It’s the Thought that Counts

I love meeting people who have a passion for what they do. Don’t we all? Their stories of finding said passion and following it—sometimes with reckless abandon—are always inspiring. I can always find a tiny element of their story in my own, and that motivates me even more to be bolder in the pursuit of my goals.

I recently spent an evening with not one, but five individuals who have found their passions in some unlikely places including chocolate, Kenya and the South End of Boston.

Sofi  photo courtesy of Olive and Grace

Sofi,
Photo courtesy of Olive and Grace

Sofi Madison is the proprietor of Olive and Grace, the place to find the most perfect hostess gift, yummy treats for your best four-legged friend, and yourself. Sofi hand picks the products featured in her shop. And that selection process is not solely based upon taste or packaging (although they absolutely have to be quality products). She selects items made by emerging artists, gift producers, and small batch food makers and takes their story and sustainability practices into account as well. She knows these products so well she can rattle off the history of every product and artisan featured in her shop, and if she isn’t able to tell you directly, she leaves you cute clues.

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“Their back story has to match the quality of the product,” Sofi told me.

The artisans’ back story serves as pieces of supporting evidence in the trial of whether or not they’ll be featured in Olive and Grace. Sofi wants folks to walk into her shop and see products they have never seen before. Sofi has a passion for selecting amazing products crafted with care and produced by passionate people. I had the privlege of meeting four of those passionate people at Olive and Grace.

Rebecca Ferrel started her cold-pressed juice company, The Ripe Stuff, after moving to Boston and being unable to find the type of fresh juices she loved. Rebecca learned about the power of juice after a stomach illness. Her company now delivers juices A la carte and as part of juice cleans programs (she has a registered dietitian on staff) in a 20 mile radius of Boston. I am not much of a juice person, but I was pleasantly surprised by how tasty Rebecca’s juices were, even the green one!

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After graduation from Bowdoin (we won’t hold that against her) Sara Holby spent time in Kenya and after a visit from her mom, together they launched Ajiri tea to help provide work for the women there. The company’s tea is produced in Kenya and now employees 63 women who make the labels. Their commitment to the community doesn’t stop there, their profits go help send 29 Kenyan children to school. And as if all that doing-good was not enough to impress you, the tea is great as well.

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Russ and Shari are a husband-wife chocolate making machine. They started out as a graphic designer and sculpture, respectively, but wanted to live a slower, cleaner life. That’s when Russ started experimenting, trying to make a healthy treat for his chocolate-loving wife…and Apotheker’s was born. They have since quite those day jobs, but still use those skills. For example Shari designed the honey comb pattern found on their chocolate. The three of us spoke at length about honey and bees, and my stint as a bee keeper. They are great! Their products, like a dairy-free dark chocolate are an all-natural indulgence that you don’t have to feel too guilty about. I am allergic to chocolate, but if I weren’t, I am sure I would be gushing about how tasty their treats are.

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Meeting all of these talented and passionate individuals, and hearing their story, really made me think about what I buy and put in my mouth. The Jolly Green Giant doesn’t exactly take the time to explain to me how he hand-selects the broccoli sitting on my plate. So instead of my favorite food of all time, Skippy Super Crunchy Peanut Butter, I picked up some all natural butter; half peanut, half almond, from a North Carolina-based company. I not only learned that the owner (a fellow peanut butter nut since childhood) started making nut butter while in the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe, but also that he named his company after his father’s nickname “Big Spoon.” That made it taste ever sweeter.

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I was not compensated in any way for this post.

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Where’s the Beef (and Lamb)?

Where did fall go? The last few days have been down right frigid in Boston, and now Thanksgiving is right around the corner. And in an early celebration of both family and food, I combined those two things to see if I could coax my inner butcher out into the open in time to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.

Yes, I did say butcher. Those of you who have read this blog for a while may remember my last visit to T.F. Kinnealey, the company founded by my great-uncle 74 years ago. T.F. Kinnealey serves some of the finest restaurants, hotels and country clubs from Northern Connecticut to Maine and out to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Some of my very favorite spots in Boston are Kinnealey customers.

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Last year I had what I consider the first day of really hard physical work in my life there. They didn’t let me off easy just because I’m family. After that post, many of you complained that it didn’t include any pictures of me sporting a hairnet. So when my cousin Joe invited me back for an introductory lesson in butchery, I jumped at the chance.

I arrived in Brockton bright and early at 7:15 a.m., washed and suited up to head into the chilly production floor. There I was greeted with a warm hug from Wayne Tumber, Kinnealey’s production manager, and my teacher for the day. He helped me put a mesh metal glove on my left hand that resembled medieval armor. This would prevent me from injuring myself. He is a smart man.

My protective mesh glove

My protective mesh glove

Wayne has been cutting meat since 1969, so I was in very capable hands. We had a lot to do, so we got right to it. I rolled up my sleeves—metaphorically speaking of course, it’s actually too chilly in there to do that—and got to work. I must warn you all now; this work (and my pictures of it) may not be for everyone. My vegan and vegetarian readers may just want to stop here. Get yourself some tofurky and come back next week.

My lesson with Wayne begins

My lesson with Wayne begins

Wayne was an incredibly patient teacher. He showed me one step in the process, and then let me try, correcting and encouraging me as I went along. One of the keys to butchery seems to be to stick close to the bone. Bones help guide you through the animal. And additionally, if you hug the bone, you’ll do less damage to the meat you want to keep intact, and eat.

