Spring cooking

Our dinner last night was typical for us in the spring. We sat down to fava beans, fiddleheads and morel mushrooms sent for my birthday from my sister-in-law. Last week we had soft shell crabs two nights in a row because they are so good, and their season is short. I haven’t found ramps this year, but finally shad roe appeared at our small, local grocery store.

While these foods are touted in magazines and cookbooks as part of the local food movement, I am surprised at how many people are unfamiliar with them, don’t like their taste or find them too difficult to deal with.

So, dear readers, this column is about spring recipes.

My husband and I think we hunt down foods like this because we grew up on farms, foraged in the woods, knew at an early age where food comes from and got over any squeamishness that might have lurked about.

When I was a young, inexperienced cook, I served Julia Child’s braised tongue in madeira sauce to dinner guests who exclaimed how good it was. One person asked what we were eating.

When I answered, most stopped.

Later, my father-in-law packed up in dry ice several pheasants he had shot and shipped them to us. Having learned from the tongue experience, we invited only friends who we knew could handle wild birds.

One spring when that same father-in-law sent a mess of morels from his Midwestern woods, we invited a sophisticated couple who had never heard of them for brunch where they featured prominently. Our friends looked as if we were going to poison them, but they gamely tried them. They were as hooked on morels as we were. A couple of years later, when mushrooms sprang from new mulch they had had delivered to their courtyard a couple of weeks before, they recognized them, invited us over to pick, and we all had a morel feast.

One summer we spent a vacation with several friends in Westport, MA. At the beach my Midwestern husband and I picked a bucketful of blue-black mussels off the rocks, steamed them with lemon and herbs and served them to our New England city-raised friends, who had never heard of them. After that, everyone picked them off the rocks and we had them about every night until we left.

That was then – before eating local, seasonal and even historical food like tongue was trendy and popular. Even now it isn’t easy to find these foods. Whole Foods doesn’t regularly carry tongue. Soft shell crab makes it to some restaurants menus, but it is only at Boston’s private clubs that you can regularly find shad roe. Nobody serves fava beans. Like quinces, another historical food, they take too long to prepare, I guess.

You can find recipes for all these foods online easily so I won’t bore you. But I’ll give you a few tips.

Morels. They are easily the best tasting mushrooms in the world. Few shops carry them, and when they do they’re usually dried out and expensive. My sister, who still lives in the Midwest, finds them for free in the woods. My sister-in-law orders them from Wisconsin. When they arrive, split them in half, wash and clean them because you’ll find a few bugs. Use them in pasta, over toast or flour them lightly and cook them in butter until crisp.

Fava beans. Remove them from the pod. Slip them into boiling water for a minute or two. Plunge them into ice to stop the cooking. When they are cool, slip off the skins to reveal bright green beans with a lovely taste. A bit of lemon juice, salt and pepper and a dash of olive oil is all they need. In English grocery stores, where they are sometimes called broad beans, you can get them already out of the pod. I don’t know why the American food-industrial complex hasn’t figured out how to do that here.

Shad roe. Cook bacon, drain most of the fat, then cook the roe in the same pan. This is easy.

Fiddleheads. Trim them, blanch them for a minute or two in boiling water and then sauté with garlic or shallots.

Soft shell crabs. Have the butcher trim them, roll them in corn meal and then sauté. I never do this as well as a couple of restaurants I know. So we usually order them at those restaurants.

Tongue. Go to Julia Child’s recipes. She’ll teach you everything you need to know. But I imagine you won’t bother.


Airbnb woes

Airbnb and its cohorts have been a lifesaver for some downtown residents. They say that renting out a room in their home has allowed them to afford Boston’s high rents or helped them pay for the costly mortgages they have to take on if they buy a place.

Travelers like the arrangement because living in a neighborhood rather than a hotel gives them a more authentic experience.

But it’s complicated. Public officials have received many complaints. Neighborhood leaders, through the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations (ADCO), are concerned. State Representative Aaron Michlewitz has filed legislation trying to rein in abuses. Mayor Walsh issued an executive order in early May that instructs city departments to find out what is going on.

Anecdotally, neighbors say that individual apartments, whole rental buildings and entire single-family houses are being rented to strangers, removing from the market scarce housing that could be rented long-term, violating occupancy or zoning regulations, or frightening occupants of multi-family buildings because strangers are always coming and going. Long-time residents are concerned that an influx of short-term occupants, who have no stake in the neighborhood, will further erode conditions that are already challenging when people live densely in small quarters.

