[by john]

i was reminded last night of just how essential ice is as a cocktail ingredient.

in order to properly warm a cliquot-loving friend's new apartment, i brought a flask of pre-measured gin and st. germain and a bottle of prosecco to make elderfashion royales. the only thing i didn't bring - and hadn't thought i needed - was ice. like habit, i put the glassware in the freezer and started looking around for the clear stuff...but alas! after some playful admonishing, i went ahead with the drink, swirling it in a frozen pint glass and then topping the chilled flute with prosecco.

ah, but there's the rub. a drink is not stirred, shaken, or built with ice for the bracing chill alone; dilution is - i would argue - the most important side effect. you don't want to poison your guests, after all.

so, i ended up trying two versions of the cocktail - one straight up, and one with 1/4 oz of water to simulate a little bit of dilution. and there was definitely a difference...the 'watered down' one was indeed rounder.

the cocktails turned out nicely (as st. germain and bubbly usually do), and made the night's conversations all the more pleasant.


now, i've been trying to restrain myself from becoming an ice snob, as bartenders are wont to do. i don't boil my water beforehand, or purify it, or do two stages of freezing...but i will admit to buying some tovolo trays, which give very solid one inch cubes. they've got a lot more shaking power than chipped ice, and they look sexy in a collins glass.

however, i think this might take it too far: physicists have discovered a new kind of ice, dubbed ice xv. it is formed only at high pressures and is a little strange, being antiferroelectric. i don't know how it would change a drink, but it'd be impossible to find out anyway. i guess those scientists will have to celebrate their achievement with some champagne chilled in regular ol' ice ih.

as a final ice news note, check out this slideshow of different kinds of solid water and then tell me people aren't obsessed with this all too common, all too weird substance.



[by Mike]

After a long week of some inconsistent fast food (ranging from awesome lamb-fennel schwarma to a terrible Chinese buffet) and lots of tacos (corn tortillas, rotisserie chicken, cucumber, radish, lime, and chipotle salsa) I thought it was time to treat myself to something a little nicer.

My previous searches through Yelp turned up one possibility, Blonde. The lone review wasn't particularly helpful, but it linked to the restaurant's website and, despite the aliased text, the prospect of candied apple and fennel proved to be enough persuasion. In classic Long Island tradition, Blonde was located in a strip mall sandwiched between a hardware store and one hour photo developer. The interior decor, however, was largely unaffected by the neighbors. A few too many candles illuminated a warm color palette and a painted wall with a modern touch.

Spoiled by the cocktail selection in Boston restaurants, I tried starting with and Old Fashioned in the hope they would have a nice rye or two. While they weren't stocking rye, this did have a bottle of Milagro blanco tequila that made for a fine tequila Old Fashioned. After a few sips my appetizer arrived; duck paired with spinach, frisee, raw onions, and candied pecans with a ponzu dressing. While I would have appreciated a few more of the addicting pecans, the array of flavors and textures were great.

The quality of the salad had my hopes raised for the entree, pork loin with sweet potato puree and crispy fried leeks, and I wasn't too disappointed. Although under seasoned and somewhat overcooked, the pork loin had a great crust that kept crisp through the entire meal. Also lacking salt, the sweet puree was soft and full of rich, roasted sweet potato flavor and he leeks were a nice addition, melting in the mouth and providing a base earthy flavor when combined with the rest of the dish. All in all, only a few seasoning adjustments away from a really good dish.

One interesting note is the size of the portions. Accustomed to the, shall we say, delicate servings common in Boston, I was blown away by the size of these dishes. The pure bulk of food certainly helped to assuage the price.

For now it's back to cereal, tacos, and cheap take out as I build up my savings and hunger for the gluttony awaiting my return to Boston.



[by Naveen]

I'm lost: what am I doing? I don't want to be a food blogger taking photos of restaurant meals like some safari-goer collecting trophies. I don't want to be a tourist visiting a country just to take pictures of the monuments and buy some trinkets at the gift shop. I can pick any random recipe on-line and buy pretty much any out-of-season ingredient at the local supermarket and more exotic ingredients at Whole Foods, but that doesn't seem like cooking. That's stamp-collecting.

