The Daily Dish

Food from Vitali’s Florence, with wines to match

By Cathy Huyghe
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This is the sort of thing that happens at Rialto Restaurant + Bar, inside the Charles Hotel in Cambridge:

Benedetta Vitali, chef-owner of Trattoria Zibibbo in Florence, chooses it as her one restaurant stop in all of Boston. She promptly ties on her apron and gets to work in the kitchen, preparing dishes like calamari inzimino and roast lamb with herbs for Rialto’s Guest Chef dinner last Tuesday, March 2.

Filippo Bartolotta, a wine journalist also from Florence and director of Le Baccanti event company, hops a Greyhound bus from New York to join Vitali for her dinner and wine tasting. As though he arrived with bottles of wine in his suitcase — and maybe he did! — Bartolotta leads guests through a reception tasting plus five additional wines paired with three courses during dinner.

At the reception, servers pass appetizers to the lively crowd. Oysters on the half-shell. Prosciutto with a drop of dense balsamic vinegar. The spirit is festive, punctuated by Chef Adams’ signature orange-toned accent pieces.

Rialto is far from the only Italian restaurant in Boston but it manages, sometimes by the sheer force of Adams’ personality, to cultivate the essence of Italian food and wine that we love to love. Ingredients that are true to their personality. Wines that are distinctly of their own origin and no other. All presented with an inspiring vigor, in an atmosphere of companionable conviviality.

Fresh Charcuterie at Formaggio Kitchen: Photo Essay

By Cathy Huyghe
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To supplement yesterday’s WGBH Foodie story on charcuterière Julie Biggs’ Charcuterie + Beer class at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, today’s post features an annotated photo essay of the stages of sausage-making, from raw material to finished product.  Julie Biggs, the charcuterière at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, used to be a vegetarian. Now she handles fat back, pork shoulder, and the small intestines of pigs like they were second nature.

It’s the nature part that’s responsible for the transformation.

“I only use meats that are not mass-produced,” Biggs said to her fully subscribed charcuterie class last night. She orders her meat from Savenor’s Market which, she says, will get her anything she wants. What she wants is grass-fed, hormone-free, as-local-as-possible meats like beef, pork, and duck.

Knowing where her meat comes from, how it was raised, and how “clean” it is has shifted Biggs’ perspective on meat personally and professionally. She was a student at Boston University when she took a cheese course from Ihsan Gurdal, Formaggio’s co-owner. She had been managing a catering company and told Gurdal she wanted to get back in the kitchen and work with meat. Soon she was being trained on-the-job at Formaggio by the woman — another charcuterière — who she would succeed.

Dressed in blue jeans cuffed just above her black kitchen clogs, a dark brown three-quarter-length shirt, and white apron, Biggs moves around Formaggio’s limited kitchen workspace authoritatively. But her work is more about the finesse of the craft. “I do it because it’s artisanal and creative,” she said, taking a break from cubing fatback. “Plus it’s fun, and it’s hard to screw up when you have such great ingredients as raw material.”

Six Steps to Successful Sausage Making, courtesy of Julie Biggs, charcuterière at Formaggio:

   1. Use the best quality, freshest meat you can find. Biggs’ source is Savenor’s Market in Cambridge. Have the meat ground by the butcher, or grind it yourself.
   2. Trim off sinewy tissue, then cut into 1-inch cubes.
   3. Weigh and salt meat to the ratio of 1 pound meat : .27 ounces kosher salt.
   4. Freeze cubed, salted meat in a single layer.
   5. Grind meat that is 2/3 frozen.
   6. Mix with hands or with a mixer just until the meat comes together. Don’t overmix or allow meat to get warm. Add seasonings to taste.
 

Wednesday Wine Itinerary for Boston

By Cathy Huyghe
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Not sure if you’ve noticed, but Wednesdays have become the wine lover’s highlight of the week in Boston.

Here, hypothetically, could be your itinerary on any given Wednesday, should you wish to pursue the pleasures of wine from one part of town to another.

All that’s required: good friends, an open heart, and fare for the T ride home.

