Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Giveaway Winner: I Scream, You Scream

Thank you to everyone who entered last week's ice cream cookbook giveaway. With the fourth of July coming up this weekend, there's no better time to test out a new frozen treat!

As you may recall from the previous post, Leslie Bilderback's "No-churn Ice Cream" has over 100 recipes for icy cold confections that don't require an ice cream maker.

The food photography in the cookbook had me drooling and wanting to block off an entire weekend just to experiment!

After a selection by Random.org, the lucky person receiving her own copy of the book is .  . . SB! 

Congratulations! Please send your full name and preferred mailing address to popbopshopblog(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thanks again to all who entered. I hope your long weekend is full of ice cream deliciousness!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Dining Out: Herb Lyceum

June has been an amazing month for new years resolutions. As you may remember, I shared my list of 15 resolutions for 2015 in January and then I detailed my progress at the four month mark. Two weeks ago, I crossed resolution #3 off my list - adopt a dog (you can read all about me and Scout here) and this past weekend I crossed two more off my list! Resolution #8 (experience a farm dinner) and resolution #12 (take the Taza factory tour).

On Friday night I drove with four friends up to Groton, MA for a farm dinner at the Herb Lyceum at Gilson Farm. For those who are not familiar, the Herb Lyceum is run by David Gilson, father of the famed Boston chef, Will Gilson. Will first opened Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge and now runs Puritan & Co in Inman Square.

The drive from Watertown to Groton took about 45 minutes. Once we got off the highway, the town of Groton was so beautiful. Rolling green hills, immaculate landscaping and lots of farm land (with farm stands!).

We turned into the farm's driveway (a dirt road) and parked in a grass patch designated for guests. As we stepped out of the car and walked toward the farm house, our hostess for the evening, Kathy, greeted us. She introduced herself to each of us individually, shaking each of our hands as we walked through the front door.

The entrance to the farm house is decorated with potted plants and herbs and a chalkboard sign inviting guests to come inside.

There are two dining rooms, each with long, family-style tables. The tables were set with white table cloths. From every seat you could see out the farm house windows and onto the grassy lawns outside. The left wall of the farm house had twinkle lights lining the windows.

How gorgeous is this?

Though we would be eating indoors, you could still enjoy the beauty of the farm through the views out each window.

Dried flowers hang from each of the walls, adding a light floral aroma to the room.

Kathy, the hostess, showed us to our seats and invited us to drop our bags and enjoy exploring the garden before dinner.

The Herb Lyceum's dinners are BYOB, so we brought two bottles of wine. Kathy encouraged us to pour a glass and take it out into the back yard. When in Rome, right?

She said to us, "With our BYOB policy, I always explain to guests, 'if you have an empty glass, that's your own fault!'"

Steps outside the back door is a table and chairs beneath a lush, green canopy. There are tomatoes growing right alongside the patio furniture. Talk about farm to table!

We were the last guests to arrive and everyone else was already outside enjoying the patios.

The gardens were bursting with colors - pinks, purples and oranges.

The scent of the rows and rows of lavender plants was intoxicating.

While the sun was still up, we asked one of the other guests to snap a photo of us in the garden.

With this group of friends we have a tradition called "Foodie Friday." Once a month we try to check out somewhere new. We've been wanting to come to the Herb Lyceum together for over two years so we were pretty excited.

After about 20 minutes outdoors, Kathy summoned all of us in and asked that we take our seats. Each place setting was garnished with two sprigs of lavender on the cloth napkin.

We were all drooling over the menu for the evening which was going to be five courses! Good thing I wore a loose-fitting dress. 

At the start of each course, the chef (chef Huck), came to our table to describe every element of the dish. He would walk us through the ingredients, paying special attention to the ones grown on the farm, and then talk us through the preparation. Hearing everything that went into each plate definitely gave us a deeper appreciation for the food.

We began with an amuse bouche of tomato spread and garlic scapes, topped with an edible flower. The presentation was flawless. 

