Recipe: Rainy Day Rigatoni

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My favorite thing about reading food memoirs are the recipes that are hidden in the pages. I recently read Alyssa Shelasky’s book “Apron Anxiety” and had to try her recipe for Rainy Day Rigatoni. While I enjoyed the dish, it wasn’t everything I hoped it would be. It was better the next day and I think I will tweak it a bit next time by peeling the eggplant, adding garlic and more red wine to thin the sauce out some more. I could have done without the ricotta topping as well. The texture wasn’t doing it for me.

Ricotta topping:

2 c. sheep’s milk ricotta

1 c. whole milk

1 tsp. fine sea salt

1 tsp. coarse sea salt

1 tsp. course black pepper

1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves

1 T. dried oregeno

2-3 T.  extra virgin olive oil

Rigatoni:

3 T. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped

Pinch hot pepper flakes

1 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 tsp. salt, plus more for the pasta water

One 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes

1/4 c. red wine

1 T. sugar

1 pound rigatoni

1 c. fresh basil leaves, torn

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for garnish

To make the ricotta topping: Beat the ricotta and milk together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until the mixture is light and fluffy. And the fine sea salt and mix well.

Place the mixture in a serving bowl. Generously sprinkle the coarse salt, pepper, thyme and oregano over the top. Drizzle with oil and refrigerate.

To make the rigatoni: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and red pepper flakes and saute until the onion is almost translucent. Add the eggplant and one teaspoon of salt and cook for 20 minutes, allowing the eggplant to get a little brown, moving it around with a spoon. Then add the tomatoes, wine, sugar and the remaining one teaspoon of salt. Stir often. Cook for 50 to 60 minute until the eggplant is very soft.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, throw in a handful of salt and cook the rigatoni according to the package instructions. Drain the pasta, then return it to its pot. Add the sauce from the skillet to the pot, mixing everything together. Add a dash of oil, and most of the torn basil leaves. Ladle into bowls and top with the remaining basil leaves and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Top it off with a scoop of the ricotta topping. Serve hot.

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The last stop on our East Coast food tour: Coppa, Boston

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We unintentionally saved the best restaurant on our East Coast trip for last. We spent our last night in Boston and had reservations to eat at Coppa, 253 Shawmut Ave. The restaurant is located in Boston’s South End. When our taxi pulled up outside of the restaurant a few hours before our reservation, I thought we were at the wrong place. It’s located in a residential neighborhood with brownstones and cute shops. From outward appearances, it looks like a neighborhood eatery with outdoor tables and a causal vibe. It did not look like a place that allows reservations to be made two months in advance. Since we were early, we spent time walking around the South End, shopping and having a drink before heading to the restaurant for dinner. When we arrived, our table was ready and waiting for us. The inside is small and cozy. So cozy that you can check out what the patrons on either side of you are ordering without them noticing.

Coppa is owned by Chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer. This year, Jamie Bissonnette was named Best Chef: Northeast by the James Beard Foundation.

Coppa’s menu has a wide variety of small Italian plates. We tried the Arancini, fried risotto balls stuffed with fontina, Lardo Avvolto Boquerones, crispy lardo wrapped anchovies with potato chips and “sauce gribiche,” Insalata Estiva, butter lettuces, fattoush, sheep’s milk feta and green goddess dressing, Corzetti Nero, squid ink pasta with octopus, black garlic, Castelvetrano olives and tomato, Maltagliati con Agnello, “tatters and rags” farro pasta with braised lamb, romanesco and bianco sardo and a Margherita pizza, tomato basil, mozzarella and extra virgin olive oil.

Coppa truly was a meal we’ll never forget.

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The Best Cannoli in Little Italy: Mike’s Pastry

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I hate to say this, but cannoli usually aren’t my thing. That was, until I went to Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s Little Italy. After leaving Regina’s Pizzeria, we wanted to find the best cannoli in Little Italy. Our research told us that Mike’s Pastry on Hanover Street was one of the best in the neighborhood. There was a line out the door when we got there but it moved quickly and soon two cannoli and two macaroons were being put into a box and tied up with string. We didn’t make it two blocks before we had untied the box and were sampling what was inside. The chocolate chip cannoli and pistachio cannoli were so light and fluffy. The macaroons had the perfect chew to them. The good news? You can order their pastries online.