Start at 5pm at Federal Wine & Spirits on State Street. The place is cavernous, the steps downstairs to the tasting are treacherous, and the wines they pour are always (always) worth the effort. This week they’re doing wines that taste much more expensive than they cost.

Hungry yet? Head over to the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons and pull up a leather club chair for their Burgers & Burgundy offering. Anytime between 5 and 10:30pm, order their super-special Bristol burger (with truffle fries, housemade pickles, and Vermont cheddar cheese) with two half-glasses of Burgundy, all for $30.

Next it’s time for the live entertainment portion of the evening. That would be at Gordon’s Fine Wine & Culinary Center in Waltham for their Bar Wars series from 7 to 8:30pm. One featured liquor (Jameson whiskey this time around), two of Boston’s best bartenders (reigning champ Ray Guerin of Tuscan Grill versus challenger Sean D’Abbraccio of Solea), with the audience’s votes sending the winner on to the next round.

Then, for a light finish to the evening, try Sel de la Terre‘s Long Wharf location for oysters shucked fresh at $1 each from 10pm to 12:30am. Round those out with a crisp sparkling wine or a clean Sauvignon Blanc, and you’ve got yourself quite a nightcap.

When the Best Drink is Cocoa, in the Style of the British Navy

By Cathy Huyghe
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“A man dies too young if he leaves any wine in his cellar.” – André L. Simon

A used bookseller I know on the North Shore usually sets 20 or 25 books on two small bookcases just outside his front door, for casual passers-by to peruse and possibly purchase. The bookseller changes the theme frequently – Cape Cod ecology in the summer, Updike novels when he passed away, how-to-entertain manuals around the holidays – but this week the theme was wine, food, and cocktails.

I stopped to peruse.

What caught my eye first was a small pamphlet from 1962 called Wine and Food: A Gastronomical Quarterly edited by André L. Simon, the prolific wine writer and merchant from the first half-ish of the 20th century.

The edifice of the small periodical was charming, the way the stylistic choices of the producers of “Mad Men” are charming – the copy, for example, for one advertisement in the front of the book for De Kuyper Hollands Gin reads, “Most People… Host People… Let’s-Propose-A-Toast People prefer De Kuyper.” All ads were in black and white, though this one occupied a full page and its illustration evoked a well-appointed cocktail soirée where one prominent male guest in a lean-cut suit and tie looks back over his shoulder, grinning, glass of gin in hand.

Another post (this one starting with “Write to us for such and such…”) reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who placed two-line ads in newspapers of the day to cull suspects out of hiding.

The contents of this particular issue leaned heavily toward articles on food – like “The Princely Pineapple” by David Gunston, “The Herb That Lulls” by Winifred Graham, and “The Hampstead Dinner Club” by Harold Adshead – but the most curious part of the book for me was a small section in the back called Memorable Meals.

Seven meals were detailed by date, time, place, hosts, guests, fare, and drinks/wines. Most of the meals took place in 1961, except the odd one from 1941, circa May 1, which happened at 2am on the HMS Havoc off the coastal waters of Monemvasia, Greece, in the company of “as many New Zealand servicemen as could be accommodated on, under, in, above, below, or between the decks.”

The fare: “Bread, with margarine or butter, ad libitum.”

The drink: “Cocoa, style of the British Navy.”

Although each of the other Memorable Meals was memorable at least in part because of the wine served – Château Petrus 1947 and Château d’Yquem 1947 at one, Nuits St. Georges 1919 at another, and Romanée Conti from 1934, 1945, and 1953 at yet another – the descriptive essays following each meal’s vital statistics indicate that the point of memorability was more the occasion of the coming-together and less the drinks and wine that were consumed.

That sounds odd, especially judging from the provenance and quality of wines on offer.

But when British Navy-style cocoa counts as the beverage of note at one of the most memorable meals of recent times, and when who was there is just as important as what was served, and when descriptions are given of the conversation and tone of each meal, you get a sense that context matters for the appreciation of the experience overall, rather than any one part of it.

