Little Donkey, Jamie Bissonnette, and musings on food writing…

Its always fascinating to me to watch the organized chaos of a restaurant kitchen, the constant flow of runners bringing out plate after plate to a sea of hungry diners, and the hustle of servers trying to ensure that each one of those diners leaves happy and full. In these moments, I always feel a draw to start writing about the restaurant industry again.

So, why now? Its been almost 2 years since the last time I published something on Behind the Pass. There have been plenty of night’s out in that span. What made August 25th, a Thursday night dinner with friends at Little Donkey in Cambridge, matter more than others? The answer is simple… memories.

On this particular night, some of the stronger memories that I have when it comes to writing about food were jarred loose. So, if you’ll indulge me a remembrance, I’ll take you back to the beginning of Behind the Pass, formerly known as The Foodie Journal.

“Starting a blog is easy, keeping it going is harder…”

Everyone and their uncle seemed to have a blog at the time, and even more so now. I believe it possible that, if her fluency with the written word in English were better, my 73 year-old Portuguese mother might just have a blog herself (She has 3,500+ followers on Pinterest. Seriously.) So, starting a blog wasn’t an issue. Figuring out how to keep it going was the hard part.

When I started The Foodie Journal, I knew I wanted to write about two things: food and restaurants. While my love of food is sincere, my know-how pales in comparison to the myriad other food bloggers that exist. In that aspect, I felt there was  minimal way to set myself apart. Similarly, with respect to restaurant reviews, I felt I didn’t have the authority (I must be missing the ‘Yelp’ gene that so many others have).

After a few fits and starts, my attention shifted to restaurant kitchens and those in the thick of it. The chef. Individuals who have made the conscious decision to stand on their feet hour after hour in blazing hot kitchens, working their hardest while everyone on the other side of the pass is feasting and wining (or whining, depending on the individual). But, where do you start? How do you get a foot in the door?

On April 12th, 2012 I read an article about a rising star Boston chef by the name of Jamie Bissonnette. It was the first time that Jamie had been nominated for a James Beard Award (he would go on to win Best Chef – Northeast in 2014). I thought, ‘It would be wicked cool to maybe interview him and talk a little about the whole ‘getting nominated for a Beard award‘ thing.’ So, given that I had absolutely ZERO connections in the food industry, I went the only route I could think of to reach out to him.

I sent him a tweet asking for an interview. About an hour later, I received a direct message response back on Twitter:


… I had zero writing cred. I wasn’t affiliated with any of the relevant food sites at the time – just a knucklehead wanna-be blogger. My expectation wasn’t for a negative response, but simply NO response. Instead, I got a ‘Love to. Email me’.

Jamie was the first chef I ever interviewed in any way. To this day, I still view that interview exclusively as a kindness on his part. Obviously, any type of interview leads to some level of exposure. Even if only 5 people read it, its good attention for the person being interviewed. But, that interview was a boon for my writing if for no other reason than having given me the courage to reach out to more and more chefs. Months later, Jamie went on to give me more of his time for a second interview, and the opportunity to spend a day kicking around the kitchen at Toro in Boston. I owe him quite a lot, even if he doesn’t realize it. Thanks, Jamie.

Little Donkey

The night of our dinner at Little Donkey, Jamie was working the pass. Shortly after being seated, we were greeted by the incomparable Katy Chirichiello, general manager extraordinaire (Katy was the assistant GM at Toro when I hung out there forever ago). Halfway through dinner, I ran in to food & lifestyle photographer Huge Galdones (if you frequent food sites or read Food & Wine, you’ve seen some of Huge’s photographs, I guarantee you). Dinner was rapidly becoming an unexpected game of ‘This is your (blogging) life’! As if all that wasn’t reason enough to get me in front of my computer to do more than my typical 9-to-5 shenannigans, the food (my God the food) clinched it.

Little Donkey has only been open a few months. In my experience, most restaurants don’t really hit stride until they’ve been open for several. I state this opinion for no reason other than to marvel at the meal we had. If my count is correct, I believe we had 13 dishes (or roughly half of the available menu that night). Thinking over each of those dishes, I have yet to pick out a single thing I disliked. The only complaint I could express is that by the final plate, a dessert of mango curd on Ritz crackers (obviously), I was too full to steal everyone else’s.

