at Ebenezer's as the draft and bottle list are well curated to say the least. You'll find the rarest of the rare on the bottle list, including a number of beers from the Cantillon Brewery which no longer imports to the United States. The draft list is just as impressive. So many beers that you may never get to taste on draft again, and have been specifically chosen for how good they do taste when served straight from the tap. Servers are knowledgeable and all have their favorites... they obviously love where they work and are happy to discuss all their pours.
After much consultation and debate with servers and other patrons, we went for five different beers.
Vapeur Saison de Pipaix
Vapeur Saison de Pipaix: This was a great sour ale to try first. It starts out with a mildly vinegary smell, and has a smooth, round, robust taste. The beer is just funky enough without repelling people who aren't indoctrinated into the world of sour beers. There's also a little bit of a malty, liquorish flavor near the end.
Piwo Grodziskie
Piwo Grodziskie: This beer, light golden in color, had a beautiful foamy head. Slightly misleading with all that gorgeous white piled up, the beer was only a touch fizzy, and had a great tart, lemony flavor. Again, a bit of funk without going overboard.
Mort Subite White Lambic: This white lambic tasted as I should have expected. It smelled of ripe white peaches, and was ever so comforting. This was a beer to introduce girls who don't like beer to a genuinely tasty beer, for lack of a better way to put it. Just tell them it's soda. They won't know or care after a few of the Mort Subite.
Echt Kriekbier
Echt Kriekbier: Juxtapose the white lambic, this was a gnarly, serious, guttural beverage. It's your final beer type of beer. The kind that you sip while sitting in front of a fire, clutching a shot gun and listening to Amy Winehouse on repeat type of beer. Deep cherry flavors, and an aftertaste akin to a burly red wine, there was funk and a vinegar sour taste to really savor.
Abbey St Bon Chien
Abbey St Bon Chien on Pommau Oak: This beer was highly recommended by the regulars at the bar. While debating on which beer to end with before heading out on the road, we wanted something special. Seeing that we were fans of the Belgian-style sours, they immediately shouted the name of the Bon Chien. I've had bottles on a few special occasions, and always felt that the lightly fizzy, tart funk of the beer was one unique to any others that I've had. Perhaps closest in flavor to the deep red, round tones of my favorite beer, the Duchesse Bourgogne, I was not prepared for the extra depth and richness that the Abbey St Bon Chien had developed by aging in Pommau Oak barrels. It had a nice pucker at first sip, a robust earthiness from the barrels, a thicker than water mouth feel, and just a touch of bubbles. The aroma is hay bale heaven. Truly an enjoyable and special beer for the cold winter months.
Now, if you're going to be imbibing a number of beverages, I can't stress enough how helpful it is to have some hearty, tasty food, and plenty of water to keep you on your game. Ebenezer's will rise to the occasion. Whoever is cooking the steak tips at this place has got it right. On this occasion, we were very satisfied by two items featuring the tips.
Capitola Salad
The Capitola Salad: This hearty salad of mixed greens, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, walnuts, and lovely pink in the middle, sliced steak tips was tossed with a sweet, salty, tart balsamic dressing. It was a great filling meal after a day of skiing, and substantial enough to soak up all of those beers.
Ebenezer's Sirloin Tips
Ebenezer's Sirlion Tips: The same perfectly cooked tips, tender and pink in the middle, are served hot along side a heap of starchy fries. You know what you're getting, and let's face it, at a Belgian beer bar, they should be able to do a pretty darn good version of steak frites. Try the frite sauce too, a tangy mayo to dip your fries.
I can't say enough about this bar. It's been voted "Best Beer Bar in the World" something like 12 times. No wait, 13 times; it says so right on the menu. So, if you're looking for a reason to visit the little town of Lovell, Maine, you've got it. Saddle up, order up some food to soak up your beverages, and get ready for a fabulous experience that won't leave you feeling "sour." Cheers.

