Thursday, December 23, 2010


By the time I went to "sixth grade camp" - a week away at camp during the school year - I had cultivated enough of a coffee addiction that I brought with me a canister of contraband instant coffee that I ate by the dry spoonful to get my fix. Attempts at adding the right amount of sugar and cream at afterchurch fellowships had failed me, so I had eventually succeeded in being hooked on coffee by that Four Loko of coffee, that mango-bubblegum-flavored cigarette of caffeine: General Foods International Coffee.

This stuff is ridiculous.

If you're over 15 and still drinking it, you should shamefully walk to the kitchen right now and toss that miserable shit out.

As sweet as Swiss Miss hot cocoa, with none of the earthiness or acidity of coffee, General Foods International Coffee and its Rand-McNally flavor assortment was coffee for people who don't know how to like coffee even before Starbucks set up shop - coffee with so much sugar added, so much Other Flavor, that you'd never know you were drinking coffee. It's perfect for a 12 year old trying to like coffee.

Real coffee drinking eventually followed. My first year of college I joined Gevalia Kaffe to get the free coffee maker. The coffee's not great but was probably better than what I could have gotten in supermarkets at the time - remember, twentysomethings reading my blog, I am older than you, I come from an age before Starbucks, which I never even encountered until several years into college, and continued to ignore until they eventually made their way into malls and Targets.

The Pioneer Valley, where I started college, had its own coffee culture long before Starbucks displaced much of it - that was where I first encountered espresso, lattes, soup bowls of cappuccino. (Trips to coffee shops in Denver and Boulder the previous summer had mostly been milkshake-focused. This one place had multiple varieties of coffee milkshakes. Awesome.) Sure, a lot of the coffee drinks were overly sweetened - I was a big fan at 18 of the Milky Way latte at Pioneer Valley Coffee, which if I remember right had a shot of Torani Caramel and a shot of Torani Hazelnut.

Hazelnut coffee was huge in the Pioneer Valley. Seriously, if you had a choice of two kinds of coffee, they were hazelnut and decaf. Unflavored regular was the third option, you know? And this came up a lot, because it was the kind of place where even the bookstores sold coffee - no, not like the big bookstore chains' in-house coffee shops now, I mean that a lot of the bookstores just had thermal carafes set up. Why wouldn't you buy a coffee and a Free Peltier button while flipping through Girl Interrupted, after all? Why wouldn't you?

Hazelnut coffee and tiramisu. Those were the staples of the Pioneer Valley. Maybe they still are, but last time I visited, Pioneer Valley Coffee had become a Starbucks, and so had damn near everything else.

When I moved to New Orleans, naturally there was a strong coffee culture there too. One reason I dodged Starbucks so long is because it opened in Amherst my last year there, and then when I moved from Amherst to New Orleans, it was like setting the Starbucks clock back again - the place hadn't quite caught on there, because while the Pioneer Valley had a local coffee culture, it was - like Starbucks' - a latte-driven coffee culture. New Orleans' was not, and instead of piggybacking on existing popularity, Starbucks had to compete with a different, and cheaper, style of coffee. I don't think Starbucks really caught on down there until it had become a truly national phenomenon - and national phenomena take a few years to trickle down the Mississippi to the Delta anyway.

What you get in New Orleans more often than not is coffee and chicory. This wasn't my first introduction to it: the friends I visited in Colorado that aforementioned visit drank coffee and chicory, and Vietnamese restaurants commonly use it, so I'd been exposed to it in a variety of contexts even before I sat down at Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets.

Though there's really no beating that.

Chicory is an extender. You replace some of the coffee grounds with chicory, and your coffee lasts longer. That was the idea originally, anyway - these days you can get coffee cheaper than chicory, and a canister of premixed coffee and chicory will cost you near as much in New Hampshire as a bag of higher quality whole bean coffee. But the original idea, the whole reason there is such a thing, is that chicory can substitute for part of the coffee so you can stretch your supply out.

Chicory is much harder to grind than coffee beans, so all coffee and chicory blends come pre-ground, which means they lose flavor and freshness much faster. A better option is to buy chicory separately - New Orleans supermarkets will have it sometimes, and it's easy to find online - and mix it with the beans once you've ground them.

These days I buy most of my coffee from New Hampshire micro-roastery Black Bear, where my cost including shipping is a little more than $8 per pound - considerably cheaper than buying coffee of comparable quality in the store. I get the coffee a couple days after roasting, and bag it in valve bags. I grind it in a burr grinder and steep it in a French press, Bialetti Moka, or Vietnamese coffee filter.

(I've liked every coffee I've had from Black Bear, though I wish they had a lighter roast option. I especially like the Peaberry - I've always liked Peaberry coffee - and the Kenya AA.)

So I've basically got my coffee routines figured out now. The French press is my everyday go-to coffee method. The Moka makes something that isn't espresso but is closer than anything else you'll get at home without spending hundreds of dollars on a decent espresso maker. The Vietnamese coffee filter, which I don't use often because it makes such small amounts, is for Vietnamese style coffee - it drips directly into the cup.

But there's still a lot I'm discovering.

For instance, cascara, which I bought from Sweet Maria's but which they're currently out of (they do have the similar but subtler qishr from Yemen):


Like coffee beans, cascara comes from the fruit of the coffee plant - the coffee cherry. The bean is the seed; cascara is the dried husk of the fruit. Like coffee-leaf tea, it's only commonly drunk in coffee-growing parts of the world where it's more practical to export coffee beans instead of consuming them, and so other parts of the plant are used for cheap domestic consumption. Unlike coffee-leaf tea - which is caffeinated but has little flavor other than "tastes like leaves" - it has a unique flavor of its own, somewhat fruity and hibiscus-like (with less acidity). Add a little sugar, some hibiscus, maybe a little cinnamon, and it makes a good caffeinated fruit punch.

And of course I'm sure it has a crapload of antioxidants and glucowhosawhats and magic fucking pixie dust and what the hell ever, so by all means, let it be the next superfruit, I'd love to be able to pick up some coffee juice in the store.

I'm not done yet - there's more to say about coffee!

For instance, there's aged coffee. This is coffee that, while still green, is aged for 2 or more years, lowering the acidity and boosting the body. Aging coffee - like adding chicory - wrecks a lot of what cuppers look for in "a good cup of coffee," but you know ... so what? I mean, the Japanese hate the toasted crust of rice that can form at the bottom of a pot, while Persian cuisine builds entire meals around it.

There is never a single right way to prepare an ingredient.

I'm drinking a cup of aged coffee at the moment, and it's kind of amazing. I like acidity in coffee, but I still like this low-acid, funky, deep-flavored ... thing. I actually don't know how to describe it: sure, it's still coffee, and if you just down whatever the Denny's waitress has put in front of you, I don't know if you'd notice the difference. But there's definitely something crazy going on in this mug.

Also from Muddy Dog, the Monsooned Malabar I had last night. This is coffee that's really had the shit kicked out of it -

Arabica coffee is spread on the floor of the special monsooning warehouse in Mangalore, raked and turned around by hand to enable them to soak in moisture of the humid winds. The monsooning process takes around 12 to 16 months of duration, where in the beans swell to twice their original size and turn into pale golden color.

The Muddy Dog blog has a whole entry on the monsooning process, which is pretty cool. The coffee's very earthy, pungent, kind-of-like-dirt-in-a-good-way, but it's the aged peaberry I'll be buying again - this stuff is addictive.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Capri pizza from Stromboli's in Billerica

Stromboli's in Billerica maintains its status as the best pizza in the area. Lunch was the Capri pizza: red sauce, mozz, spinach, zucchini, and whole cloves of roasted garlic. You can't see the garlic in this photo - it had rolled off of this slice when I pulled it away from the pizza.

I have to say, pizza is the best possible destination for zucchini or summer squash. I know it looks like pickle slices you'd put on a hamburger, because the brick oven made it so tender.

Definitely going to have to hit Stromboli's a few times next Lent. Even aside from the white pizza, their vegetarian pizzas are at least as good as - and maybe better than - their meat pizzas.

