Monday, September 1, 2014

Food & Family: In Memory of Frenchie

Last Monday, Camille "Frenchie" Babine, my father-in-law, passed away. and would have turned 96 years old in October. However, no matter how old you are when you pass, life is still too short.

For the last twelve years, Frenchie and Marjorie, his wife, have lived in my home and I've never once regretted opening my doors to them. Born in Nova Scotia, Frenchie was always quick with a smile, a man who enjoyed simple pleasures, from old time country music to puttering outside in the yard. He placed dozens (though it seemed like over 100) of bird houses in the back yard, and enjoyed sitting outside, with a beer or glass of wine, watching the birds settle in. And he was a true family man, with six children and numerous grand children and great-grand children.

Frenchie was well known in the family for making bread and rappie pie, both items which he had been making for much of his life. When making his homemade bread, he didn't use a recipe and never measured the ingredients. He hand-kneaded the dough, a strenuous process, and his bread was as good as found in any bakery. In recent years, he'd had some difficulty in the kneading, but had been teaching other family members how to make the bread, so that the tradition continued in the family. Even on his final day, he talked about making bread.  

Another family tradition, cherished by Frenchie, is rappie pie, a traditional Acadian dish. Though its origins are murky, it may have made its first appearance in Nova Scotia around 1755 when the Acadians were deported. There are a few legends though that it's creation may actually extend back to the 1500s. Frenchie ate and made rappie pie for most of his life, bringing the tradition from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts, sharing it with family and friends.

Rappie pie is a made from grated potatoes or in French, "patates râpées." The French word râper means "to grate." Thus, that became transformed into "rappie" pie. Once the potatoes are grated, most of the water is removed. This used to be done by squeezing the potatoes in a cheese cloth, a laborious process, so that it took two to three days to make rappie pie. Then, broth would be added along with meat, onions and pork fat to make a casserole type dish. There are a number of variations on this basic recipe, some people using different types of meats or even seafood like clams.

People may top their rappie pie with butter or molasses, and there is an old adage that the English use butter and the French molasses. Some people may top their rappie pie with other items, such as even ketchup, but that is much less common. It used to take Frenchie, and usually a couple family members, a couple days to make rappie pie, and the making was a festive occasion, often involving much drinking. Nowadays, it is easier and quicker to prepare as you can buy frozen packets of potatoes where the water has already been removed.

Frenchie's rappie pie was absolutely delicious, a special treat for all. Seven years ago, after I posted online a photo of his rappie pie, I was contacted by the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture--Food Safety. They wanted to use my photo to assist in teaching their provincial food and meat inspectors in a food processing training course on regionally significant products produced in facilities they inspected. They told me that they hadn't seen such an appealing rappie pie in a very long time, a nice honor for Frenchie's hard work. Looking at the photo of the rappie pie above, would you be able to resist it?

As making rappie pie was a special occasion, it was decided to transform it into an annual family event, a time for everyone to gather together outside of the usual marriages, christenings and other formal family functions. In fact, we ended up holding these gatherings two to three times a year, inviting all of the family, from great-grand children to cousins, and many friends as well. They were informal occasions, with plenty of delicious food and drink (including plenty of wine). I have many great memories of these gatherings which were held in my backyard.

We were able to catch up with each other, to chat about what was new in our lives. We laughed and joked, smiled and sang, ate and drank. At times, Frenchie and other family members would break out their musical instruments, especially guitars, and play. They were joyous occasions, centered on rappie pie, and brought our family closer. We'v expanded these family gatherings and now even hold an annual Soup Day, where various family members make a soup to bring to the event, so that we can end up with maybe a dozen of more soups, stews, and chowders. And there is always homemade bread too.

During the last several years, Frenchie shared the secrets to creating rappie pie with other family members, ensuring that this family tradition would not fade away. No one may yet make a rappie pie as good as Frenchie, but that is a matter of time and experience. What is most important is that it is the locus of our family, an excuse for us to gather together. Though we may meet during more formal occasions, it isn't the same as an informal gathering for rappie pie. More people need to establish similar traditions, to strengthen familial bonds, allowing food to become a centerpiece that brings everyone together.

We will all miss Frenchie, though his memory and the traditions he began will live on. Our family gatherings will continue, with both rappie pie and homemade bread, and we'll always raise a glass in Frenchie's memory.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting wine and food items that are upcoming. **********************************************************
1) From September 17 to October 14, Legal Sea Foods’ sixth annual Oyster Festival will offer a sequence of in-restaurant menu features and special events to celebrate everything oysters.

