Hungry for Conversation

[by Naveen]

How much of your enjoyment in life do you get from food? Is it like 90%?
The question posed by my friend at a recent outing to Tory Row has haunted me over the past few days. Am I a little more than an obsessive foodie?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how little I care about the food itself. To put it in simplest terms, I like food because I like talking to people. Wherever I go, I can compare notes on local restaurants, new recipes, or food science facts. I enjoy talking to local businesses as I organize Science Cafes and various food science events. I'm just as comfortable chatting with vegans about the controversy over raw foods as I am conversing with omnivores about how to cook the perfect short rib. I have as much fun drinking PBR with my former classmates as I do when I have some of the best cocktails in Boston.

I'm fascinated by the sociology of food. Eating habits can be a window into a person's psyche. The dining hall at Dudley is a menagerie of food-related rituals: the friendly conversations with the sandwich man, the stressed-out students nibbling on grapes and drinking Diet Soda, the group of friends walking over together from lab, the hurried workaholics who rush out the door with their brown bag lunches to sit in front of a computer, and so on. My unofficial personal trainer in the gym urges me to eat more and try protein supplements. At lunch that day, I end up sitting with some dorm-mates who talk about dieting and skipping dinners.
What type of drink would you like? Beer? Wine? A cocktail? Fruity, dry?
I have no idea how to respond to the bartender's question. I can't think of any intrinsic preferences. As Bourdain has shown, drinking is a nearly global form of bonding and I value the resulting conversations and insights far more than the beverage itself.



[by Mike]

Thanks to a tip by Naveen, I had the luxury of spending the day (literally, the seminar ran from 9 to 5) over at Boston University listening to Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher talk food.  In addition to taking the torrent of questions from the audience, the two eminent food writers covered the history of food science, heat in the kitchen (including the infamous sous vide), the intricacies of flavor and aroma (with the supertaster test), and finally a discussion on molecular gastronomy that may have actually killed my distain for the field.   McGee is an incredibly charming speaker, each presentation engaging and dense with information, while Corriher featured a boisterous Southern personality complete with a knack for storytelling and a dissonant fondness for the word "shit".

Particulars will have to be reserved for personal conversations, except for one fact that simply must be shared.  Where did the term "molecular gastronomy" originate?  It was devised to help garner funding for one of the first food science conferences.  As Corriher so eloquently put it, bullshit.



pad thai cookies

[by john]

i've been holding off this post so that i could sufficiently surprise my guy with a airmailed batch of cookies for his birthday. well, it worked, so now i get to share.

i decided to attempt a tongue-in-cheek version of pad thai in cookie form since he grew up in bangkok. there are, believe it or not (there's no reason you should), no pad thai cookie recipes on the internet, so i got to flex my creativity muscles.

the whole process mimicked creating a new drink, or at least that was the mentality i applied. key ingredients: peanut, spice, tamarind. fish sauce, noodles and shrimp were clearly out. i don't want a lumpy mess of ingredients...hm...something that delineates the ingredients...thumbprint cookies?...yes!...with tamarind jam!...does that exist?...no...make my own...with spicy peanut butter cookies underneath...perfect.

after tweaking the jam, a couple iterations of the cookies themselves, and testing the recipe on friends, i had a great finished product. peanutty up front, the sweet-sour tamarind jam taking its place, then the spicy finish from the chili powder.

the jam was the scariest part:
tamarind jam

dissolve a brick of tamarind pulp (found in most asian markets) with hot water and work out the seeds. strain out the seeds. you want the consistency to be liquidy but not too watery. put a good amount of sugar in there (about 1:1 with the tamarind), plus a pinch of salt, and reduce in a saucepan until it has a good consistency when put on a frozen plate (no liquid runoff).

this was my guide.
now the cookies:
peanut butter thumbprint cookies

mix together with a hand mixer:
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup peanut butter

mix in:
1/2 cup brown sugar

1 egg
1/2 teasp. vanilla

in a separate bowl:
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 teasp. salt
1 1/2 teasp. chili powder

slowly add the dry stuff to the batter while beating.

roll batter in 3/4 inch balls, add tamarind jam in thumbprint. pinch of sugar on top if jam isn't sweet enough.