I found myself being very delicate with the meat, and tentative with the knife. Wayne and I joked that I needed to hold the knife like a serial killer, with a firm whole-hand grip, not as if I was politely cutting a steak at the dinner table. Wayne also reminded me that I could manhandle the meat, move it around to get a better angle or grip on it. “Remember, you can’t hurt it,” he said. “It’s already dead.” That it most certainly was. Eventually I got more comfortable, pulling pieces of the animal as I cut, and letting the sharp tip of my knife do most of the work.

Where we started

Where we started

I seemed to have the most trouble with ribs. I boned-out both beef ribs and lamb ribs. The lamb ribs were smaller and I had trouble keeping a good grip on them with my multiple layers of gloves (metal mesh for safety, cloth for warmth and then plastic for health). You run your knife up and down the ribs. Again, using the bones as a guide and removing all the meat on them. Despite my difficulty they looked really pretty when I was done with them, if I do say so myself.

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Lots of ribs

Lots of ribs

Boneless lamb loin

Boneless lamb loin

For me, never a standout science student, it was really interesting to see that in terms of physiology, the animals are pretty similar. And by the third piece of meat, I was getting the hang of it. Wayne even trusted me enough to cut through the beef ribs with a motorized saw (o.k., that did make me a little nervous, my mesh glove was not going to save me then).

Really concentrating while using the saw to cut through the ribs

Really concentrating while using the saw to cut through beef ribs

While there were some moments that were a little intense (pulling the ball and socket of the lamb’s hip joint apart), I wasn’t grossed out at all. It was like a biology class for adults, but instead of frogs, it was my dinner.

As Wayne and I walked into the meat locker, I asked him what he liked most about his job. “Everything,” he quickly said. He’s now a manager, so he doesn’t cut as much as he used to, but he enjoys the fact that every day is different. I said I could not agree with him more.

Look at that happy girl with her lamb leg

Look at that happy girl with her lamb leg

What would become my stew

What would become my stew

After I successfully processed my lamb and beef, Wayne packed it up for me to take home. After my visit last year people seemed surprised that I immediately wanted to eat meat after handling it all day. It was the same this time. I took my lamb home, browned it up in a pan and made a delicious lamb and lentil stew which I am still enjoying.

I really enjoyed cutting up those animals, and while I’m certainly not as fast or efficient as the experts at T.F. Kinnealey’s, I think this may be something I stick with. Maybe take another lesson and practice at home. It must be in the blood…the metaphoric blood of course, not the literal blood.

Who wants to come over for dinner?

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My yummy lamb and lentil stew

My yummy lamb and lentil stew

 Many thanks to Joe Kinnealey for allowing me to once again come down and learn another facet of the family business. Thanks also to Wayne Tumber who was brave enough to get really close to me while I was holding a very sharp knife. If you live in New England it’s likely, you have had T.F. Kinnealey meat at your favorite restaurant, but you can also visit their retail location at the Milton Marketplace, in Milton, MA. While I was not compensated for this post, Joe did let met take home some of what I cut, so I worked for my dinner, and it was delicious.

I Heard it Through the Grape Vine

I swear I am not an alarmist, but when I recently read that we may be nearing a world-wide wine shortage, I did pause and wonder if I should start stockpiling. While I didn’t run out to buy cases of vino (I didn’t, I swear), with harvest season upon us, I decided this was my moment to visit a vineyard and learn how the nectar of the gods is made…just in case. Luckily for me, the kind folks at Newport Vineyards agreed to let me join them for an afternoon and learn from their master: winemaker George Chelf.

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Making wine is one of those processes that has so many steps that I cannot begin to do it justice in one post, so I am going to skip the step-by-step description, and concentrate on the vineyard itself, me getting my hands dirty, and George.

Newport Vineyards is owned by John and Paul Nunes. Its origins date back to 1917 when their great-grandfather bought 51 acres of land just north of Newport, Rhode Island. George has been with them since 1988. He told me that he really “fell into” wine making (we should all be so lucky). He first became interested in wine while in the Army. At that stage of his life he was drinking beer, but while in Europe, he would look up at the hills over the autobahn to see people picking grapes (who wouldn’t be inspired by that?). When he returned to the States he began looking for a job as an assistant winemaker, and pressed his first grape into Newport Vineyard’s first vintage.

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Both George and the vineyard’s wine have flourished in the last 25 years. The vineyard now produces more than 30 varieties of red, white, sparkling, blush and dessert wines. The vineyard is in the middle of a renovation to create a function room, tasting area and a larger shop to purchase bottles of Newport’s finest.

Today, visitors can wander out from the vineyard’s main building into row after row of grape vines…and a family of wild turkeys. The rows are oriented north to south so that all the grapes gets the same amount of sunlight as the sun moves across the sky from east to west. In September and October the grapes are harvested, and the weeks—or months—long process (depending on the variety) it takes to craft their wine begins. While many of the stages of wine making are now very efficient as a result of technology (harvesting and bottling for example), there are still some things that are done by hand…and by mouth.

A family of wild turkeys doing their best Abbey Road impression

A family of wild turkeys doing their best Abbey Road impression

Once the grapes are picked the skins are gently removed from the rest of the grape. The grapes then go into huge plastic bins where they ferment for about a week. The skins settle on the top with the juice below. The skins of red grapes are what give red wine its color, so it’s important for the skins’ color to leach down into the juice. This is when I got in on the wine making action. While I may have envisioned stomping grapes like that classic I Love Lucy episode, in reality, it turned out to be more about my arms and shoulders than feet (which I am sure everyone is happy to hear). Twice a day, members of George’s team mix the contents of these creates to make sure the skins color is indeed turning what will be the wine red.