“It’s about quality of life,” said Arturo Gossage, a Chinatown resident who participates in ADCO. “Communities are not being preserved because of this practice.”

Is the problem bad? How extensive is it? No one knows. Rumors persist that renters are living elsewhere and renting their apartment to short-term occupants without their landlord’s knowledge. Another rumor is that the new Ink Block in the South End is filled with Airbnb-ers. Chinatown has at least two entire buildings devoted to Airbnb, said Gossage.

“It’s hard to gauge because you don’t really know who’s renting Airbnb,” said Toni Gilardi, a long-time real estate agent in the North End.

The impetus for owners to rent by the night rather than by the year is big bucks. Let’s say a two-bedroom apartment rents for $3,000 a month. If an owner listed it on Airbnb for $200 a night, probably a low figure, he or she could come away with $6,000 in a 30–day month. Expenses are limited. Of course, not every night might be rented. But still.

Tourists may prefer to have a whole apartment to themselves rather than a room in a stranger’s house.

Here’s what we do know. On one day in early May, 211 entire home rentals were listed for two people wanting to stay on Beacon Hill. Four of these were at 112 Myrtle Street.

In Charlestown, 126 entire homes were available. In the North End, 159 homes were listed, but the site showed only 15 rooms in someone’s house or apartment. In the Back Bay a whopping 306 entire homes were available with only 46 listings for a room in someone’s home.

It looks as if there is a trend, and it is what residents have feared. A significant number of whole apartments and single houses are being rented through Airbnb and its copy cat sites, and it is rarely the nice hosts renting out their spare bedroom. It appears as if a whole support industry of management businesses and cleaning services have gotten into the act, although this column doesn’t have room to explore all that.

Some protections in some buildings exist. Condo associations often have clauses in their agreements that prevent owners from renting their entire apartment on a short-term basis. Depending on the size and configuration of the building and how well people know one another, however, a scofflaw can be difficult to find.

Cities all over America are grappling with this matter. As of early May, Airbnb agreed to register its San Francisco hosts, and the city will make it possible to obtain registrations electronically. New York has made it illegal to rent a home for fewer than 30 days, and can issue fines to people who advertise such a listing. Reportedly, an owner in Trump Tower paid a $1,000 fine for doing such a thing.

So in Boston there are data to be gathered, testimony to be heard and ultimately, probably, regulations to be imposed.

The irony, though, say some real estate brokers, is that those proverbial absentee landlords who have kept their rental apartments in bad shape probably won’t do much better with Airbnb than with long-term rentals. On Airbnb the visitors can rate them. Wouldn’t it be nice if long-term renters could do the same?

Competition might improve old rental buildings

Downtown residents are enjoying a certain satisfaction they didn’t expect. Those dreadful absentee landlords who suck all the rent money out of their buildings while keeping them in slum-like condition are now facing competition from such new luxury buildings as the Kensington in the Theatre District, the Avalon near North Station and the Watermark in the Seaport.

Those absentee landlords, who are all over the North End, Beacon Hill and to some extent, the Back Bay, might have to spend real dollars on fixing up their apartments. Poetic justice? You bet.

“Those older units are a dying breed,” observed Toni Gilardi, a long-time real estate broker in the North End. “Having a dishwasher is no longer a luxury. Kids are so spoiled that they walk into these places they can afford, and say, ‘Mommy, I can’t live here.’ ”

Betsey Barrett, a broker with Brewster & Berkowitz on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay and South End, agreed.

“The new high-rise rentals have had a big impact,” she said. “Landlords who used to charge a premium and not update their space are now having to update or take significantly less rent.”

Barrett said she started talking with her landlords a couple of years ago about upgrading. Those that haven’t or are still charging high rents have been stuck with empty apartments.

“There has been a lot of inventory sitting in September, which is atypical for our market,” she said.

Despite the clear trend that landlords have to fix up their units or else, the brokers see smaller trends and more nuanced activity.

The new buildings are pricey – two-bedrooms with about 1,000 square feet in the Watermark are listed for between about $4,500 and $6,600. But you get a lot for the money—a billiard room, views, a sunbathing roof, a dog washing spa and a dog run, fitness center, yoga space, bicycle storage and a charging station for your electric car, among other amenities.

