The Best Apple Pie in the World

My neighbor, Karen, makes the best apple pie in the world.  In the fall, I find there’s nothing better than the scent of burning leaves, a Redmen home game and a warm slice of that heavenly apple pie.

When I was little, I would go with my father to pick pumpkins before Halloween at the orchard near our house. Our family loves the apples there, especially the crisp Macintosh. They’re the kind you’ll only find if you know where to look – and Douse is it. It’s as if they pick them from the tree and put them in the bag right before you drive in. They are juicy, tart and every bite makes the same sharp crunching sound.  They mill cider, and an assortment of other fall favorites like jams, oatmeal cookies, and squashes, but it is the apple there that reigns supreme.

Everyone says winter is the time for comfort foods, but I think that time comes earlier for me. I grew up in the same house my dad lived in as a kid. We were close with our next door neighbors and often exchanged sugar, eggs and other kitchen items when they were needed. We also shared apple pie.

Well, they shared pie with us. We’d hold up our side of the bargain too, especially around the late September holidays when Jewish foods ran rampant at our house and there were simply too many latkees to eat by ourselves. Yet for me, the greatest treat of all was Karen’s apple pie.

I truly believe that great pies involve a kind of artistic hand, one that knows how to curve the ends together so smoothly that you wonder if the dough did it on its own. You’ll understand why then that the first pie crust I saw at the grocery store left me quite perplexed – it was flat and unformed, nothing like the domed edges of Karen’s pies. Her pies were artisans themselves, browned and light, the perfect compliments to the sweet, sugared apples inside.

The thing about Karen’s pies was not only the dough and the luscious interior, but the topping. Apple crisp met apple pie – oats, brown sugar, and salt – in a forged, crumbly, and crunchy mess of apple-lee perfection.

Nowadays, I like grilled pork tenderloin with baked apples, and homemade applesauce. But apples are also a fruit that have the power to stand alone. For me, though, Karen’s apple pie is the mark of my childhood. It is the agent that brought our families together, and for years to come, will be the standard to which I hold all other pies to reach.

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The Cannoli Conundrum

Yesterday, my faith in humanity was restored.

I had spent the day in Boston, walking around Copley Square and through the Public Garden, alongside the harbor and in and out of the winding North End streets. To appease the stifling heat, I ordered a small watermelon slush from Mike’s Pastry – which by the way, was horribly bland – and roamed back towards the T at Government Center through the farmer’s market outside Faneuil Hall.

I was en route back home, with my faithful companion and map guru, PD, when we hit an odd, three police car detour on Rt. 30. Forced to navigate unfamiliar Weston roads, we decided it was best to follow the car in front of us. After about 15 minutes, we came to a fork in the road and the man driving ahead stopped and got out of his car. “I figure you’re following me, and I just wanted to tell you that I’m about to take a left here. I didn’t want you to follow me and get lost, so all you need to do is take a right and that road will take you right back to where you need to be.” Nice, right?

PD turned to me as we thanked him and muttered, “We should offer him a cannoli;” knowing herself too well, she had bought two extra cannoli for later. I looked down to glance at the neatly packaged, white and blue pastry box sitting between our seats. Yet we both agreed that the window had passed – plus, we needed to bring home dessert for my parents.

This got me thinking about food as kind of gesture – a gesture of kindness and thanks. Think about it. When you go to visit friends for dinner, you bring a bottle of wine. If you know a neighbor is having a rough day, you bring them a fresh piece of pie. If you invite someone to come over for dinner, you want to share a part of yourself with them.

When I was working in Wellesley, the owner of Captain Mardens used to come in to order meats. One day, I ventured over to pick up some sodas for the boys, and found myself face to face with the owner, Kim. I complimented his array of seafood – especially the scallops, which I wanted to cook for my parents’ anniversary that night. “Take some home,” he said, putting eleven fresh, jumbo scallops in a brown bag. “Really?” I exclaimed. “Yes, take them, here,” he insisted. That night I made a mustard viniagrette, dressed the scallops and strung them on skewers with halved, fresh apricots. They came off the grill, juicy and smokey, the perfect end to their special day.

An act of kindness can come in a small package. Sometimes in the shape of a muffin, other times as an unexpected anniversary dinner. Next time, we’ll order three cannoli’s just in case.

P.S. The following article is from O Magazine and is about the “art of the omelet” – a bit of an ironic tribute to my first entry.