Monday, December 20, 2010

oooh baby

There comes a time in your life when you go from wondering what fermented camel's milk tastes like, to remembering what fermented camel's milk tastes like.

For me that time came this weekend.


Where do I begin talking about Bazaar. Well, I think I have to approach it the same way as the Little Cambodia posts: I'll tell you about the place and what we got, and then as I use things I'll tell you about the results in subsequent posts.

Bazaar is a Russian and Eastern European grocery store with two locations in Boston, at least one of which (Bazaar on Cambridge) has a liquor license. Because of the funky way liquor laws work in Massachusetts, I can't say for certain that the other one does.

There are two, three, or four kinds of ethnic food stores, in my experience - if you break it down to four it's like this:

1: The store for tourists/Americans looking for something interesting.

2: The store for immigrants, expatriates, and exchange students.

3: The convenience store that's 90% standard inventory, 10% Irish bangers and Tayto chips (or other ethnic fare).

4: The supermarket that's 95% standard inventory, with an unusually extensive section for a particular ethnicity.

Obviously there's customer base overlap among these, but an Asian market of type #1, for instance, will have a lot of gummi candies, Pocky, and Poccari Sweat, and - particularly if it carries a significant amount of Japanese stuff - maybe some anime DVDs, Totoro lunchboxes, etc. An Asian market of type #2 will have a lot of non-English signage by the produce and fish - even carrying some of the same things as a normal supermarket, but with non-English labels, can be helpful to the customers - along with dried cuttlefish, fertilized eggs, maybe even a butcher who breaks primals down into the cuts used in various Asian countries instead of European style.

Battambang in Little Cambodia, the place I've posted about several times, is type #2. So is Bazaar. Aside from a couple of Asian girls, we were the only ones there not speaking with Russian or Eastern European accents. The woman at the fish counter greeted Caitlin in Russian, in fact.

We didn't get many photos inside, because I didn't want to look like dorky tourists. The idea was, we'll pick up whatever sounds good, and cook whatever sounds good with it, without worrying about whether we were recreating a specific authentic dish. Buy ingredients that taste good together, and taste them together - that simple. I don't know much about Russian cuisine, after all - I've had caviar and borscht. I did read the Wikipedia entry on it a couple days before shopping, so I'd be more likely to recognize names of things, especially if (as often happened) there were no English labels on something.

The liquor section was about the same size you'd see in a convenience store, but more focused: a number of vodkas, and the flavored vodkas were things like horseradish and honey rye, not bumbleberry bubble gum zip-zip surprise like at your local frat brat liquoreria. There were a few liqueurs from Mathilde, a number of Eastern European and kosher wines, a number of Russian and Czech beers, a lot of brandy. Brandy, vodka, and wine had the most shelf space.

We got birch-flavored vodka and Becherovka, which I've shorthanded in my head for years as "Eastern European Campari," so I'd remember to buy it if I saw it:

Becherovka, birch vodka

I have no idea if that's a good brand of vodka or not, but it made a good cocktail with the Becherovka and satsuma juice, and it's not bad on its own. The Becherovka is terrific. More bitter than Campari, or less sweet, I'm not positive which, but the flavor is very spicy - lots of clove, some cinnamon, anise or licorice, I don't know what else. A lot like the flavor of something like Underberg or Angostura, but in potable bitters form. Loved it.

Small meat section, mostly familiar cuts (we were there after dinner - maybe the selection is greater during the day), except for veal tongue and very cheap lamb ribs:

Cheap lamb ribs

The produce section had a lot of the same things you see at the supermarket, just cheaper in many cases (raspberries, blackberries, satsumas). And in addition to the regular stuff you'd see in a small grocery store (this is a small grocery store - four or five aisles), there were black radishes (the radish of Eastern Europe), sunchokes, persimmons, quince, and huuuge oddly smooth celery roots.

The cashier who checked us out assured us that Russian food is easy to handle - not too weird, not a lot of strong unfamiliar flavors like in Asian food. You hear this a lot, and the produce selection highlighted it - unlike Battambang, there isn't a wall of herbs you don't find in the supermarket. On the other hand, at the back of the produce section, on the way to the fish counter, is a refrigerated case full of pickles made in-house. Not just regular and half-sour pickles, but pickled tomatoes, pickled apples, even pickled watermelon:

Pickled watermelon

That's right - not pickled watermelon rind, but a big wedge of watermelon pickled as-is. (The brine is flavored with cilantro, dill, and celery.) Haven't tried it yet.

Also in the pickle section, dried fruit of various kinds, including kiwi (which must have been dyed):

Dried sweetened kiwi

But wait, let me back up - I forgot, on the way from the meat to the produce, is the deli section - cured meats ranging from the familiar (Italian and Spanish salami, havarti, feta, mousse with foie gras) to the unfamiliar. Here, we had no idea what anything was. There was a cheese with a texture like havarti that was just labeled "Russian cheese." There were endless sausages with little to tell us how they differed. I got one of the cheaper sausages, which turned out to be pleasant but bland, a lot like a kielbasa:


Also Ukrainian farmer cheese:

Ukrainian farmer cheese

This was bland and crumbly, and we weren't crazy about it when we tried it, but then found out it's usually used as an ingredient in things like blintzes and pastries.

Hunter cheese - heavily smoked, tasting a little like a smoky, bland Munster:

Smoked cheese / hunter's cheese

Smoked pork belly:

Pressed smoked pork

Kishka blood sausage, far more interesting than the kielbasa-like sausage:

Kishka blood sausage

I love the way blood sausage varies so much from country to country. This stuff is so good and homey and well-seasoned. I may have some with fried eggs for dinner. Here it is sliced:

Sliced blood sausage

Where was I. The fish counter! Sweet holy Moses, the fish counter. They also sell a bunch of cold cuts there, which I couldn't identify, and several kinds of skewered meat covered in heaps of sliced onion and dill (we got the lamb, it was delicious). But look at the fish counter, keeping in mind that these are all different kinds of smoked fish (along with caviar):

Fish counter at Bazaar

If you don't want to click through to see it up close, here's some of what's on offer:

Both cold- and hot-smoked trout.

A variety of salmon, including salmon bellies. I had heard they had belly lox, at a little more than half the price I've paid in the past, and forgot to ask about it - and didn't stop to think that with salmon bellies I could cure my own at a fraction of the cost.

Herring fillets.

A variety of caviar. I didn't see whitefish caviar, so we went with a Russian brand of salmon roe. I think I've turned Caitlin into a fan.

Smoked sevruga.

Smoked sea bass.

A variety of whole smoked fish: eel, catfish, turbot, whitefish, mackerel (hot or cold smoked).

We got cold-smoked trout which I haven't tried yet, and smoked butterfish bellies, which was some of the best fish I've ever had. Cheap as hell - $3.19 a pound for the bellies, which are tender and boneless. I've never had butterfish before - and because there are a few different fish sometimes called butterfish (that's the nature of fishmongering - in this case candidates include skipjack/sheepshead and pomfret), I'm not even a hundred percent sure what it is we had. But I love it.

Fish counter at Bazaar

Another shot of the fish counter.

You're still wondering about the camel milk, right?

Fermented camel milk, fermented mare milk

Camel milk and mare's milk are both fermented and turned into beverages throughout Central Asia. I don't know about camel's milk, but mare's milk is higher in lactose - milk sugar - than cow's milk is, which makes it well-suited to fermentation. Presumably this stuff originated for the same reason yogurt and cheese did - fermentation is a type of preservation, reducing food waste. There may be nutritive reasons too - maybe the process frees up some nutrients for digestion, or makes a product that is more digestible by the lactose-intolerant, I don't know.

I do know that fermented camel's milk tastes like thin, fizzy, unsweetened yogurt, and smells like milk in an advanced stage of soured spoilage.

The mare's milk I haven't tried yet.

Other dairy stuff. Smetana!