In-restaurant rotating features will be available for the duration of the Oyster Festival and include the following culinary treats: Oyster Stew (freshly shucked oysters simmered with cream, butter and herbs); Oysters Legal (freshly shucked oysters baked with spinach, cheese and crumbs); Fried Oysters (pickle relish, BBQ mayo, cole slaw); Bacon Wrapped Oysters (spinach salad, black quinoa, pickled red onion, creole mustard vinaigrette); Oysters Jambalaya (crisp fried oysters, jambalaya rice); Bacon Crusted Oyster Lettuce Cups (Bibb lettuce, goat cheese, pickled radish, Green Goddess dressing); and, Oyster Po’ Boy (crisp fried oysters, chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomato, po’ boy roll). And, of course, the Legal Sea Foods teams will shuck seasonal standouts at their raw bars for those who opt to go au natural.

This year’s oyster-centric events include the following:

Shellfish Shindig
A “shuckout” with $1 oysters at the outside Terrace Bar*
Legal Sea Foods at Charles Square: 20 University Road, Cambridge
Sunday, September 21 from 2:00pm – 4:00pm
A la carte pricing
Reservations: not required. In case of rain, this event will be held in the atrium of the restaurant.

Sip, Slurp and Sup
A trio of small plates paired with oyster-friendly wines hosted on two separate evenings in Park Square’s 10,000 bottle wine cellar
Legal Sea Foods at Park Square: 26 Park Plaza, Boston
Tuesday, September 23 & Thursday, October 2 at 6:30pm
Cost: $40 (excludes tax and gratuity)
For Reservations, call 617-530-9392, or online

Mollusk Mania
A 21+ “everything oyster” party featuring a raw bar of eight varieties and four passed appetizers hosted on the all-weather rooftop
Legal Harborside: 270 Northern Avenue, Boston
Sunday, October 5 from 1:00pm – 3:00pm
$55 (includes tax)
Reservations: online only

Oysteria, Mamma Mia
An oyster tasting and tutorial by Chef Gina Palmacci
Legal Oysteria: 10 City Square, Charlestown
Tuesday, October 7 at 6:30pm
$35 (excludes tax and gratuity)
For Reservations, call 617-530-9392, or online

The Oyster Festival is celebrated at all Legal Sea Foods locations throughout Massachusetts, with the exception of airport venues.

2) Ireland’s top food and beverage stars pair with Boston’s finest to bring the taste of Ireland to Boston at iFest in the Seaport World Trade Center. Participating chefs include: Barbara Lynch, Ana Sortun, Lydia Shire, Ming Tsai, Jasper White, Colin Lynch, Darina Allen, Kevin Dundon, and Cathal Armstrong.

Guests can experience the following at iFest:
· A Bewley’s Irish Tea Party with Boston’s top pastry chef, Maura Kilpatrick.
· Beer tastings at the new, experiential Guinness 20/20 Bar which will show the future of what Guinness pubs will look like, served with samples of Irish food.
· Jameson Irish Whiskey tastings and a master cooperage experience with a top master cooper from the Midleton distillery. This master class will include demos on the old skill of cooperage – taking the barrels apart and showing how whiskey is distilled.
· Chef demonstrations with Ireland’s best chefs – Darina Allen, Kevin Dundon, Cathal Armstrong – joining forces with America’s finest including iFest Culinary Ambassador Barbara Lynch, Ana Sortun, Lydia Shire, Ming Tsai, Jasper White, and Colin Lynch.
· An Irish food village with the opportunity to sample Irish produce, cheese, and bread and meet exhibitors from Burren Smoke House, Kerrygold, National Organic, and Crossogue Preserves.

When: Friday, September 26 through Sunday, September 28
Friday: 6p-10p; Saturday: 11a-3p; Saturday Evening: 6p-10p; Sunday: 11a-3p

Tickets are available for purchase at www.ifestboston.com

3) The 6th Annual Flavors of Boston is a unique gourmet delight with the top chefs from Boston who assemble for a night of elaborate table décor, exquisite food, and a great cause. This year, the Flavors of Boston Gala event will be a 1920’s inspired themed event to ensure a carefree and exciting evening.

Each chef hosts his or her own personal table for 12 and will prepare a tableside multi-course gourmet extravaganza. This allows all guests to do more than just eat the food; you will have an unforgettable dining experience while helping to fund the research, education and advocacy efforts of the American Liver Foundation.

Flavors was first stirred together in 1991 by James Beard Award winning chef Christopher Gross in Phoenix. Chef Gross and other area chefs were interested in supporting the mission of the American Liver Foundation. Today the event is hosted by the organization in 20 cities across the country and raises millions of dollars annually to support the work of the American Liver Foundation.