My favorites on the night included the BLT lettuce wraps, the burger, and the Texas smoked short rib. Even as I typed that, my brain was basically yelling, ‘OH, AND THE SILVER QUEEN CORN. THE CHOW FUN AND THE KIMCHI FRIED RICE TOO. THAT WAS AWESOME! OH, AND THE OCTOPUSOKLETSGOTHERERIGHTNOWI’MSTARVING!!!’

It was a good night.

On Food Writing

By most accounts, writing is a very lonely act. Granted, the act of sitting at a keyboard or with pen and paper in hand is singular. When writing about food, however, I personally have never felt that way. My version of food writing always involves memories. Remembering who I was with on a given night, what we ate, what we talked about. I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that food is never really ‘just food’. More often than not, its an experience. Experiences that stay with you long after you’ve paid the bill, or moved to the couch and unbuttoned your pants. Its in those experiences that I feel it. The draw to start writing about the restaurant industry again.

To Jamie Bissonnette and the whole team at Little Donkey: Thanks for the reminder.

Meatless Monday Recipes: Pumpkin Soup courtesy of inSHAPE

The pumpkin is a beloved, if not difficult, ingredient in hearty autumn dishes. A large squash that is equally satisfying in both savory and sweet dishes, the pumpkin deserves a spot on everyone’s table! This tasty soup is surprisingly easy to prepare and tastes great. Coupled with a green salad, your Monday dinner will become an event to celebrate.

Continue reading “Meatless Monday Recipes: Pumpkin Soup courtesy of inSHAPE”

Meatless Monday Recipes: Eggplant Parmesan courtesy of inSHAPE

With the chill in the air, its hard not to start thinking of autumn. Eggplant is an autumn delight, and the parmesan style of preparing it remains a favorite. However, the thinly cut, heavily breaded style is boring and a little too heavy on the starchy carbs. So, we did some research and came up with a flavorful version that is twice baked. With whole wheat or quinoa pasta, this dish is a testament to the diminished value of meat on the plate! Cheers to Meatless Monday!

Continue reading “Meatless Monday Recipes: Eggplant Parmesan courtesy of inSHAPE”

Gadgets for the home kitchen: Immersion circulators

Last week I wrote about the awesomeness that is ChefSteps, an online cooking instruction site with a focus on “cooking smarter” utilizing modern techniques and kitchen gadgetry. A gadget they highly tout, and one that has garnered more and more attention over the past couple of years has been the immersion circulator.

Up until the recent past, circulators were only available to professional kitchens or the particularly adventurous home cook who had cash flow to burn. That, however, is no longer the case. Companies like Anova, Sansaire, Nomiku, and one of the original pioneers in immersion circulator technology, PolyScience, have made efforts to bring the device in to the home kitchen at a much more affordable price.

Continue reading “Gadgets for the home kitchen: Immersion circulators”

Learning to cook… with ChefSteps

I need to learn to cook.

Ok. Yes, I do know how to cook, but that isn’t what I meant. I need to learn to cook well. Like, restaurant well. Given my propensity for wanting to eat restaurant quality food on a regular basis, I need to learn to cook fast lest my bank account decide to find a more doting benefactor (“Always take, take, take. Why don’t you GIVE!!”).

Continue reading “Learning to cook… with ChefSteps”

Meatless Monday Recipes: Vegetable Pot Pie courtesy of inSHAPE

This Meatless Monday recipe is a savory but sweet pot pie full of hearty vegetables and rich with a creamy and tangy sauce. Baked using a crust made from both regular flour and graham flour, the crunchy taste of homemade sweetness makes this a dish for the whole family!

This Meatless Monday recipe is a savory but sweet pot pie full of hearty vegetables and rich with a creamy and tangy sauce. Baked using a crust made from both regular flour and graham flour, the crunchy taste of homemade sweetness makes this a dish for the whole family!

Continue reading “Meatless Monday Recipes: Vegetable Pot Pie courtesy of inSHAPE”

Meatless Monday Recipes: Vegetarian Enchiladas with Squash and Mole courtesy of inSHAPE

Enchiladas are a hearty favorite in many homes. They can be made with almost any type of meat, but for Meatless Monday, why not give this colorful veggie version a try. We've also crafted a tangy mole enchilada sauce that will knock your socks off!