A bin containing skins at the top and what will be wine at the bottom

A bin containing skins at the top and what will be wine at the bottom

This may sound very easy, but in reality there is about a foot of grape skins at the top, and they are pretty darn heavy. George got me a stool so that I could get some leverage with the shovel. But even elevated it was heavy and difficult to mix. Full disclosure: George had to break up the skins a bit–like breaking a hole in an iced-covered pond–so that I could get the shovel deep enough to do any good. Basically, I may not be cut out for a wine maker’s assistant.

What did I get myself into?

What did I get myself into? Photo courtesy of Heidi Brueggeman

Putting some muscle into it. Photo courtesy of Heidi Brueggeman

Putting some muscle into it. Photo courtesy of Heidi Brueggeman

After the fermentation process is over, the skins continue to be pushed down, twice a day, for two or three more days, and are tasted daily by George, and only George (I joked with him that winemaker is really another way of saying he’s the ultimate decider) until he deems it ready to be pressed. His team then presses off the skins with very low pressure so no astringency gets in the wine. Next the wine is allowed to settle in a tank for one to two days then racked into barrels.

Red wines, remain in their barrels (which have been lightly “toasted,” i.e. burned with fire) for 10-15 months. Each month George tastes the wine, tops off the barrel (throughout the wine making process air is the enemy, you don’t want the wine to oxidize. It’s similar to the fact that the flavor of an opened bottle, even when re-corked, changes for the worse) and makes his notes right on the barrel, as if it was a history lesson of that particular barrel of wine.

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George tries the different varieties of wine each day (talk about a nice perk of the job), and at a certain point will do a little mixing of batches to create the optimal pinot nior, for example, before barreling the reds and chardonnays. For George, the goal (in addition to creating great tasting wine) is to have continuity from year to year. So if you like a Newport Vineyards 2012 sauvignon blanc, you will like the 2013 incarnation as well.

Winemaker seems to be one of the coolest jobs I have come across on my bloggy adventures, and not just for the the free drinks. When I asked George what he likes best about his job, he quickly answered it’s the fact that every day is different. No two vintages are exactly alike, and no two season are exactly alike. All these variables force him, and his team, to adjust and sometimes roll with the punches. He’s also constantly learning. And that is guaranteed to continue. “The evolution will never end,” he observed.

George getting ready to taste his handy work

George getting ready to taste his handy work

Continual learning has come up before in this blog, and it seems the people who appreciate and thrive on this are those who I connect with best. Obviously, for a gal who chooses to experience something new each week, learning is a priority. Curiosity is a priority. And I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

A big thank you to George Chelf and the staff at Newport Vineyards. They offer vineyard tours and tastings, so stop by if you fund yourself in their neighborhood. I also want to give a shout-out to Heidi Brueggenman, who was my wing-woman on this adventure. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

The Big Cheese

One of the best things about this blog is the seemingly endless stream of fascinating people I meet on my adventures. This week’s post, the third installment of my so-called Foodie Fables, may just take the cake (sorry, I’ve got food on the brain).

This story actually begins a few weeks ago, during a team-building outing with some of my talented co-workers. We took a group cooking class at Taranta in Boston’s historic North End. It’s here where you’ll find the best Italian food this city has to offer. We broke up into groups and prepared our meal, course by course. There was a tomato and mozzarella salad, meat (chicken and pork) pasta, and desert. I was in the meat group, but as many of you know I already have some experience with meat.

I appear to be arguing with the lamb direction I was being getting. Go figure.

I appear to be arguing with the pork direction I was being given. Go figure.

My colleagues at the pasta station

My colleagues at the pasta station

The lucky mozzarella group

The lucky mozzarella group

What I was fascinated with, and a little jealous of, was the mozzarella group. They were making mozzarella. I never really thought about the fact that you have to make cheese, but at that moment (actually the moment it was topped with truffle salt) I knew I had to try it.

So after our amazing night at Taranta, I asked if I could come back to learn how to make mozzarella. What I got was a private cooking session with Taranta’s chef and owner, Jose Duarte. While making our cheese was really cool, not to mention tasty, our conversation was totally fascinating.

Jose is from Peru, but is a master of Italian cuisine. He opened Taranta 14 years ago, and has been innovating ever since, in and out of the kitchen. Jose is a thought leader in the culinary world when it comes to sustainability and accountability. Taranta has been composting for six years. Jose developed an edible QR code that diners can scan to find out exactly where their fish was caught and when. He leads his employees on trips to Tuscany so they can better understand–and explain to their customers–where their wine comes from and the story behind it. Jose is a strong believer in “going to the source.” He has even traveled to Florida to investigate the sometimes unfair labor practices surround the tomato industry. He needs to feel good about what he is serving, and will go to great lengths to get that validation.

After learning all this, I was not surprised at all to learn that most restaurants buy their mozzarella in its table-ready form, but Taranta makes theirs. Obviously I came to the right place to learn about making cheese. Jose told me that “every cheese has a story behind it,” and then proceeded to tell me mozzarella’s tale. Mozzarella was first created in southern Italy where the landscape was perfect for buffalo. Buffalos don’t produce great milk for drinking, but it’s very “cheesable” as Jose described it. Mozzarella is technically a pasta filata cheese, which comes from the Latin work for “stretch” (after six years of middle and high school Latin, I can’t tell you how overjoyed I am to actually use this knowledge). And that describes exactly how it’s made:

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First we took mozzarella curd (which comes in large bricks), and broke it up in to small pieces.

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Then we poured hot water into the bowl. Jose, obviously an expert, didn’t need to test the water’s temperature, but if you are trying this at home it should be between 160-165 degrees.

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Next I got to see how mozzarella earned its name. We used the handle of a wooden soon to stretch the cheese. It became silky looking, almost like taffy.

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Next we gently formed a large ball with the cheese, and pinched off balls of various sizes into a bowl of cool water, where it sits until it is ready to serve.