Join us for a night that you won't soon forget while helping to improve the lives of the 30 million people in the United States living with liver disease.

WHO: Chefs confirmed at this time include:
Chef Tommy Wood of Blue Dragon
Chef Brian Reyelt of Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar
Chef Joshua Bottini of The Franklin Café
Chef Gabriel Sanchez Luz of The Farmhouse
Chef Christina Mercado of Finale Bakery & Desserterie
Chef Dan Schroeder of Forum Bar & Restaurant
Chef Karen Mitchell of The Palm
Chef Richard Rayment of The Seaport Hotel
Chef David Becker of Sweet Basil
Chef Jose Duarte of Taranta
Chef Andy Husbands of Tremont 647

WHEN: Friday, September 12
6:30 p.m. – Cocktail Hour and Silent Auction
7:30 p.m. – Dinner
8:30 p.m. – Program and Live Auction
9:30 p.m. – Dessert Bar and Live Music

WHERE: Seaport Hotel 1 Seaport Lane,  Boston
COST: $250 per person, $3,000 for table of 12
BENEFITS: The mission of American Liver Foundation (ALF) is to facilitate, advocate and promote education, support and research for the prevention, treatment and cure of liver disease.
CONTACT: Kathy Hauck at (617) 527-5600 or khauck@liverfoundation.org

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Endangered Vaquita: A Cautionary Tale

Although the endangered nature of numerous fish species often take front and center in the news, they are not the only aquatic creatures which are in peril. Consider the vaquita (Spanish for "little cow"), a rare species of porpoise, which is in dire danger of becoming extinct. Immediate action is necessary to protect this unique, aquatic mammal and I bet most people have never even heard of the vaquita.

Vaquita are the smallest of all porpoises, and are also known as Gulf of California porpoise, Desert porpoise and cochito. It wasn't until 1958, when a few of their skulls were found, that their existence was determined, and it wouldn't be until 1985 that live vaquita were actually seen. Their face is distinctive, as they have a black ring around each eye and a stripe from chin to flipper.

The vaquita only lives in the northern waters of the Gulf of California, and it is thought that less than 100 currently exist. Let me repeat that: LESS THAN 100! The U.S. lists the vaquita as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Convention on International Trade in the Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora also list the vaquita as in danger of extinction. In July 2014, the fifth meeting of the Comite Internacional para la Recuperacio n de la Vaquita (CIRVA) was held, and their report noted the dire situation of the vaquita.

The CIRVA report stated that back in 2012, there were about 200 vaquita but that number has been cut in half in only two years! Unless something drastic is done immediately, they could be extinct by 2018, only four years from now. CIRVA's primary recommendation is for Mexico to immediately establish a gillnet exclusion zone which covers the entire range of the vaquita, expanding the size of the current refuge. Part of the problem has been illegal fishing, especially for another endangered species, the totoaba.

Totoaba are being illegally caught because their swim bladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine and garners high prices, several thousand dollars per kilogram. As far back as 1997, it was identified that gillnet bycatch was the greatest threat to vaquitas, and much of that bycatch was through the pursuit of the totoaba, though fishing for other species, such as shrimp, is also responsible. So, prohibiting all gill nets is an absolute requirement to protecting the vaquita.

Obviously, Mexico has the greatest opportunity to stop gillnet use and stop illegal fishing, and they must act with all haste. In recent years, Mexico has been proactive in helping to protect the vaquitas, but they must do more. Hopefully the new CIRVA report will lead to new action by Mexico.

The plight of the vaquita is a cautionary tale that everyone should consider as bycatch is an issue all across the world. A few years ago, I wrote about NOAA's first National Bycatch Report, noting that in the Northeast region, almost 1300 sea mammals had been caught as bycatch. This was the highest amount of any region, and indicative of a problem that needed to be solved. Bycatch does not involve just sea mammals, but also includes various species of fish, and brings its own problem as well, though those issues are outside the scope of this article.

Let us hope the vaquita will be saved!

Monday, August 25, 2014

AKA Bistro & Restaurant Week

The second week of Dine Out Boston has started, and it seems that less restaurants are participating this year. BostInno recently noted that about 172 restaurants are participating, down from 194 last year. During this time, some of the restaurants which are not participating are running their own dining specials, such as AKA Bistro in Lincoln.

