Restaurant Review: Qingdao Garden

Don’t let the decor fool you in this Northern Chinese gem in North Cambridge.  The sparse, diner-esque decor with ten tables belies the quality of the food, the family-style food and service, and the overall bang for your buck.  I’d call it a hole in the wall, but it’s too clean for that.  You can easily ignore the decor if you close your eyes and listen to the sounds of locals, families, and die-hard regulars chewing thoughtfully and chatting about Chinese politics or quantum physics in as many languages as there are tables.  Eat late and eat with the family and staff, who are more than happy to share friendly pointers on the menu at any time of day.  

Qingdao Garden is perhaps best known for its stellar homemade dumplings, which have been featured in Boston Magazine’s Cheap Eats issue.  The menu features seven varieties, including three vegetarian types: Spinach, Leek, and String Bean.  All dumplings are just $5.75-$5.95 for a dozen or $14.00-$16.00 for fifty frozen dumplings to bring home with you.  Your friendly server will encourage you to eat them with the traditional vinegar instead of soy sauce.

But don’t ignore the rest of the enormous menu, particularly the pink “traditional” section.  We’ve only begun to explore the endless options, but everything we’ve tried has been fresh, delicious, and strikingly different than “regular,” Americanized Chinese food.  The Tofu with Black Bean Sauce we tried tonight featured the softest, lightest tofu we’ve eaten since we visited Japan, and a fresh egg and black bean sauce that was a surprising and welcome change from the heavy overspiced glop we were expecting.  Dishes like the house specialty Szechuan Style Fish with Black Bean Sauce and Lily Root with Celery intrigued, and now we’re curious to try the family’s take on old favorites.  Have you tried them?  Post below!

Qingdao Garden is located at 2382 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is easily accessible from the Porter, Davis, and Alewife T stations or by the 77 bus.  

Simple Sweet Potato, Kale, Chickpea and Tomato Stew

Simple, healthy, vegetarian comfort food.  Full of fiber, beta-carotene, anti-oxidants, and other good things.  Served with a dollop of yogurt and whole-grain bread or rice, it’s a warm meal perfect for the end of a cold Winter or the beginning of a rainy Spring. 

I always come back from the Middle East with an enormous bag of saffron.  If saffron is not in your budget, this stew will work with almost any other spice, such as rosemary or thyme.  Saffron needs to be steeped or toasted to release its flavor.  Above is the “saffron tea” I made to flavor this dish.

I made a big pot of this stew to take for lunch for the rest of the week.  A simple flavored yogurt, peanut sauce, or pesto changed the flavor completely each day.  
Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4-6
2-3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-1″ chunks
2 bunches of kale, washed thoroughly and chopped coarsely
1 onion, diced
1 14.5 or 28 ounce can diced tomatoes
28 oz cooked chickpeas, or 2 14.5 ounce cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1 pinch saffron, steeped in 1 T hot water (“saffron tea”)
1 T EVOO (Extra-Virgin Olive Oil)
salt and pepper to taste 
1 lemon, cut into wedges (optional)

1. Heat the onion and EVOO over medium heat.  Sprinkle with salt.  Cook until translucent, about 5 mnutes.

2. Add chickpeas.  Cook about 5 more minutes until flavor is well-mingled.
3. Add the kale, tomatoes, and saffon tea.  
4. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with lemon wedges and a dollop of yogurt. 

Restaurant Review: Pescatore and KickAss Cupcakes

Tonight we decided to do something bold: try a new restaurant, one as of yet unrated by Zagat.  Could we rely on the Yelp reviews alone reliable for a neighborhood favorite?  We decided to find out.

Pescatore turned out to be a real find.  Located in Somerville’s up-and-coming Ball Square neighborhood, around the corner from a trendy sommelier and a run-down diner, Pescatore was packed on a Saturday night, full of locals who knew just where to go to find a warm spot in a cold Spring rain.  We squeezed into the only remaining table and took in the sights and sounds around us.  Families celebrated birthdays as grandparents slurped fresh clams and teenagers inhaled homemade pizza.  The first date two tables away appeared to be going well over specialty coffees brimming with fresh whipped cream.  We hungrily scanned the menu, vowing to save room for the limoncello, grappa, and other specialty drinks, as our waitress cheerfully served perfectly spiced, fluffy bread and a plate of salt-cured olives.  

We started with the Haddock Cakes, a welcome and delicious alternative to crab cakes.  The delicate, yet hearty cakes were accompanied by a fresh, tangy, homemade tartar sauce and shoestring onion fries that were so light and crispy that we almost convinced ourselves that they were good for us as we ate every last bite.  Then the entrees arrived, a Haddock Piccatta served with a side of homemade fusilli, and a Haddock Paisano in a homemade tomato sauce with roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach.  The fish was perfectly flaky and tasted so fresh that it could have been pulled out of the Harbor that morning, and both preparations were served with care and style.  Our cheerful waitress told us the restaurant had been there for three and a half years, and that they were thankful Yelp had been so kind.  Next year, maybe Zagat would come.   You should find it before they do.

The dessert menu taunted us with incredible homemade options: a pear-riccotta torte, a chocolate ganache cake, a tiramisu, an amaretto-soaked almond pastry.  But we had a tradition to uphold. We jumped into the car for the three-minute drive down Somerville’s windy streets to another neighborhood institution, KickAss Cupcakes, which serves vegan, gluten free, and “regular” cupcakes, all dripping in chocolate.  They indeed lived up to their name.

Pescatore is located at 158 Boston Avenue (@ Broadway), Ball Square, Somerville, MA. Reservations Recommended.  617-623-0003.  KickAss Cupcakes is located at 378 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA.  Open until 10 on Saturday nights to better satisfy your cupcake cravings.

