5.28.2009

fine company

partly eaten cookie

When it comes to my jam-packed study schedule, Eli is a Very Supportive Husband. I capitalize, here, as a sign of affection and appreciation. It is thanks to him that our apartment remains hospitable to human life. These days, he washes more than his share of dishes, keeps the garbage and recycling moving from our apartment at a steady clip and, because he knows that - even two rooms over in my office - I work better knowing that our bedroom is tidy, he makes the bed every morning.

But there is one very special thing that he does for me even beyond all this. It's probably his most important contribution to the whole project of exam preparation: He leaves me alone.

When I have to study, Eli doesn't complain. He simply goes rock climbing with my sister, or to a movie with a neighbor, or cycling with a co-worker. In edible terms, he makes like a banana and splits. Eli has no trouble whatsoever keeping himself entertained, and for that, I am grateful. Is it weird that of all of Eli's many winning qualities, it's his self-sufficiency that's making my heart burst of late? "He leaves me alone." Surely this is not the most romantic statement ever uttered by a woman about her man. But still. I love that the one with whom I could happily spend every second of the day is also one who has a full and fabulous life without me. Dare I say, it's kind of a turn-on.

Last Saturday afternoon, I burrowed into my office for a study session. Eli left me to my books and went out to a barbeque at a friend's house. I read, flagged pages, and outlined like mad. When I finally looked at the clock, it was almost 10pm. I had had enough of Imperial Russia for one day. I closed the books, pried myself from my chair, and as the blood returned to my extremities, I suddenly didn't feel like being alone anymore. One moment aloneness had felt powerful and productive. The next, it felt just plain lonely. It's funny how that works.

Eli called to say that he was enjoying the bonfire and would likely be another couple of hours. All of my friends were either out of town or otherwise occupied. I had no choice but to take matters into my own industrious hands. A stick of butter, an egg, and a heaping cup of chocolate chips later, things were looking up. I snatched a couple of still-warm chocolate chip cookies from the cooling rack, poured myself a glass of milk, and called my mom. We discussed all manner of girly things. It's nearly impossible to feel lonely, I find, when you've got milk, cookies, and Mom.

cookies in tin

Eli came home shortly after I had polished off my fourth cookie. He smelled like fire. I, presumably, smelled like chocolate.

If ever you are forced to settle for the company of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies on a Saturday night, look no further than this recipe. And really now, with a plate of warm cookies on your lap, who's settling?

one cookie

Chocolate Chip Cookies (Make Fine Company)
Adapted from David Lebovitz's The Great Book of Chocolate, via Smitten Kitchen

I like that this recipe is on the smaller side. It produces only about 20-25 cookies, just a couple of tray's worth. The smaller ingredient quantities make prep time a little faster than when you're dealing with one of those monster recipes. Plus, it's nice ending up with a batch that doesn't take up every level surface in your home while cooling.

The original recipe contains 1 cup of toasted, finely chopped walnuts. That sounds good to me, but I left them out this time around.

1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. firmly packed light brown sugar
8 T. (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large egg
1 t. vanilla
1/2 t. baking soda
1 1/4 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 c. dark chocolate chips (I use Whole Foods brand, 70%.)

Adjust the oven rack to the top third of the oven and preheat to 300F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Beat the sugars and the butter together until smooth. Mix in the egg, vanilla, and baking soda.

Stir together the flour and salt, then mix them into the batter. Mix in the chocolate chips (and walnuts, if using.)

Scoop the cookie dough by rounded tablespoon into balls, and space them several inches apart on the baking sheets. (The dough will spread in the oven)

Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until pale golden brown. The cookies will be pretty soft when you remove them from the oven, but will cool to a pleasant firm-but-still-chewy consistency.

Store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to three days.

Using the rounded 1 tablespoon measure per cookie, makes 26 cookies.

5.26.2009

29

Okay. I realize that I may have led you to believe that we would be taking a break from birthdays for a while. The thing is, today is my birthday. Oops.

birthday goodies

I'm feeling the urge to shout something from the rooftops, and since this little space is the closest thing I have to a rooftop, I hope you will indulge me for a moment.

Ahem.

To my dear family and friends who called, sent e-mails, cards, cookbooks, flowers, and even rugelach, to you who sang to me on key and off and in multiple languages, who joined me for a lovely dinner and wrote me notes that I couldn't read at the table lest I totally lose it and cry in my dessert:

Thank you!! I feel thoroughly celebrated.

