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Coppa!

Coppa is one of those restaurants that I kept meaning to get to. Chef/Owner Ken Oringer is legendary on the Boston food scene, with restaurants as diverse and well-loved as Clio, La Verdad, Toro, and KO Prime to his name. The other Chef/Owner, Jaime Bissonette, has not only worked with Oringer at several of those restaurants, but he’s the sort of young, funky, tattooed chef who gets profiled all over the place. All signs pointed to Coppa being a great dining experience. So what took me so long to get there?

I’ll admit it, location was a huge factor. Coppa is tucked away on a little side street in the South End that just isn’t that convenient to my nightlife. I’m in the neighborhood once a week during the school year to volunteer, but the middle of a work day isn’t the best time to visit a restaurant that calls itself an enoteca – while it’s not literally a wine shop, there is a very serious Italian wine list. I was also concerned that this would be a splurge meal – something I have no trouble doing, but I needed an excuse for said splurge.

One finally came in the form of my third marathon, which I ran with two friends with similar attitudes toward good food and drink. We would celebrate our accomplishment with wine and meat!

Because that’s Coppa’s specialty – a marvelous selection of Italian salumi, cheeses, and meaty delights. This is not a restaurant that vegetarians would enjoy. Thankfully, I am no vegetarian. So, did it live up to my great expectations?

DID IT EVER.

We started with pretty much our only vegetable dish of the evening, little crostini topped with sunchokes and marscarpone cheese.
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(apologies for the blurry picture – it was quite dark in the restaurant. Eventually I caved and used my flash.) This little bar snack is seriously fantastic. If you’ve never had a sunchoke, imagine a cross between a chestnut and a mushroom – nutty but earthy at the same time.

Our other non-meat dish was the burrata, which is type of insanely buttery mozzarella cheese made right in Somerville, MA.
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If it had been acceptable to lick the plate, we would have.

Similarly warm feelings were had about these:
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These are pig’s tails, roasted in a wood-oven and glazed with mostarda. They are tiny nuggets of pure joy. If I could eat them every day, I would be extremely happy for the rest of my incredibly shortened life span.

Naturally, we couldn’t visit Coppa without getting a salume plate. Regrettably, I forgot the name of nearly everything on this platter the minute she put it down, but I DO know there’s some lardo on that piggy, because we asked for it, and it was amazing. Also, how adorable is that tray?

Adjusted Salume Plate

This was an entree special of an extremely decadent rib. Though just one, the meat was plentiful.

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Finally, we did try one of the wood-fired pizzas – bone marrow with beef heart pastrami and horseradish. If, like myself and the ladies I was dining with, the combination  of beef heart and bone marrow on your pizza tantalizes, GET THIS. It is outstanding, meaty and silky and cheesy and wonderful.

Untitled If, on the other hand, like the young couple on a date next to us you are in fact a pair of very confused vegetarians, DO NOT EVEN ASK what is on this pizza. You will be sorry you did.

The atmosphere in Coppa is jovial and close – the space is teeny tiny. Everyone seems friendly and the wait staff is lovely, but if you’re in Boston and want to go, I’d get (I did in fact get) reservations, because there’s really not the space to wait. Since they call themselves an enoteca, a note on the wine: I thought it was fabulous. I also really love Italian reds, so this seems like a no-brainer, but I felt like Coppa carries interesting grapes for a reasonable by the glass price. They don’t have a full liquor license, so the cocktails are all cordial-based (Boston has some weird liquor laws). That’s not really my scene so I didn’t try them – but if you have I’d like to hear about it!

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A Splash of Licorice

It’s no big secret that I love to bake. So when two of my friends took a trip to Atlanta recently, they were kind enough to bring me a new baking book – Sonya Jones’ Sweet Auburn DessertsThis collection of recipes, named for the author’s bakery in Atlanta, focuses on Southern and African-American traditional recipes. 