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The Test of a True Foodie

There are a few things that happen when you experience a truly perfect bite: eye-rolling, silence, and a head toss (as if you can’t believe what you’re tasting is actually what you’re tasting). Last night was one of those nights.

On the drive out to Groton, MA, for the Gibbet Hill Grill’s third annual “Farm to Fork Dinner,” my father reminded me of a few things: 1) to meet everyone and 2) to be last to pick up my fork. After all, we were about to dine with some of Boston’s best foodies.  “Take the opportunity to simply watch how these people eat,” he said. “It’s like a scientific process. Most times, they’ll just taste the food and put their fork down. They won’t eat the whole plate.”

I thought about his comment throughout dinner as I desperately tried not to dive into my Long Island Duck with stewed mayflower plums, chard and potato mille feuille before everyone else. How is it even humanly possible to not eat this entire plate, I wondered. It was simply divine.

The only thing I managed to avoid throughout the entire evening was a lightly colored, sausage-like piece of what I presumed to be part of the duck on top of the potatoes. Its mysterious appearance caused a bit of a ruckus at the table, except for  Sara Moulton, Executive Chef of Gourmet Magazine. “Well, for one thing, it’s full of fat,” she said. “It’s foie gras.” She was right.

After all, Table 2, as we proudly called ourselves, was not a crowd unused to high-class eats. Alongside Sara sat her family, as well as Annie Copps, Senior Food Editor of Yankee Magazine, and Betsy Block, a freelancer and cookbook author. Even the Adler kids, who grew up with one of Food Network’s first celebrity chefs, knew what constituted good food, and what it looked like.

It seemed like everyone, including the table next door, which was occupied by former Boston Globe Restaurant Critic, Alison Arnett, Naomi Kooker (Food Editor of Boston Common Magazine), Barbara Houle (Food Editor of the Worcester Telegram) and Kathleen Pierce (Food Editor/Critic of the Lowell Sun) was mesmerized by the food. Plates at our table went back clean, unlike ol’ Dad had said on the car ride over.

For me, this was a special experience. It had been Ruth Reichl’s book Garlic and Sapphires that first made me want to become a food critic or editor of a magazine. I pictured myself finding wacky clothing and disguising myself to remain unnoticed as I ate at the world’s top restaurants. I imagined the traveling, and anonymity that came with it – you weren’t a celebrity that would be followed my cameras, or a name that would be splashed in the tabloids. You were simply paid to eat and eat well.

This goes without saying that the title of  “Restaurant Critic” or “Food Editor” is a highly powerful role for those who live and suffer in the restaurant business. You are the sole reason why a restaurant soars to fame or plummets into the abyss of mediocrity. Did I mention that you get to eat really, really, well?

I’ve decided that while Dad may be right about some food critics, true eaters don’t follow the taste and toss method. If you’re at the echelon of the food world, you sacrificed your size 2 waistline a long time ago. You are dedicated to eating well, and have a deep, unparalleled respect for ingredients and how they come together. You hold the chef who concocted them for you in high esteem, and have brought along people you love to engage in the experience with you.

A real foodie can’t be measured by what’s left on their plate – it would be unfair. Perhaps they were allergic to the shellfish, or hate the taste of asparagus. But they can be evaluated on one thing: character. And I assure you, Table 2 and friends were not only full of character, but didn’t leave a morsel of their Raspberry and Beet mousse on the plate.

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The Milk Problem

Lactaid is disgusting. Unfortunately, I’m forced to drink it because I can’t digest milk products. I’m starting to think someone is out to get me.

I’ve tried different soy milks, almond milk, rice milk, etc., but there is a problem. I love cereal and none of these works like regular milk. I used to drink skim milk, until I became lactose intolerant, and have been on a quest to find a non-dairy milk that will work as a sufficient substitute. My attempts have been failures.

I find this beyond frustrating, especially when I wake up in the morning wanting something other than oatmeal or eggs. I’ve found refuge in fruit smoothies, though they can’t have any yogurt, another crucial diary product that I miss dearly.

This whole problem started when I was in Morocco. We were on a six-day trip through Tarifa, Fes and Rabat, and had stopped at a hotel on our way to the Sahara Desert. In Morocco, it is a delicacy to drink mint tea, a luscious blend of hot water, fresh Moroccan mint leaves, and about a cup of sugar per pot. Their trick is to mash the mint and sugar together in a mortar to infuse the flavors together. Then, they pour in hot, unboiled water.

