The Flaming Pig of Doom!

Type of Post: 
What's on my Plate?

Flaming Pig of DoomAlso featured at my birthday party was this irresistible honorable mention: The Flaming Pig, filled with burning brandy on which is broiling a chourico (and then a linguica, another chourico, and then a couple of Italian sausages...).  All the menfolk had to assist in this particular culinary endeavor.

I had discovered this elegant bit of grillware at the Continental Market in New Bedford. I got a couple of them, one of which now lives at a cottage on Plymouth Long Beach, and this charming specimen became a Yankee Swap gift at a family Christmas Eve event, to reappear at what may be the only outdoor grilling event ever held on my January birthday.

Smiling Pig

The Continental Market is on Sawyer Street in New Bedford, just off Acushnet Ave. While you are there, go to the meat counter in the back, where you can get whole and half Country Hams - I haven't seen those for sale anywhere else in New England.  

Honestly, who could resist this plump pyrotechnic porcelain porker with his winsome smile and his gift of hot grilled sausage?

Family Birthday Celebration

Type of Post: 
Best of Show
Milford, MA
Best of Show: 
Mary Rita's Rainbow Cake

Mary Rita's Rainbow CakeWe did not travel far this weekend. My siblings hosted a birthday party for me, and it was incredible. There were many wonderful things, all made by various brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and in-laws.

It isn't really fair (or accurate) to select one above all others for Best of Show, except that my niece Mary went above and beyond the call of duty with her fabulous Rainbow Cake. This wins points on so many levels:

  • This was a grown-up recreation of the bestest birthday cake ever, made by my mom when I turned seven and then recreated as a surprise when I turned 30 - so it gets points for honoring family tradition.  
  • The original was some sort of Jell-O based thing that would not really work for Saturday's crowd, so Mary had to think beyond the recipe while honoring tradition.
  • The cake required creativity and planning to keep the colors separate and harmonious: she created layers of warm colors and cool colors so it would be attractive as well as colorful.
  • The decorating was perfect, with a simple white icing accented by fruity-flavored colored sprinkles (not jimmies - something better) and its identity as a Rainbow Cake had to be a surprise.
  • It required technique in making, baking, and decorating, and confidence to commit to something new and untried.

I was never so happily surprised to see a birthday cake in my life. Bravo, Mary Rita! 

Dining in Harmony (RI)

Type of Post: 
Best of Show
Northern and Western Rhode Island
Best of Show: 
The NYS Wiener at the Gentleman Farmer Diner

NYS WienerWe were exploring Rhode Island west of I-295 when we stopped for lunch at the Gentleman Farmer Diner on Rte 44 between Harmony and Chepachet. I had been thinking about Rhode Island local favorites since our Christmas Day jaunt down to Point Judith, where we saw the clam shacks and Del's Frozen Lemonade stands shuttered for winter, looking forlorn.

There was nothing about the Gentleman Farmer that particularly called out "Local Favorites Here!". It's just like many other comfortable, humble diners in that part of the state. But we were hungry and it looked sanitary, so we pulled in.

It didn't take long for me to find my lunch: an NYS Wiener. What's an NYS Wiener? It's not a hot dog, which was right below it on the menu for maybe 50 cents more. But it is certainly of the family of Hot Dogs. I asked the (very busy) waitress what it is, and she replied "A New York System Wiener" but there was a hint of a question mark at the end of the answer that told me this particular wiener is always known as an NYS Wiener, and the details are immaterial.

I ordered it. She said "Loaded" and there was the hint of no question mark at the end of it, so I assumed that's how it's served in those parts and went with the flow. You can see the results above. 

After getting home I did some research on this wiener business.

Eels on the Altar

Type of Post: 
Best of Show
New Bedford, MA
Best of Show: 
Kyler's Seafood, New Bedford

photo by Richmond TalbotWhen we celebrated Annette's Venetian Birthday Feast, there was one dish that I really wanted to make, but could not get a key ingredient. Bisati sull'Ara, or Eels on the Altar, was a traditional dinner for the glassblowers of Murano. They would take eels from the harbor, chop them and bake them in the glass furnaces on and under bay leaves, seasoned only with salt. But I could not get the eels.

Well, Christmas brings many wonderful things, and it brings eels, too, to fish markets in areas with large Italian populations (and maybe Portuguese too?). So our Saturday meanderings brought us to New Bedford, one of the two great fishing ports of Massachusetts (the other being Gloucester).

After some careful exploration of the local antiques coops, I had a hunch to try Kyler's Catch Seafood, not far from Exit 15, in hopes of finding plump eels to cook "on the altar". 

They had the eels, and smoked ones, too, but I passed on those. As soon as I had a bag with two plump eels, I called Annette. We hastily arranged a dinner featuring the eels.

The recipe is about the easiest recipe since the hard-boiled egg. I had the bay leaves and salt, and there's nothing else but a sprinkle of water.

The Maine Coast in December

Type of Post: 
Best of Show
Orr's and Bailey's Islands, Cundy's Harbor, and Harpswell, ME
Best of Show: 
The Black Sheep Wine Shop in Harpswell, ME

Black Sheep Wine ShopDecember day trips bring their own challenges,. The worst one, in my opinion, is that the days are so short it really reduces our range. Fortunately for day-trippers from the Boston area, one of the nicest drives on the Maine Coast is just a half-hour north of Portland. For the foodies among us, there is even a destination wine shop to visit!

Portland, ME, is on Casco Bay. The southern end of Casco Bay is defined by Cape Elizabeth and its famous Portland Head Light. The northern end of Casco Bay is contained by two long points of land: Harpswell Neck and Orr's and Bailey's Islands.