Running analogies come to mind. I don't want to be stuck doing two-mile jogs: I want to run a marathon someday. I keep seeing ways to take my dishes a step further: farmer's market asparagus instead of generic spears from Shaw's. Growing my own fresh herbs and grinding my own spices instead of sprinkling from the numerous small cylinders in the cabinets. Practicing my knife skills. Getting into a rhythm of reprocessing leftovers and extras to minimize time and food waste. Being able to deconstruct the separate ingredients in a cocktail or the various flavor notes in a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.

Constraints make cooking more real. Wary of budgetary overruns, I'm skeptical about long ingredient lists. Falling behind in my grad school research makes me feel worse when a recipe takes far longer than expected to prepare.

Why do I cook? It's more than food. It's partly the Zen-like state of mind that comes from focusing on technique. However, it's different than the quest for perfection that drives many professional chefs. I think it's my way of expressing my insatiable curiosity and the continual drive to go further.


Pierce Street Vegetarian Chili
from 101Cookbooks.com, with Goya dried bean mix, some leftover pearled barley, Boston Organics chard, red chili powder from New Mexico.

Breadsticks from "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" - more trouble than their worth, in my mind. Flatbreads seem to be a much more practical invention. Every culture has their own variety and there's now an entire cookbook devoted to this global endeavor.

Home-made granola with dried apricots and chopped almonds. Not cost-effective and I'm not sure I want to turn this into a weekly routine. Making oatmeal every day isn't quite my style either. I'm still on the lookout for the perfect breakfast after my morning run.

My first cast-iron skillet. I seasoned it in the oven and it was so beautiful that I took a photo. Paring knife, spice grinder, and food processor are next on the list for kitchen acquisitions.

So many recipes, so little time. But even if I cooked everything, so what?



[by Mike]

One of the drawbacks to working in particle physics is that you have absolutely no control over your experiment. Instead, government budgets and collaboration politics decide when you're lucky enough to have your data taken and those are two institutions not known for getting things done on reasonable time scales. I first arrived at grad school expecting data within a few months and after two years of delays and set backs, my thesis data is finally being taken. While that bodes well for eventual graduation, it also means a two week stint on Long Island.

I've written about the barren wasteland before, so I took a few precautions. Over the last few months I gathered up a few ideas to avoid fast food and strip malls. And in an effort to sate my addiction to Boston's restaurants, I spoiled myself last weekend: Craigie and Rendevous for drinks on Friday, Vietnamese and sesame balls in Chinatown on Saturday, and Ten Tables with Naveen and Aviv on Sunday.

My first task once off the ferry was to stock up on supplies. With minimal supplies and a dorm kitchen rocking 30 year old appliances, my strategy focused on tacos. I picked up corn tortillas and a good salsa at a local Mexican grocery before hitting a megamart and grabbing the secret ingredient: a rotisserie chicken. Cheap, widely available, and consistently delicious, these chickens are perfect taco fodder and all too convenient for the traveling gourmand. Add a cold beer and you have a complete breakfast (I guess I should probably mention that I'm working the owl shift where breakfast is usually in the early evening?).

My initial attempts to avoid the endless maze of strips malls has unfortunately been less successful. Initially I looked to internet sites like Yelp, but local entries are sparse and the few existing reviews rarely feature more than one comment, making any statistical judgement of reliability impossible. Hence I'm left with few options but driving in random directions, trying to pick up on visual clues that might lead to good food.

Yet again, the sprawl of Long Island proves a powerful foe. From the street it's nearly impossible to judge the quality of a restaurant: a sign advertising foreign food is equally likely to point to cheap take out pandering to American tastes or authentic cuisine. Finer dining options are confined to where the sprawl meets the coast, but there it's just as difficult to determine whether a restaurant is worth the expense, let alone the long trip out. Still, I have most of the two weeks left and even unsuccessful searches provide an opportunity to get off campus.

Worse case scenario? I spend most days downing fresh tacos and good beer, occasionally driving out for some solid if uninspiring Chinese, Mexican, or Thai.

I just might make it out of here alive.


Restaurant Reviews

[by Naveen]

How do I describe my recent experience at Ten Tables?

Devra First wrote an elaborate valentine to the Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain. It begins:
"This is a valentine. Ten Tables, I have a thing for you. Always have, hopefully always will. I know I'm not alone in that - you have many suitors, and I have to fight for my fraction of your attention...."
Yelp gave it four out of five stars. The chocolate terrine with thai basil ice cream, which I had for dessert, got rave reviews. I have mixed feeling about Yelp, partially inspired by humorous anecdotes from the linecook podcast about reviews appearing for Nopalito before it opens. However, the eccentricities and personal manifestos of the crowd often average out to a useful tool.