I am so grateful to have you in my life everyday.

29. I like the sound of that.

Onward.

flower in a bottle from sarah

5.24.2009

by the handful

a coffee pot of tea

I've been terribly distracted lately. Like, raw broccoli and four chocolate chip cookies for dinner at 11pm, distracted.

I'm in the thick of preparing for my general exams (known at some universities as comprehensive or oral exams). I took my first one last week. Happily, I passed. Next up is a three-hour written exam on Imperial Russian history. Though I try to come up for air every now and then, my brain seems to have taken a liking to "the long nineteenth century," and doesn't always come up with me. In other words, I have dead Russians on my mind all the time.

Yesterday, I caught Eli reading a Business Week article on Pyotr Smirnov of Smirnoff vodka fame, a man who, according to the article, "went from serf to the tsar's vodka man." I smugly pointed out that Smirnov was likely freed, together with the all of the serfs, in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II. Eli smiled and nodded, appeasingly. (Truth be told, he loves this kind of trivia.) But it doesn't stop there: I take my lunch with a side of Catherine the Great, and my showers with a hot, soapy mulling over of Nicholas I's conscription policy. Oh, and you should probably think twice before stopping me on the street to ask for directions. In all likelihood, I'll launch into a full-on explanation of the social, political, and economic consequences of the 1772, 1793, and 1795 partitions of Poland. You have been warned.

I'm not spending much time in the kitchen these days. My typical three meals a day plus snacks routine has been replaced by something I like to call a State of Graze. A spoonful of almond butter, here. A stalk of celery, there. The full-on meals I do prepare are ones in which the ingredients can be measured by the handful, food that can be thrown together, barely (if at all) cooked, and devoured. Salads, sautés, and cereals top the list. As it turns out, this simple, everyday fare suits more than just my grueling study schedule. It also fits perfectly with the newly warm spring weather that practically chases you out of the kitchen, anyway, and down to the river for a picnic of bread, cheese, and fruit.

Speaking of the everyday, I've been thinking: That's what this blog is all about, for me - capturing my everyday. And I don't think I have been doing a very good job of it lately. Perhaps I'm not setting the right traps. In the last month, we have celebrated birthday, after birthday, after birthday. We have gone out to dinner at my favorite Cambridge restaurant not once, but twice. Heck, thanks to my fertile family and friends, we've even had a few babies. I don't mean to complain, but it occurs to me that my everyday keeps getting squeezed out. That makes me sad. Because, believe me, for all of the celebrating and birthday cake baking that goes on around here, there is also a whole lot of bleary-eyed, bed-headed everyday. It's clumsy. It's messy. Reassuringly so. And do you know what else? It is beautiful.

everyday breakfast

Thanks to a century and a half of autocratic Russian tsars and hundreds of pages of history on my plate, I don't have any four layer cakes for you today. Instead, I bring you my breakfast. It's just a few handfuls of oats and nuts and seeds, tossed onto a baking sheet and lightly toasted. But it sure is lovely. It's my everyday, and it's why I'm here.

everyday granola

Everyday Granola
It might seem strange to bake small, one-serving batches of granola every day. (If it's just one serving, is it even a "batch?") After all, making a larger recipe is just as easy, and much more efficient. I like the mini-batch for a couple of reasons: First, I enjoy the contrast of warm, crisp, just-baked oats, seeds, and nuts against cold and creamy Greek yogurt. Also, since I have been spending very little time cooking lately, it's nice to have at least this one small kitchen moment built into my day. The nutty aroma first thing in the morning is nice, too.

As I mentioned, I've been doing most of my measuring by the handful. The ingredient measurements are approximate and flexible. I like to eat this granola over plain, Greek yogurt, but it's also good with milk, or even all by itself.

1/2 c. (or, a couple of small handfuls) rolled oats (not instant)
1/4 c. (or, one small handful) raw pumpkin seeds
1 T. (or, a five-fingered pinch or two) flax seeds
A few whole almonds
3 dashes cinnamon
3 grinds of sea salt
A squirt of honey or agave nectar, or a sprinkle of brown sugar, if you so desire.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. While you're waiting for the oven to get hot, mix the first six ingredients in a cereal bowl (and, if you'd like, brew your tea or coffee, and read the front page of the newspaper). Spread the oats, nuts, and seeds mixture on a baking sheet, and bake for about 8 minutes, until the almonds are fragrant, and the oats are lightly browned.