The latter make a particularly fine scenic winter drive, less than an hour from Portland, half an hour from Freeport, and 15 minutes from Brunswick. The roads are hilly and bendy, so you get constantly-changing new views of bayside scenery, lobster boats, tidy rural homes, scenic village centers, and all the things that make the Maine Coast so fun to explore.

Of special interest to the Foodie Pilgrim is the Black Sheep Wine Shop, a truly excellent shop with knowledgeable owners who really "get it" when you describe what you want. They have 650 good wines in stock, including some you rarely see elsewhere, plus an astonishing array of microbrews, some cheeses, and enough crackers and the like to make it possible to build an event around a few star wines that you find there.

Christmas Day

Type of Post: 
Best of Show
Point Judith, RI and Milford, MA
Best of Show: 
The Buche de Noel with family

Buche de NoelAfter an arduous night of eating, we took our traditional Christmas Day drive. This year found us trekking southwest along the Massachusetts South Coast, through Newport and Jamestown RI and all the way down to Point Judith, before turning northward to Milford, Massachusetts for desserts with family. (They had a proper Christmas Day Feast as well, but we were just not up to continued dining on that scale).

By the time we arrived in Milford the sweets were out and awaiting us. There was a Christmas Pudding, and the Buche de Noel, a cheesecake and some canollis made by one niece and cupcakes by another, and plenty of strong coffee.

Everything was excellent, but I have to give Best of Show to the Buche for its iconic status as a Christmas treat in our family. My mother taught us to make the Buche when I was very young and some of my siblings were not yet born. It has been a Christmas tradtion in our clan for nearly half a century. Wherever the Buche goes, it is a crowd-pleaser and it looks great as well. The best thing about it is that it is not so hard to make (I was making it with my mother when I was 7 years old - it's a great way to get your kids into the kitchen for the holidays). The Buche de Noel recipe on this site is my mother's recipe with a few minor tweaks that crept in over the years. This recipe is as published in The Festive Season cookbook from Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, MA.

Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes - twice!

Type of Post: 
Best of Show
Wells, ME, then Milford, MA
Best of Show: 
Shelley's Cioppino

Shelley's CioppinoOn Christmas Eve, we hitched up the reindeer and set out for an evening of feasting and family. Naturally we travelled through three states to do it...

We had a Feast of Seven Fishes at one brother's place in Maine, and then another in Massachusetts. You might think that makes 14 fishes, a feast in anyone's book, but mine is a cautious family when it comes to tradition; for fear of having only six fishes if a recipe fails, we might have a backup fish, or two, or three. I can only assume it was an obsession with compliance with tradition that led to the presence of a bowl of Goldfish crackers and a bowl of Swedish Fish at one of the two homes! 

Between the two events, we had:

Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes

Poached Salmon for Christmas Eve

The Feast of Seven Fishes is a southern Italian tradition that is catching on again among the descendants of the Italian-American immigrant community. The basic idea is simple: while awaiting the birth of Jesus, we abstain from meat and dairy foods. Naturally for Italians this is an invitation to get creative with fish, so traditionally we prepare a feast featuring seven different seafood dishes and as many vegetarian dishes as you like.

It is also important to note that southern Italy has historically been very poor. It certainly was during the great waves of immigration from there in the early Twentieth Century. Many of the dishes passed down through family tradition reflect this: smelts, sardines, octopus, eel, baccala, and anchovies in pasta all are common foods in the feasts that strive for authenticity.

There's really no point in trying to get too authentic about the seven fishes, since many of the seafoods and other ingredients are not available in New England. A certain amount of substitution is unavoidable, which brings up the idea of following the tradition in spirit more than in substance: if my great-grandfather in Campania were to celebrate Christmas Eve in foodie style, how would he do it? If he immigrated to Plymouth, how then?

A Christmas Party at Work

Gingerbread HouseEvery year my employer allows us an afternoon for a Yankee Swap and some goodies. The affair has grown with the company over the years, from an original potluck by yours truly serving 25 employees to a small team of dedicated elves serving the 94 employees in the Lexington office of an international corporation.

A small amount is catered in from the outfit that provides food for our lunchtime meetings; this is because we have no way of preparing hot food in quantity. But you might be surprised at what we set out with just a few creative people who want to show a good time to their colleagues.

Annette's Venetian Birthday Feast

Annette has fond memories of Venice, so we turned to that fair city for the third in our Exploring Italy series of celebratory birthday feasts. Most of the dishes came from Anna Del Conte's The Classic Food of Northern Italy.

We had:

  • A Cato Corner Hooligan cheese (one of Annette's favorites) and some Reggiano Parmesan with a bottle of Allegrini Palazzo delle Torre 2009
  • Risi e Bisi: a hearty traditional soup of rice and baby peas with crushed fennel seed
  • A bottle of Secco-Bertani Valpolicella 2008
  • Baccala Mantecato on Broiled Polenta: another Venetian classic that was far more delicate than we expected from the salt cod.
  • A bottle of an excellent, chocolatey San Giuseppe Amarone della Valpolicella 2003.
  • Stewed Savoy Cabbage: cored and quartered Savoy cabbage cooked on a soffrito of panceta, onion, and parsley and then braised in white wine - the surprise hit of the evening!
  • Stuffed Sole (spinach, golden raisins, pignoli)  in a Venetian Saffron Sauce (a reduction of the fish poaching liquid with saffron and a bit of sugar).
  • For dessert we had something non-Italian: a cranberry mincemeat pie made by a friend and brought down by Annette.
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