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And thankfully we served it right away…with a little pepper and olive oil. It was so delicious, and still warm inside. A-MAZ-ZING.

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Jose sent me home not only with the mozzarella I had helped him make, but also with some cheese curd so that I could try it from scratch myself. That is my weekend activity. It’s such an interesting process, that I was not surprised when Jose told me that legend has it that mozzarella was first made by accident when some cheese curd fell into a pot of boiling water. This may be the most serendipitous spill in the history of food.

As I gorged myself on mozzarella, I asked Jose what was his favorite part of being a chef. He told me that it was a combination of the process of experimenting as well as the wonder behind it. That wonder and the desire to keep learning is obvious in how Jose has expanded his business (cooking classes) and how he conducts business (investing in the education of his staff). And I think that’s why he so readily agreed to teach little ‘ol me. He said that I “asked a big question.” Many people wonder, but few people ask, and when people ask he wants to give them the answer.

I am so glad Jose wanted to give me this answer. And I will take this as a sign that I should keep on asking questions…of others and myself.

I really can’t thank Jose Duarte enough for being so generous with his time and his cheese curd. If you are in Boston, and want some amazing food that you can also feel good about, head over to Taranta. And consider taking one of their group cooking classes, my colleagues and I had a great time. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

Mullen's amazing DoD account and creative teams

Mullen’s amazing DoD account and creative teams

The Sweet Smell of Success

First off, an apology. My day job has been keeping me uber busy the last two weeks, so I have not been able to carve out time to devote to the blog the way I usually can. This caused a lot of guilt on my part. Especially when I was asked (online and off) about my absence. Thanks for all of you who were concerned. I am just fine, just a little overextended.  Enough about my pesky day job, let’s get to the good stuff!

In the second installment of my “Foodie Fable” series I focus on two trends very hot in Boston right now: food trucks and cupcakes. While food tucks were only legalized by the City of Boston in 2011, the cupcake craze dates back to 2000. By my calculations, that trend hit its tipping point when Carrie and Miranda sat in front of Magnolia Bakery in New York’s West Village scarfing down cupcakes with a heaping dose of Pepto-Bismol pink frosting on top during the third season of “Sex and the City.” That scene made cake’s little brother cool for adults to eat and not just at kids’ birthday parties.

While it was not my initial goal to kill both of these trendy culinary birds with the same stone, this twofer came in the form of Diana DeMarco, the owner of The Cupcakory, a charming little food truck, perfect for the old fashioned look and taste of her products.

The Cupcakory's rotating menu includes cookies & cream, red velvet, slated caramel and a Samoa, a tribute to the Girl Scout Cookie

The Cupcakory’s rotating menu includes cookies & cream, red velvet, slated caramel and a Samoa, a tribute to the Girl Scout Cookie

Diane jumped on the food truck bandwagon after a twenty-year career in publishing came to an end when the economy hit the skids four years ago. She had always loved baking, and at that point neither the food truck craze nor the cupcake trend had hit Boston yet. Actually food trucks were not even allowed on the streets of Boston. So after a year of testing recipes and retro-fitted a truck she found on Craigslist, Diane took to the streets of Brookline selling her cupcakes.

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Zoe about to make another customer very happy

“I just wanted to do something that would make people smile,” Diane told me as we chatted in the relatively close quarters of The Cupcakory truck, which is smaller than your standard food truck, and has a retro-vibe to it. “No one can walk up to this truck and not smile at something.” Her menu is a cut-out in the side of the truck where her daily offerings are listed and showed off, so you know exactly what you are getting. In the summer she frequently has potted plants outside, and a little awning to provide momentary shade for customers as they order.

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The adorable Cupcakory truck

Today Diane and Cupcakory can be found rotating between  Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and yes, still in Brookline. That’s where I caught up with her on a recent Sunday afternoon. She was on hand selling cupcakes at Brookline Day in Larz Anderson Park. As she does every night before she heads out in her truck, she determined her menu for the next day and she baked all the cupcakes she estimated that she would need. She tries to use as many organic and locally sourced ingredients as possible. She also prepares the corresponding frostings for her cupcakes, but the magic really happens inside the truck when Diane and her wing woman Zoë ice the cupcakes (and in some cases cover them in sprinkles, coconut, cookie crumbs or caramel) when they are ordered.

Many customers, accustomed to the instant gratification of today’s food service industry had to wait a few minutes while their cakes were frosted before their eyes. Inevitably this delay left a smile on their faces as they watched their tasty treat get topped. I heard a lot of “Oh, you frost them right here?” Yes, they do. And while I may not have found my next passion in life in the back of a food truck, I certainly got a good sense of what goes on in there. My attempts to frost cupcakes started out rough. I found that its a real skill to be able to squeeze out frosting in a way that produces an appetizing, non-phallic, dollop of icing. Chilled frosting can be a little stiff, making it difficult  to squeeze out of the frosting bag in a smooth, elegant way, but with some practice I hit my confectionary stride. I don’t mean to brag, but while frosting may not be a strength of mine, sprinkling sprinkles certainly is. I mean I was really good.

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While I may not be good at frosting, I am a fantastic sprinkler

While there are things I have wondered about food trucks (such as can they wash their hands? Yes!), there are some aspects of being the proprietor of a food truck that never occurred to me. One of these is the idea of competition. When a brick and mortar restaurant opens it knows what its neighbors (i.e. competition) are. If you were opening a cupcake shop, you would likely not lease a space next to two other desert shops. But in the world of food trucks your competition changes each day and if your cupcake truck is parked with an ice cream truck on one side and a cookie truck on the other, you may have a less than busy day. This is the risk that Diane, and every other food truck operator, runs every day. Bad weather is another detriment to business. It never really occurred to me all the small variables that can impact business when said business has a set of wheels.