9-10 mins at 350.
et voila. (note that i had to use my bar mat for the cooling rack, since i don't own a proper one. drinks are clearly my game.)

New Wave Tiki

[by Mike]

I just returned from a trip to Craigie and perhaps the best show I've seen in years.

At the Eastern Standard tiki event last month, Jackson Cannon mentioned that his former protege Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli was creating his own orgeat and I had to take advantage of the opportunity at Craigie to ask for a drink featuring the homemade elixir.  The result started with the orgeat, lime juice, pineapple juice, an ounce of Angostura bitters, and a little bit of Galliano.  Into the drink Tom dropped a bowl of lime rind (end of a lime, cleaned and inverted) which he promptly filled with Chartreuse and ignited.  I had to patiently wait while the Chartreuse burned until after a few minutes Tom returned to spray the flame with clove essence.  After a few more minutes of hypnotically staring at the flame, the drink was finally ready with a swift clap to put out of the flame.

The flavors were incredible; a sophisticated array of sweet, sour, fruit, and spice with a creamy texture that easily defeated the oppressive heat.  Tom had no name for the drink, but referred to the style as "New Wave Tiki".   Is it too much to hope for the summer of New Wave Tiki?


Seeking inspiration

[by naveen]

I haven't posted for a while, since nothing that I did seemed blog-worthy at the time. However, looking back, many of my activities are part of a quest for gastronomically-inspiring experiences:
1) For my computer science class about data visualization, I'm working on a method to easy compare different review sources (e.g. Boston Magazine vs. Boston Globe). My inspiration was this article about the Top 50 Restaurants.
2) Flatbread: I was inspired by Mark Bittman's recent video, so I used a spare hour this morning to try out his recipe. Despite having only four ingredients (flour, olive oil, salt, water), I managed to mess it up. I mixed the oil directly into the batter, resulting in a thin pancake-like product that was crisp on the outside and very moist on the inside (cooking at 450 F instead of 400 didn't help).
3) No coffee for two weeks has surprisingly little effect on my circadian rhythm. I really enjoy the taste of coffee, the experience of hanging out at a cafe or chatting with lab-mates during a coffee break, yet the caffeine seems to do nothing for me. My office-mate, on the other hand, can't sleep at night if she has coffee in the morning.
4) Tacos de rajas y papas with one of my dorm-mates. Roasted poblanos are now my favorite food of the moment and I'm on the lookout for good mexican food. My experiences at Boloco and Felipe's did not satisfy this need.
5) The Microbial Appreciation Society at Harvard is planning an event to promote the positive aspects of bacteria (e.g. bread, yogurt, wine, beer) at the end of May and I'm certainly going to help out. I'll post details once I know more.

Any recommendations for future culinary adventures?



[by Mike]

When making drinks at home, experimentation is a mostly slow and deliberate process.  Usually I'll start with an established recipe and build, substituting spirits or tweaking flavors until the drink has become something entirely.  Spontaneity is left for when a great bartender can be responsible for the challenge of bringing an idea to fruition within minutes.

While making drinks for some friends tonight, I was given my first challenge when a friend requested a something with the bottle of Domaine de Canton sitting on my shelf.  Now I haven't had much time to play with the spirit since picking it up last month, and for a second I just stood there looking flustered.  Eventually my gaze drifted to the orange that was out for a previously made Old Fashioned and some serendipitous decisions were made.

The Domaine de Canton was paired with a fresh squeeze of orange juice, while Sailor Jerry provided a spicy base and vanilla note that complemented both the citrus and the ginger.  A dash of Regan's orange bitters finished everything off.  I might want to experiment with the choice of bitters, but overall I was quite pleased how everything came together.  