After licking our plates clean (literally for some people) I had this overwhelming feeling of, "I never want to eat food out of a can again." There is something so different about eating fresh, recently picked ingredients. 

The second course was a roasted beet and mizuna salad (mizuna is like arugula). There were two kinds of beets, radishes, pickled kumquats, ricotta salata and spicy candied walnuts.

The dish was dressed with the tiniest swirl of balsamic and an edible flower for garnish. This flower is called a Viola or a Johnny Jump Up. Yes, that's its real name.

The salad was excellent. The greens were super fresh and had a nice snap to them. The beets had a strong earthy flavor. That earthy note was cut by a blast of citrus from the pickled kumquats. I saved all the candied walnuts for last since they are my favorite.

For the third round, the chef presented jumbo shrimp with jicama salad, wild mushrooms and celery root. 

The mushrooms were on the left side of the plate and were served hot.

The jicama salad was on the right side of the plate and it was served cold, so you had two different temperatures going on on the same plate. The shrimp was covered in a sauce made of molasses, brown sugar and soy sauce. One of my friends said, "I would bathe in this sauce."

This dish was such a crowd pleaser that as soon as people began to eat it, the room fell silent. Always a good sign! 

My friends loved that the dish had three totally different components, but that they all tasted great together in whatever combination you wanted to create. They also said, "We were worried two shrimp wouldn't feel like enough, but it was actually the perfect portion size." 

Thinking ahead to when else they could eat this dish again, they said, "This would also be great if you picked it up and put it on top of noodles or ramen." 

Since I couldn't eat the shrimp, the chef prepared a vegetarian option for me. It was potato gnocchi topped with green and yellow zucchini, cherry tomatoes, fresh greens and the same mushrooms that are used in the shrimp dish.

Unfortunately this dish was a let down. Not only was it too salty, but it really could have used some type of sauce or dressing. 

The fourth plate was the entree, which for the carnivores of the group was a duo of pork: slow roasted pork belly and five-spiced pork tenderloin with Chinese BBQ sauce, potatoes, baby bok choy and carrots. 

According to chef Huck, the pork belly was braised for six hours that afternoon. There were differing opinions at our table. Some people felt the pork belly was too salty, while other thought the salt from the brine was what made the meat taste so flavorful. Pork belly (from what I understand) has a similar taste and fatty-ness to bacon.

Though the opinions on the pork belly were split, everyone agreed that the pork tenderloin was exceptional. It was describes as "super tender" and "perfectly cooked."

Everyone was also in agreement that the bok choy was the vegetable star of the dish. Apparently it had a sesame dressing on it that everyone raved about. 

The vegetarian option for the entree round was essentially all the veggies from the pork dish, but with diced eggplant instead of the meat. The eggplant wasn't seasoned or dressed at all and had zero flavor. It was a real disappointment. I know it's difficult for the chef and his team to make accommodations, but they really shouldn't offer to welcome vegetarians if this is the type of dish they are going to serve. 

We were dining by candlelight and as you can see, as the evening wore on, the lighting got dimmer and dimmer. 

The fifth and final item was a lemon verbena panna cotta with a lavender shortbread cookie served over minted raspberry jam. Before this dinner, I had never heard of lemon verbena. In addition to it being the flavor of the panna cotta, it was also in all of our water glasses. It tastes like if lemon, lime and mint had a love child.

You all know that I am not a fan of fruit dessert, but this panna cotta was heavenly. The lemon verbena gave it a flavor similar to key lime pie and the texture was silky smooth. 

When I bit into the lavender cookie it tasted like all the eye pillows and sachets I've had over the years with that scent. I couldn't get into it. I gave the cookie to my friend sitting to my left. 

After all five courses we were full, but not painfully stuffed. We had arrived to the Herb Lyceum at 7:00pm and we paid our check at 10:15pm. 