Smetana (Russian sour cream)

Smetana is Russian sour cream, but while the sour cream we're used to in the US is made from cream of between 12-18% butterfat or so, and might be thickened with additives like gelatin or seaweed-derived thickeners, Smetana is - as the label says - 25% fat. The difference is like the difference between ordinary yogurt and thick, rich Greek yogurt.

We actually used the smetana instead of cream cheese, with the smoked fish and caviar.

It's used extensively in cooking because it won't curdle when heated.

Peach yogurt

Peach yogurt, haven't tried it.

Chocolate-covered cheesecake bar

Chocolate-covered cheesecake bar, haven't tried it. Although they sold a LOT of candy, we didn't buy any, except for this. We did buy the Napoleon cake. What I've heard is that most of the cakes are made elsewhere, shipped frozen, and thawed in the store, while the Napoleon cake - stored in the fridge at the bakery section - is made fresh. It was layers and layer of thin crispy cake (cookie? wafer?) with pastry cream. Very good, very rich.


Pelmeni - Russian dumplings. The frozen section also had whole rabbits ($7-8 instead of the $25 I paid the last time I bought them in NH), cow foot, ducks, geese, tongue, and many many fish.

The cashier was very enthusiastic that we bought this jarred "honey nut":

Honey with many nuts

Just what it says - honey with many many kinds of nuts. Really tasty stuff. Oddly, the store also had the most complete assortment of honeys from Airborne that I've seen - "oddly," because Airborne is a New Zealand brand.

Jarred sorrel

Jarred sorrel. This is used in soups.


Tkemali. While Russian cuisine is often good, hearty food without a lot of strong seasonings, Georgian cuisine is strongly influenced by the Middle East, and features a lot of garlic and cilantro. Tkemali is a Georgian condiment used much like ketchup, from what I understand. It's made from sour plums, and has -- at least in this case -- pretty much the same balance of sweet-to-sour that Heinz ketchup has ... which is where the similarity ends. The flavorings used are garlic, cilantro (coriander seed, I think), and dill. Now, I've had dill pickles of course, but I've never had dill in a vinegar-driven condiment before - I don't know how to explain why the difference is so profound, but it is. This is a very good and very startling condiment.

Very good tea

There is no English on this, so I don't know what to say about it except that it's tea, it's very strong, it's very good, and despite being tea bags, it's better than a lot of the considerably more expensive loose tea I've bought.


Lecho, a Hungarian stew base.

Kvass, Pineapple aloe drink

Two beverages: Kvass and pineapple-flavored aloe drink. The Kvass was all right - malty and sweet - but neither of us was thrilled by it. I was happier with the soda I forgot to take a photo of - an orange soda in a glass 2-liter bottle which tasted neither like American orange soda nor Western European orange soda, but instead, exactly like carbonated Hi-C.

Sometimes the only way available to you to try a new fruit is in preserve form:

Sea buckthorn preserve

Such is the case for me with sea buckthorn.

We had two meals made with stuff from Bazaar. One I didn't get a photo of: dark malt coriander rye bread (that's what it says on the label), toasted and cut into squares, smeared with smetana or farmer cheese, with honey nut or smoked butterfish or salmon roe; along with pieces of sausage, cheese, and the skewered lamb. Basically a sampler plate.

The other actually involved cooking:

Buttered coriander dark malt rye bread; lamb, cabbage, onion; blood sausage

I braised the lamb ribs with cabbage and onion for about two hours and then cooked it uncovered for a bit to let the liquid cook off and brown the lamb. Served with sliced cooked blood sausage, buttered bread, and tkemali sauce.

Another shot of same.

And a shot of the lamb ribs after braising, while the liquid was cooking off:

Lamb ribs braised with cabbage and onion

cafe brazil

Friday night, Caitlin and I got dinner from Cafe Brazil in Allston.  I love Brazilian food - one of the first posts of this blog I mentioned that I love the cuisines of the Iberian diaspora - but I've only ever had it when I've made it myself.

So good.

Look at the size of the fried yuca and banana appetizer.  This is a large styrofoam container, the size of a dinner plate:

Fried yuca and banana

Yuca, if I haven't talked about it here before, is a starchy tuber also known as manioc or cassava depending on the country.  In Cuban restaurants it's boiled, fried, and served with mojo (lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic).  Here, it was tougher and starchier than I'm used to, and I don't know if the difference was the yuca or the way it was prepared.


Empanadas.  On the left, the quibe (cf. kibbeh) - ground beef, wheat, spices, and mint.  On the right, risole - chicken, mozzarella cheese, and corn.  Both were terrific.

Brazilian food from Cafe Brasil

A little of everything.  Banana and yuca at 12 o'clock.

Bife rolet at 3 o'clock: "Thin slice of beef rolled up with cheese and bacon, first grilled, then simmered in a fragrant sauce of chunk vegetables and herbs."  This was good, but I think might be better in the restaurant.

At 6 o'clock, feijoada completa along with its sides.  Feijoada is the national dish of Brazil, a stew of black beans with as many cuts of pork and sausage as possible - in this case, pork knuckle, ribs, pig tail, and linguica (a Portuguese sausage that's like a mild chorizo).  Amazingly satisfying, hearty, flavorful ... just so damn good.  Served with extremely good collard greens that I think were sauteed with garlic, and (visible to the bottom right just below the white rice) feijao tropeiro: beans mixed with yuca flour, bacon, eggs, and onions.  I'd never seen that before, and it's terrific - I'd be perfectly happy with a meal of just that.

What I don't have pictures of are the pastries we picked up from a Korean bakery Friday night, a place we just happened to see as we were walking by.  We got two pastries, one sweet and one savory - peanut cream, which was like a delicious donut with more flavor and less overwhelming sweetness than Dunkin Donuts or the like, and one with beef and potatoes, which was like what Hot Pockets should be.  Great little place that we need to go back to during the day when they aren't sold out of most of their offerings.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Caitlin got me ice cream for Christmas.  You may have heard of Jeni's ice cream on the Food Network - that's where I had heard about it, on The Best Thing I Ever Ate, one of the few shows I'll watch on that network.

I have to say ... I consider myself good at coming up with ice cream flavors.  This is the first time I've been outclassed.  Some of the flavors at Jeni's are things you'd never think of - the four here aren't even the most unusual - but they work perfectly:

Ice cream for Christmas

Cherry lambic sorbet.  This tastes so much like Lindemans kriek lambic in frozen form that I'm amazed there are any other ingredients there.  It's the first one I finished.

Lime cardamom yogurt.  You notice two things right away: first, the massive amount of lime flavor exploding in your mouth, and second, that this is frozen yogurt that actually tastes like yogurt.  Now, Pinkberry and its clones haven't made their way here yet, so I know that "frozen yogurt that actually tastes like yogurt" has been a big thing for a couple years now, but all of my previous frozen yogurt experience is still based in the 1980s paradigm of "wow I can't believe this is yogurt, good job hiding that."  Sometimes you want to believe it's yogurt.  Sometimes yogurt is great.  This is great.  I love this stuff.

Goat cheese with Cognac figs.  I can't believe I never thought of goat cheese ice cream before, but there you go.  If you think it's weird, think about cheesecake.  Goat cheese isn't that far from cream cheese - not far enough to warrant that face you made, anyway.  There's enough goat cheese in this that the texture is even slightly granular, and there's a big dose of Cognac-soaked figs in there.

Bangkok Peanut.  My second-favorite.  Formerly called Thai Chile, which tells you what's going on here - you've got peanut butter, toasted coconut, and chile, and it's amazing and complex.  For one thing, it's a perfectly smooth ice cream - the toasted coconut was just steeped in the cream, I'm guessing.  But the peanut butter and coconut still contribute a lot of texture - the mouthfeel is creamy in a different way than other ice creams.  I don't know how else to explain it.  If you've had ice creams with coconut milk in them, you might understand.  It melts on and coats your tongue differently, I suppose.  The spice level is very prominent - enough that I don't think I'd eat a whole bowl of this at once, but there's nothing wrong with making ice cream last longer.