Feshbach Resonance

1.5 oz Sailor Jerry spiced rum
1.0 oz orange juice
0.75 oz Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur
1 dash Regan's orange bitters

The drink was christened a "Feshbach Resonance" to honor the friend who brought the initial challenge.  I think some of my compatriots may be less than pleased in my resorting to physics for a name, but sometimes it just has to happen.  Sometimes, in fact, you have a scientific name so good that a drink must be designed around it.  At least I have a little time to work with that challenge.


snoop dogg and my drinking patterns

[by john]

just visited scott holliday down at rendezvous and got him to rant about certain rap stars dropping names and upping prices (as they are wont to do, but with usually riffraff like designer vodka and cristal, not cognac!). i also enjoyed some egg on easter with his cynar flip.

[by Mike]

While John was talking hip hop, my intentions were set on taking advantage of Scott Holliday's experience to garner ideas for the bottle of Creme de Violette I was given yesterday. To this end I started off with something of a Violet Fizz (gin, lemon juice, Creme de Violette, orange flower water, egg white, and soda). The addition of the few drops of orange flower water was brilliant, complimenting the floral notes of the Creme de Violette while at the same time keeping it from overpowering the drink.

The fun really didn't begin until the second round. Inspired by the Cucumber and Mint (Hendrick's gin, mint, cucumber juice, lemon juice, and lime juice) my friend had ordered, I proposed a combination of the vibrant cucumber juice and my favorite spirit, tequila. After some back and forth, we settled on the Cucumber and Mint with Herradura replacing the Hendrick's and I could not have been more pleased.

When it comes to cocktails, my favorite flavor pairing is easily tequila and fruit. While it can be easily abused, the combination can be magical when the taste of the fruit resonates with the grassy, floral notes of a good tequila. Prominent examples include the Mexican Firing Squad (tequila, a good savory homemade grenadine, syrup, lime juice, Peychaud's bitters, and angostura bitters) and a simple strawberry margarita (tequila, in season strawberries muddled with just a little bit of sugar, lime juice, and triple sec).

Sadly, the cucumber was so fragrant that it was all too easy to fall into the illusion of summer which made the cold, windy walk home all the more painful.


if(day % 365 == 109) drink();

[by Mike]

For my last few birthdays, the tradition has been for my parents to come up into the city and treat me to dinner at one of the great Boston restaurants. In my first year of graduate school I scored with an amazing meal at Blue Ginger while last year we went to the highly recommended Oleana. Unfortunately, schedules made a third dinner this year a little inconvenient so my parents requested asked if there were any gifts I might want instead.

My first thoughts immediately went to expanding my bar with some of the more specialized liqueurs I had been exposed to while drinking at Boston's finest bars. Assembling a list is easy enough, but finding bottles readily accessible outside of the city is a much harder task. The last time I was back home I was actually surprised at a few decently stocked liquor stores, but the selection didn't feature anything I didn't already have (at least by the time my visit was over!).

Surreptitiously, my dad was in the city today and when he called to offer a ride I had actually been awake long enough to be presentable to the outside world. Gifts were secured at the hipster liquor store in Davis, and a few additional items were picked up when we accidentally ran into the Cheese and Wine Cask and Savenor's on the way back.

Needless to say, I have some drinks to make.

march's budget

[by john]

my budget survived a riotous march spent (in the monetary - not time - sense) mostly in california. i came in under budget in the alcohol category. somewhat surprising, actually, but thanks in large part to declining further rounds at b&b.

one interesting feature: i usually split food expenses 25/75 between dining and groceries, but this month that fraction flipped because of all the travel and time with old friends.

and the april ledger is looking good so far, with a large chunk of studying taking the place of more enjoyable pursuits. small consolation...



