BELMONT — It all began with an underground ring of Italian grandmas and the bootleg sale of street tortellini. This locally stuffed pasta was an annual holiday tradition of the Whalen family, who purchased large orders of handmade tortellini to go in a special soup served on Christmas Eve. Thousands of pieces of pasta later, Dan Whalen, 30, founder of the blog Thefoodinmybeard.com, decided to take matters into his own hands and make the family favorite himself.
Today, Whalen’s recipe for homemade tortellini is one of 60 stuffed foods featured in “Stuffed: The Ultimate Comfort Food Cookbook.” While the homemade tortellini soup is arguably one of the tamest dishes in the cookbook, each recipe is easy to follow and clearly described in the tone of a helpful, albeit more gastronomically-gifted, friend. The author, chef and menu designer of Cafe Burrito on Trapelo Road, offers inventions like meat-wrapped corn on the cob (he happened to have all the ingredients on hand and put them together), and mac and cheese-stuffed burgers (another favorite).
“Stuffed” is arranged in six parts with categories like stuffed pasta and rice, stuffed veggies and fruit, and stuffed meats. At first, Whalen had trouble coming up with a complete concept for his cookbook and his first proposal was turned down. After some brainstorming, he realized that the presentation of food was just as important as the food itself. The assembly of stuffing food into other food, he says, helped incorporate all the styles of recipes that he wanted to feature, including signature dishes from Thai, Mexican, and Indian cuisines. His experience blogging gave him a solid base of ideas for his book, but only 20 or so recipes were featured on his blog. The rest are new ideas that he decided to try: Cuban sandwich empanadas, chicken pretzington, and cherry pie-stuffed chocolate cake.
Whalen, a Springfield native, studied computer science at Bentley, then worked in IT in Boston and later moved to work in Bermuda with his girlfriend. With little access to the good restaurants and high-quality ingredients found in the states, he started cooking at home and learning to be flexible in the new kitchen. He launched the blog in 2008 as a food diary to help them remember their culinary discoveries while living on the island.
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When he returned to Boston, he immersed himself in the world of food, first working as a production manager developing unique gelato flavors at Angelato in Belmont. Later in 2012, he helped establish Cafe Burrito, rebuilt in the old Angelato location, and created an authentic, modern Mission-style burrito menu. He also contributes recipes to the website Tablespoon.com, owned by General Mills. For his own blog, he has created over 500 recipes, culinary mash-ups like cheesesteak gougeres and cereal milk panna cotta to more traditional fare such as homemade braciole and spicy lamb vindaloo. Much like his cookbook, Whalen’s blog features a separate section for cooking fundamentals and basic how to’s with recipes for ingredients like homemade tomato sauce, instructions for how to roast a pepper, and a post about how to mix your own garam masala blend.
Because he has been testing blog recipes for so long, Whalen can cook things once and have them turn out wonderfully. But for his cookbook, he enlisted the help of friends and family to test each of his 60 original recipes. His dad, Jim, who happened to be at Cafe Burrito grabbing some lunch while Whalen demonstrated the proper technique for mac and cheese-stuffed hamburgers, says the stuffed pepperoni bread made with homemade marinara is one of his favorite comfort foods from the book.
Whalen considers these unusual recipes comforting because they are the same foods he grew up with, along with some ethnic cuisines that are quickly becoming part of new American comfort fare.
As for those burgers stuffed with elbow macaroni in cheese sauce, says the author, “You’ve been eating mac and cheese and burgers your whole life.” These, he says have “the same familiar flavors you love.”