I'm a sucker for cherry and lambic and cherry lambic, that's the only reason the cherry lambic sorbet wins out - Bangkok Peanut is the most complex, most interesting ice cream I've ever had.  Sometimes "complex and interesting sounding" things disappoint - I think Vosges' candy bars, despite ingredients like black sesame and wasabi, or bacon, or curry, are actually pretty forgettable.  This is one of those rare times when you hear about something interesting and it exceeds expectations.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My three favorite cheeses - don't ask me to rank them - are Grafton's four year cheddar, any three year gouda (Beemster was the first I had), and Humboldt Fog. If I were to expand that list, I'd include Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano, more cheddars, Cotswold, cave-aged Gruyere, aged Manchego ... all of which makes Humboldt Fog stand out even more, because unlike all of those, it's a young cheese, and a mold-ripened cheese. Mold-ripened cheeses usually aren't my thing at all, and young cheeses are fine - I like goat cheese - but (with one other notable exception, Vermont Creamery's Bonne Bouche) don't inspire a lot of passion in me.

Humboldt Fog is pretty amazing. It's so amazing that it's become cliche to say so. It was one of the first cheeses I heard of in the slowly growing discussion of "American artisanal cheeses," and won a bunch of awards starting in the late 90s. Even before the current trend of certain restaurants listing the brands and provenance of their ingredients, restaurants were making a point of offering Humboldt Fog stuffed figs, or omelettes, or cheesecakes - not just goat cheese.

It's a goat's milk cheese, with a line of ash running down the middle like (cow's milk) Morbier. The interior is like fresh goat cheese - nice and goaty - with a layer of soft-ripened (Brie-like, if that makes more sense for you) cheese surrounding it. The bloomy mold is tasteless, which is probably why I don't mind it.

All in all, I keep telling people it's like "goat cheese cubed." It's not that there are flavors here you don't associate with goat cheese, as such - but they're stronger, more complex, more nuanced, more powerful. It's a smoker's cheese, I suppose - I'm not anymore, but am aware that a lot of my food loves (rich braised meats, whiskey, spicy food, aged cheddar) come from having smoked moderately to heavily from 18 to 28.

Like any other goat cheese, it goes great with grits - or in an omelette, or with prosciutto, chorizo, or salami.  I've never tried it on pizza, but I really ought to.

Friday, November 26, 2010

My contributions to Thanksgiving this year:

The bread, just my standard baguette recipe;

the cheese plate (smoked mozzarella, sharp Cabot cheddar, cheddar with caramelized onions, olives and almonds and crackers, and my two favorite cheeses - 3-year gouda and Humboldt Fog);

a secondary turkey preparation, with strips of white and dark meat mixed with ground-up Spanish chorizo, olive oil, black garlic, parsley, and herbs, and then rolled up in the turkey skin, roasted, and sliced;

and the post-Thanksgiving soup, with strong turkey stock, carrots, celery, parsnips, parsley root, wild rice, and watercress.

Coming sometime this weekend, things with Buddha's hand:

Buddha's hand

Nevermind the atomic fireballs leftover from Halloween.  Buddha's hand is a citron - little to no juice, mostly rind and pith.  The stem-end starts out looking like a lemon before it all goes batshit:

Buddha's hand

The pith is very aromatic, a little like lemon, a little not.  

So this is something you use for infusions and marmalades, basically.  That's probably what I'll do.  I have seen references to people sauteeing the fingers, which is ... interesting.  I don't know how bitter that would be.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Probably my only post until after Thanksgiving - dealing with the aftermath of a fire (no one hurt) and then I'll need to catch up on work.  I can tell you this much about the cuisine of a post-fire condo: everything you make tastes like bacon.

But I have some new-to-me vegetables:

Parsley root, salsify, wild red watercress

Left to right: parsley root (it only looks like a parsnip, doesn't taste like it), black salsify, wild red watercress.

The parsley root and watercress will almost certainly go in the post-Thanksgiving turkey soup, with (real) wild rice, celery, and other root vegetables.  I bought enough salsify - it was cheap - to try some in advance of Thanksgiving, so I haven't decided yet what I'm doing with it.

(Other items, picked up at Idylwilde: a Buddha's hand that I'll make marmalade or some kind of infusion with, wild arugula, Humboldt Fog and raw milk Morbier, Spanish chorizo and lomo, skin-on Marcona almonds.  Some of this may play into a Thanksgiving notion I haven't finalized yet - turkey and chorizo and various seasonings rolled into the turkey skin and roasted.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

when he turns sixteen, plug up the hole

There have always been strange intersections between the world of real cocktails and the world of sloppy frat boys and over the hill bros.

Goofus stocks eighteen flavors of schnapps (or flavored vodka, now - same fucking thing).  Gallant stocks eighteen flavors of liqueurs.

Goofus buys flavored rum.  Gallant makes homemade rum infusions.

Goofus adds a shot of Bacardi 151 overproof rum to his drink.  Gallant ... adds a shot of Lemon Hart 151 overproof rum to his drink.

Goofus uses margarita mix instead of fresh lime juice because he doesn't know any better.  Gallant uses Rose's lime cordial instead of fresh lime juice because he knows that's what a fucking gimlet is.

Goofus buys premixed bottled cocktails.  Gallant ages premixed cocktails in oak barrels.

I mean, there are always reasons for what Gallant's doing and why Goofus shouldn't be doing what he's doing, but I'm well aware of the narcissism of little differences here.  And I've thought many times about this latest trend which has really hit its stride in the last six months: barrel-aged cocktails.

Barrel-aging anything can be pretty cool, for sure.  Oak is where bourbon and most aged liquors get a lot of their flavor.  Oak is a natural source of vanillin, among other flavor compounds.  But barrel-aging a cocktail means making a cocktail in advance and then sealing it up instead of serving it, and ... we've been told not to do that.  That's the opposite of fresh.  That's a really expensive version of a premade margarita-in-a-bottle.  Right?

But there's the barrel, see.

Yes, you're undoubtedly losing something in giving up freshness.  But the idea is, if this is worth doing - if! - then you're getting something back.  Wood interacts with your drink.  Glass doesn't.  

I bought some small barrels on eBay.  Oak, charred on the inside, just like the regular-sized barrels you'd use to age whiskey et cetera.  Mixed up two cocktails: a gimlet (about 2/3 gin, 1/3 Rose's lime cordial - sorry Ray, 50-50 is too tart and sweet for me) and a coffee Manhattan (coffee-infused rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters).  Filled the barrels and waited some weeks.

We're at the part of the year where photography quality is going to dip until April: too cold, too little light.

Barrel-aged cocktails and gin

Far left, the Manhattan - not that the color is any different than before it aged.  Middle, the gimlet - it's actually more of a khaki/olive color than it looks here.

The Manhattan didn't change all that much.  It tastes more integrated, but there's another variable I introduced by using an infused liquor: infused liquors change flavor subtly over time because of the particles remaining in them; gin stays the same because it's distilled after infusion.  So the change to the Manhattan could be owed in large part to the coffee flavor settling in.  Some of it is the vanilla from the wood, though, I believe.

The gimlet, the gimlet is a whole nother thing.  Conventional wisdom is that gin is the best spirit to use in a barrel-aged cocktail because it's an unaged spirit - the rye whiskey had already been aged, already picked up wood flavor, so how much more can you add in a few weeks or months?  Whereas with gin (or vodka, theoretically, or unaged tequila or rum, or cachaca) you're adding a flavor gin wouldn't usually have.  The gimlet tastes ... not like a gimlet.  I don't know how to explain.  The lime is certainly recognizably there.  It's a very very well-balanced cocktail.  It just ... tastes like something other than a gimlet.  It tastes like a barrel-aged gimlet.  I'm sorry, that's not helpful at all!  But it's the case nevertheless.  I'm resisting certain descriptors like "smooth" because I think I just associate them with the wood, and I'm not positive they're meaningful here.

But I was interested by the effect on the gin.  Certainly the juniper is less pronounced.  The botanicals from the gin now intermingle with the flavors from the wood.  So to follow up, I aged gin - not a cocktail - in the same barrel.  But the only gin I had a full bottle of was an infused gin - infused with rhubarb.  Well, so be it: barrel-aged rhubarb gin.  That's what's on the far right.