Put a few spoonfuls of yogurt into the cereal bowl. (You can measure the yogurt in handfuls, too, if you're so inclined, though it might get messy.) Pour the hot granola over the yogurt and, if you're me, top it all off with a drizzle of lavender honey or a squirt agave nectar.

5.14.2009

all at once

just frosted
There is about to be a mass exodus from Cambridge. All at once, some of my closest friends are moving away, and soon. Before the summer is out, we will say goodbye to our down-the-hall neighbors, Amy, David, and their three Johnnycake-baking, joke-cracking daughters; Varina, our resident cheerleader of all things green and budding, and Tim, her office floor turkey-brining husband; those storytelling unleashers of hilarity, Jonathan and Hila, and their newly toddling daughter Naomi; and, last but not least, the pistol packin' Eitan, and the expert sesame noodler, Julia.* They're out of here. All of them. In case you're keeping track, that's twelve people, folks. Twelve. And that's before we count my dear friends Sarah, Rachel, and David.

It is quite a blow.

These people are not your everyday, run of the mill friends. They are the kind that bring you bean soup and honey wheat bread when you're sick, who show up at your door with a tray of still-warm homemade hummus, hard boiled eggs, and pickles, and who tell you to take the whole jar of molasses when all you need is half a cup. They are the friends who join you on your birthday for a race through Boston, cheer for you at the finish line, and celebrate that night with warm cookies and a breathtaking view of the city. They invite you to their lake house and, when your irrational fear of dead bodies lurking beneath the water threatens to keep you from wading out too far alone, they accompany you on a swim clear across to the other side of the lake. They even drag the buoy, so that all you have to do is glide along, unencumbered, and take it all in. When you're in the hospital, they visit, and when they tell you that your scar looks "bad ass," you forget to be afraid for a moment, and instead, feel sort of... cool. They loan you pants, cry on your sofa, and let you cry on theirs.

And, if you're very lucky, they understand that the question "whipped cream or buttercream frosting?" demands serious deliberation. In my group, it's Varina's husband, Tim, who has this last bit covered. I would expect nothing less from a guy whose last name sounds like an Italian dessert. (Think "torte" and you have the right idea.)

from above

That Tim's birthday cake would feature some lemony tang was a no-brainer. The guy has a thing for lemons. (It was for Tim that I first made these most lemony lemon bars.) A riff on the strawberry custard cake from a few weeks back, with lemon curd swapped in for the custard and some extra zest in the batter, would be just the thing. There was, however, a problem. As a rule, Tim prefers buttercream over whipped cream frosting. I am not one to deny birthday wishes, but the thought of rich, buttery curd and buttercream frosting duking it out in a single cake made me shudder. I had a nagging feeling that this cake wasn't big enough for the both of them. A dedicated baker himself, Tim totally got my dilemma. After a thoughtful silence - in which I noted more than a hint of disappointment - Tim agreed that whipped cream was probably the more appropriate choice.

Little did we know that there was a third option, a frosting that captures the very best of what whipped cream and buttercream frosting have to offer. As it turns out, airy whipped cream folded into a small bowl of tangy curd, chilled until firm, yields the best of all possible worlds. I mean it: Given a solar system of frosting planets, I would choose to live on this one. It's rich yet delicate, lightly sweet, and plenty tart. It's festive, yet subdued. It spreads like a dream, but clings to the spatula just enough to warrant a proper lick before clean-up. In short, it works with the cake instead of against it.

slice

They say the world is small these days. I know there will be e-mails, phone calls, and visits across the continent - even across the ocean. But no matter how you slice it, there is no simple way to share a piece of cake with someone thousands of miles away.

Friends, I'll miss you.

after

*Eitan and Julia would no doubt like me to emphasize that they are not "moving away," but taking a year and a half long "hiatus" from Cambridge. (Can we hold you to it?)

Lemon Curd Layer Cake
adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2009 and this Strawberry Custard cake

One thing to have in mind before you get started is that the lemon curd needs to chill for at least 5 hours before you can slap it between the cake layers. I find that an overnight chill works well where timing is concerned. This cake can be entirely prepared a day before serving and kept in the refrigerator overnight. A convenient way to split up the labor for the cake would be to prepare the curd and bake the cakes the night before, slice the berries, split the cakes, and whip up the frosting the next morning, allow the frosting to firm up, and then assemble. It is ideal if you can chill the fully-composed cake for 6-8 hours before serving.