My attention was immediately caught by one of the recipes – the Sazerac Tassies. Sazeracs are a New Orleans variation on an Old-Fashioned, one of the earliest examples of an American cocktail. Made with rye, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters, the cocktail has a distinct licorice note. The word tassie refers to a traditional Southern tart, so teeny that they are served more as cookies. Chef Jones plays up the licorice flavor of the Sazerac in these treats, filling the tartlet with a light custard flavored with anise liqueur.

I was intrigued because the Sazerac is a favorite cocktail of mine, as a lover of all things licorice, and I liked  the idea of the cute little tarts. So when the third Comicazi Cookie Clash rolled around, I decided to bake the little guys as my wild card entry. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t do well in the judging – anise is a very polarizing flavor – I know far more folks who don’t like the black jelly beans than those who do (whereas I have loved them from an early age!) I decided to make them anyway because it was something new and it’s important, when one is baking six dozen cookies for charity, to make cookies that you want to eat.

Baking from a new recipe did not prove to be without its challenges, however. The process isn’t terribly complicated – you make a dry, crumbly dough reminiscent of a Mexican Wedding Cake and let it chill in the fridge. Roll it out and press it into tart pans or mini muffin tins. Whip up your custard (I flavored mine with Pernod), pour it into the tart shell, and bake.  It should have been easy, and yet…
despite a mini muffin tin with a non-stick surface AND some strategic use of cooking spray, my tassies stuck. Hard. Any attempt to remove them, from a sharp knife around the edges to some gentle tapping on the bottom led to the tops dislodging. In the end I had to scrape the entire first batch out of the pan and into a giant, sticky mess that I regrettably neglected to photograph.

However, did I let disaster stop me? Heck no I did not! For the second half of the dough I added a key ingredient – mini cupcake liners. I’d considered them at the beginning but since they weren’t called for had decided to leave them out. I fretted that I would still have a sticky mess, this time with paper embedded in it, but thankfully this was not the case – round two came out beautifully!

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Tiny, tasty perfection.

 The tart dough was buttery and light, the custard sweet and full of licorice flavor. From my point of view they are the perfect treat!

As I suspected, the judges disagreed and these cookies did not do well in the Clash (although my Mexican Chocolate Brownies placed in the bar category, thank you very  much.) However, my fellow licorice-lovers adored them, so I feel quite justified in my choice. If you hate licorice but like the idea of mini, flaky tarts, I think the flavoring could easily be changed to lemon or almond or anything you might prefer – the recipe can be found at Serious Eats. I’ll definitely make these again and would love to hear about any modifications you make!

Soup Dumplings, Duck Tongues, and Weird Uncles

Have I mentioned to you guys how much I love Serious Eats? Should you not know what that is (on the random off-chance that THIS is the only food blog you read), let me explain. Serious Eats is a food blog, but in a big, big way. It was created by acclaimed food critic Ed Levine, and as the name suggests they are serious about food, with daily recipes, book reviews, videos, and restaurant reviews. I got into Serious Eats because of their Food Lab column, in which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, formerly of America’s Test Kitchen, de- and re-constructs recipes for ultimate tastiness. What can I say, it appeals to the science nerd in me. But I STAY with Serious Eats, well, for lots of reasons, but particularly because they often do features on Boston-area restaurants and food, giving me ideas for things to try and write about here. Like this one.

Now, if you’ve been a loyal reader of this blog for some time, you may remember the first time I tried soup dumplings. Truly that was a magical feast of porcine wonder. Yet here was Mr. Lopez-Alt claiming that not only were these xiao long bao better than any others served in Boston, they were the best he’d had anywhere. What was to be done but to give it a try? I gathered my intrepid dumpling crew – The Goog and The Sisters Sacchetti, with the additions of Jake, Mr. Menace, and Gary – and off we headed to Chinatown to see what delights The Dumpling Cafe had to offer us.

And oh, what delights there were!
Xiao Long Bao
Rather than being coy, and making you wait until the end of this tale to find out if Serious Eats did me right and the soup dumplings lived up to the hype, let’s get it out of the way first. THE SOUP DUMPLINGS WERE AMAZING. Tender little morsels of pork tucked into a thin-skinned dumpling and surrounded by a marvelously fatty, ginger and garlic flavored broth. Outstanding – you could just get six steamer baskets full of these and be in heaven, unless you hate dumplings, in which case there is something wrong with you and you should really see someone about this terrible affliction.