It's good.  But it tastes nothing like gin.  If you gave it to me blind I don't think I would even guess gin, and if I didn't know about the barrel-aging trend, gin wouldn't even be in my first five guesses.  For one thing, there's a huge amount of tartness.  Some of that may be from the gimlet barrel - and let me note for my own future reference, the gimlet barrel is the one by the television, the Manhattan barrel is on the bookcase, because this certainly makes a difference and I certainly will forget - and some of it may be from the rhubarb.  I don't know.  

I wasn't sure what to think of the barrel-aged rhubarb gin at first.  What do you do with a gin that no longer recognizably tastes like gin?  So I made a Negroni.  Gin, Campari, sweet vermouth.  NOW it made sense.  NOW it came together.  This was a recognizable Negroni, a good Negroni.  I'm sure it helps that rhubarb is a botanical often used in potable bitters - I don't know for sure if it's used in Campari, but it's used in enough other Italian bitters that I imagine it probably is.

Haven't decided what to age next.  The barrels are filled with water - you always want to keep your barrels filled with SOMEthing, or they can dry out (especially in the current climate) and lose their seal.  Bitters are a possibility, or nocino.  A mojito maybe.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

fresh ghost chiles

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Fresh ghost chiles

Last year a friend of a friend was generous enough to send me fresh ghost chiles - the world's hottest chile pepper - which I promptly wasted by attempting to make a pepper jelly and scorching the whole batch.  See, the simmering world's hottest pepper jelly sent up such a cloud of capsaicin-spiked steam in my kitchen that I was trying to spend as little time in it as possible, and thus missed that crucial window between "this is now pepper jelly" and "this is burnt."

This year Marx Foods was kind enough to send me some fresh ghosts to play with again ... and I was more careful this time.  For instance, check out this sandwich, which I'm currently recovering from:

Turkey sandwich

Turkey thigh confit, ghost chile pepper jelly, mustard, and cheddar, on a Martin's potato roll.  It's good, but man ... it's spicy.

However, it's not too spicy to handle.  What I decided to do with the pepper jelly this time was use lots of other flavors in addition to the ghost chiles, so that I'd have this complex, spicy, taste bomb.  It worked out well!  The main trick was that I didn't add the ghost chiles until the last minute of cooking.

The reason I particularly wanted to make ghost pepper jelly is because it's one of the ghost chile applications that really needs fresh ghosts instead of dried.  I wanted to get those fresh chile flavors that would be lost in the drying process.  I think the wings and the beer cheese were substantially different made with fresh than they would have been with dried - but the rest of what I made could have been made with dried (which Marx also sells, and which I can vouch for the quality of).

Ghost pepper jelly:

Add the pulp of one Hachiya persimmon (the tomato-shaped persimmon that needs to be so soft it's like a bag full of pulp before it's ripe - American persimmons would be a fine substitute), 2 large red bell peppers (shredded in Cuisinart), chunks of candied orange peel, 3/4 cup of vinegar, 2 cups of sugar, 2-3 limes' worth of lime juice, 1 shredded carrot, and cinnamon and ginger to taste, and boil for 10-15 minutes.  Add shredded ghost chile (I think it was 2 peppers, maybe 3) and a pouch of liquid pectin and boil for another minute, until you have pepper jelly (drop some on a frozen plate, and it should gel).  I actually had to use a pouch and a half of liquid pectin, I think because of the added volume of the persimmon pulp, which I wasn't originally planning to use.

The result is a pepper jelly that's very hot, but not too hot to eat.

So, phew.  I got that done.  My karmic debt to ghost chiles was repaid.  Now ... what else could I do?

Ghost chile hot sauce

Infuse fresh ghost chiles, whole allspice berries, and a few spoonfuls of culantro recaito (culantro cooked with garlic and onion) in a jar of rum.  Wait two weeks.  Strain, and mix with "swamp juice" hot sauce (vinegar blended with culantro and habaneros and then strained).

Culantro I've talked about before - one of my favorite herbs, which I buy whenever we go to Little Cambodia.  It's an exceptional match for very very spicy peppers, and is combined with Scotch bonnets in the Caribbean.  The addition of the rum and allspice makes for a sort of Jamaican jerk-themed hot sauce.

Ghost chile wings

Make brown butter - just cook a stick of butter in a pan until the solids turn very brown - and transfer it to a heatproof dish and stick it in a stovetop smoker for five-six hours.  Blend smoked brown butter with shredded fresh ghost chile and a touch of vinegar, and toss freshly deep-fried chicken wings in the sauce.  Serve with onion dip (better than ranch or blue cheese).

Very very very nice.  But I'm a sucker for Buffalo wings.  You know that.

Ghost chile chili

Roast a pork picnic for some other purpose, so that you have leftover pork picnic to use.

Brown ground beef in a pan and remove, ditching most of the fat (you don't need to be scrupulous about it).  Render a large handful of chopped country-cured bacon (substitute regular bacon) in the pan, and cook onions and red bell pepper in the rendered bacon fat until soft.  Add the ground beef back to the pan, with chopped pork picnic, diced pork skin, Spice House chili con carne seasoning, salt, epazote, Indio Oregano from Rancho Gordo (substitute Mexican oregano), culantro recaito, shredded ghost chiles, water, beer, and roast pork picnic drippings.  Simmer for a couple hours before adding, or serving with, beans.

Nice, nice, thoroughly spicy chili.  Would probably be even better smoked.

Ghost chile beer cheese

Possibly the best thing I made.

Shred sharp cheddar and dry jack cheese - skip the dry jack if you don't have it.  A total of 1/2 pound of cheese.

In a Cuisinart, blend shredded cheese, a little mustard, and a single ghost chile.  It won't blend well at first.  Add a little beer - very little at a time - until the cheese comes together in a spread.  You may have to scrape the sides of the bowl a couple times.  Do NOT use too much beer - you'll wind up with something terrible and soupy instead of a cheese spread.  Use something malty for the beer - I went with Bellhaven Wee Heavy, but any Scotch Ale would be a good choice.

Delicious on cheeseburgers.

Candied ghost chiles

I attempted these but wasn't happy with them - a standard 2-week recipe of immersing the chiles in a sugar solution of increasing density.  I just didn't like the texture of the candied ghost chiles as much as habaneros or jalapenos, and wasn't sure what to alter about the process to have them come out better.

vermont spirits

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Now let's talk about good vodka.

Let's talk about great vodka.

Most vodka has no taste at all.  It's industrially produced neutral grain spirit.  The more times it's distilled, the less flavor it has - which is marketed as "smoothness."  Smoothness is somebody taking the filling out of your sandwich and charging you extra for premium emptiness.  There are a lot of expensive vodkas out there that come from industrial rectifiers converting corn sugar into flavorless spirit.  Why do you think the major vodka producers spend so much money on their brand identity?  I buy that stuff as ingredients - for vodka sauce, for infusions, things like that, and they'd be fine in a Vesper, but that's as far as I'd go.

There are a small number of vodkas distinguishing themselves, and of those, Vermont Spirits makes the best I've tried.  The common thread to all of the excellent vodkas I've had is that they start by fermenting and distilling something interesting, and that remains true with Vermont Spirits' Gold and White.  Neither is made from fermented grains.

Vermont Gold is made with 100% maple sap.  Now, this is near and dear to my heart, because when I was growing up, we tapped our own sugar maples.  If you're not from New England or Canada - and maybe even if you are - you might not grok this: every spring and fall when the temperature difference between day and night is at its greatest, the sap of maple trees moves through the trunk, and if you hammer a tap into the side, it'll drip out into a bucket all day.  Maple sap tastes sweet - I've seen it sold as a beverage at farmers markets and Atkins Farms in Amherst Mass - but needs to be boiled down to one-fortieth or so of its initial volume in order to become maple syrup.

