Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fun Playing With Fall Road Trip Food, pt. 2

Having cooked up a storm of Rosh Hashonah goodness for the family on Long Island and then rested, we resumed our road trip on Friday. Destination: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. My BFF Jeanne and her family, as well as her extended family at the Jamaica Plain Co-Housing Community, awaited us. I haven't seen my friend since my wedding almost 16 years ago, so this trip was way overdue. 

Our route on this fabulous fall day would take us off of Long Island and into Connecticut (and then Massachusetts) via the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry. This direct route would also spare us the travel nightmare of the shoddily maintained and constantly-under-construction East River crossings we would endure if we traveled the mainland - so off to the ferry we went!

Our coach - the PT Barnum. The weather and conditions were so splendid that I had to snap a few photos with the cell phone camera. We simply drove into the car deck, then walked to the elevator and rode to the top open-air deck. We did not partake of the snack bar on the boat - though its fried olfactory treasures did waft throughout the top deck; we decided that this was deliberate, to encourage more concession sales. Nice view, isn't it? And we haven't even left the dock yet.

After about an hour on the water, Connecticut gently beckons.

As land drew closer, an announcement ordered us back to our vehicle, and we prepared to continue the journey. As luck would have it, though, Mother Nature began to call just as we returned to the car. Too late to hit the boat's facilities, we agreed to seek out a bathroom and a snack once we returned to terra firma.

These needs led us to rather urgently seek out a local place, and the luck of the exit draw brought us to Peppino's Pizza, 200 East Main Street, Stratford, CT. Though the menu refers to a website, it does not appear active; phone number is 203-378-5552.

Though we'd enjoyed New York pizza twice on this trip so far, too much is never enough. The condiment table held the usual suspects - garlic powder, oregano, chili flakes and grated cheese. This would be true New York style pizza! And indeed, the friendly folks at Peppino's served up some mighty fine pie.

Bob's slice was "meat lover's" and he most certainly did.

Ricotta-filled calzone or plain cheese slice? I opted for the slice, since I needed to avoid a food coma with several more hours of driving ahead. I was rewarded with a nicely prepared pizza with a properly dirty bottom.

Relieved and satisfied, we again hit the road. Travel was smooth until we hit the Boston Metropolitan Area, which lived up to its traffic-choked, insane-driver reputation. By the time we had followed Google Maps's horrible choice of directions (directly through downtown Boston) to Jamaica Plain Co-Housing, we were ready for dinner!  Reunited with Jeanne and thrilled to finally be back in Boston, a small group of us repaired to Bella Luna Milky Way, 284 Amory Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130, Phone: 617-524-3740. The restaurant was too dark for any of my photos to come out well, so suffice it to say that we enjoyed a lovely time planning for our cooking class later in the weekend while quaffing freshly brewed Samuel Adams (a pumpkin ale not released outside of the greater Boston area) and eating sandwiches and housemade fries!

The cooking class was a vital component of our visit. Co-housing has been my friend's passion for many years. A fusion of condominium and commune - the essential concept is community and consensus.

 A paving stone that's up my alley!

Vegetable Garden
Jeanne had been asking my advice on cooking for large groups. The community strives to prepare and serve a community meal about once a month, and has found it challenging. Our mission was to demonstrate some new (to this group) cooking techniques, as well as a recipe that could be prepared in "mirror" versions both vegetarian and not. Finally, there were issues with the two range-ovens that we'd not figure out until after the big dinner. The place to start, however, was with sharp knives. Without sharp knives, it would always be a struggle to produce dinner for 40. So we planned to begin with weaponry, immediately after breakfast and shopping the next day.

All three of our breakfasts in Jamaica Plain would be consumed at the most friendly Ula Cafe. By far, the most amazing item in the joint is the freshly baked, eggily delicious popover:

Good thing I don't live there - I could eat a lot of these. Seriously.

Bob also enjoyed this pastry:

I felt that the brioche with egg and cheese lacked the profundity of the popover:

But any lingering thoughts of imperfection disappeared in the taste of the two sandwiches we shared for lunch on Sunday on a short break from food prep.

Egg Salad: Fresh Dill, Peas and Romaine, together with robustly cracked pepper and another crunch (maybe scallion?) on peasant white bread. No celery! Delicious.

Sweet Potato Sandwich: Roasted sweet potato, avocado, Monterey Jack, red bell pepper, red oinion, tahini-poppy seed spread on peasant white (hold the sprouts for me, please).

Who'd have thunk to use cold, cooked sweet potato as a sandwich base? And it really worked! This lunch was topped off with house-made ginger lemonade, which also pleased.

After breakfast, we spent the better part of Saturday shopping for our planned Sunday feast. The menu would consist of a braised meat, meat and vegetarian versions of Linda's Cheesy Corn Bake (each pan a double batch; click the link to see a photo from another time I made it for a crowd and a description of the dish), a triple batch of the Tomato Cobbler seen in my last post (and yes, we still had tomatoes, corn and basil from our Cleveland garden to make it wonderful), Faux Stir Fried Tofu and Vegetables with Garlic Sauce, and two desserts: Cory Barrett's Honey Pound Cake and Chocolate Mess (also known as a crock pot dump cake). We made our lists, checked them twice - and headed off to a local farmers' market for our first stop.