If you are thinking about attending one of these dinners over the summer, here are a few things to note: 

1) Leave yourself at least one hour to get there (and one to get home). 
2) Bring enough wine for each person to have their own bottle. We had five people and two bottles and we were all out by the second course.
3) Wear elastic waist pants (or a dress or skirt). 
4) The meal is $65 dollars per person (with tip, $78 dollars). They do take credit cards, so no need to hit the ATM. 

Our experience at the Herb Lyceum farm dinner was a truly special one. The staff is welcoming and incredibly knowledgable. The food is fresh as can possibly be and will leave you never wanting to eat canned or processed food again. Seriously. 

You'll also get to meet great new people. We had fun conversations with guests out in the garden, as well as the two couples sharing the dinner table with us. 

You can get all the details on the Herb Lyceum's farm dinner schedule here. Also follow them on Facebook to see photos of the new menu items and the weddings they've been hosting this summer. 

And with that, resolution #8 is complete! 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Sugar Fix: Carla Hall Cookies

I am a huge "Top Chef" fan and one of my favorite seasons was season five, which included three of the most memorable contestants: Fabio Viviani, Stefan Richter and Carla Hall. Carla was one of my front runners right away. I loved her warmth, humor and her signature rally cry, "Hootie hoo!" She's also a fellow Libra.

When Carla's team reached out to me to ask if I'd like to sample her new line of cookies, of course I said "yes!" When the package arrived I couldn't wait to see what was inside. I had received two boxes of cookies - one sweet and one savory.

Each collection was clearly marked, with a brown label for the savory and an orange label for the sweet.

I love the logo for Carla's products. The way her initials are drawn reminds me of how we used to put hearts over the letter "i" when we were young.

The branding continues through to the design of the cookie box. The CH logo appears on the side with a message, "With love, Carla Hall."

When you open the box, the phrase "made with love" is stamped on the inside of the lid. When she was on "Top Chef" Carla often spoke about cooking with love. This is a huge part of her approach to food.

On top of the cookies was a folded menu card that read, "Small Bite. Big Flavor." on the front.

Inside, the menu had the names and descriptions for every single one of the cookies.

The savory box had three varieties, each topped with Carla's loving logo.

The savory flavors were cheddar pecan, harissa spiced nuts and lemon black pepper shortbread. After tasting all three, the spiced nuts were definitely our top pick. These would be perfect to sneak into your purse for the movies.

The sweet cookie collection had six choices.

They were oatmeal cranberry white chocolate, chocolate hazelnut praline, almond ginger, black forest crinkle, Mexican chocolate chip and pecan shortbread with vanilla salt.

Of the six sweet snacks, the black forest crinkle was far and away the shining star. It tasted like a fudge brownie and reminded me of the chocolate earthquake cookies I love at Sofra in Watertown.

I also flipped for the Mexican chocolate chip which tasted like the cinnamon and chocolate bits ice cream flavor from Batch in Jamaica Plain. A co-worker who tasted them said, "These remind me of that breakfast cereal from when we were kids, Cookie Crisp." I have to admit, it did!

The oatmeal cranberry white chocolate chip had the same flavors as a lot of popular Christmas cookies. I'd love to eat these in December with hot tea.

If you are one of those people who orders the Girl Scout shortbread cookies, then you will definitely want to get your hands on the pecan shortbread with vanilla salt.

While the flavors of these treats were spot on, the size was a bit . . . odd. They are teeny weeny and it was unclear if a person should have just a few or chow down and eat half the container. Carla says, "Our 'petite' cookie is the size of a sugar cube. So if you're practicing moderation, we make it just a little bit easier."

My friend commented, "These seem great for personal snacking. This is what I need, really. Better to have these in the house than a full tub of ice cream."

These two petite cookie collections would make great gifts, party platters, cupcake toppers or even movie snacks. Just make sure to snag the black forest crinkle cookies for yourself!

Check out all the goodies made with love on CarlaHall.com.

*Carla Hall headshot. 
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