I have lifted the ingredients and directions for the cake component of this recipe almost to the letter from my strawberry custard cake recipe. The difference is just a little extra lemon zest. This time around, I did not chill the cakes, but split them just after they cooled to room temperature. Chilling supposedly makes the cakes less prone to breakage, but to my surprise, the warmer cakes stayed perfectly intact. This cake is s-t-u-r-d-y. I also used a new splitting technique: Instead of splitting the cakes with a long, serrated knife, I used dental floss! Unwaxed. I simply wrapped the floss around the circumference of the cake, and pulled. When the spongy cake squished up in the middle like an hourglass, I got a little nervous, but once the floss had pulled its way through -boing!- the cake sprang back to its original shape. And the layers were perfectly even. Neat, huh?

For the lemon curd:
2 1/3 c. granulated sugar
2 t. cornstarch
1 c. fresh lemon juice
4 large eggs
4 large egg yolks (save the whites to use in the cake batter)
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

For the cake layers:
2 1/4 c. cake flour
1 1/4 and 1/4 cups sugar, divided
1 T. baking powder
1 t. salt
3/4 c. cold water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 T. lemon zest
1 t. vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks at room temperature
8 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 t. cream of tartar

For the frosting:
2 c. heavy cream
3 T. powdered sugar
1 1/4 c. of the prepared lemon curd

2 lbs. strawberries

Make the lemon curd:
In a medium saucepan, combine the 2 1/3 c. sugar and the cornstarch. Whisk in the lemon juice, the eggs, and the yolks. Add the butter. Whisk over medium heat until the curd boils and thickens, about 12 minutes. Pour into a medium bowl, cover, and chill for at least five hours, or overnight. (The curd can be prepared up to 1 week in advance. Keep covered and chilled.)

Make the frosting:
In the bowl of an electric mixer, whip the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. In a medium bowl, combine 1 1/4 c. of the lemon curd and the 3T. powdered sugar. Fold the whipped cream into the curd mixture in three additions. Fold gently, so as not to deflate the cream. Chill until firm, at least 4 hours.

Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with lightly oiled (I use cooking spray) parchment paper.

Sift together the flour, 1 1/4 c. sugar, baking powder, and salt twice into a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, use an electric hand mixer on high speed to beat together the yolks, water, oil, zest, and vanilla until smooth. Stir into the flour mixture.

In another large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/4 c. sugar, and beat on high until the peaks are stiff but not dry.

Using a rubber spatula (and a very light touch), fold about a quarter of the fluffy egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then fold in the remaining whites. Be very gentle. The goal here is to incorporate the egg whites without allowing them to deflate significantly. It is all of the air that has been whipped into the egg whites that will make for tall and light cake layers. As soon as the egg whites are no longer visible, stop folding.

Scrape the batter into the two prepared pans and spread evenly. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

For the next step, and for the splitting, wax paper is your friend. Any surface that carries a cake layer, I line with wax paper for easier transfer.

Allow the cakes to cool in their pans on a cooling rack for at least an hour. When completely cool, run a knife around the sides to release the cakes, cover each pan with a wax paper-lined plate, and flip. Gently lift the pans off of the cakes, and carefully peel back the pieces of parchment, taking care not to take the very tops of the cake with you.

Split each cake into two layers, using a serrated knife, or the dental floss technique, explained above.

Assemble the cake:
Wash, hull, and slice the strawberries.

Place one cake layer on a wax paper-lined baking sheet. Top with a generous layer of lemon curd. Place another cake layer on top, and cover with sliced strawberries. Add another cake layer, spread with more lemon curd, and then top with the final cake layer. Using a spatula, frost the outside of the entire cake with the lemon cream frosting. Top with the remaining sliced strawberries. (Any leftover strawberries and lemon curd should be eaten together in a bowl, if you ask me.)

Chill the cake, preferably for 6-8 hours, and bring to a cool room temperature before serving.

(To transfer the cake from the baking sheet to a cake stand or serving plate, use the wax paper to gently scooch the cake from one surface to the other, then tear away the visible wax paper.)

5.06.2009

earned

morel and pea pasta from above

One of the best things about spring this year has been Charles-hugging walks through Cambridge with my friend, Varina. (Charles, as in the river, folks. Though I have been known to spontaneously hug my walking companions, so if your name is Charles, and we happen to go for a stroll along the water one day, "Charles-hugging" may take on double meaning.)