Enchiladas are a hearty favorite in many homes. They can be made with almost any type of meat, but for Meatless Monday, why not give this colorful veggie version a try. We’ve also crafted a tangy mole enchilada sauce that will knock your socks off!

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp cocoa
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • salt
  • 4 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups of tomato sauce
  • 1 small acorn or kabochi squash, cubed
  • 1 red pepper, cubed
  • 2 cups of black beans, tender
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese, we used part skim
  • 1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2 cilantro, chopped
  • 8-10 corn tortillas

Preparation:

Make the mole sauce the day before. The flavors will only get better. Mix the chili powder, cayenne, cocoa, cumin, oregano and salt in a small bowl and set aside. Skin and chop onion, then drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a saute or large sauce pan. Over high heat, sauté half of the onions until they are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add water to deglaze pan and reduce heat to low. After about 5 minutes, add tomato sauce and adjust seasoning to taste. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes, then allow to cool. After about an hour of cooling, puree by using hand mixer or food processor. Set aside or place in the fridge in a covered container until final prep stages.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and spray small baking dish with cooking spray. Pour about 3/4 cup of mole sauce into bottom of dish and set aside. In a skillet, drizzle canola oil and sauté the rest of the onion over high heat. After 3-4 minutes, add squash. Brown for about 4-5 minutes then remove from heat and immediately transfer to a room temperature mixing bowl (you want the squash to stop cooking). Add ricotta, black beans, red pepper, and most of the cilantro (you can use the rest for garnish when serving). Stir gently but thoroughly – and voila – you have your enchilada innards.

The last step is messy, but is worth it. Using the same skillet as before, heat a little more canola oil, and lightly saute corn tortillas, one at a time. After each, dry/cool on paper towels. On a prep plate, pour a little mole sauce, then set first corn tortilla on plate. Flip it over, making sure that both sides are lightly coated. Add bean/squash mix in center, sprinkle with cheddar cheese, then fold over in thirds and place seam down into dish. Continue with the rest of the enchiladas. Pour the remainder of the mole sauce over the top and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

Bake for 20 minutes covered, then set broiler on, remove lid, and broil for another 4-5 minutes. Cool for 5-10 minutes and serve with chopped cilantro.

Find out more about inSHAPE Fitness. Be sure to check them out at www.inshape-fitness.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Meatless Monday Recipes: Split Pea Soup courtesy of inSHAPE

Taking an old classic and turning it into a modern, one-dish meal, this hearty soup is great for lunch or dinner (Kim even encourages clients to try soup for breakfast too). Best of all, it’s a really easy dish to prepare!

Taking an old classic and turning it into a modern, one-dish meal, this hearty soup is great for lunch or dinner (Kim even encourages clients to try soup for breakfast too). It incorporates crimini mushrooms in place of meat, and manages to develop a bit of a smoky flavor with a dash of smoked chipotle powder. Best of all, it’s a really easy dish to prepare! Once you get everything cut up, it’s a matter of minutes to put it all together. Then just let it simmer as long as you can or put it in a slow cooker for the day.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 8 oz. carton of crimini or baby bella mushrooms
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 1/2 bags of dried green peas
  • 1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp. smoked chipotle powder
  • 2 Idaho potatoes, skinned and cubed
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped

Instructions:

First dedicate a little time to your mise en place. Having all of your ingredients at your fingertips makes the preparation of this comfort-food favorite so easy!

Drizzle olive oil in a large stock pot (make sure it has a lid!) and saute onions for 2-3 minutes. Add mushrooms and continue cooking on high heat for another 2-3 minutes. Add water and stir thoroughly in order to deglaze any flavorful tidbits from the bottom of the pot. Then add peas, potatoes, parsley, salt, pepper, and chipotle.

Once pot is boiling, turn heat down to low and mix in carrots and celery. Cook at least an hour, but for best results, cook 3-4 hours for full flavor development. Enjoy with a small salad and snuggle up with a great book.