Boston’s Little Italy: Regina Pizzeria

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We spent our last day on the east coast in Boston. We drove down from Portland and wanted to stop in Little Italy before heading to our hotel and returning our rental car. First of all, trying to drive in Little Italy is a nightmare. The streets are one way, narrow and only for residents. We parked in a parking garage a couple blocks from the neighborhood and found our way to Regina Pizzeria, a Boston restaurant since 1926. We walked in, were not acknowledged by anyone who worked there, snagged an open table and twiddled our thumbs for 10 minutes before my husband snagged someone and asked if we could get a waitress. He flagged down a very Boston and Italian man who we assumed was the owner. He asked, “what’s the matter?” before offering to take our order himself. A woman who was supposedly our waitress plopped our pizza down on our table when it was ready and walked away. We had the Meatball Pomodoro Fresco pizza with marinated tomatoes, Regina meatballs, mozzarella, romano, parmesan cheese, Regina’s garlic sauce and fresh basil. The pizza was delicious – they definitely know what they’re doing. We paid our bill and left with just as much acknowledgement as when we came in. I was left thinking, for a restaurant that’s been in business since 1926, shouldn’t they have better customer service?

Where to Eat in Portland, ME: Fore Street

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Fore Street was one of three restaurants we knew we were going to be dining at before we left for the east coast. When researching where to eat in Portland, Maine, Fore Street seemed to be on every list I came across. Fore Street is located in Portland’s Old Port at 288 Fore Street. It has been named one of the top 50 restaurants in the United States and its chef was named “best chef” by the James Beard Foundation.

I really loved everything about Fore Street – the vibe, the decor, the wait staff and the food. The restaurant has a brick interior with a really cozy feel. We sat and had a drink in comfy chairs that looked out onto the street. Crates of pumpkins that felt like fall decorated the bar area. While it is an upscale restaurant, diners were perfectly dressed in jeans and a nice shirt.

Once we were seated, our waiter brought us fresh bread that is made in house. We started with Wood Oven Roasted Mussels from Casco Bay that were served in a garlic almond butter. We also had the Wood Oven Roasted Pork Belly with seared polenta, cipollini and pear chutney. My husband and I rarely order the same thing for dinner but we were both drawn to the Pacific Coho Salmon Filet with candied bacon risotto and a shallot pan butter sauce. The food was spectacular and one of my favorite things about the restaurant is that the kitchen is open, allowing you to see the chefs cooking. Our waiter was also excellent. He asked us where we were from, asked us what brought us to Fore Street, gave us recommendations for restaurants in Boston and took the time to write down places we suggested he try the next time he goes to Houston.

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Unfortunately, I Would Not Recommend J’s Oyster in Portland, ME

Sometimes recommendations are not good. Unfortunately, that was the case for J’s Oyster in Portland, Maine. We asked a local record store owner where we should go for great seafood for lunch and that is how we ended up at J’s Oyster. It’s located in Portland’s Old Port and was extremely convenient because we were going Whale Watching with Odyssey Whale Watch and it was right across from the restaurant. There was a wait for lunch, which is always a good sign, but we were in a hurry to make it to our boat on time so we sat at the bar. We were given menu’s that had seen better days. I took a picture of my menu instead of my husband’s because his had what I assumed to be some kind of brown sauce stuck to the cover. We each ordered Clam Chowder, which made my stomach turn when I saw an employee take a container of chowder out of the fridge, ladle it into a bowl and put it in the microwave for two minutes. Every time someone ordered chowder they would take the container out of the fridge and microwave it. First, the thought of microwaving what I hope to be fresh clams is really revolting to me. I try to never use my microwave at home. Second, how can a restaurant that was as busy as J’s not have a big pot of chowder on a stove in the kitchen. Wouldn’t that be more efficient? I ordered a crab roll for lunch that was served with mayo on the side. Usually, a lobster or crab roll is already dressed before it makes its way onto a plate. I had to squeeze mayo from a Hellmann’s packet onto my sandwich and was unsettled with globs of mayo all over my roll. My husband ordered scallops served over noodles in a lemon butter sauce and said that he loved it.

Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, Portland, ME

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Our first night in Portland, Maine we really wanted to have seafood on the water. We stayed at the Pomegranate Inn and one of the employees gave us several recommendations for good seafood and said that Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room had recently opened and was owned by a guy that had several other restaurants in Portland so it should be great. We sat outside on the water even though the rest of their guests stayed inside. We really wanted to soak up as much of the Atlantic as we could while we were there. Our waitress was great and gave us several recommendations on where we could go hear live music after dinner. We started our meal with the Scallops ‘n Bacon, which are usually served over fish chowder, but the night we ate there they were served over a fluffy sweet potato puree with bacon lardons decorating the perimeter of the plate. We also ordered an appetizer from their Oyster Room, which I highly recommend because they have some very interesting items on that menu. We had Wood Oven Mussels, with bacon, garlic, ginger and creamy soy. I ordered a Lobster Roll, which was great but I decided afterwards that lobster is not my favorite type of seafood. My husband ordered the Steamed Lobster, which he devoured.