When it comes to spotting the harbingers of spring, Varina is an eagle eye. But that's not all. Varina is also an earnest cheerleader of all things newly green and budding. She notices every almost-blossom. Even the tiniest green shoot catches her eye as it reaches up between the red bricks in the sidewalk. The curling, tissuey tip of a new leaf is enough to stop her in her tracks. And then, she cheers. And applauds. Yes, literally applauds. All this clapping and "Good for you!" and "You can do it!" might be a little over the top, were it not for the fact that this is Varina we're talking about, a woman whose every move springs directly from her golden heart. She is genuinely moved by all of this brave new life around her, and she's not afraid to show it.

Varina explained her enthusiasm to me this way: "I just love living in a place where spring is earned."

Amen, Varina.

It was a long, cold winter, friends, and I'm as grateful as anyone to see the trees in full bloom. But it's something else that comes to mind when I consider what's well-earned this time of year. For me, it's the wrinkly brown and gray mushrooms that have taken up residence once again at my favorite market. I speak of morels. Morels. Their power over me is absolute. Never mind whatever I was planning on making for dinner. There are morels to be had! As suddenly as they appeared, they will be gone, so there's no time to lose. With the morel comes a directive: "seize the day." If you know what's good for you, you'll listen.

morels just washed

The price tag on these little guys can be off-putting, I know. But here's the thing: morels are really quite light. Pick up a couple in your hand, and you'll see. So even if they're going for twenty-something dollars a pound, you can still scoop up enough for two generously-sized portions and spend under $10.

I like morels best simply prepared - sauteed in butter, seasoned with a little salt and pepper. That's all it takes to get them into top form: brown and crisp around the edges, moist and earthy on the inside. Thanks to some spot-on "morel guidance" (couldn't resist) from Suzanne Goin via her cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, I gussied up my first morels of the season with fresh thyme. And thanks to an open carton in the fridge that I was afraid might spoil, I added a splash of cream. The result was a recipe that I'll make as many times as I can before the season passes and morels slip away.

When my sister, Kasey, walked in the door and saw morels sliding around in the pan, she swooned on the spot. I don't think she fully came to until well after the meal, when all that remained in our mouths was the lingering memory of the mushrooms that announced, in no uncertain terms, "It's spring." As for me, had my mouth not been otherwise occupied, I no doubt would have taken my cues from Varina, stopped mid-bite, and cheered.

***

Spring cleaning: Before I get to today's recipe, I have a few quick housekeeping announcements. If you will kindly direct your attention to the sidebar, you'll see that I've been fixing up the place a bit for us.

Below the archives, you will find a link to the Sweet Amandine recipe index, which is now up and running, and up-to-date.

In my "about" section, I have listed my e-mail address. I truly love hearing from you, in both your comments and your e-mails, and hope that you will continue to write. Without your sweet voices, it would be awfully quiet and lonely around here.

Moving on down the sidebar, you'll find links to click if you would like to subscribe to Sweet Amandine by either RSS or e-mail.

This next announcement will no doubt seem improbable to those of you who know me best but, well, here goes nothin': "Tweeeet!" That's right, it's not only the birds around here who are doing the chirping this spring. I've decided to join in the fun on Twitter. You can follow me by clicking the badge on the sidebar, or by clicking here.

Next, I've listed a small selection of the blogs and sites that I turn to when I'm looking for inspiration. It's a joy to share with you the treasures I have found. I plan to rotate my favorites through this mini-list in the hope that some of you will click through, and enjoy what you see. There's so much extraordinary talent out there - writers, photographers, designers. It's really quite humbling. You'll find a longer, growing list of the folks I like to visit, here.

And now, patient reader, the recipe.

***

Lemony Pasta with Morels and Peas
inspired by the dish I enjoyed on my 27th birthday at Chez Panisse, and by Suzanne Goin's recipe for a sauté of white asparagus, morels, and ramps published in Sundays at Lucques.

4 oz. dry linguine (1/4 of a 1 lb. box)
1/4-1/2 lb morel mushrooms
1 c. fresh or frozen peas
2 T. fresh thyme, chopped
2 T. butter
1/4 c. heavy cream
Zest from 1 lemon
Juice of 1/2 a lemon (or more, according to taste)
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Boil the water for the pasta in a large pot. While you are waiting for the water to boil, clean the morels. The trick is to keep the mushrooms as dry as possible. If they soak up too much water, they won't brown as nicely and their texture won't be quite the same. Here's what to do: First, cut them in half, fill a bowl with water, and use a slightly damp pastry brush to sweep out the dirt. Clean the brush between sweeps in the bowl of water. You can also use the brush to coax out any grit from the spongy surface. Place the morels on a dry towel to soak up any excess moisture.

