New Year’s Eve 12/31/21

New Year’s Eve buffet

Our New Year’s Eve tradition for a while now has been to put together a buffet of assorted small bites – meats and cheeses, fruit, olives, sweets, and such – plus champagne or prosecco.

Caviar is sometimes part of the feast as well. Usually we cheap out and buy the inexpensive whitefish caviar that you can find at Whole Foods, or even sometimes at a “normal” supermarket. This year, I decided we deserved a little splurge, so I ordered a very small tin of very good caviar from a company I found online. Not the most expensive stuff on offer, but still about a hundred bucks for a 1.75-ounce tin. For a once-a-year treat, that didn’t seem unreasonable. And it did indeed turn out to be an improvement over the supermarket variety. The flavor is a lot more subtle, and the texture a lot silkier. We don’t always finish the jar of the whitefish caviar, but we ate every last little egg in this tin.

As I mentioned previously, there was enough cheese left over from our last visit to The Cheese Shop of Salem to cover New Year’s Eve as well, plus my brother and his wife gave us a Christmas gift of a new cheese board plus some cheese and crackeds to go with. So the cheese tray consisted of Garrotxa, Shropshire blue, Brabander, Port Salut, Kerrygold Dubliner (an Irish take on Cheddar), some herbed goat cheese, and also some pimento cheese spread my wife likes. We also had some left over Wagyu bresaola, cornichons, olives, and pickled red onion.

Rounding out the savory selection was shrimp with cocktail sauce. For fruit we had mandarin oranges and grapes. The sweets included some chocolate-covered almonds, “Katzenzungen” (“kitten tongue”) chocolates, Lindt milk chocolate balls, torrone, and some Walker’s shortbread.

Yes, you’re right, that IS a lot of food for three people, and we came nowhere near finishing all of it.

Dessert 9/25/21

Chocolate ganache and raspberry mousse cake

We love Caramel Patisserie (I would link to their website, but it seems to be not working at the moment), a delightful little shop a short walk from our house. They are known around the area for their exquisite macarons, but they also have a selection of other French patisserie items like cake slices, croissants, and other traditional French pastry. I especially like these cake slices. For our birthdays this year, we skipped making birthday cakes ourselves and just enjoyed these slices, which we’ve decided is worth turning into a tradition. This particular evening was not anyone’s birthday, however. Our old friends Tony and Sharon had come to spend the weekend with us, and we’d stopped into the shop as we took them around downtown Salem. We had just come from spending most of the afternoon at the Notch Brewing beer garden, enjoying plate after plate of snacks to go with the beer, so no one was very hungry for dinner and thus we opted to skip straight to dessert.

Lunch 9/4/21

Short-rib tacos

My wife’s sister came to visit over the Labor Day weekend, and we went several places over the course of the weekend. These tacos were from Sea Level Oyster Bar in our town. Tacos at a seafood place might not be your first thought, but it was a mood. We’ve been to this restaurant a few times and have thoroughly enjoyed more typical seafood offerings, but there would be several other opportunities for seafood as the weekend went on.

Salem, where we live these days, attracts what I can only describe as a royal fuckton of tourists in October, but there are plenty of tourists all summer as well. We had to settle for sitting at an outdoor table rather than their lovely open-air second-floor, which is so nice on a pleasant summer day. It was a holiday weekend, so we were probably lucky to get a table at all.

Tacos are a perfect lunch food, anyway. And good tacos are a thing of joy. These had short-ribs cooked birria-style, with thick sices of jalapeño and cotija cheese. If I recall correctly, this was a special (since it doesn’t appear on their current online menu). Washed ’em down with a nice cold grolsch beer.

Dinner 8/28/21

Cabbage in chili sauce

Another one of my favorite dishes from Sichuan Gourmet is this dish of Chinese cabbage in chili sauce. Though they have a “spicy” icon next to it on the menu, it is actually not all that spicy compared to things like the Ma Po Tofu I posted the other day. It is incredibly well-balanced; a little sweet, a little savory, a little spicy. It’s a great thing to have alongside dishes that are a lot hotter, or dishes that are mild. My wife prefers to get dishes without meat, so we ordered this one time as a compromise and we both like it so much that we order it every time now.

Breakfast 12/26/21

Scrambled eggs, pulled pork, home fries, biscuit

For the last 10 years or so, one of our Christmas traditions has been to go out for dinner and a movie. Our movie choice for this year, though, only had a 7:00 p.m. screening available, so we skipped a proper dinner out in favor of movie snacks. That turned out to be a bad choice, because the movie theater was mostly out of all their concessions, so after the movie I suggested we go out to breakfast the next morning.

This is the Cowboy Plate from the Ugly Mug Diner in our town. Having only eaten a bag of Reece’s Pieces for “dinner” the night before, I was rather hungry and wanted to make sure breakfast was protein-centric. I only ate a couple of bites of the home fries; I am not a big fan of home fries in the first place, and it the second place they were cold on the plate. But the eggs and the delicious pulled pork were just the ticket, and I walked away quite happy and full. You can request cinnamon butter with the biscuit, which is grilled, but I stuck to one little container of strawberry jam between the two halves. Can’t completely leave out something sweet.