Diane says that even now, Cupcakory is still a work in progress. Originally, she thought by this point she would have a traditional brick and mortar shop, not just a food truck. “This whole thing didn’t happen exactly the way I thought it would,” Diane mused to me. “But I’m enjoying the ride.”

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Diane (left) and Zoe, the ladies of The Cupcakory

I can certainly say the same thing about myself, and maybe you can as well. We’re all works in progress, aren’t we? But being able to enjoy our own individual rides on this strange, exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, always fascinating road we call life is a recipe for happiness. So I’m going to stop relying so heavily on my preconceived GPS (pardon me while I push this metaphor to its limits), and just enjoy the trip.

Many thanks to Diane DeMarco and Zoe for letting me climb inside their food truck for the day. You can check out their schedule and find them here. I was not compensated for this post in any way.

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Under the Table and Dreaming

Starting this week, I’m embarking on another string of themed posts. As you may have read (and if you didn’t, and want a laugh, you should) during the London Olympics I challenged myself to learn (or at least attempt) various olympic events. And this post marks the beginning of what I’m calling my “Foodie Fables,” except there won’t really be a moral to any of these posts, and the only animals involved will be those you eat, but I like alliteration too much to let details get in the way.

I think every foodie has daydreamed of opening their own restaurant or bar, but very few ever do. This week I was lucky enough to hang out with a couple as their dream came true: the opening of their first bar and grill. Warehouse, on Broad Street in the Financial District of Boston, officially opened a few days ago, but it was years in the making for Cliff Dever and his wife, Toni. But like most of the people I meet writing this blog, they followed their passion…away from secure corporate jobs, into the volatile restaurant world.

“Every guy wants to own a bar,” Cliff told me last weekend the afternoon after his first customers celebrated their soft opening. There had been about 150 people in the night before, many of them investors and friends. It had been two full years since they took their first steps towards opening Warehouse—the Dave Matthews Band fans named their place after one of the band’s songs—and as he looked around at his dream coming true, he told me he started to tear up. “Get your shit together,” Toni told him.

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Cliff and Toni had very different day jobs when they first hatched the idea of opening their own place. He was in biotech, she was at Morgan Stanley, but both moonlighted as bartenders.  In August of 2011 Bakey’s, the Financial District institution closed, and the space on the corner of Broad and Water Streets became available. The Devers quickly got investors lined up and secured the space. Cliff and his Dad started demolishing the interior to make way for Warehouse. Six months later, with the discovery that the building was old and in worse shape than initially thought, Warehouse found itself without a home.

Lucky for the couple, a larger space became available right across the street. They transferred their liquor license to 40 Broad Street and started planning for this new incarnation of Warehouse. In the Bakey’s location Warehouse was to come to life in an old school way, with exposed brick walls. But in the more modern space across the street, Warehouse would take on a more industrial look and feel.

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It was a raw space when they signed the lease, so in addition to being a bar owner, Cliff said he had to become an architect and engineer as well. The couple eased into two distinct roles: Toni had interior design ideas, and Cliff would do research and bring her ideas to life. They really had to start from scratch with HVAC systems, kitchen electrical work and the aesthetics. Warehouse has industrial concrete floors, stainless steel-looking walls, grey leather booths, a splash of bright green in the form of bar stools, a poured concrete bar and gorgeous polished nickel light fixtures from Restoration Hardware.

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An even bigger challenge than the décor was finding the right chef. Toni, a foodie, had created a menu that I can only describe as new twists on reliable sports bar fare. Her aim was to appeal to both the business lunch crowd, as well as the football-watching crowd. They just needed someone to bring their ideas to life…on a plate. Cliff said he interviewed 30 chefs before they met Nathaniel Durost an alum of Stephanie’s on Newbury. Nathaniel loved the menu Toni created and built recipes for selections that range from game-time apps, perfect for sharing (baked kale and artichoke dip), healthy and unique salads (grapefruit and arugula), new takes on comfort food (a grilled mac and cheese sandwich) to entrees that will make you look twice (Cajun gumbo with gator meat).

Warehouse also has a robust drink selection that includes a collection of cocktails (like the establishment itself, all named after Dave Matthews songs), plus beer and wine on tap  Yes, wine on tap. Eight to be exact. The wines are stored in steel barrels which allow them to remain peak freshness, plus it cuts down on waste, and is better for the environment.

Warehouse's beer...and wine on tap

Warehouse’s beer…and wine on tap

Toni hard at work last night

Toni hard at work last night

I visited Cliff and Toni again last night to see how the first few days had gone. From behind the bar, with a bustling happy hour crowd in front of her, Toni reported they had to stop letting people in on Saturday night, Warehouse was at capacity. Surveying the scene, Cliff said the last few days had been gratifying and humbling at the same time. When I asked him what the best parts of the last few days had been, he took a moment before responding. “Seeing people here enjoying what we brought to life,” he said. “And the smile on Toni’s face.”

Cliff and Toni, happy bar owners

Cliff and Toni, happy bar owners

While opening a restaurant is a little too complex for me to try myself, I did get a CliffsNotes version (literally from Cliff himself) of all the elements–big and small–that go into such a huge endeavour. And once again, I was able to get a front row seat to see and hear how someone followed their heart, and gut, to pursue what they are truly passionate about. Well look, maybe this Foodie Fable has a moral in it after all…

Thanks go out to Cliff and Toni Dever. Warehouse is now open for lunch and dinner at 40 Broad Street in Boston. Check it out!