But that wasn’t all that Dumpling Cafe had to offer! With so many traditional Taiwanese dishes to try, our intrepid band did the only thing we could possibly do, and ordered as many dishes as it seemed humanly possible to eat.

For appetizers, in addition to the dumplings, we had:
Pan Fried Duck Dumplings
More dumplings! But they were different dumplings. These were pan-fried duck dumplings, and they were also quite tasty, though not quite as shockingly good as the soup dumplings. Fluffy, light and pleasant, but greatly improved, as we discovered later, by the addition of sauces from other dishes.

Duck Tongues
Grilled duck tongues! Or, as the menu called them, duck tongus. (I really love Chinese restaurant misspellings and I’m afraid you’re going to have to indulge me in the litany of those from the Dumpling Cafe. Far from detracting from my restaurant experience, I think these little mistakes really enhance it.) As you can see, they are served on a stick. Everything on a stick is delicious, right? Well, to be fair, I think I liked these more than the rest of our party. They’re sort of rich and fatty, but a bit
of work because, much to the surprise of everyone at the table, ducks have a bone running through the middle of their tongues! (Of course, had we paid more attention to the very article that brought us to the restaurant, we’d have known that.) I have no idea why this is, since my preliminary research leads me to that other Serious Eats article (my other favorite column, Chi Chi Wang’s amazing “Nasty Bits.”) or information about duck calls. Either way, I think some of my dining companions were a bit put off by the fiddly little bones, but I liked the tongues quite a bit!

Chicken Skin
The “Sticky Toffee Pudding” of the evening – grilled chicken skin. In this case, people seemed surprised at how much they loved it, which I thought was funny, since I thought it was a gimme that the best part of any bird is its crispy, delicious skin. While the grilled technique rendered the skin a bit less crisp, it was made up for by the flavorful marinade it had been soaked in.

My surprise love of the night was this:
Chilled Tofu with Preserved Duck Egg
No, those eggs aren’t bad, they’re preserved! The dish is Chilled Tofu with Preserved Egg and it was wonderful – the tofu sweet and light, the egg
unctuous and creamy. I was afraid I wouldn’t like the preserved egg (also known as a “Century Egg”) due to having read about the eggs smelling of sulfur and ammonia, but I didn’t notice any smell at all and the taste was complex and rich, like the Platonic egg, a good contrast to the blander tofu.

Odd as the Century Egg was, it was not nearly as strange as the appetizer that we thought would be the most Western – the Taiwanese Meatball. When we ordered it, we’d expected little meatballs, something like what you’d get in an Italian Wedding Soup, served in a tasty sauce. The menu said it came with grary, which we surmised was meant to be gravy, although it provided an amusing nickname for Gary for the evening. Imagine our surprise when this arrived, put in front of us with the single word “pork”:
Weird Uncle Meatball
We were, to say the least, puzzled. We confirmed with the waitress that by pork she meant meatball. She had. We dug in.

It was…surprisingly tasty, though the gumminess of the gelatinous rice…shell? I guess? was a little intense. However the bits of pork and mushroom inside were deliciously meaty, and the “grary” was bright and pungent and not as sweet as it looked. Elise declared that if the chicken skin were the “back seat of the car dish” and the xiao long bao were the “girl you take home to mother dish” then the meatball was like a weird cousin that everyone is a little nervous to have over but who turns out to be kind of interesting. I thought about it and decided that weird uncle seemed more fitting, and thus Weird Uncle Meatball was born. Later research revealed that Weird Uncle Meatball is a traditional dish also known as bawan. Research also revealed that not all bawan are as gelatinous as Weird Uncle Meatball was. For all of that, as I said, he was quite tasty and worth the adventure – just be prepared for the oddity.

Tune in later this week for the second installment – our entrees!

Game Night!

No, no, this post isn’t about a rousing game of checkers or Scrabble!
Instead, this is a story of friends, family, and hunting! Not to mention perhaps the most exciting game of all: PREPARATION!