Maple-Grapefruit Glaze for Edamame, Beets, and More

More grapefruit from the farmshare.  More creativity required.  Mollie Katzen‘s grapefruit glaze from The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without  is a flavor-packed citrus revelation that can be used to brighten a host of not-quite-there-yet winter and spring vegetables.  I modify the recipe somewhat, using arrowroot instead of cornstarch, and additional maple syrup to sweeten the bitter grapefruit. Cornstarch produces a shinier coating like you see on the beets below.  For food that looks like food and not plastic in the glare of the papparazzi, use arrowroot.

Time: 30 minutes
Serves: Enough to cover 3 cups of cooked edamame, 3 pounds beets, or similar amount


Juice of 1 grapefruit, fresh-squeezed
1 T unseasoned rice vinegar
3-4 T maple syrup, to taste
2 t arrowroot powder, dissolved in 1T cold water

1. Whisk together grapefruit juice, rice vinegar, and maple syrup.
2. Heat mixture in a small saucepan over medium heat until just boiling, whisking frequently.
3. Turn heat down and add dissolved arrowroot powder.  Whisk frequently until mixture thickens and becomes glossy, 3-5 minutes. At this point the glaze can be refrigerated and reheated and re-whisked before serving.
4. Drizzle over vegetables of choice and serve immediately. 

Farewell to Winter Roasted Vegetables

Farmshare vegetables, crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, flavor everywhere.  This would work with any number of vegetables, and is a great way to use up those odds and ends in the crisper.
Total time: 40 minutes
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 Minutes
Serves: 4
1 head cauliflower, stalks removed and separated into florets
2 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
1 bulb fennel, bulb diced, fronds minced and reserved
1 red onion, diced
2 large potatoes, diced
2 T EVOO (Extra-Virgin Olive Oil)
sea salt or kosher salt to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Toss all ingredients except reserved fennel fronds in a bowl.  
3. Toss with fennel fronds to taste.  Roast 25 minutes until vegetables are tender and begin to brown.

Sweet Potato Oven Fries with Rosemary and Smoked Paprika

So addictive, you’ll almost feel like you’re eating junk food, but a lot less guilty about it.  This recipe was inspired by a glut of farmshare sweet potatoes and Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe for Oven Fries in the New York Times

You can also use a mix of sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. 

Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 2-4, as a side dish

2 lbs sweet potatoes, or a mix of sweet potatoes and waxy white potatoes
1 T dried rosemary, or more fresh rosemary
2 t smoked paprika
Coarse salt or kosher salt to taste
3 T EVOO (Extra-Virgin Olive Oil)

1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees,
2. Line a baking sheet or roasting pan with foil, shiny side up and place in the oven during preheaating.  This step is important to speed the cooking, and also because sweet potatoes can be really tough to clean up.
3.  Cut the potatoes into wedges that are 1/4-1/2″ thick.
4.  Toss potatoes with EVOO, rosemary, paprika, and salt.
5.  Remove the hot pan from the oven and add the potatoes in a single layer.  They will sizzle. 
6. Return pan to oven, lower heat to 450 degrees, and roast 25 minutes or until tender. 
7.  If necessary, loosen the potatoes with a spatula and roast for another 5 minutes.
8.  Taste (carefully) to adjust seasoning.  Serve immediately, or hold in a 200 degree oven for 30 minutes before serving. 

Roasted Cod with Caramelized Grapefruit and Fennel

I’m a grapefruit convert.  I have seen the light — the Florida sunlight, even in the dark of a Boston Winter.  My farmshare has shown me the way.  I didn’t even like grapefruit until recently, although you wouldn’t know it from this blog.  But the farmshare kept bringing it, which forced me to get creative.  I love the fresh citrus flavor that grapefruit brings when its bitterness is tempered. 

While in San Francisco at the end of February, I had an amazing sea bass with grapefruit-fennel slaw at The Firefly, and I’ve been trying to recreate it ever since.  This comes close, and was on the table in less than 20 minutes. 

This would work with other fish, with onions instead of fennel, with other herbs, and with oranges, which wouldn’t need so much sugar.  I’m also experimenting with natural sweeteners, but honey doesn’t seem to do the trick.  Cod comes in fresh from Gloucester to our local Whole Foods, making it flaky and delicious — a far cry from that tasteless substance in your average fish and chips.

I love the challenges that come in the box of organic produce each week.   Who knows what next week will bring?

Time: 20 minutes
Serves: 2 (easily multiplied)

2 6 oz cod fillets
1 bulb fennel
2 grapefruits
1/3 c sugar
1 t coriander
1T EVOO (Extra-Virgin Olive Oil)
salt and pepper to taste
bed of greens, such as baby spinach, arugula, or watercress (optional)

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.   
2. Slice the fennel into 1″ pieces, removing the tough core.  Reserve and chop the fronds.
3. By now the oven should be heated.  Place cod in a baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and bake for 10-12 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the EVOO over medium-low heat.  Add the fennel and a pinch of salt.  Cook slowly, until fennel begins to caramelize. 
5. While you’re waiting for the fennel to caramelize, section the grapefruits, removing seeds and pith, and place into a bowl.  If you’re not sure how to do this, check out this video.  Toss the grapefruit sections with the sugar.
6. When fennel has begun to caramelize (it will turn translucent, brown a bit, and taste sweet), add the sugared grapefruit to the pan.  Cook for 3 minutes until grapefruit begins to caramelize.  Be careful not to burn.  Add coriander, toss, and turn off the heat. 
7.  Remove the cod from the oven.  Place each filet on a bed of greens (if desired).
8.  Top with the grapefruit-fennel mixture, garnish with fennel fronds, and serve.