The World is Your…

I love oysters, especially sweet oysters. That simple, yet significant fact was my sole motivation for asking the fine folks at Island Creek Oysters if they would let me come and hang out on their farm. I thought I would slide into a pair of waders, get a little dirty, maybe eat an oyster or two and write one of my typical witty posts.

Some of those things did indeed happen, but what also happened was that my mind was TOTALLY BLOWN by all that goes into oyster farming. I had only pictured the end product: big, beautiful, three-inch oysters (it is a Mass. law that oysters have to be 3″ to be sold here) being plucked from the sand to make their way to a plate near me. What I got was a lesson in marine biology, genetics, passion and hard work…all before eating lunch…yes,a lunch of oysters.Island-Creek-Oyster-Festival-2011-500

Skip Bennett started Island Creek Oysters in 1992, and it’s now synonymous with Duxbury Bay, which is ironic seeing that oysters are not native to the bay. That didn’t stop the Duxbury native. He joined forces with Christian Horne, an oyster farmer from Maine, and started harvesting oysters. More than two decades later they sell over 100,000 oysters a week across the country, and have an eponymous oyster bar on Comm. Ave in Boston.

I arrived at Island Creek with my friend Anne-Marie, a fellow oyster lover, and were greeting by the adorable Annie McNamara who wears many hats at the company. She started our tour by taking us through the hatchery. This is when I realized that oyster farming is not as simple as just harvesting oysters from their beds, at least not at Island Creek. Skip and company have it down to a science…literally. There is so much technology and biology involved with breeding and growing great oysters I almost wished I could take a refresher bio course. Despite taking copious notes, I cannot even begin to explain all the steps and stages, but you can get a great, in-depth over view of the Island Creek process here.

more mature oysters in their crates

more mature oysters in their crates

Here is my analogy-filled cliff notes version: Island Creek has a “broodstock,” a group of genetically gifted specimens that can grow to become their sweet oysters when they mature. Think of this broodstock as the Tom and Gisele of oysters. There are tons of these power couples, and they are swingers to boot; oysters are sequential hermaphrodites so they can change gender, although it’s tougher to become a female than a male (I’m sure some of their human counterparts would agree). The hatchery is the equivalent of an oyster fertility clinic where they spawn and where new generations of Island Creek oysters start their lives. It’s also where the oysters’ human patrons grow super algae to feed the them. There’s a colorful collection of algae from across the Caribbean that is mixed together, but kept very pure, and becomes almost like a powerful multi-vitamin for the growing oysters. The hatchery is filled with large drums, beakers of varying size, and large-scale equipment that I never associated with oyster farming.

Annie opening up the upwellers under the dock

Annie opening up the upwellers under the dock

I was left dumfounded by the hatchery…and then we made our way out to the dock, under which young oysters are growing in upweller boxes made by hand. This was another aspect of oyster farming that I was completely oblivious to. Oysters participate in an 18-month game of musical chairs. The farm crew of Island Creek moves the oysters from location to location around the bay as they grow to keep them in the ideal conditions for that stage of development. The baby oysters are stored in mesh bags within the upwellers under the dock. The mesh is fine enough that the babies won’t fall out. After several 3-4 weeks they are sorted, or “graded.” They are separated by size and all the smaller ones are put together, this allows them to grow and catch up to the big ones.

baby oysters that grow 1 mm per day

baby oysters that grow 1 mm per day

As we finished marveling at the tiny oysters, we were picked up by boat by Skip himself and headed out into the Bay to learn more about the farming operation. First, we visited the nursery, or “the river,” where 5.5 million (yes, five and a half million) growing oysters are stored in mesh bags similar to those under the dock, and placed inside crates. This is the next stop for the oysters after spending weeks in the upwellers under the dock.

The nursery, there are 5.5 million oysters in those crates

The nursery, there are 5.5 million oysters in those crates

Oysters grow quickly. Skip amazed us when he said they grow one millimeter each day or a quarter of an inch each week, except in the winter. In the colder months oysters are dormant, meaning they do not grow or eat. Island Creek has to account for this because they harvest all year round to satisfy they customers who include chefs at fine restaurants across the country including Per Se and French Laundry.

Skip checking on his oysters

Skip checking on his oysters

I can’t fully explain all the biology and technical steps of oyster farming, not because I fear it will bore you. On the contrary, it was fascinating to learn about all that goes in to producing the Island Creek’s oysters, but it was so complex that I’m not sure if I fully understand it myself.

What I did understand—and admire—was Skip’s passion for, and devotion to, his craft. He has been doing this for 25 years and is constantly trying to improve his oysters and the process of growing them. To that end, he’s still innovating (the hatchery is a notable example), tweaking and striving to do better. And he talks about his passion for shellfish in a way that is contagious and effecting.

Skip escorting us through the farm

Skip escorting us through the farm

Like all the folks I meet on these bloggy adventures of mine, Skip loves what he does and loves to share his passion with others. When I first came aboard his boat I asked him what his favorite part of the job is. He said he would have to think about it.

After a few hours of taking us around the bay with Anne-Marie and I oohing, and ahhing and peppering him with questions I asked Skip again. “Giving tours,” he said emphatically without even seeming to give it much thought. I suspect our amazed reaction (“Five and a half million?”) to literally everything that came out of his mouth may have helped inspire this response. But Skip inspired us as well. This is my favorite part of my job as well: getting to meet amazing people who take time out of their busy days to share their passion with me. While sometimes these adventures test me, they always teach me something new and unexpected, and they always inspire me.

Before we headed back to dry land, we had to have some oysters of course. Skip shucked Anne-Marie and I a half-dozen each, fresh from the water. They were delicious. The perfect way to end a fabulous day in Duxbury Bay.