At the beginning of our trip, we were warned to be cautious about eating anything that may have been washed in tap water – apples, cucumbers, tomatoes – fruits and vegetables that can be served with the peel on. The issue for the tea was that like the tap, the water they used was never heated to boiling point. Any bacteria living in the water was well, still alive. Not to mention, given the traveling we were doing, bottled water was highly advised – both to lessen the burden on our stomachs and keep us from getting sick from a water we were not used to drinking.

Yet in this hotel, the act of brewing the tea was almost like a ritual. A man sat on a rug off to the right of the center lobby and invited guests into a circle around him. He had a large platter next to him with tiny expresso size glasses, and filled each one with the hot mint tea. There was something sort of sacred about it, and I decided there was no way I was going to allow myself to travel all the way to Northern Africa not to try their famous drink.

I had 3 cups – probably too much to drink considering the warning, and the fact that I was about to ride a camel for 3 1/2 hours into the desert. But when I tell you this was the best tea I have and will ever taste, it is no joking matter. I’ve tried to recreate the tea at home, many times, even with native Moroccan mint leaves that I bought at an herb pharmacy in the Medina of Fes. I was so excited about the mint itself, that I purchased 4 bags of it for family members – at the time, I didn’t realize that the thin white paper it was wrapped in made it look like I was trying to smuggle illegal drugs, and so I made my parents take it back to America after I buried it at the bottom of their suitcase. At almost 60, I figured they looked less criminal than I did at 21.

Needless to say, I believe this Moroccan mint tea was the reason for my milk problem. While it may seem to you like I make this an unnecessary medical quandary that only I must undergo, ponder this: the next time you’re at an Italian deli, or perhaps, at a Pizza shop in New York City, cross out every option that reads, “Caprese,” or “Margherita.” What about the butter on your popcorn at the movies, or a cup of passion fruit-coconut twist at Pinkberry? Red Velvet cupcakes? Hollandaise? That’s what I thought.

If I could, I’d use soymilk with my cereal, maybe even rice milk. But it doesn’t taste the same. For now, I guess I’ll just stick to a later wake-up time. That way, I can focus all my energy on my favorite meal of all: the sandwich.

P.S. If you can enjoy dairy, and like cottage cheese, please indulge in this for me: 1/3 cup fat free cottage cheese, a handful of blueberries, 1 T dried cherries, 1/4 cup crunchy granola (preferably with toasted almonds), a drizzle of honey and a pinch of cinnamon. It will change your life.

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The Perfect Omelette

As a prelude to my first post, I must start by acknowledging a few things:

I have wanted to write my own blog for some time now. Unfortunately, school, work and eating, the three primary ingredients in my pre-graduate life, got in the way. Now, I’m about to enter the realm of the Real World as a 22-year old, jobless intern who lives at home. Not to mention, I’m sharing (my) car with my 17-year old brother, am responsible for “keeping my room clean,” and remembering to call if I’m going to be in late. I haven’t been living independently for four years, 5 hours from home (including a semester in Spain in which I was hundreds of miles away, separated by an ocean and a river) and working part-time while enrolled as a full-time student. Nah, that wasn’t me.

On the flip side, I’m preparing most of the day’s meals, usually for my mother, who has no teaching duties in the summer, and my father who works out of an office next to my bedroom. Besides creating my new business card (I’ve decided on “Leah Rovner, PI” – Professional Intern), I’ve come to the conclusion that if there was a time to start blogging, it was now.

The other matter to address is that today I made a major breakthrough: I made the perfect omelet. The equation: 1 egg, 2 egg whites, 1/4 c. diced tomatoes, 3 slices ripe avocado, 1/4 c. diced onions, salt, pepper, basil to garnish. The result: a plump, flavorful piece of slightly browned, healthy traffic light yellow heaven. While this does not seem like a triumph worthy of an culinary merit, I am convinced it was a) the sole conviction I needed to start my own blog, and b) that perhaps, by some standard, I can actually cook.

I was recently told that the test of a true chef is often measured by a simple set of tests. If you correctly dice an onion, you must perform a chiffonade. If you masterfully debone a chicken, you must make the perfect omelette. The chef who told me this said I’d be amazed by how many culinary school graduates fail to do these basic tasks.

You now understand why my morning began so well and how it lead me here, at last, to the writing block.

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