AA Gills, the Food Critic for the Times Online, has an instantly recognizable style. A recent (June 14) review beings with a vivid description of strawberry pudding: "The pudding looked so good, a shining plum-puce breast of sticky sweet soft sodden bread and ripe fruit." This later leads into a tirade against processed fruit:
"It isn’t only strawberries; we’re eating less unprocessed or melanged fruit altogether. Orange sales have plummeted. I expect plum sales are plummeting. We drink cartons of boiled fruit juice, but we can’t be bothered to peel one. When was the last time you ate a grape with a pip in it? We eat bits of fruit in salads and in yoghurt and shoved through juicers. The death of soft fruit has nothing to do with organics or green farming. It’s down to packaging and distribution. It’s not that the fruit’s grown badly, it’s just the wrong varieties grown for the wrong reasons. "
He gives a concise summary at the end, criticizing this Francophilic retaurants tapas approach: "The food is mostly well-sourced compilations, but it should trust itself to be a bistro, and drop the snack attack concept." I can see why Anthony Bourdain is a fan of his writing, but I can also see how it's not for everyone. That's why it's great.

The salad/pasta/dessert trio is an over-worn cliche for me. I prefer restaurants with open kitchens, background techno music, and a conversational wait-staff. The food itself was a couple levels more refined than anything I could achieve in my own kitchen. The dessert did make me seriously consider buying an ice cream maker. I like restaurants that give me a story to tell: simply "really good food" is not compelling. This all tells you more about me than the restaurant. If any of you have gone to Ten Tables, I would love to hear your impressions. On a related note, I'm also on the lookout for recommendations for new restaurant critics.


Kitchen Failures

[by Naveen]

After a dearth of posts due to final projects and moving into a new apartment, I'm once again ready to report the latest from my personal culinary frontiers. I've been having lots of fun experimenting in the kitchen, since I no longer need to carry all my cooking supplies down a hallway whenever I want to make something. Along with these experiments have been quite a few failures, which I've decided to share.

From left to right, top to bottom: I dropped the thermometer into my homemade yogurt, which may have contaminated it with some interesting microorganisms (we'll see in six hours). The no-knead bread barely rose, but it did have a nice crust. I spilled most of the muffin batter all over the inside of the oven after nearly burning myself, so the yield was rather small. The photo of the cauliflower flatbread (Mark Bittman's recipe) speaks for itself. The almond butter-thickened tempeh stew (inspired by another Bittman recipe) clearly demonstrates why I'm not a food stylist.


local news in drink

[by john]

  • alcohol in massachusetts may be subject to a rising sales tax on top of the obscene excise tax (already forcing poor students like us to zipcar up to new hampshire).
  • bittermens bitters are finally for sale! the cocktail world exploded at this announcement, but it was already old news to me (and my cohorts) by 8 am yesterday due to my google reader addiction. the bitters are made by a local couple, and the varieties (including the truly intoxicating chocolate-mole bitters) have been getting heavy rotation behind boston bars for a while.
  • the observational gastrophysics cocktail crew is awaiting the advent of tales of the cocktail a month from now in new orleans with conflicted feelings. it means that our favorite bartenders (*cough* tom *cough* all of drink *cough*) will be out of town, but then they'll also be bringing new ideas back to boston.
  • judging by quick glimpses on my bike commute, the new b-side lounge construction is moving forward. the entire place is gutted. no new name plastered on the wall, or signs of hard boiled eggs on the bar, for that matter.



[by john]

finishing a bottle is one happy, recurring consequence of stocking a bar. it affords the opportunity to try a new spirit, and congratulate oneself on beating the system of expensive drinks at a bar.

our collection has recently seen the demise of some french vermouth, benedictine, and two kinds of rye. all three of these are essential to my bar. french vermouth and rye are featured in nearly every classic cocktail (though rarely together in one drink), while benedictine has become indispensable to my herb-loving palate.

i'm anxious to pick up some dolin vermouth, which is even more delicate than the noilly prat we finished. as for the rye, i think i'll stick with the cheap-and-good-as-hell rittenhouse 100. the restocking will hit my bar-going habits a bit, but that's fine since i'll have new toys to play with.

speaking of budgeting, i hit april and may right on the nose. taken together, i spent about $397 of the allotted $400. solid.