Skip shucking our lunch

Skip shucking our lunch

Anne-Marie enjoying the spoils of our day on the Bay

Anne-Marie enjoying the spoils of our day on the Bay

I left the farm thinking that I would never look at an oyster the same way again. And to prove that theory, I visited Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square last night. When our fabulous waiter Josh placed a dozen oysters in front of me on their cool bed of ice, I looked down at my delicious dinner with a whole new appreciation for all the hard work, innovation and ingenuity that went in to getting them to my plate. My favorite of the bunch were the Row 34s, an Island Creek Oyster that I had discussed with Skip just a few days ago. I shared the story of how these oysters earned their name (based on the rows of cages on the farm) with my dinner companion. “You are an oyster expert,” she remarked.

“Nah…I’m not,” I said. But now I know a few…

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Many thanks to Skip, Shore, Chris, Tom, Josh, Annie and all the great people at Island Creek for an amazing day on the farm. Island Creeks are my favorite oysters, and if you’ve been living under a rock (or dock) and have not tried them yet, please remedy that situation as soon as possible. I was not compensated for this post (except the oysters Skip shucked for me on the water, and they were delicious).

A dozen of Island Creek Oyster Bar's best

A dozen of Island Creek Oyster Bar’s best

The Perfect Pour

Coffee is hot…literally as well as figuratively. As The New York Times reported just days ago, coffee lovers are seeking out coffee boot camps and training so that they too can brew like a barista.  While I don’t drink coffee (I am a recovering diet coke addict, happily supplement with green tea), I am fascinated with people’s relationships with it. Individuals feel strongly about their java preferences, and when you think about the simplicity of its origins (a bean) the proliferation of its incarnations and varieties is mind-boggling. And as if the type of coffee was not enough, your espresso, latte or iced coffee is also expected to look pretty.

Latte art, the act of creating intricate designs in the steamed milk atop a latte, is growing in popularity and competitiveness. Across the country there are regional and national “throw-downs” where baristas challenge each other to create the most beautiful foamy patterns. As we have learned through my previous artistic adventures, I was not blessed with much technical artistic skill (that all went to my brother), but I hoped that maybe the edible medium – not to mention learning from a patient expert – would be a recipe (pun intended) for success.  So just before the holidays I set out to become a latte artist!

Enter Shane White, barista extraordinaire from Boston-based Flat Black Coffee. Everyday Shane keeps hundreds of Mullen employees happy and well-caffeinated, and he was generous enough to teach me my way around an espresso machine.

Shane at work

Shane at work

Shane has worked at Flat Black for five years and is a self-taught latte artist, most baristas are. It took Shane six months, tons of practice and some YouTube videos, to master the three basic designs of latte art: a heart, rosetta and a tulip. At this point in his career, Shane estimates that he has made tens of thousands of lattes – not to mention participated in Boston’s “Thursday Night Throw-down” competitions — so I was in very good hands.

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My coffee naiveté may stem from my lack of drinking experience, but I was totally surprised by all the variables that can impact one’s latte creations: The type of milk (the foam from steamed skim and soy milk don’t lend themselves to latte art, 2% and whole milk are far superior), the size of coffee ordered (the larger the cup, the more milk and therefore the more foam you need to control), even the age of the espresso can affect how it behaves.

We started our lesson with Shane demonstrating his technique for a heart (the easiest of the three basic designs): he steamed 2% milk, prepared the shot of espresso, held the cup at a slight angle, started to pour the steamed milk in at a surprisingly (to me) fast pace, then as the cup filled, he straightened the cup while moving the steel pitcher containing the milk in a slow, steady semi-circle. Then at the very last moment he pulled the lingering drip of milk through the center of the cup as if to cut it in half. As he began to pour the foam disappeared into the espresso, but eventually it re-emerged at the surface of the cup, ready to take on whatever incarnation Shane told it to.

A rosetta by Shane. Courtesy of Kara Feigenbaum

A rosetta by Shane. Courtesy of Kara Feigenbaum

While Shane talked me through each of these steps as he did them, a great deal of what he does clearly comes from a place of experience and instinct. Having made so many thousands of lattes, he could see and feel how the milk was behaving and could make adjustments — to the pace at which he poured, the point at which he straightened the cup or the touch he applied — to keep his creation on track.

Charley's heart

Courtesy of Charley Perkins

You know sometimes someone will explain or show you how to do something and you think to yourself, “Hey, that doesn’t look too bad. I may be able to pull that off.” Well, this was not one of those times. It was clear that latte art takes much more skill and finesse than I had expected. But, I was already behind the coffee bar, so I couldn’t quit now.

Shane made the espresso and steamed the milk for me (no need to set myself up for failure right out of the gate), then I took over. Double-fisting the cup and milk pitcher, I started to pour. Shane was right over my shoulder quietly directing and encouraging me, but there were a lot of small things I had to do all at the same time. While I did everything he said, my pour was slow and unsteady, I don’t think my semicircle was wide enough and my entire effort was too hesitant. I ended up with a large blob in the middle of my cup. Shane and I decided it looked like a strawberry, so he did a little accessorizing (foam dots for seeds) and we made the most of it:

A perfect frothy strawberry

A perfectly frothy strawberry

My first attempt would turn out to be my strongest. After the strawberry, I created what we decided was an egret. Yeah, I know it’s a stretch, but look closely and you can clearly see my bird’s long legs and neck:

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Then I hit rock bottom with this indistinguishable blob:

If you can see something in this blob, please let me know

If you can see something in this blob, please let me know

While my work was not that impressive, what I was impressed with was the fact that even when I had an audience — in the form of a thirsty colleague waiting for his latte — I did not get frustrated or impatient with myself. And while I was slightly embarrassed to hand my blob over the counter, I did so with a smile and a giggle. And hey, the good-natured Tim Connor said it still tasted good!