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Do you see that, how beautiful it is? That, my friends, is the preparation rainbow! Well, okay, more literally, it is the mise en place that I put together to get me through one of the recipes in this post, but it is also SYMBOLIC of the massive amounts of prep work that made the following story possible.

So what I am really talking about here was a feast, held two days after Thanksgiving, thrown by Mr. Menace and myself. It all began with some venison and salmon that Mr. Menace’s parents had given us – I’ve mentioned before how fantastic and generous they are! The venison had come from Mr. Menace’s uncle, a hunter extraordinaire, and the salmon from a co-worker of Rich, Mr.Menace’s step-dad. Both wild, both caught by people we knew (at least by proxy!) and both copious. There were about 15 steaks of venison and eight pounds of salmon, and there is clearly only one thing you can do when there is that much delicious and rare meat filling your freezer – throw a colossal dinner party!

The guest list was easy – the folks who’ve joined in on previous food adventures, who’ve proven they have what it takes to eat slightly weird things (for us urban folk, anyway) and be present for a good time. Limited by the amount of food and our plates, we also kept it a fairly local crew. The menu was also fairly easy, since our main courses were already all picked out and just waiting to be cooked. I decided on recipes that involved a bit of marination, since the meat had been frozen for a little while. For the venison, I picked a low-stress but flavorful-sounding recipe – 2 heads of garlic! It was marinated overnight, getting me started on my preparations well ahead of time.

For the salmon, something a bit more involved – still nothing crazy, but I needed to prepare more than just the marinade – there was a fresh relish to top it. By happy coincidence, both recipes needed to be roasted in the oven at 450° – the first step I took to streamlining the entire process and making it all possible with a minimum of stress.

For sides, we went with cornbread, mashed potatoes, and roasted veggies. My other time-saving tips – have your partner in crime be an awesome prep cook. Mr. Menace chopped up all of the veggies the morning of the party – 8 whole pounds of them! This let me roast them at my leisure ahead of time:
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The secret ingredient is butter! (sorry, vegans) In a weird way, these ended up being the hit of the dinner party. My Vegetable Therapist title felt well-earned. I also made a quick cherry-sauce for the venison:
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Mr. Menace was also responsible for making the mashed potatoes, because he is that awesome. I hate making mashed potatoes, and so it’s great living with someone who guarantees you never have to do it.

Basically, we cooked all day, he chopping veggies in the morning, me starting with the cornbread. Then, I roasted the vegetables, and prepped the relish for the salmon:
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The disparate bits of the mise above, in a bowl.

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All together now!

Once folks arrived, I readied the meat for the oven:
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Mmm…24 hour marinated venison.

And here it is all roasted:
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This was super-quick and easy! Yes, the venison is a creepy purple color from the red wine straight out of the fridge, but it cooks out!

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Salmon, fresh from roasting in the oven.

And dressed in its relish:
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Elise brought some game sausages from a traditional butcher shop in Philadelphia to add to the mix! Here’s venison with sumac:
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And wild boar with cranberry and lingonberry:
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These were a delicious addition to the feast! Jenn brought some lovely wild mushrooms that we had as an appetizer, and Jess, Valerie, Jess B., Matty and Jill brought desserts, but I neglected to photograph them. You’ll just have to take my word for it that they were fabulous. Mr. Menace selected a terrific Malbec to go with our meal – deep purple, fruity, yet well-balanced, it paired well with food.

Finally, after all of the cooking and all of the preparation, I was able to sit down, surrounded by some of my dearest friends, and enjoy the fruits of my labors:
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(Yes, we ran out of plates, and yes, that is a plastic one with a blue monkey on it beneath my food. God bless sisters.) The venison was rich and meaty, and paired well with the sweet cherry sauce. The salmon tasted incredibly fresh and clean with the orange relish. The vegetables were insanely sweet and rich from the butter, and I wish I’d made 8 more pounds worth! The house was filled with joy, and laughter, and people eating good food. There was a real sense of the closeness that can come from breaking bread together. Well worth, in my opinion, a bit of preparation.