Ebenezer's Pub
44 Allen Rd
Lovell, ME 04051

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Where You Might Least Expect It: Peking Gourmet Inn

Peking Gourmet Inn
It is no secret that I love encountering a perfect dish, a perfect food in a setting where you might least expect it. Most often, this occurs in inelegant strip malls away from city centers. And so this is especially true of a place called Peking Gourmet Inn near Falls Church, Virginia. Close enough to DC to drive, and just enough out of the way so that only those who know actually make the trip. 
It's definitely in a strip mall. It's a little bigger than your average Chinese take out joint, but not big enough or gaudy enough from the outside to attract the attention you'd think necessary for people to notice and make a pit stop on their way to the local Target. Like I said, someone's got to clue you in to this place, or you'll never know it existed. That person could be any number of DC politicos, reporters, or perhaps a few Chinese friends that you're visiting close by. Whoever told you about this place is basically a friend for life, and you better believe that you owe him/her/them a big fat culinary solid later on. You are about to have the best Peking duck you could possibly pray for on the East Coast. 
Note: Reservations
are recommended
Once you enter, you'll notice the hoards of people waiting. They all know, and have been smart enough to make a reservation. Hopefully you too have your name written on a sheet of paper by one of the three air traffic controllers directing diners to their tables. (They have ear pieces and everything.) After waiting a few minutes and enjoying the smell of crispy duck skin wafting through the air, you'll be led to your table, and one of the wonderful servers, smiling and happy to answer questions, will take your drink order. It really don't matter what you order to drink. Order a sloppy, boozy cocktail if you want. Just don't blow out your taste buds. 
So what do you order? Well, you order the Peking Duck, Captain Obvious. What else? Well, if you're really pressed, I went old school Americanized Chinese just for the hell of it (I guess I was in a bit of a weird mood), and I have to admit that a few shared appetizers were pretty darn tasty.
Hot and sour soup
First, the hot and sour soup was lovely. With plenty of heat and extra sour, the soup had bits of pork and other pieces of tofu, tofu skin, wood ear mushroom and bamboo. Awaken the palate? You bet.
Second, we enjoyed the complementary plate of crispy fried noodles which are distributed to every table as a snack. Crispy, a touch salty, and not at all greasy. Popping little pieces of fried noodle while waiting for the big show and talking about it in depth is all part of the delightful anticipation.
Fried wontons
Third, we also went for some fried wontons. Don't turn up your nose. Everybody loves these things. Crispy fried wonton skins that seal off a juicy, porky center. It's savory and sweet from the pork, and then has that extra oomph delivered by the outer crunch of fried goodness. 
Szechuan Beef Proper
Being the gluttons that we are, we also ordered the Szechuan Beef Proper, which admittedly always seems like overkill by the time it arrives. But I'm not sure that you can get this dish anywhere else, and therefore it justifies the extra calories. A plate of strips of well done beef, piled high on a plate with celery, sesame seeds and carrot arrives at the table. Little do you suspect the hidden punch that each piece of meat conceals. No, it's not spicy. It's candied. Each piece of beef is perfectly coated with a downright crunchy, slightly salted candy sauce. It's delicious, and it's different. After a night of drinking, this dish cold basically makes the best breakfast of all time. Just sayin'...
Carving the duck
And then the barrage of the duck begins. A very skilled duck butcher arrives at the side of your table with a stand in which to slice the whole duck. They will carefully but efficiently slice pieces of the crispy part of the skin of the duck, forgoing all of the fat, into pieces about the size of the top of a soda can. After there is no more skin to be had, the fat is discarded, so that the meat of the bird can get it's due attention. They carve the duck breasts, remove the legs and wings, and present everything lovingly on two separate plates. I always head into this restaurant feeling that maybe we should order two ducks. But this is a complete case of time making me forget and my eyes always struggling to win the title of "bigger" versus my stomach. (My stomach is catching up though.) One duck for three people is enough. 
Hallelujah! Duck!
Legs and wings
Caught in the hypnotic dance of the duck carving, you may or may not notice as your server places a plate with a cloche on top on your table. When you finally awaken from your zone out, you'll see that there is a plate of zesty, garlicky sliced spring onions and a second of similarly julienned sticks of cucumber. Then, the waiter will remove the cloche to reveal the loveliest, most authentic Chinese pancakes. With two spoons in one hand, utilized in the style of chop sticks, and a single spoon in the other, he'll move a pancake to each diner's plate. He'll then add the plum sauce, smeared onto each pancake. Next, he'll move on to the cucumber and onions. Finally, he turns his attention to the duck. A single piece of skin, and a single slice of the duck meat goes onto each pancake. And now the show takes a crazy turn. This guy is going to use his spoon chop sticks to fold each pancake into their characteristic cylinder or burrito formation. It's one of those parlor tricks I really want to learn to impress my in laws. No progress yet.
A perfect bite
But the flavor? Memorable. Unforgettable. Enough to turn you away from any other version of this dish that you've had that previously would have been counted as "pretty tasty." When you have a combination of sturdy, homemade wrapper, sweet and salty plum sauce, the sharpness of the onion and the freshness of the cucumber perfectly married in a single bite with succulent, tender cooked through duck, and duck skin so crispy, oily and down right unctuous that it's going to put bacon to shame, man, it don't get much better. One bite for the books. And then another, and then another. Even when the pancakes are gone, you can still move onto little leftover bits of skin, and those legs and wings. This is a dish worth fighting over. Seriously, I considered taking my own mother out in order to snatch that last piece of skin. 
Take it from my Mom.
So good, you can't
stop smiling. 
Any trip to visit friends and family in DC is incomplete without a final hurrah meal at Peking Gourmet. It's worth going out of DC, even if you had only planned on eating at fancy pants places inside of the city. Whenever I'm craving duck, these are the images that dance in my head, and I suddenly start finding reasons to head back south. Special thanks to my father in law, who first introduced us to this hidden gem, and if you go, continue to spread the word. 

