Monday, November 21, 2011


Masa in the South End serves upscale Southwestern, something that's harder to come by up here in New England that I'm used to growing up below the Mason-Dixon line. (Of this past we do not speak. Kidding. Sort of.) So Masa seemed a great choice for me, and for the most part it was a nice departure from my usual dining spot, aka my kitchen. (Though note the tiled floors of the restaurant look very familiar ...)

I liked Masa's atmosphere from the beginning. Be it my penchant for wrought-iron chandeliers - thanks Mom, for getting me to spend countless hours this past year looking at lighting fixtures for the new house - or the funky decor, Masa just feels "fun." The bar itself is gorgeous, not to mention the cocktail menu, which had a number of inventive drinks I wanted to try, such as "Smoked Berry" and "Caramelized Apple" margaritas. The dining room is noisy and dim, let's be frank - I'm all for mood lighting but you've crossed a line when you have to pull out your cell phone to illuminate the menu to read it properly, and when we sat down to the table at first it seemed you had to yell over the defeaning noise level. (Later in the night it was no problem - whether this is because our ears had adjusted or the margaritas had worked their magic, I don't know.) And though I was crammed against the table next to me, I enjoyed being in the center of the place.

The menu is my type of food - elegant yet exciting; sure you have the quesadillas and shrimp appetizers of a Mexican restaurant, but everything is elevated and beautifully presented. I began with a sangria margarita (two drinks that I see as completely different concepts; therefore in my doubt and disgust, I had to try it, naturally) and we started with skillet roasted sea scallops and barbecue duck with sweet corn cream. It's seriously good. The scallops were cooked well and the sauce made you want to lick the plate. Also refreshing was the roasted acorn squash salad with grilled artichoke and chile lime and sour orange glaze - spicy, sweet, and sour over crunchy greens - it hit all the right notes.

Masa has a nice dinner selection, with dishes such as Negro Modelo braised pork shoulder, red snapper with smoked mussel salsa, and Jack Daniels glazed lamb shank. For my entree I chose the blackened rare ahi tuna steak with yellow mole, and I'll be honest: it was good. But not great. And gasp - dare I say it - I think the time I made rare tuna with yellow mole at home from scratch it was better. Yeah. I said it. Masa's tuna was cold in the center, and the thing about blackened fish is that you want it to be at least room temperature. Still a lovely pink, of course, but not tasting like it just came out of the ice box. With tuna tartare I embrace the chill, but with a dinner entree served on a heated plate, it's got to have a more even temperature.

The service wasn't great. Our server completely forgot a side order of red chile onion rings with ancho aioli, which came to the table completely cold after we'd finished the meal; he never returned to our table after we'd received our entrees to see how we were doing; and he described specials to us that the kitchen had run out of earlier that night - I really wanted that grilled mahi mahi with papaya mole and sweet potato mash with goat cheese and kale, he got my hopes up and then never delivered. Oh well. I guess what Masa taught me is that I might as well make it at home.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rainbow Beet Salad

Last Night's Dinner:
Roasted rainbow beets over arugula (or "rocket" as the Brits say,) with dried cranberries, pear, pecans, and warm goat cheese; drizzled with orange-apple cider dressing.
For the beets: wash and trim beets, drizzling with olive oil and sprinkling of salt and pepper; roast on a pan at 350-400 degrees (depending on your oven) for 35 minutes. (Note: I had an assortment of small rainbow beets from the farmer's market, which took only half an hour to cook, but if using larger traditional red beets then they will take longer to roast.) Let beets cool and remove remaining skin and slice into segments. I had ruby red "Red Ace" beets, golden "Burpee's Golden" beets, and a less-common variety with green skin and swirly purple flesh (Chioggas or Candy Canes?), each providing a distinct flavor to the dish. The sweet, sugary beets worked well with the peppery arugula, soft and chewy paired with a spicy crunch.
For the goat cheese: I used chevre, spooning a mound of soft cheese into a piece of Saran wrap, forming it into a thick patty, and popping into the freezer for a few minutes to firm up. In a shallow bowl I ground some walnuts and added a dash of Italian breadcrumbs (thus seasoned with salt, pepper, and parsley), removed the chilled cheese from the plastic wrap and rolled it in the nut-crumb mixture to cover it as breading. I then placed the cheese on a pan in the oven at 350 for 5-7 minutes (Note: check the cheese frequently to make sure it has not melted too much; you want it to retain its shape to serve as the centerpiece to the salad!) and use a spatula to transfer onto the plate. When you cut into the warm goat cheese oozes a bit onto the greens, the tangy cheese providing a nice contrast to the sweet beats and crunchy nuts.
For the dressing: Pour into a bowl two parts apple cider vinegar and one part champagne vinegar, stirring in (equal to that) orange juice. Whisk in extra virgin olive oil in a steady stream until the dressing achieves desired consistency, slightly thicker than juice *it should taste tangy-sweet. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Drizzle the dressing over the greens just before serving the salad. Orange and beets go together so well - this dressing is light and really freshens up the dish.

Monday, November 7, 2011

For the Love of Brie

Baked brie wrapped in puffed pastry with blackberry jam and walnuts, served with arugula and sliced Asian pear (Tip: brush your puffed pastry with an egg wash to achieve the golden brown color!)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Culinary Tour of Sicily

I went to a seminar "A Culinary Tour of Sicily," and reaffirmed my suspicions that Sicilian food is some of the best in the world. Looking at maps and discussing the historical migration patterns across the Mediterranean - the Phoenicians sailing west, bringing Arab customs, the Spaniards sailing east, and of course all the Greeks - one appreciates the cultural (and culinary) fusion on the island that's so centrally located in the sea. As different people brought their traditions to Sicily, applied in new ways over time to the produce natural to the climate and landscape, the foods evolved to that we know as Sicilian today.
The seminar, led by a Sicilian culinary historian, took us through the various Sicilian food staples, from the bread shaped into an endless array of shapes to honor everything from saints to children, to the wines (brought from her own vineyard), and of course olive oil. In a taste test of sample Tuscan and Sicilian olive oils, I found them to be distinctly different in flavor: grassier vs. intense, peppery, respectively; we also learned how to determine the quality of olive oil by looking at the details in the bottle packaging. I also learned that Bertolli oil, marketed as an Italian product, was actually bought out by the Spanish!
I also learned about the process to make ricotta (which I learned, by the way, is not actually cheese - ricotta is in fact made from the remaining milk whey after one has made cheese), which in Sicily is made from solely milk-fed sheep, giving it a pure, unadulterated flavor. As we worked through a tasting menu in the seminar, discussing the various dishes and how they relate to the vegetable-based Mediterranean diet, I thought once again how different real Italian food is from the Italian-American food that people here associate with the country. In Sicily the primary foodstuff was traditionally primarily vegetables supplemented with bread, with pasta saved for special occasions for the majority of the Sicilian families. Combine veggies with heart-healthy olive oil and fresh fish - no wonder those Sicilian fisherman live into their 90s!
Here was my plate of "tastes of Sicily":
Bruschetta samples with anchovy, rich pesto, and fresh tomato and garlic; caponata (eggplant-veg medley; here topped with a slice of boiled egg); rosemary focaccia bread made from olive oil and white wine (so delicious and fluffy!); and a light lemon curd cream topped with a sugary pastry. True to real Italian cooking, all fresh ingredients make an incredible meal.