What don’t you get? The charm of the older neighborhoods, and the proximity of the shops and restaurants the city’s older neighborhoods enjoy, although those conveniences will eventually come to the newer buildings.

But compared to a nicely renovated one-bedroom, 331 square foot apartment on Willow Street on Beacon Hill for $3,000, about twice as much per square foot as a luxury building, many young people would probably choose the Watermark and invite a roommate to share the cost.

A subtlety brokers have noticed is that with the sales market so tight, renters who otherwise might have bought a place and moved into it, thus freeing up their unit, are staying put.

As more new units have come on the market, there has been a slight dip in the average rent. That may be due in part to the old buildings’ neglectful landlords having to lower their rent. Gilardi has noticed that some new apartments offer free rent for a month or two to soften the blow of the high cost.

She expects to see a lot of churn because of high rents and possible vacancies in the new buildings. “Renters are going for the deals in high rises,” she explained. “When the rent goes up to what it is supposed to be, they may move back to the older units.”

If the new luxury rental buildings face vacancies, she expects the owners to turn them into condominiums and sell them. That will take rental units off the market.

She also said that with the high sales prices, individual landlords are selling their units as condominiums, also taking them off the rental market.

Another peculiarity she’s noticed—broken leases. “Prices are going up, but there is at the same time a significant number of lease breaks in the middle of the term in January, February and March,” she observed.

She said Boston might be losing talent to warmer climes, or that people have had changes in jobs or marital status, but she has no solid explanation for this trend.

Gilardi is philosophical about the changing rental market. “The market moves constantly,” she said. “If it didn’t, people would have no place to live because the people who are settled would never give up their apartments.”

Better skyscrapers

Consider Los Angeles. It’s enjoying an upgrade. With refurbished hotels, new residential buildings, a spruce-up of its gorgeous library and all the services and restaurants that come with a dense population, LA’s downtown is finally full of vitality.

It also looks good. One reason is the tops of some of its new buildings. In 2014, after much complaint from Angelenos about the city’s boring skyline, LA officials rescinded an ordinance that required its skyscrapers to have flat roofs to accommodate a rooftop helipad.

What’s Boston’s excuse?

Now consider Chicago. As much as Boston boosters brag about the many cranes dotting this city, Chicago is on steroids compared to Boston. Fifty-two high rises, such as the stacked Vista Tower, are under construction, and other gems —River Point and Aqua, for example—have recently opened.

The Second City has a reputation for gun violence. It is second, I’m told, not because New York is first, but because Chicago had to be built a second time after Old Ma Leary’s cow kicked over that lantern and burned the place to the ground.

But guns and its 19th-century rebirth are not its whole story. It’s the many beautiful new buildings, sculptural, reflective, light-filled that spread through the Loop and beyond. One building perches on a thin, horizontal line on the ground, with support beams rising at angle. It looks as if a toddler on a ladder could push it over. Even the Trump building, whose developer is not known for his aesthetic, is beautiful. Not all the buildings have interesting tops, but some do. I don’t know how Chicago seems so light and airy with all those tall buildings, but it does. From afar, part of the reason is its varied tops, some featuring steps, others points, some crowns.

Now consider Boston. Flat tops everywhere. Recently when I quizzed friends about a Boston high rise they liked, they came up with nothing.

We can do little about the buildings already built. But we can insist that buildings now proposed do better at the top.

That’s why I want to bring up Millennium Partner’s Winthrop Square project. The controversy over this building has been all about its shadow. But now that the Boston City Council has sent a home rule petition to the legislature that would exchange this building’s shadow for the shadows in the shadow bank, it is one step closer to being built.

If the legislature changes the shadow law, we’ll have little time to consider what has been ignored so far—the design—a clunky, rectangular box with a flat top scored by vertical protrusions. Surely, there are no helicopters in its future, so why must it have a flat roof?

Millennium uses the same architects, who employ glass and slight angles on the tops, over and over again. Some of the vertical setbacks on the new, dark Millennium Tower are nice touches, but this third tallest building in the city does nothing for the skyline. If Winthrop Square is going to get built, it is time for Millennium to do better.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency is partly to blame for making Boston’s skyline so dreary. It has paid attention to the ground level. But it acts as if tops don’t exist. The BPDA could issue directives to encourage more interesting design at the top. Like New York City did in the 1920s and 1930s, it could require some buildings to taper to reduce the amount of shadow on surrounding buildings.