Using maple sap to make vodka ... is really really cool.  The nose is maple sap - not syrup, but sap.  Not artificial maple flavoring, but sap.  Something real, something natural.  There's a distinctly sweet taste and a sort of warm woodiness that I'm not sure I would think of as "woodiness" if I weren't familiar with maple sap - but I don't know what else to call it.  My main point is that this vodka has flavor.  It isn't flavored, it has flavor.  It's born with it.

It actually makes a decent Old-Fashioned (using maple syrup instead of sugar), and a better sour - but even vodka with flavor isn't as strongly flavored as whiskey or rum (or gin, for that matter), and I think this is a better choice for sipping.  It would be my choice for a vodka martini, too.  I tried making a sort of appletini by combining this with Tuthilltown's apple vodka - but ultimately, although it was good, there wasn't enough apple flavor to justify calling it an appletini.  I do recommend the combination, however - a splash of maple syrup, a splash of unfiltered apple cider, but not enough to cover up the vodkas.

Vermont White is made from 100% milk sugar, which reminded me of reading about qumiz when I was a kid - fermented mare's milk.  Very little to the nose - a good clean alcohol smell.  It's sweet but not nearly as sweet as Vermont Gold.  There's something I'm having trouble describing here, which is obvious when you compare it - smell or taste - to a standard vodka.  I guess it's not something that Vermont White has, it's something it's missing - the fermented-grain flavor of other vodkas.  I'd swear there's even less alcohol burn, but I'm willing to admit that could be my imagination.  In any case, the overall effect is of a vodka with a creamier mouthfeel than the mouthwash/engine degreaser made by Absolut, Stoli, etc.  

I'm resistant to mixing Vermont White.  It has a much more subtle flavor than Vermont Gold, and I'd hate to see someone making Lemon Drops with it or something.  A little sugar and a little bitters, sure - but even a White Russian covers up the nuance.  On the other hand, if you love White Russians, this is probably a better choice than whatever you're using.

They're both great, fascinating spirits - the Vermont Gold really hit me where I live, so I'm biased there.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Asleep at a criminally early hour last night for who knows why, I was logically awake at a double jeopardy prelight hour - so I made meatballs, and am having an early lunch.

The meatballs are in a vodka arrabbiata sauce, which isn't the standard vodka sauce, but that's the thing about vodka sauce: there shouldn't be a standard, there shouldn't be just one.

If vodka is by definition flavorless, or at least so subtle in flavor that every nuance is drowned out by any mixer - which is true even of the vodkas I love - then why on Earth would you add it to a tomato sauce, much less a strongly flavored one with onions and chiles and all that?

Well, you do it because it's flavorless.  The vodka isn't important: the alcohol is.  Certain flavors are alcohol-soluble and respond positively to the addition of alcohol - the tomato will taste more like tomato, the all that will taste more like all that.  Vodka is higher proof than wine or vermouth and doesn't add the flavors that they would.  It's like adding citric acid instead of lemon juice, or salt instead of anchovies.  The classic vodka sauce - a little vodka, a little tomato, a little cream - originates in the late 1970s or early 1980s, in the immediate wake of the marketing push that swept most of the classic bar ingredients off the table and replaced them with a couple handles of flavorless potato squeezings.

Normally I make meatballs with beef, lamb, and pork, but I didn't have lamb or pork this morning - just ground chuck I had bought yesterday when craving a cheeseburger with Marmite.  The vodka sauce added some extra interest to make up for that.

The spaghetti, which is very good, came to me as part of a Serious Eats tasting panel, which I would link to but it hasn't been posted yet; it's from Azienda Agricola Mancini.

Spaghetti and meatballs with vodka sauce

The spaghetti is oversauced - ideally, you should use little enough sauce that your plate is clean when you're done.

Meatballs and vodka sauce -

Puree the peeled cloves from one bulb of garlic with about a quarter cup of cream.  Mix in to a pound or so of ground chuck, with a quarter cup (ish) of breadcrumbs, a beaten egg, and half a cup of grated Pecorino Romano.  Form into balls and let sit in the fridge while cooking the sauce.

Fry chopped onions in a little bit of olive oil until they start to brown.  Add another quarter cup (ish) of cream, a couple healthy shakes of crushed red peppers, a shake of rosemary, and a little marjoram, and continue to cook until the cream breaks.  Add a large can of crushed tomatoes and about a quarter cup of vodka and simmer on low for an hour.

Brown the meatballs and transfer them to the simmering sauce.

When the meatballs have been cooked through, add another splash of vodka, a splash of cream sufficient to make the sauce more orange than red, and remove from heat.

The alcohol does not boil off while cooking: that's a myth. Don't serve vodka sauce to 12 year olds or poorly behaved relations.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

anyone will do, could be you

It's that time of year again: citrus season.

Yuzu, Calamondin, Finger Lime

Now, I can't see, as I'm typing, how these photos will look on the blog, but you may need to click through to see the calamondin on the right.  

We have here three of the most interesting and complex-tasting citrus fruits - kaffir lime would be the fourth, I think: the yellow seedy fruit in the back is yuzu, the small orange fruit is calamondin (kalamansi in Filipino), and the odd duck frothing at the mouth is the famous finger lime.

We've talked about the calamondin and yuzu before.  Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit, very seedy, with an extremely fragrant rind that is used to flavor candies and as an ingredient in the condiment yuzukoshuo (yuzu zest and chiles).  The juice, which there isn't a lot of, is tart - not quite as tart as a lemon, but reasonably substituted for it in cocktail recipes.  The taste is sort of lemon-like without the brightness, sort of grapefruit-like, but really its own thing.

Over the past weekend, we made yuzu cocktails - a modified Shaddock, 1 1/2 oz genever, 1 1/2 oz Aperol, 1/2 oz St Germain, 1 oz yuzu juice - as well as yuzu curd with black sesame seeds, yuzu bitters, and yuzu marmalade with black raspberries and Chartreuse.  I would take photos but it's rainy today - nothing'll come out.

(Yuzu bitters: vodka, yuzu zest, cinnamon, anise, gentian, black tea - we'll see how they come out.)

The calamondin couldn't differ more from the yuzu.  Instead of a thick oily rind, the rind is thin, sweet, and edible, like a kumquat's.  It's very juicy, and somewhat reminiscent of a cross between a tangerine and a lime - or a tangerine made as tart as a lime, at least, because the flavor is very much like an intense tangerine, with the addition of acidity.  We had a calamondin pie which is one of the best pies I've made - calamondin juice blended with much of the pulp and rind, sweetened condensed milk, and eggs.  The key lime pie style of pie.  What I love about this model of pie is that you're taking a strong, strong flavor - tart citrus juice - and making it palatable by matching it with equal amounts of sweetness and richness, neither of which cover it up or mask it at all.

Also in the works, calamondin bounce - calamondins steeping in bourbon.

Ah, but the finger lime, the finger lime, those finger limes:

Yuzu, Finger Lime

Originally from Australia, the finger lime cannot be imported to the United States - presumably because of quarantine restrictions, which is common with foreign fruit.  But a small number of finger lime seedlings have been imported to the United States for scientific study over the last hundred years, and in 2004, the University of California citrus collection released finger lime budwood to California nurseries, beginning the first American commercial propagation of the plant.

It takes time for citrus trees to grow, and time for orchards to be established.  At the moment the fruit is difficult to get hold of if you aren't a restaurant, and not easy for them.  But you're going to see these in your supermarket eventually.  This photo shows the whole fruit better:

Yuzu, Calamondin, Finger Lime

I've been trying to get these for years.  So long that I don't even know what my number one item on my wishlist is now - jaboticaba, I guess, which look like grapes but grow directly on the trunks of Brazilian trees so that small mammals can reach them; or thimbleberries, which I've had in jam form but are too fragile to ship fresh.

It's a small, thin fruit about two to four coins in length and a dime in circumference.  When you peel it open, it's filled with small spherical vesicles of juice - all of them fairly dry to the touch, though they like to stick to your hands, the sides of glasses, and whatever else, so it can be hard to gather up a large number of them.  The rind is fragrant and reminds me of kaffir lime quite a bit, or maybe Rangpur.  The vesicles you can crunch and pop in your mouth - the juice is tart, but not as tart as a regular lime, more on the level of a Sour Patch kid.  