Find out more about inSHAPE Fitness. Be sure to check them out at www.inshape-fitness.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Meatless Monday Recipes: Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Walnut Sage Sauce courtesy of inSHAPE

When you see the ingredients in this recipe, you will know that we are not exactly following the rules of healthy cooking. This is the richest dish we’ve created so far, but I just couldn’t help myself! The sweet potatoes looked so great at the market this week, and I have been wanting to give gnocchi a try. Likewise, sage makes me smile when the cooler weather arrives.

 

When you see the ingredients in this recipe, you will know that we are not exactly following the rules of healthy cooking. This is the richest dish we’ve created so far, but I just couldn’t help myself! The sweet potatoes looked so great at the market this week, and I have been wanting to give gnocchi a try. Likewise, sage makes me smile when the cooler weather arrives. So, my advice is to get a great workout in with me or my team, and brace your body for some decadence. Serve with a big green salad, and a glass of light red wine.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large sweet potatoes, baked and cooled (takes about 45 min in oven)
  • 2/3 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 3 big sprigs of fresh sage
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • salt and pepper of course

Directions: 

Bake the potatoes the night before. This will at least break up prep time of this flavorful dish. With the potato baked, mash them in a large mixing bowl (make sure that you have 2 cups of mashed potato), then adding the ricotta, nutmeg, and salt/pepper to taste. If you have a countertop mixer, turn it on then start the sauce.

Melt the butter over low heat, then whisk in 1/3 cup flour. Slowly add milk, sage, and stir continuously. Add salt and pepper to taste along the way.

As the sauce thickens, return to the business of making the gnocchi. Fill a large stock pot with water and a bit of salt, then turn on high heat so that it will be boiling when the gnocchi is ready. With the potato, ricotta, and spices well blended, slowly adding the 1 1/3 cups flour in 1/3 cup increments. You’ll use the remaining flour when it comes time to handle and prep the gnocchi.

Once the mix is doughy, remove it from the bowl and place on floured counter. Spilt into 4 sections and roll out into one-inch ropes. Cut one-inch segments, then use a fork to tine the cut sides of each piece and place on a baking sheet lined with wax paper or parchment. Gently drop 8-10 pieces at a time into boiling water, and cook for 2-3 minutes or until they float to the top of the water. Drain in a collander.

Stir the walnuts in to sage sauce, then mix thoroghly with gnocchi. Top with a bit of parmesan cheese and definitely be sure to have a salad before or with this dish. It’s very rich, but very yummy!

Find out more about inSHAPE Fitness. Be sure to check them out at www.inshape-fitness.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Meatless Monday Recipes: French Onion Soup courtesy of inSHAPE

French onion soup shows up on the menu when the temperature starts to drop, but we wanted to make one that offers a little more nutrition. We still added a bit of mozzarella cheese but feel free to cut it out without losing great flavor from the chestnuts.

French onion soup shows up on the menu when the temperature starts to drop, but we wanted to make one that offers a little more nutrition. We still added a bit of mozzarella cheese but feel free to cut it out without losing great flavor from the chestnuts.

Ingredients:

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3-4 fresh leeks, chopped
  • 3-4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 7-8 cups water
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2-3 cups fresh spinach
  • 10 oz roasted chestnuts (about 24 of them)
  • 1 cup rice milk
  • 1-2 onions, sliced
  • 1/2 cup mozarella cheese

Preparation:

Note: To guarantee the most flavorful soup, I really recommend that you get the base prepared the day before. 

In a large stock pot over high heat, drizzle olive oil and saute leeks and garlic for 5-6 minutes. Don’t let anything burn but a slight brown is ok. Pour in water, then add salt and pepper, and spinach. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and let simmer as long as possible (this is when we put the pot in the bag).

In a small saucepot over low heat, simmer chestnuts in rice milk for 20-25 minutes. If you purchase the roasted nuts in a package, they will already be quite soft, but the rice milk will help soften them even more and help liquefy them in the soup. When you are ready to puree the entire batch, stir the chestnuts into the soup pot and liquefy (I used a hand mixer). Taste for flavor and adjust salt and pepper tastes, then return to pot and simmer.

Drop sliced onions into the base and continue to simmer until the onions are tender. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top and either put in salamander or use a hand held torch to brown the cheese in the bowl. 

 Find out more about inSHAPE Fitness. Be sure to check them out at www.inshape-fitness.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.