The beautiful blueberries and raspberries at the very first vendor's table tipped us off that this was not a producer market. Those items have been out of season in Boston for many weeks (and probably came from California or Mexico) - so we realized that we needed to shop carefully. (A producer market is restricted to items grown or produced by the vendor.) Nonetheless, we scored some lovely broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and red bell peppers (all but the peppers were definitely local; the peppers may have been) for our Asian-inspired "faux" stir fry, ripe red jalapenos for the Cobbler and Cheese bakes, and locally sourced fresh eggs for the Cobbler and desserts.

We left the market knowing that we needed a several heads of garlic, and at least one item that would probably need to come from an Asian grocery. Jeanne hoped that we might find the brown bean sauce in a  more mainstream store, since she wasn't sure where a conveniently located Asian grocery might be. Knowing that most supermarket garlic is sourced from China and not very good, and in hopes they might also have the bean sauce, she determined that Whole Foods would be our next stop. I've got nothing for or against Whole Foods, but I am fortunate to have better alternatives to it where I live for these types of items, so I don't shop there much. Still, we felt lucky to find garlic from Mexico rather than China (though it was disappointing to me that a place that touts "Whole Food" would import their garlic), and acceptable soy sauce. The brown bean sauce remained elusive, so we purchased a bottle of black bean chili sauce. Then,   we made our way to Costco.

I had never shopped in a Costco before; it was interesting. Definitely fewer choices than at Sam's Club, where I have shopped. But some better quality items - we were chagrined to see that the Costco garlic came from California's Gilroy Farms (too late for us, but goes to show you how sometimes the warehouse club is a better choice than Whole Foods). But due to the Jewish Holidays, first cut brisket was on sale for about $5.50 a pound - and so our cost-conscious friends would be treated to brisket for their braise!

Even after hitting a local supermarket for the last items - the brown bean sauce remained absent. We'd substitute with the Whole Foods black bean-chili sauce if we had to. But I really wanted to make authentic "yi suen" or "strange flavored" (or "fish flavored") sauce, so the dish would look and taste like something folks had actually experienced at a Chinese restaurant.

Returning to JPC, Bob put on a knife clinic - sharpening and honing all of the cutlery in the Community Kitchen, as well as the knives of all comers! He also taught those who were interested how to hone using the steel and told them to get rid of that rolling sharpening thing you see on the table!

Though this project took awhile - I still pined for proper brown bean sauce. We finally headed off to Ming's Supermarket when we were done with the knives. Paydirt! I learned later that this is one of the best Asian groceries outside of Boston's Chinatown, and there was even some parking. Jeanne was so tickled, she decided that we should also acquire some firm tofu, to demonstrate that yes, tofu can be delicious if prepared well. Apparently, the preparation of tofu had been a, um, bone of contention at JPC in the past.

Saturday night, we dined at Bukhara Indian Bistro and I forgot my camera, so the cell phone had to do. This restaurant is apparently part of an eight unit chain, but you'd never know it from the fresh flavors and interesting menu options offered. I love visiting a restaurant that has menu items I've never tasted, even if I'm familiar with the cuisine. And so, we sampled pappadum, two introductory chutneys (the onion one convinced me to stick with "medium" spice, because it was HOT), fried bread called Bhatura, naan, a curried duck special, and my entree, Pav Phaji, described as "Famous Bombay style potatoes, cauliflower, peas, carrots, tomatoes, beans and onions seasoned to your preferred degree of spiciness and served with a toasted roll and barbecued lamb." This may not look like much, but at "medium" spicy, it really hit the spot:

Sadly, I have no photos of the prep or the dinner on Sunday - too busy cooking to shutterbug. But picture if you will a very busy kitchen. First, the view from the dining room.

Then, from the other end:

Among the lessons we taught to a number of residents who wandered in and out of the kitchen all day: brisket the way my mommy makes it and general braising techniques, pressing tofu to get the water out and make it stir-fry (or pan fry) friendly (a multi-hour process), how to fake a stir-fry for a crowd by preparing the sauce separately and combining all of the pre-cooked ingredients in a stockpot to finish it, and scaling recipes up to four times. The latter didn't go as well as we'd hoped, though we think we figured out the finicky ovens when de-briefing after dinner - no one had ever tried using the convection fans in the ovens (and I admit to some ignorance in that department)! When fully loaded with a hotel-size pan on each shelf, the oven temperature dipped more than fifty degrees below where set, though it's twin had handled the brisket pan alone without a problem (but it also went kerfluey once the hotel pan of Tomato Cobbler was added). I'm thinking the convection fans will correct this issue in the future, but didn't think of it until too late; the low oven temperature caused our corn bakes to come out soupy (and late), but still delicious, and after removing the brisket, oven 2 was able to finish the cobbler without completely massacring the pound cake. Thirty-plus people shared the meal and had a great time, and only about a quart of leftovers remained when they were through, soupy texture be darned! 

Our work here was done. Here's the empty dining room, photographed the day after:

And last but not least:

Every kitchen does need a scrub brush like this.

Anyway - we awoke Monday and after a quick fun food and coffee-tea break at Ula Cafe, we hit the road again. Next stop - the home of Uncle Jerry and Aunt Phyllis in Binghamton, New York and some local eats nearby! Fun Playing with Fall Road Trip Food continues in the next post!


  1. Love this type of post. Perhaps it's the familiarity of this route (I've taken that ferry many a time). Isn't it so much more peaceful than sitting on the LIE or 95 wondering what the holdup is? The choice is: Pure Stress or Fresh Air and Serenity. Looks like you chose correctly. Well worth the money. Looking forward to future posts.

  2. The ferry was an absolute joy. I only wish there was a ferry option to get across the East River!