It's cool, it's weird, it's fun to eat, it's easy to eat, and it requires no preparation.  The peels dry quickly in this climate once you've scraped the vesicles out, so you can toss them in a bowl of sugar for some fragrant sugar.  The fingerlimes made spectacular marmalade - the best marmalade I've had - and we had a bunch of them in gin and tonics.

Finger limes may end up marketed as caviar limes, super fun happy limes hooray, mega mini limes, who knows.  They come in a variety of rind and pulp colors.  But trust me, under some name, you're going to see them before long, and you're gonna go, "Hey, this is that weird thing Bill was talking about that time."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Eggs, rice, and greens

Another simple lunch: broccoli raab and watercress stir-fried until wilted; leftover rice added and fried with the greens; soy sauce, sriracha, sesame oil; and an egg I call the unctuous egg.

The unctuous egg is all about technique:

Start with room temperature eggs, or warm them up by sitting them in a pot of very warm water for 5-10 minutes.

Bring a pot of water to a boil.  Reduce the heat enough to keep it barely simmering and add the eggs.  Simmer for 5-7 minutes.  Meanwhile, get a bowl of ice water ready.

After 5-7 minutes, remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and place them in the ice water.  Ideally, leave them for an hour before peeling.  The ice water stops the cooking faster than just draining the eggs will, but eggs retain heat for a surprisingly long time.

Peel the eggs - and in my case, serve one of them with your lunch immediately.  But typically you would now marinate the eggs, peeled, in something like soy sauce and sriracha, or diluted curry paste, or etc etc.

What this cooking technique does is give you a yolk that's smooth and creamy without being either runny or grainy - as you can see from mine, it either cooked closer to the 7 minute end or didn't cool down fast enough, because some of the yolk is light yellow around the edge instead of dark yellow-orange throughout.  That'll depend some on your egg, too.

taylor thermometer with pager

I've mentioned CSN Stores before - they provided the deep fryer I recommended, and offered me another review opportunity.  It always takes me forever to pick something out to review, because they sell so much: I could get a stool for the kitchen, a density meter for candymaking, a new utility knife since the one I use is good but ancient.  Those are possibilities for the future, but with Thanksgiving coming up I decided to get a good thermometer.

There are a plethora of cooking thermometers sold, some specifically for candy and jam making, some handheld infrared thermometers, some meant for meat.  Thanksgiving implied the last type, and I looked around, checked out brand names, and settled on something from Taylor, known for their reliable thermometers.

Specifically I got the Taylor Connoisseur Wireless Thermometer with Remote Pager and Timer.  

That mouthful of a name doesn't really tell you what you want to know.  Here's how it works: although they call it a "wireless thermometer," that refers to the included pager, not the probe.  It's easy enough to use: you plug the probe into the meat or potato or whatever you're baking, and it's connected by a thin flat wire to the thermometer, which you rest on the counter outside the oven.  With most ovens this works fine.  Some grills close tight enough that they can crimp the wire.  And I believe a pizza oven would melt the plastic on the wire, but there aren't many circumstances under which you'd be cooking a pizza to temp.

The thermometer is set to beep when the probe reaches a certain temperature, which you set yourself.  Although it gives you the option of picking "beef, pork, poultry," etc., as well as a range of doneness, I prefer to just set the temperature myself.  Keep in mind this Thanksgiving that the USDA recently reduced its recommended turkey target temperature to 165, not 180, having screwed up royally the first time.

The pager will work anywhere in the house and blinks periodically to let you know that it's still in communication with the thermometer - so if you go outside to where your brother-in-law is deep-frying a tofurkey or something, you'll know if you're still in range of the thermometer unit.  Shortly before the thermometer reaches its target temperature, both it and the pager will beep, letting you know to finish whatever you're doing and get ready to go to the kitchen.  It beeps again when the temp is reached.

So this is very cool.  I happened to test it out (on a roast turkey) when I wasn't doing much else, but it would have been even handier if I were busy cooking other things, or talking to company, or what have you - no need to keep popping into the kitchen to check the turkey, no need to worry you'll lose track of time.

The one flaw isn't really a flaw, it's just a feature that isn't included, and might be available on more expensive models: it would be nice if the pager included a display of the current temperature, so you know how close you are to your target.  There's a big difference between having two hours to go and twenty minutes to go, especially when you're coordinating the multiple dishes of Thanksgiving.  The thermometer unit itself does display this information, so whenever you're in the kitchen you have access to it - it would just be nice to have it on the pager too.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

guest post: the science of taste

It's a GUEST POST!  I wasn't able to go with Caitlin to The Science of Taste Through Cocktails because I had a deadline the next day, but she's here to tell you what I missed.  Take it away, Caitlin. --bk

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to nab a seat at The Science of Taste Through Cocktails – the first in a series of seminars organized to benefit the Science Club for Girls and co-sponsored by the Boston chapter of LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails). For the price of the ticket, I got great conversation, interesting lectures, and fantastic drinks, and supported getting young women into science while doing it – pretty sweet deal!

On arrival, I received a dainty cup of LUPEC’s Welcome Punch, based on an 18th-century recipe consisting of green tea, cognac, rum, and lemon – a nice mix of sweet and tart, and very drinkable. Had I not been so committed to finding and keeping a good seat (the event was sold out and the little room was well-packed), I probably would’ve gotten myself indecently soused on it before the evening even began.

After everyone was settled in and the necessary introductory speeches made, Don Katz, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brandeis, dropped some science on us. He began by identifying the five main taste categories we’re able to perceive and their importance: saltiness (which signifies a food contains important electrolytes), sourness (usually an indication of unripe fruit that’s not ready to eat), sweetness (ripe fruit; delicious calories), bitterness (poison!) and umami (or as Dr. Katz, called it, “umamiocity”) which was “too complex to fully examine here” (the awesome mystery of umami strikes again).

Now, you’re probably dredging up the memory of the ‘five different sections of the tongue’ thing from seventh grade Biology class. As it turns out, like many things you learned in seventh grade, that’s total bullshit. Every part of your tongue can perceive all the different taste categories equally well. What you do have is millions of taste buds, each of which is shaped like an orange and contains sections which look like orange wedges; housed within these wedges are a variety of cells which react differently to different tastes.

From there we got into a discussion of neural pathways and how your brain interprets the sensations from your tongue. Particularly interesting is the bitterness reaction, involving a “rejection pathway” which is basically this:

Mouth: Nom nom nom.

Brain: Bitter?

Tongue: YES!


Mouth: BLEH!

This rejection pathway is so basic it only involves the brainstem – no higher brain function! Even creatures with ONLY a brainstem have this reaction. Katz showed us videos of frogs, babies and mice exhibiting the same ‘rejection pathway’ reaction – mouth agape, tongue stuck out. We covered again how this reaction serves a basic protective function: bitter foods are usually poisonous to us; sweet foods are usually safe to eat and provide life-sustaining calories. However, as Katz pointed out, this doesn’t always bear out. There are all sorts of bitter greens, like kale, that are fantastically good for you, and sweet things, like the manchineel fruit, that are extraordinarily poisonous.

[Well shit, now I want to know what the manchineel fruit tastes like, I bet it's awesome. --bk]

Katz then highlighted how all five senses integrate to affect our perception of taste. Touch, for example: carbonation has a negligible effect on the chemical profile of soda pop, but it’s the sensation of the bubbles in our mouths that affects our perception of its taste (and thus why most people hate flat soda).

Then there’s vision: Katz likes to perform an experiment with his students where he segregates drink sodas from their expected colors. He dyes an orange-flavored drink purple, a cherry-flavored drink yellow, a lemon-flavored drink red, etc. Without fail, the students taste the flavor they expect the drink to be based on its color – even after they’re told otherwise!