PS: Mr. Menace also washed all of the dishes from this party, because he is a rockstar. Is it any wonder I love him?

Kimball’s Adventure

A few weeks ago, the members of our little food adventure club traveled out to one of the happiest places on earth! No, not Disney – that place actually stresses me out. I am referring to the one and only Kimball’s Ice Cream in beautiful Westford, MA.

Now, you might be thinking that ice cream isn’t a particularly adventurous food, and you’d be totally right. However, this isn’t just any ice cream. Kimball’s has some of the richest, creamiest ice cream you’ve ever had the pleasure to eat, in an assortment of creative flavors and, for the amount you’re served, for cheap, cheap, cheap. This is a place where I warn first time visitors to get the kiddie size – it’s more than enough ice cream for all but the biggest appetites.

In addition, Kimball’s is located right next to the town where I grew up. It’s the ice cream of my youth, and it was nice to share it with a group of friends, some who’d been, but others who hadn’t, too. When I was a kid, it was just a little ice cream stand on the side of the road, surrounded on all sides by the fields of the farm that owned it. The only concession they made to family fun, besides the ice cream itself, were some life-sized plastic cows that were in a little pen next to a sort of faux-silo. Man, I loved those cows. Despite the lack of any entertainment outside of stuffing one’s face, the parking lot was always packed in the summer. The Kimball’s of today, however, is a very different experience. The ice cream is still there, and still delicious, but it’s supplemented by a variety of activities and amusements, including:
A driving range
Mini-golf
Bumper boats
An arcade (this is the newest of the bunch)
A hot air balloon ride(!)
Batting cages
Animals
A grill
A country store

Clearly, the folks running Kimball’s decided that there was more benefit to providing entertainment than there was to running a dairy farm, and I can’t say they’re wrong. There’s little enough for entertainment in the area immediately surrounding my hometown (even most of the movie theaters have shut down), so Kimball’s provides some fun, family-friendly activities. We took advantage of only a few of them, but it was a grand day!

We started, of course, with the ice cream!
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This is an apple crisp sundae with pumpkin ice cream. It’s a pretty good fall treat, but was really only a salve on the wound of them not having what I really wanted, their gingersnap-molasses ice cream. This is molasses flavored ice cream, filled with hand-crushed, homemade gingersnaps. It’s only available in the fall, and it is seriously the best ice cream I have ever put in my mouth. But THEY DIDN’T HAVE IT. So pumpkin over apple crisp had to do.

After ice cream, most of our group made a beeline for the arcade. Jess, however, had gotten an eyeful of the onion rings at the grille and decided that they were necessary. Despite being full of ice cream, it was hard to disagree with her:
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These are not beer battered, but that light, crispy coating ala a clam shack. They are not as good as Mr. Menace’s, but they’re still very tasty.

After those of us who’d stuck around for onion rings had stuffed ourselves silly, we joined the rest of the crew in the arcade, where we were greeted by the sight of a make-your-own cotton candy machine! In truth, I’m not a big fan of cotton candy – I can eat about one bite and then I’m tired of sugar. Luckily, Elise was ready to bite the bullet so that we could all watch the magic!
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Even though I don’t really like to eat it, watching the sugar be spun from sticky goo into soft cottony strands is pretty amazing. Plus it was as big as her head!
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The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying the fruits of the arcade – in my case, primarily skee-ball and a sweet trivia game that allowed you to face off against other opponents. Since most of the group are big trivia buffs, this was a hit. We cashed in our points for ridiculous prizes, including some horrible little harmonicas that prompted a quick parking-lot concert:
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While I wouldn’t say that anyone’s food boundaries were challenged, it was a beautiful fall day and a wonderful outing with good friends. Then again, at least one person confronted a challenging food:
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Nope, I guess you STILL don’t like Warheads, Matt.

Our next food adventure will be a trip to the Haven restaurant in JP for Scottish food! If you are local and want in on this and have not already let me know, please do so in the comments ASAP – we’ll be going in November. Oh, and any new readers – please join the Facebook group for updates on these events!