Nerd Cred

[by Mike]

While we're discussing the intersection of science and spirits, it seems appropriate to boast about some of the art decorating my apartment.

The images are produced by scattering light off of spirits, in this case a Sloe Gin Fizz (on the left) and tequila (on the right), that have been crystallized with some proprietary chemisty. These and a slew of other, gorgeous images are available for viewing and purchase at Molecular Expressions.

And you thought your drink looked good in the glass.

Mystifying the Demystified

[by Mike]

As John introduced, we absolutely love it when people take a scientific perspective on cocktails. Not only are two of our passions combined into one, but our expertise in one of those passions (science!) opens up the possibility of our making a contribution to the other (booze!). On the other hand, that expertise makes us particularly vulnerable to snobbery.

You know that almost inevitable feeling of disappointment that accompanies a poorly made cocktail at a less than reputable establishment? That's the same feeling I get when I see an article with a poor explanation of scientific principles or abusing data analysis.

To be fair, the former is somewhat delicate. The basic arguments are solid, but the description and application of "entropy" is lethargic. Taking from every bad introductory text on thermodynamics, the authors anthropomorphisize molecules as particles striving to be free when the proper description is a little more subtle but far more enlightening (don't hesitate to request more information, especially over drinks).

The latter? Let's just say that failing to properly calibrate an instrument or posting "errors" without any further description should be as immediately horrifying as a shaken martini. The use of Excel is more like reaching for a cheap triple sec: it'll do in a pinch but if you're going to take the time to make a drink then you might as well make it right.

Of course I'm being particularly picky here. The articles were great fun (seriously, who can't appreciate a thermocouple at the bottom of a Boston shaker?) and I look forward to further scientific endeavors into the world of cocktails.

I just wish there were more scientists involved. We're always looking for a good time.


cold, hard data

[by john]

the cocktail world has gone slightly aflutter lately (i wouldn't go as far as 'wild') about the shaking of ice. yes, the act that is so routine to your average barkeep that they hardly give it a second notice. and yet, after so many times of not noticing it, one develops a style, and one wants to claim (via pseudo-science or not) the superiority of that style.

exhibit one: a long video of a recent seminar by a japanese bartender, who is a proponent of using many kinds of ice and the japanese 'hard shake' style. he affably parries questions from the audience about using one technique over another with 'because that is the best way i know'. concrete explanation is missing, but i can sense that while a small fraction of the audience is skeptical, the rest is willing to believe the arcane wisdom from this strange land.

exhibit two. a few recent attendees of tales of the cocktail made an honest scientific plunge into the debate of shaking efficacy. entropy, thermocouples, excel graphs and all. while i cringe a bit at their longwinded explanation of freezing-point depression and their excel statistics (mike may whip up a polemic later), i laud them for tackling the myths (dare i say religion?) of shaking, and doing so with science. they found that shaking style doesn't matter, shaking time doesn't matter, but maybe your shaker (all metal/pre-cooled/boston shaker) might matter. empiricism, baby!

exhibit three. twitter! ok, maybe just a single tweet tonight from the drinkboston writer, lauren. drink's bartenders are apparently into ice wars. with thermometers.

here's hoping the trend continues. it keeps us science-minded folk feeling useful and in touch.

Marketing and Restaurants

[by Naveen]