Lunch 12/22/21

Pepperoni and mushroom pizza

Over the summer and early fall I fell into a habit of ordering out for lunch at work almost every day. We only get a 30-minute lunch break, and we were thick in the middle of a massive project that meant hours on the phone every day, so it was expedient to order takeout so I could stay at my desk and work through lunchtime. Now that the project is done and things are “normal”, I’ve gone back to bringing lunch most days and trying to limit the takeout to once a week. This was last Wednesday’s takeout order.

Pizza feels more like dinner to me than lunch, but I was kind of craving it, and also looking for something different. The community where I work has a large Asian immigrant population, and so there are many Asian takeout options – Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, even Tibetan. A pepperoni pizza with mushrooms was a good change of pace.

Dinner 12/23/21

Potato gnocchi with butter, sage and garlic

Another impromptu dinner for one. Some store-bought potato gnocchi tossed in butter with some chopped sage, chopped garlic, and a little grated Parmesan on top. I managed to forget to save a little pasta water when I drained the gnocchi, because I wasn’t paying attention, and I think it would have made things a little saucier, but it was still plenty tasty. My wife grew a planter of fresh herbs this summer, and though we are late into December, there was still some sage growing. so I used some of that.

I’ve only ever made gnocchi from scratch once, when I was in cooking school. We even used the little ridged board so they would come out with the traditional shape. But that’s optional, and it’s perfectly acceptable to just make little pillow-shaped ones with a knife, I’ve just never gotten around to it. These were perfectly acceptable as is, and it seems like other than bragging rights, there’s no compelling reason to make them from scratch.

Lunch 10/29/21

BBQ rib and brisket combo with BBQ beans, mac & cheese, cornbread, and flatbread

On our trip to Vermont back in October, we stopped for lunch at Big Fatty’s in White River Junction. I had the ribs and brisket combo. As I mentioned previously, this meal left me so full that I had absolutely zero interest in dinner when we got to our hotel in Burlington that evening. I think you can see why.

Barbecue is still a bit niche in New England, but there are some very good ones here and there. And some bad ones. This place was one of the good ones. Brisket is probably my favorite barbecue meat. I prefer the leaner flat cut, which this was. I know most people tend to like the point cut because it stays juicier, but for me it’s just too fatty. I also prefer flat cut brisket for braising at home. Braising brisket keeps it a lot more moist and tender than smoking, but good barbecue brisket is a joy to eat.

My usual go-to sides at a BBQ resturant are mac & cheese and collard greens, but Big Fatty’s doesn’t have collards on the menu. The greens and the vinegary pot liquor are a nice contrast to heavy, fatty meat, making them the perfect side in my opinion. The M&C was really good, as was the cornbread. The beans were just okay. We didn’t set out to find this place on purpose, it just happened to show up online as we were trying to find a place for lunch along the way, but it was worth the stop.

Dinner 10/16/21

Ma Po Tofu

Ma Po Tofu is one of my favorite Sichuan dishes, and nobody makes it better than a local restaurant chain called Sichuan Gourmet. We’ve been going to a couple of their locations for many years, and I would put it up against the best Chinese restaurants you care to name anywhere in the U.S. I don’t think we’ve ever been to one or the other when the place wasn’t packed to the gills, mainly with Chinese ex-pats who live in the area, enjoying authentic versions of Sichuan cuisine.

Ma Po Tofu is essentially soft tofu cubes and minced meat (beef or pork) in a searingly hot sauce of doubanjiang and douchi, with Sichuan peppercorns. It’s actually not complicated to make at all, provided that you have the right ingredients. I bought the ingredients at C-Mart in Boston Chinatown, but have seen them at H-Mart as well, and they’re not hard to find online. I used the recipe from SoupedupRecipes.com (one of my favorite YouTube cooking channels). Her recipe was too hot for me, so I dialed it down a bit when I made it at home, and it was still too hot for my wife. Similarly, Sichuan Gourmet does not hold back on the spice unless you ask. I’ve wised up and just bring a towel when we go, to wipe the sweat off my face while enjoying this excellent dish.

SkyBar 11/10/21

Sky Bar

The original Sky Bar was made by Necco (the New England Confectionary Company), one of a number of candymakers based in Cambridge, MA. Necco was at one time the biggest candy company in the country, but eventually went out of business in the 2000s. Some of its brands, most notably the Necco Wafers, went to the Spengler Candy company, but the rights to the Sky Bar went to a woman from Sudbury, MA, who owns a gourmet shop there. She started making them herself, using quality chocolate and fillings (unlike the original, which really wasn’t very good), selling them in her store. She’s subsequently started manufacturing them on a larger scale, and now you can buy them online or in shops (mainly in Massachusetts, but in other locations around the country as well).

My wife and daughter bought one for me a few weeks ago, while they were checking out a new candy shop in our city. I have to say, it’s really very good, even more so when compared to the original, which used cheap ingredients. The fillings are also much improved, while sticking to the original types – chocolate fudge, peanut butter, caramel, and vanilla. Though it will probably appeal mostly to geezers like myself who have some nostalgia for it, I hope people re-discover it and buy enough to keep it in production.