As for smell, most of us are familiar with how closely it governs taste – we’ve all held our noses when choking down something unpleasant, or suffered through tasteless meals during a bad cold. But apparently this works just as powerfully the other way: many fruit-flavored candies (like Skittles) don’t have different flavors, just different colors and aromas, and that’s enough to make us think they taste different. Some candies only differentiate by color (as with Katz’s beverage experiment) -- but for our brains, this sideshow charlatanism is sufficient.

Finally, there’s social experience. Katz raised the obvious example: tequila. Everyone knows someone (or is someone – ahem) who hates tequila because their first (and last) experience with it began during a party and ended kneeling in front of a toilet. From that point ever after, tequila is almost inextricably associated with nausea. But this can also work positively: in lab experiments, if a rat has just eaten food and breathes it onto another rat, that second rat will reliably choose that particular food over everything else, even if it’s bitter. Presumably humans need a bit more than some heavy breathing to get into something they mightn’t normally eat, but most of us can think of something we started eating or drinking because of social influences, even something we might otherwise have found repulsive. (Spam, casu marzu, etc.)

Now that we were all properly educated on how and why we taste the way we do, it was time for cocktails!

First up: Sour, by Augusto Lino from Upstairs on the Square.

Sour (Caitlin)

This was Lino’s variation on a Last Word, and consisted of 1 part spirit base (gin), 1 part sweet (chartreuse) and 1 part extremely sour (verjus). On my first few sips, it didn’t taste any sourer than any other Last Words I’d had, and it was deliciously chartreusey, but it had a tarter, drier finish that must have been the verjus. Looking around the room, you could see (and hear!) everyone smacking their mouths after every sip – a good sign that sourness had been achieved. Lino passed a bottle of verjus around the room and encouraged us to smell it. My first impression was a strong smell of cedar (but I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so that may just be me smelling what I know – let’s not forget the powerful links between taste, scent and memory). After a couple more whiffs, I could definitely smell a musty, almost vinegary, but very grapey scent. I suggested to the neuroscience student sitting next to me that we smell the bottle and then immediately drink some of the Sour to see if the verjus flavor was more pronounced – and it was! That tart, dry finish now tasted more like a hint of very dry, sour white wine. SCIENCE!

After each cocktail, former chemist and current opera singer Graham Wright spoke a little bit about the chemical aspects of what we were tasting. In this case, sour drinks are highly acidic, and acid reactions involve the donation of protons – the smallest particle you can taste. Note to self: invent and market sour drink called Mouth Fulla Protons.

Next up was Umami, by Nicole Lebedevitch of Eastern Standard.

Savory (Caitlin)

She had mucked around with a few different savory bases, like miso and soy, without much success. The mix she finally ended up with was mushroom gin, Madeira, orange juice, honey and salt. I have to admit, I was wary of this when I saw this on the menu. “Mushroom gin?” I thought. “Is this going to taste all fungal and dirty?” In fact, it was my favorite of all the cocktails that night: mouthwateringly delicious and compulsively drinkable. The first thing I tasted was a nice, sunny sweetness, but then, as it was going down, an amazing earthiness hit the back of my mouth and around the sides of my tongue, right where you salivate – and I did. THAT was the mushroom gin. It didn’t taste overtly mushroomy, but it had that rich, earthy bottom note that makes fungi so satisfying and delicious. I could’ve had five of these. The other people at my table all said the same: “This is so different, but great! I can’t stop drinking it!”  

Wright talked about tannic acid being an important element in the perception of umami, as well as glutamate (like in MSG). Glutamate’s a neurotransmitter, and according to Wright, the perception of umami involves the most basic kind of neurotransmission, and yet the perception of umami varies widely across cultures: compare American attitudes to Asian attitudes towards MSG, or Australian and English preferences for Vegemite and Marmite.

That set up a great segue into the next cocktail, Salty -- and boyyyy was it ever.

Salty (Caitlin)

Emily Stanley, the brand ambassador for Bols Genever, busted out a Michelada variation, comprised of Pacifico (Stanley: “any cheap Mexican beer will do”), lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Tabasco sauce, and a salted rim. The first thing that hit me was the bubbles from the beer, then a salty, earthy, savory body (almost like broth) and a spicy aftertaste. It was the only drink I couldn’t finish, but it was cool. At this point, the appetizers had hit the table, including some little teaspoons of ceviche. My tablemates and I thought the drink would chase a spoonful of ceviche especially well, and we were right – the drink enhanced the flavors of the fish beautifully. A spoonful of ceviche helps the Salty go down – or vice versa.

Wright talked about the cation in salt being responsible for our perception of its saltiness, and how the beer was an important element in this cocktail because it’s great at dissolving the salt (the ethanol in it only slightly less so). Katz said this was the most complex thing he’d ever tasted: the soy sauce contributes amino acids, giving it an umami undercurrent, the bubbles mute and blend the different flavors in the drink, and the Tabasco activates your VR1 receptors, which gives you some heat at the end of the drink. I never would’ve thought to order something like this before, but now, if I were going to have some fish and chips or a few oysters, this would be a much more fun beverage accompaniment than a plain old beer.

After all that complexity, it was pretty refreshing when Joy Richard of The Franklin CafĂ© served up her Bitter – a simple, classic Negroni.

Bitter (Caitlin)

Mmm, Campari. This was the most polarizing of all the cocktails – half the people in the room loved that spicy, citrusy bitterness (and I was one of them) – the other half definitely worked their bitterness rejection pathways into overtime. Lots of BLEH! faces, including one poor girl at my table who took a single demure sip, then coughed and sputtered for the next five minutes until she was the same color as the drink. After she’d choked down most of a pitcher of water, she declared the Negroni to be the worst thing she’d ever tasted in her life. Another thing to remember about taste: there’s no accounting for it.

Wright talked about how a large number of compounds can contribute to the sensation of bitterness, but mainly we deal with alkaloids here, which are nitrogen-based and nearly always come from plants. The discussion inevitably led to the distinction between supertasters and non-tasters, and the role of the compound, phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) in the breakdown. Depending on your genetic makeup, PTC will either taste incredibly bitter to you, or like nothing at all. About 70% of the population can taste it, but this number can vary dramatically across ethnicities – only 58% of indigenous Australasians can taste PTC, compared to 98% of indigenous Americans. And supertasters, boy, they can really taste it, although Wright was quick to point out that non-PTC-tasters tend to consume more alcohol. At this point, Katz and Wright, perhaps a little in their cups (they weren’t the only ones) declared that putting vermouth in the Negroni was a “wussy move” and that if Richard had really wanted to go for a bitter drink, she should’ve left it out entirely – perhaps an experiment for another time.

Finally, it was time for the last drink of the evening: Sweet, by Carrie Cole of Craigie on Main -- Bols Genever, St. Germain, Averna, Xocolat Mole Bitters, and a bit of salt.

Sweet (Caitlin)

Because everyone was a little silly at this point, and because this was perhaps the least challenging of all the drinks (which isn’t a slight), I’m not sure this one got the attention it deserved. Cole deftly managed to pull off a cocktail that tasted like really good chocolate – fruity, malty, spicy, rich, herbaceous, and a little bitter – but it was light, with a subtly (not overwhelmingly) syrupy finish. I’ve had a few treacly, stomach-souring chocolate cocktails in my time; this is the cocktail those cocktails wish they could be. They’re the Sixlets to this drink’s Valrhona.  

Sweet’s scientific analysis also suffered for being the last drink of the evening as many were pretty compromised at this point (including me, judging by the state of my notes). There was some talk of different sugars, both naturally-occurring and synthetic (the word ‘chirality’ shows up in my notes encased in brackets with no further explanation – how mysterious!), but before long, the evening drew to its inevitable conclusion and we happy science-tipplers dispersed, mouths delighted and minds enriched – not bad for a Wednesday night in Kenmore.

To find recipes for all the cocktails mentioned, see LUPEC’s write-up of the event. The next installment in the Science of Taste series, The Science of Temperature in cooking, takes place November 16 at the Microsoft NERD Center; tickets can be purchased here and all proceeds benefit The Science Club for Girls.