AKA Bistro has a special Lunch Menu ($20.14 for 3 courses) and Dinner Menu ($34 for 3 courses), and I stopped by the restaurant last Friday to check out their Lunch menu. I'm a huge fan of AKA Bistro and my lunch was as delicious as usual. Their Specials are a very good value and I highly recommend you check it out this week before it's gone.

For your First Course, you have three options, such as a Chill Corn Soup or a Shaved Farm Vegetable Salad. I opted for the Octopus & Clam Ceviche, with coconut milk, basil, lime and Thai chili. The octopus and clams were tender and the "sauce" had rich coconut flavors, with acidity from the line and a slightly spicy kick. It may not resemble the usual type of ceviche you find, but it was a delicious alternative. I would order that again if it were on the regular menu.

For your Second Course, you have four options, such as Salmon Donburi, Sauteed Shrimp or Moules Frites. The Moules Frites, which are superb, are normally $19 on the lunch menu so with this special deal, you really get two extra courses for $1. An excellent value. I opted for something different, the Pork Rillettes & Scallion Pancake with plum kabayaki and shaved daikon salad. The Scallion pancake was flaky, crisp and flavorful, especially with the sweet sauce atop it. The pork was moist and tender, with a slightly earthy taste, and the pancake made a nice platform for the pork. I probably could have devoured a second pork-covered pancake as well.

You have two choices for Dessert, including their Mousse au Chocolat. I've enjoyed the mousse before so I chose the Angel Food Cake with lemon curd and raspberry sorbet. This was a good-sized dessert, and the cake was light and fresh with a rich lemon curd topping. The silky sorbet was in a crisp "cookie" with nuts and it too was a tasty ending.

Such a good deal for only $20.14. Service was excellent, as usual, and I'll probably end up there later this week too, maybe to enjoy some Mussels. Their Lunch & Dinner specials end on Friday so make sure to dine this week at AKA Bistro.

Rant: More Liquor Licenses Coming

Last week, it was reported that Chef Mario Batali spent $410,000 to purchase a liquor license for Babbo, his new Boston restaurant. Maybe he should have waited a little bit longer and bought one of the new liquor licenses that will soon be available. He could have saved at least a few hundred thousand dollars.

As there is a cap on the number of liquor licenses in Boston, if a restaurant wants to purchase a license, they must find someone willing to sell one, and the prices can easily run $200K-$400K, if not higher. This makes it difficult for some restaurant owners who cannot afford to pay so much for a license. As such, there have been some efforts to fix this situation.

Last year, Boston Councilor Ayanna Pressley, after working on the issue for a year or so, filed a home rule petition to life the cap on liquor licenses in Boston. Since at least 2009, Governor Deval Patrick has been advocating for lifting the cap on liquor licenses in Massachusetts and proposed it once again in this year's Economic Development Bill. Both of these proposals though had a problem, a failure to adequately protect or compensate existing liquor license holders.

The current system, which has been in place since a time after the repeal of Prohibition, has made liquor licenses valuable assets. Some restaurants use their licenses as collateral with their banks. If this asset suddenly dropped drastically in value, it could cause severe economic problems for a number of restaurants. We should not potentially hurt over 1000 businesses if there is a way to remedy the situation without harming them. That would set a terrible precedent and be indicative of a lack of empathy. Fortunately, there is a solution that should satisfy all parties, and harm none.    

Back in July 2013, I ranted in Eliminating The Liquor License Cap? and offered my own solution, raising the limit on liquor licenses as set forth in the current paragraph 7 of the existing law, like "main street districts, urban renewal areas, empowerment zones or municipal harbor plan areas." Interestingly, this is essentially the solution that recently passed in the new Economic Development Bill. After much debate and compromise, the new law has authorized the creation of 75 new liquor licenses in Boston. Although Governor Patrick wanted to lift the liquor licenses cap across the state, the new law deals only with Boston.

These new licenses will be spread out over the next three years, with 25 available each year, starting September 1. See? Chef Batali didn't really have to wait too long for the new licenses to be available. Each year, 5 of those new licenses will be available to anyone, all across the city. For example, if you wanted to open a new restaurant in the North End, you could potentially apply for one of those 5 licenses. The other 20 licenses each year will be restricted to areas such as Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury, as well as "main street districts, urban renewal areas, empowerment zones or municipal harbor plan areas." It is this aspect of the new law which is similar to my original proposal. Those licenses must remain in those areas and cannot be sold outside of those neighborhoods.

The next few months will be fascinating to see who purchases these new liquor licenses. Hopefully, the extra 20 licenses will help invigorate those neighborhoods, allowing small business owners to afford liquor licenses for their restaurants, whether existing or new.