Chop the thyme, and zest the lemon.

When the water is ready, boil the pasta according the directions on the package, typically about 9 minutes. (The cooked pasta will spend a minute or two in a hot pan later on, so better to undercook it slightly than to overcook it.)

Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium-high heat in a heavy pan. When the butter foams, add the morels. Sauté the mushrooms for 4-5 minutes, stirring often. Turn down the heat to medium, add the chopped thyme, and a few grinds of salt and pepper. Allow the morels to cook for another 8 minutes, or until the released juices have evaporated. (Don't forget to remove your pasta from the heat and drain it when the time comes!) The morels are done when they are crispy and lightly browned on the outside, but still tender.

Add the peas to the pan, and cook for another minute. Turn down the heat to low, and stir in the lemon zest. Add the cooked pasta to the pan, and stir to mix with the morels and peas. Pour in the heavy cream, and swirl it around the pan. Remove from heat. Stir in the olive oil, and squeeze the 1/2 a lemon over top. Mix gently, and serve immediately.

Serves two.
morel and pea pasta up close

5.03.2009

the midnight oil

I do not like staying up late. I'm hard-pressed to answer the phone when it rings after 9pm, let alone swipe on some lipstick and walk out the door for a 10pm (!) dinner reservation. But when a friend requests a birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant in Cambridge, regardless of the hour, I strap on my sandals and go.

I don't discuss restaurants much around here, but it wouldn't be fair to keep last night's meal a secret. I've been to Oleana at least half a dozen times, and every time it's like new. Chef Ana Sortun's food resists the routine chew and swallow pattern of everyday eating. At Oleana, it's more like chew, wide-eyed pause, sigh - which sounds more like a hum when your lips are closed and smiling - chew, lock eyes with one of your dinner companions while silently screaming "YES!," chew, swallow, murmur (this time out loud) "Oh my...," and then the grand finale: grab your friend's spoon, dig it into your dish, hand it over, and watch the whole thing unfold all over again. I have also witnessed variations on this sequence, including heads thrown back, swoons and slumps against nearby shoulders, spontaneous applause, and sharp, single smacks of the hand against the table. In the face of such culinary genius, improvisations along these lines are to be expected.

If you're reading this post from a computer somewhere in the Boston area - and I'm tempted to say that the "Boston area" includes points up to a three hour drive away, maybe further - I urge you to stop reading immediately, and make a reservation at Oleana for their next available table. Bring a friend, so you have someone with whom to share the five-course (plus dessert) vegetarian tasting menu. I go the tasting menu route every time, and I am never disappointed. Incidentally, my omnivorous dining companions always claim that their fish, meat, and poultry entrees are second-rate compared to the many small vegetarian plates that crowd our table.

Oleana. 10pm. I wasn't sure where I was going to find an appetite at that late hour, but as I pushed a nub of za'atar encrusted bread through a pillow of whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers, there it was. And it lasted through to the very end, this suddenly nocturnal appetite of mine. There were perfectly roasted parsnip fingers, forkfuls of greens both earthy and bright, and warm spiced olives. I not only burned the midnight oil, I slurped it right up.

Two dishes stood out: The first was a "cucumber spoon salad" served in something like a small yogurt jar. A layer of creamy sorrel Greek yogurt lined the bottom of the jar, and then came chopped cucumbers, grapes in some form, and sorrel granita. I think I could eat this "salad" every single day, forever, and never tire of it. The second extra-special moment came with dessert. I've ordered it time and again, and it never fails to wow me: Sicilian almond cremolata with a warm chocolate panino alongside. Oh, dear friends. It gets me every time. Imagine something like ice cream, but made with almond milk instead of cream, slip some candied sliced almonds between scoops, and there you have it. It's creamy, but light enough that the meal ends without the lopsided thud of a too-rich dessert. I haven't quite figured out how to eat the panino without getting chocolate all over my face, but I am committed to biting into as many as it takes until I get it right.

And you know what? I'll have my next chance in just one short week, because another friend of ours has requested Oleana as the site of his birthday dinner. Once again, come Saturday night, we'll be pulling up our chairs - this time at the slightly earlier hour of 9pm - and gearing up for a second vegetarian feast.

I can't wait.