My satisfied customer

My satisfied customer

While I did have fun, I have come to the realization that I can never ever be a barista. Or like Shane, maybe I have to be persistent and take the time to learn this skill, which I now realize is very much a form of art. A tasty one at that! Check out more of Shane’s creations:

louise

Courtesy of Louise Lloyd Owen

louise heart

Courtesy of Louise Lloyd Owen

Shane can even make iced coffee pretty

Shane can even make iced coffee pretty. Courtesy of Charley Perkins

I’d like to thank the very talented Shane White for his patient instruction. He helped me appreciate that a barista’s creations are not just a simple cup of Joe. Thanks also go out to Kara Feigenbaum, Louise Lloyd Owen and Charley Perkins, three Mullenites who provided instagram images of Shane’s impressive work. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

Carving up a Storm

I hope all of you on the East Coast are safe and sound following Sandy! I rode out the storm working from home and getting into the Halloween spirit by carving a pumpkin. That’s right, Halloween waits for no hurricane. I am sure you stocked up on candy, in addition to your pre-Sandy supplies. I certainly did. Sunday night while many people were buying water, bread and batteries, I was at Target buying a pumpkin, and yes, I did get some odd looks in the check-out line.

My “Hurricane Sandy Survival Kit”

I was inspired to get into the holiday spirit by a recent visit to the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Providence’s Roger Williams Zoo, and it certainly earns its “spectacular” moniker. This year’s theme was “All the World’s a Stage,” with scenes and characters from iconic movies, plays and TV shows coming to life through 5,000 jack-o-lanterns. Some are carved in a traditional way, and others with intricate scenes on the surface of the pumpkins, and illuminated from within. My prose cannot do these gourds justice, you really have to see it to believe it.

There is a pumpkin inside this pumpkin

I was lucky enough to get an expertly guided tour from the man behind the pumpkins, Travis Reckner. The seeds of the pumpkin spectacular (pun intended) were planted years ago when Travis was 15-years-old and he and his father organized a much smaller show to raise money for a local school. Their pumpkin displays gradually grew, year by year, from hundreds of pumpkins to thousands. The Roger Williams Zoo had been the home of the spectacular from 2001-2004, and it returned in 2009. With one more week left in the season, there have already been more than 90,000 visitors who have streamed through the zoo to get a peek at the creations that Travis and his team of 20 create and refresh on a weekly basis. They work around the clock, and their hard work is evident when you see the results.

As an huge fan of “The A-Team,” I loved this Mr. T pumpkin

Travis – a chef, and alum of Cambridge’s Rialto — uses special tools to create this pumpkin wonderland, including vacuums and instruments that are designed to cut linoleum. He unabashedly admits that pumpkins are his passion. He says he and his team even get a little depressed this time each year, during the waning days of the spectacular. Travis’ story is an inspiring one, in that he found his passion in a non-traditional area, pumpkins, and he has carved out (again, pun intended, I am on a roll) a job that allows him to do what he loves. Sometimes the thing that makes us happiest doesn’t come in a neat, easy package. But if we listen to our hearts, and don’t give up, we can find a way to follow our passions!

Travis, hard at work

So many pumpkins

There’s no place like home

And, here is my jack-o-lanter, inspired by Travis, and made possible by some forced down-time courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. I was prepared in case the lights went out! Obviously, I need some serious practice if I want to be able to help Travis out next year.

 Thanks to Travis Reckner for taking the time to share his passion with me. The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is not to be missed. After going toe to toe with Sandy, it will reopen on Halloween and will be open through Saturday, November 3th. Thank you as well to Whitney Dayton Brunet, it would have been depressing to carve alone.

Farm to Blog

There is a chill in the air, and fall is officially here! I really love this time of year, when the leaves are changing color and all you need a blazer or cape. I got my first taste of fall (literally) on Wednesday when I was lucky enough to be a guest at Rosa Mexicano’s Fall Harvest Dinner. Although the restaurant is new to Boston, I have had a long love affair with Rosa. It has been one of my favorite spots dating back to my early days in New York. The Lincoln Center location has been the destination of choice for me and two girlfriends for years. During J School we would complain about deadlines over their famous pomegranate margarita. Today, we rendezvous over their delicious guacamole to chat about boyfriends, weddings and full-fledged careers.

Wednesday night’s feast was celebrating Rosa Mexicano’s commitment to utilizing hyper-local ingredients for a yummy farm-to-table expereince. The four-course meal was out of this world; the kind that made me wish I owned more pairs of pants with elastic waistbands. The menu included guacamole with toasted hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds, oyster tartar, grilled lobster and scallop tacos, wild mushroom and chorizo salad, and two kinds of duck.  Is your moth watering just reading this?

Lobster and scallop tacos

But I’m really not satisfied just with gobbling up this farm fresh fare, I want to go to the farm. Here is where you come in: are you a farmer? Do you know one? If you can answer yes to either of these questions please let me know: leave a comment, email me or tweet. Hook this girl up and you could have a supporting role in an upcoming adventure.

Thanks in advance!

Ceviche of razor clams, bay scallops, pink grapefruit and mint

Oyster tartar with shaved coconut, lime, guava and chili infused sea water

For desert habanero-cinnamon candy glazed apples

Pumpkin cheesecake with ancho chile and churros

the centerpiece of kale and corn. Kale is trending this fall

Thanks to Rosa Mexicano as well as my dinner date Molly Galler for inviting me to this delicious dinner. I was not compensated in any way for this post.