Peking Gourmet Inn

6029 Leesburg Pike
Baileys Crossrds, VA 22041

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Visiting DC: Ben's Chili Bowl

Famous Ben's Chili Bowl
This past Friday, after being pummeled with an unexpected snow storm that was only supposed to be a dusting of the fluffy white stuff, we took off on a much delayed flight bound for DC. DC in March is a quick little break from a winter that has just about overstayed it's welcome. Everybody's kind of sick of soups and stews and it's time to start thinking of asparagus and radishes. But yeah, that's a ways off, and it's time for that much needed minibreak to a place where the museums are free, the metro is clean, and everything's so darn architecturally stern. Oh, and about ten to fifteen degrees warmer... that's a plus too.
Those amazing half-smokes
Every trip to DC is incomplete without a ritualistic trip to Ben's Chili Bowl. I won't give you the historical rundown that you've seen on every travel show having any focus on the nation's capitol, except to say that the little restaurant opened by Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia, in an old silent movie theater building in the Shaw neighborhood of northwestern DC is one of the city's greatest treasures. It's history is one of a single place of calm in the center of civil unrest and racial oppression. And I absolutely love it. The bustling vibe and hints of southern hospitality outflowing from a fantastic staff, not to mention the savory, salty and garlicky aroma circling the interior of a restaurant with decor original from the 1950s, instantly melt away back aches and stresses of a day packed with either too much work or maybe a touch too much sight seeing. It's the kind of restaurant where you walk in, get in line, and it feels like you've been there before, even if you've never had the pleasure.
Beyond what meets the eyes, I will tell you that the food here is absolutely delicious. So what do you order?
Milk Shake
A milk shake: The Bigger Half always orders a milk shake with his food. My stomach hosts a violent revolution against my lower half when I mix too much dairy with too much grease, but it doesn't seem to phase him at all. And so he sips and sucks on a striped straw until the sweet, thick ice cream treat topped with whipped cream and a cherry has met the bottom of its plastic vessel. On this occasion, he ordered the vanilla, but I hear tell that you have to go for the chocolate. Just passing it on...
Chili Cheese Fries
Chili cheese fries: In many cases, I forgo messy fries for clean fries and the option to dunk in my own sauces. Not at Ben's. Here, the chili cheese fries are a must have. They're topped with a generous slather of their signature chili. Let's take a deeper look at this wonder of culinary comfort. It's thick and meaty, devoid of the assumed bean base that many chillies have, and has a deeply savory and touch sweet, cinnamon spiced flavor that only dissipates with a slow build up of subtle peppery heat. The texture allows one to still detect individual pebbles of meat with the more saucier portion of the chili thin enough to lovingly spread and soak into all those fries (or whatever it may lay on). The cheese is not anything special... just a typical whiz product, but boy does it suit that chili beautifully. And the fries? Well, they're just average fries, but the perfect vessel for the saucy, earthy chili and creamy unnaturally yellow-orange cheese.
Chili Half-Smoke
Chili half-smoke: Unlike the situation with the fries, where the actual potatoes are just your vehicle for moving sauce from basket to gullet, the sausage that lays in a simple steamed bun is truly something special, and different from any other sausage you would find in other regions of the country. It's a huge dog, about a quarter pound of meat, with a snappy skin that keeps the meat especially juicy for your first bite. The meat is very salty and lightly smokey, a coarsely ground combination of beef and pork, intensely satisfying from first bite to the very end of the half-smoke. Add that wonderful, savory, sweet, juicy, peppery chili, a slather of tangy mustard, a sprinkling of raw zesty chopped onions (just to break up a lot of the fairly heavy flavors), and boy are you in heaven. It's the best meal you can possibly have to break up a full day of sight seeing.
I dream about the Ben's half-smoke, smothered in chili in a plastic basket in front of me, sitting in a room full of folks, all sizes, shapes and colors, and a jukebox playing anything from hip hop to the Temptations. And it's a good dream. You should go there if you're going to DC. And if you're not going to DC anytime soon, you should make plans.

Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

Monday, March 4, 2013

Classic Southern New England: Pizza Strips from Crugnale Bakery

Pizza strips from Crugnale Bakery
If you're from anywhere near the cities of Providence or Fall River or New Bedford, you've likely grown up with pizza strips. If you're anywhere too far away, even as far north as Boston, they're as likely as foreign to you as that weird maggot cheese from Sardinia. But no matter where you're from, these things are delightfully tasty, and for me a vivid flashback of Sunday afternoons at the age of nine spent down the boat yard with my folks and my baby brother. It's a "life is good" sort of memory. 
So imagine my surprise and squeals of glee as I trudged into work on a Monday morning, only to discover two Crugnale Bakery boxes full of pizza strips. One of my all star coworkers, who with just the other day I had shared an extensive discussion on the specialities of Providence cuisine, had gone the extra mile, and on her lengthy commute from Rhodie to Boston, had brought these two square parcels of gastronomic gold and classic, unique New England cuisine.
A box full of flavor
Alright already. What are these things? Well in the regions I've just described, you'd often see them in any number of places. Some grocery stores stock them from local bakeries, many Italian bakeries have a version, and their availability even extends as far as your corner Cumberland Farms or gas station. The square or rectangular pieces of pizza are comprised of a thick, airy, Sicilian style dough, and a brick red aromatic sauce. There is no cheese, because that's not what this pizza is about. It's a cold piece of carb-o-luscious bread, and a sauce that's thick with tomatoes, almost akin to tomato paste, much sweeter than your average pizza sauce, and flavored with oregano, various other spices, and garlic and olive oil.  That's all. Fabulous pizza dough and zesty, dense sauce. 
A unique dough and a unique sauce:
Uniquely Southern New England
I've had many versions, but this is the first time in years that I've had Crugnale pizza. I think the first time, one of my cousins had brought it to a pool party. Let me tell you, they make the best version of pizza strips that I've ever had. Every element is in balance, and that thick sauce has just the right "slightly soaked" effect on the top of the thick dough. In fact, it's the shininess of the actual doughy surface that is smeared with the sauce that gets me every time. The perfect oily, sweet and salty surface. I love it. 
I hope you too are lucky enough to have such thoughtful coworkers. But if not, you owe it to yourself to venture down to Providence and get yourself something that you're really only going to be able to get in one specific area of this place we call Earth. Get yourself to one of Crugnale's locations, purchase a box of the pizza strips, and then head to a beach party or a barbecue or your local fight club meeting. They'll be a hit at any of the above. 

Crugnale Bakery