[by naveen]

My insatiable culinary drive took me to the Hynes Convention Center on Friday evening for the Local Bites preview event for the down:2:earth expo into sustainable living. Some of the highlights included:
  • A beer flight from Watch City Brewing Company. I chatted with the brewmaster, who talked about the physical demands of running a small brewery, as opposed to just pushing buttons in an automated factory. On top of that, he bikes 15 miles each way to work. I was also reminded by the Squishy Physics talk by the brewmaster at Cambridge Brewing Company last year and now feel inspired to go on some brewery tours.
  • Wines from Kunde Winery in the Sonoma Valley (not especially local, but certainly eco-friendly). Harpoon was giving out samples of cider. I always enjoy free beverages, but I didn't really learn anything new here.
  • Burritos from Boloco Burrito company. The executive chef explained how he learned to cook at World Wrap in San Francisco, which explained why the company makes me nostalgic for California. They are working towards composting the food waste, using recyclable dishware, etc. in their efforts to be environmentally-friendly.
  • A mini chocolate cupcake and blondie bar, both vegan, from Upstairs on the Square. I have yet to dine there, but their desserts have convinced me to eventually try one of their Vegan Dinners. On a related note, I wonder if anyone has studied the science of vegan baking (an egg/dairy-free equivalent to Bakewise).
  • Farmer's custard from Henrietta's Table (definitely not vegan). Peter Davis himself was there to advertise his new cookbook. According to the website, Davis has been driving the bandwagon of sustainable, organic, "slow" food for decades. On the subject of bandwagons, I wonder how much longer this "trend" will continue before it becomes the norm and chefs need to do something really different to distinguish themselves.
  • the fireplace and tavolo were also there, both serving samples of their cuisine. Both were quite tasty, but the Euro-centric influence made me wonder whether it is possible to have, for instance, Asian or South American-style food using New England ingredients or whether the local farms dictate the possible culinary approaches.
While I certainly support the goal of sustainable cuisine, this article in Mother Jones has reminded me to approach this ideal with healthy skepticism rather than zealous sloganism.


[by john]

(conga room via flickr)

my former self knew nothing about tiki. about the island culture that can flavor your drink beyond the falernum and tiki bitters. about the music, the forget-the-weather-outside vibe, and the crazy carved demigods. that former self is, well, still drunk on three kinds of rum, leaving me to tell the tale.

eastern standard held a tiki bash this weekend that only eastern standard could throw. jackson cannon greeted mike and i with trader vic's punch (rum, more rum, even more rum, orgeat, orange and lemon juice) from a flower-laden tropical punch bowl. that knocked us into our seats, where we played bobby's captive audience.

bobby mccoy is a bartender at e.s. who caught the tiki bug, and taught us a bit about the rise(s) and fall(s) of tiki culture in the states. tiki apparently got big in the early 1900's, when travel by sea (to, say, polynesia) became easier. it was revived during prohibition when peopled traveled to drink, then re-revived after prohibition when (unaged) rum was easier to come by than (aged) whiskies, by the enterprising don the beachcomber, then re-re-revived in the '80s, and currently re-re-re....revived due to the focus on fresh citrus and complex spice flavors.

he made a zombie punch, with FOUR (count 'em) ounces of different rums. smooth sailing from then on, needless to say. paired with a coconut shrimp salad.

brother cleve was next up, and detailed a rambling musical history of tikification, including the necessary cocaine use. he presented his drink from the last tales of the cocktail, the cactus flower. eleven ingredients (including prickly pear puree - ask mike about it) later, i had a tasty drink and part of a roasted pig in front of me. i was starting to understand this tiki thing...

sugar-crusted donuts and a wild, spicy batavia arrack-based non-standard tiki drink rounded out the polynesian afternoon (did i mention it was still light out?).

before i stepped back into the cold, bostonian real world, i had come to realize that the flavors weren't the whole tiki story; a large part was the other fun people sitting at the long table, enjoying the alternate world they had entered and agreeing, 'yeah, this drink is a strong one!'. tiki transports to a -state-, more than a place, and that is why it is alive and well in new england.