Which comes as a refreshing then-as-now bit of history, all the way from 1962.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. She has studied at La Varenne École de Cuisine in Burgundy, France, completed the Wine Studies program at Boston University, and received Advanced Certification from WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust). Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Adventures of Spice Girl: Tracking Down the Mind-Opening Za’Atar

By Carol Pagliaro
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When I was a little girl my friends and I dreamed one day our Fairy Godmother would appear, wave her magic wand, and turn us into Cinderella. That never happened – alas – but along the way to living my life the Food Fairy appeared, sprinkled me with oregano, and said, “Henceforth, you shall be known as Spice Girl.” Ever since, I have had the most excellent adventures in the pursuit of exotic and elusive seasonings.

Imagine my excitement when I learn of za’atar, “the spice combination that opens up the mind.”

I become aware of this glorious concoction when my Food, Wine and Travel book club, based at Cornerstone Books in Salem, decided to read The Foods of Israel by Joan Nathan. She tells us za’atar is sprinkled on pita bread with a little olive oil for a Middle Eastern breakfast bruschetta, and that it’s used as a topping on pizza and pasta, a dry marinade for chicken or fish, and a tasty addition to salads and vegetables.

Nathan also informs us that Israeli parents feed it to their children for breakfast because they believe it opens up their minds and makes them more alert as students.

My search for za’atar began in the international foods aisle of the Super Stop & Shop in Swampscott, which carries an assortment of products from the Middle East, and it doesn’t end until I dig out the Syrian Grocery Store on Shawmut Avenue in the South End. There, after yet another wondrous journey, I came face to face with za’atar and discovered a portal to the Middle East just 30 minutes from my home.

Joan Nathan’s personal recipe for za’atar:

Take ¼ cup of dried oregano and thyme, 2 tablespoons of dried sumac, ¼ cup of roasted sesame seeds, and salt to taste. Remove any twigs, and crumble the oregano and thyme between your fingers into a bowl. Add the sumac, sesame seeds, and salt to taste.

This is not a purist’s za’atar, but it is a flavorful first cousin. Note that South End Formaggio, right next door to the Syrian Grocery Store, carries one of the recipe’s main ingredients, sumac.

Carol Pagliaro, aka Spice Girl, is a guest writer for today’s WGBH Foodie blog.

Trusting the Tweet: Mussels Riesling Marinière at Brasserie Jo

By Cathy Huyghe
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There are certain characteristics of a French-style brasserie that makes it a French-style brasserie.

There’s got to be a bar, preferably made of zinc but heavy, deep wood will do.

Floors have to be tiled, at least in part, in colored patterns.

The menu has to have pommes frites, confited things, and profiteroles.

The wine list has to be mostly French – naturally – but the cocktail list too has to be Franco influenced, stylistically and literally. Think Grand Marnier, Chartreuse, and Cointreau.

Brasserie Jo, inside the Colonnade Hotel on Huntington Avenue, fits all those characteristics.

Take the cocktail list, which includes an optimally sippable 38 Eiffel, composed of Stoli Blueberri, St. Germain liqueur, and lime juice “in honor of Gustave,” as the menu says.

The menu itself overflows with brasserie classics like Cassoulet Toulousain and Choucroute Alsacienne. Though the duck breast special I had Saturday night was disappointing, the Mussels Riesling Marinière with pommes frites was exceptional.

There are two reasons I know this to be true.

First, the mussels made my companion for the night, a Belgian who has been living in the US for some 14 years, actually pine for home. (Little known fact: Belgians consume more mussels per capita than any other country on the planet.)

Secondly, the Mussels Riesling Marinière were recommended via a tweet from @funfearlessbean while I was en route to the restaurant. The exchange went something like this:

WGBHFoodie: What to eat at Brasserie Jo on a cold, rainy night?

funfearlessbean: The Mussels Riesling Marinière, absolutely! And use the bread to soak up the rest of the sauce.

So we did. Order the mussels, that is. But here was my Belgian friend’s tweak of the tweet: to use the frites instead of bread to soak up the sauce. As soon as he’d eaten enough of the mussels to open up a little space (this did not take long), he simply dumped the cone of accompanying frites into the sauce. And then he promptly ordered a second round of frites.

It was, to use the Dutch term, lekker. It was, to use the French term, délicieux.

It was, to use my term, right on.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

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