After all, whenever a skyscraper is deified, extolled, copied and featured in books, lectures or other programs, it’s almost always a building with a great top. The Mies van der Rohe boxes are typically mentioned only as a style of a particular time. But neither Boston’s Pru nor its John Hancock nor the tall, banal boxes lining the Avenue of the Americas get attention.

When New York’s skyline is featured, the focus is still typically on the old, pointy-topped Empire State and the Chrysler building, although One World Trade Center gets some recognition. Other pictures feature the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The flat-topped, bulbous Walkie-Talkie building in London gained notoriety for melting a car with its convex reflecting glass, but in 2015 it was also voted the UK’s worst new building. When London skyline is pictured, the focus is on the Scalpel, the Gherkin and the Shard, all with distinctive tops.

So what makes a successful skyscraper? Chicago’s skyscrapers demonstrate many of the qualities—using excellent materials, taking advantage of perspective, employing colorful glass, reflective glass, good lighting, interesting shapes, good ground level activity, often step-backs, a middle emphasizing verticality and interesting tops. Boston needs to up its game.

Being left out

Are you working hard? Paying attention? Being involved?

Some people apparently believe you aren’t. You are not worthy of their attention. They are leaving you out.

The Boston Water and Sewer Commission is one of the perpetrators. Its recent flyer listed the sites in each neighborhood to which Boston residents could go to meet a BWSC staff member and pay a bill or get answers to questions. The problem? There were no sites listed for the Downtown and Waterfront, Bay Village, Beacon Hill or the Back Bay. Do residents of those neighborhoods have no needs? You could probably traipse over to the North End branch library or Chinatown’s Benevolent Association on Tyler Street to do business with water and sewer, but still.

This brings up a strange way the city has of lumping neighborhoods together. For example, city officials usually speak of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay in one breath. It’s true they lie next to one another and sort of share a demographic. But life in these two neighborhoods is completely different.

With long blocks, large buildings, back alleys and parking spaces in those alleys, Back Bay residents have more in common with the South End than with Beacon Hill. Beacon Hill, with its narrow streets, narrow sidewalks, trash out on those sidewalks twice a week and nowhere but the street for cars to park, is more like the North End than it is like the Back Bay.

And then there’s Bernie. Say it isn’t so, Bernie. You don’t want some of us anymore. When you were in Boston in early April you and Senator Elizabeth Warren had a great rally. Then you dropped the bombshell: you “proposed a restructuring of the Democratic Party, one [that] would be made up of the working class, rather than the ‘liberal elite,’ ” the newspapers reported.

Who do you think was there cheering you on in downtown Boston? A large percentage of the 1,600-plus college-educated crowd were members of that liberal elite.

That reminds me of the years I spent long ago in the National Writers Union. As a member, I was also a non-paying member of the United Auto Workers. (Bernie, would that get me back in your good graces?) I liked the NWU. I participated in workshops and a writers’ group and made many friends who have had success with their writing. One member came up with the title of my first book. I demonstrated with the NWU in front of a Back Bay bookseller when that fearful chain decided not to carry Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses because of threats from the haters. The National Writers Union was a good organization.

But I noticed something: some members seemed more interested in being in a union, especially one in which your job did not require you to shower off the grime at the end of every day, than they were in writing. They were incurable romantics in love with the labor movement, and the only way they could become part of that labor movement was to do it with writers.

But back to Bernie. I wondered. Who is he referring to when he rejects the liberal elite? Is it people who live in Boston who have been to college? Is it National Writers Union members who actually write for a living? Isn’t he one of the members of the liberal elite?

So many questions. So many prejudices. So much name calling. So much partitioning off everyone from everyone else.

There is another insidious way of being left-out. The victims are those who can’t stay up late. How are we early-to-bedders going to enjoy Saturday Night Live and Stephen Colbert, which everyone is talking about? Why can’t these programs be on at 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m.? Record them, you say. Play them at other times. I know. I’m just complaining that they’re leaving lots of people out of that great communal feeling that we’re all laughing at the same time.