After enjoying several excellent meals with my parents last weekend (The Friendly Toast, Garden at the Cellar, Highland Kitchen, and Toro) and thinking ahead to Restaurant Week, I've been pondering the situation from the restaurant's point of view. If you are a major corporation, like The Cheesecake Factory, a traditional media advertising campaign works well enough for drawing in many customers to enjoy good, but sometimes insipid food (according to Michael Ruhlman). However, smaller-scale endeavors need to pursue a different strategy, so I thought of some criteria that people follow when choosing a restaurant.
  • Reputation: Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park, drink, et al.), Frank McClelland (Harvest, L'Espalier), and Todd English (Olives, and much more), have proven their contributions to the Boston restaurant scene in the minds of numerous critics and diners. I chose a dinner at Toro partly based on Ken Oringer's experience at Clio, which was apparently good enough for Ferran Adria.
  • Avoid the Middle: On the inexpensive side of the scale, homemade meals, potlucks, "happy hour" specials, and the like can be thoroughly satisfying. On the other side of the spectrum, an occasional meal at a fine dining establishment can fuel further gastronomic curiosity and exploration. Insipid mid-priced restaurants seem to me like an economic drain. This falls into Ramit Sethi's conscious spending philosophy.
  • Reviews in the weekly periodicals: These aren't necessarily the most insightful critiques, but everyone else reads them, so it's a good way to take the pulse of the city's culinary zeitgeist.
  • Recommendations from friends: This is the best way to find new venues, but it does require steadily increasing one's circle of acquaintances and seeking out people with similar tastes. For instance, now I wish that I went to Maynard James Kennan's wine bottle signing at Whole Foods earlier this year, since I probably would have met an interesting subset of the population that is a fan of TOOL and intrigued by wineries in the middle of the Arizona dessert.
Advertising good food, a random best of Boston award, or a standard three-course prix-fixe menu does little to convince me to make a visit. However, I'd love to hear about ideas for future dining expeditions or new tools for restaurant recommendations (e.g. similar to Netflix personalized recommendations).


cocktails and powerpoint

[by john]

all three of us here at the blog have strong opinions on what makes a good set of slides for a scientific talk. generally, they align (conciseness, high information-to-ink ratio, tell a story rather than read the slides, well labeled axes...), but sometimes our opinions clash and we find ourselves in a shouting match over the usefulness of outline slides. (yes, this happened. at drink.)

lately, i've come to develop similar strong opinions on bars' cocktail menus, which are, after all, the bartenders' method of presentation. in addition, as i prepare for my own big cocktail party, i'm thinking about what my menu should look like.

here, then, is a taxonomy of both presentation styles:

the screenshot

we've all (switching to scientist persona for a bit) suffered through a speaker who relied on screenshots of whole paragraphs from colleagues' (or their own!) papers instead of digesting the content into bulleted form. enraging.

the cocktail menu equivalents are the tomes that you can find, say, at new york's pdt. each cocktail gets half a page of rambling attention - some history, some flavor notes, some discussion of seasonality. distill it for me, already!


some presenters like to take the cutesy route to talks. they'll have quotes from einstein or barely related stock photos (usually of einstein as well). they might have good content, but you wouldn't know that if they were on mute.

i think of eastern standard's menu. original drink names (brock's buck) with inside-joke-sounding description (alliterative shout out). what the hell is in it?!


similar to the screenshotter, the table-user will lift a whole table of data into the presentation (including the unnecessary columns) and point out the important bits with a dim laster pointer.

i think beer lists are more guilty of this - especially a place like sunset tap which has about a million beers on tap and prints them all in small font, along with brewery location and abv.

maybe the old b-side menu gets close for cocktails:

succinct points

ah the elusive -good- use of bullet points. the basic information and hints of the deeper significance, without becoming a long sentence. there's enough there to understand it in itself, but the speaker fleshes out each point more fully.

craigie on main comes close to this style - the important bare ingredients or flavors, with a little color commentary. and tom is always willing to supply more information.

chalk talk

this speaker is a baller. they are probably old and well respected in several fields, partially for their skill in delivering arresting, note-free, slide-free presentations.

the bartenders at drink and milk & honey are ballers. there is no standing cocktail menu; only what they can hold in their mind. without the crutch of a menu, prolonged interaction between the bartender and customer leads to a better understanding for both.


Running without a Map

Why are there 18-wheelers all around me? Why am I surrounded by warehouses? Where is the Boston skyline? I'm bringing a map next time. - Me, three weeks ago, while losing myself in East Boston on a morning run.

This road seems a lot longer than before - I don't recognize any of the buildings. Oh crap, Arlington Heights. I'm definitely bringing a map next time. - Me, two weeks ago, after making a wrong turn on the Minuteman trail.

I remember seeing green on the map somewhere around here, but it's suburban sprawl in all directions. I'll just follow this sign and check out Malden. - Me, this Saturday, doing a terrible job of following my own advice.

My approach towards cooking often ends up similar to running: an ambitious goal fueled by enthusiasm and curiosity leads to a comedy of errors from a lack of formal or methodical training. A marathon of cookie-preparation leads to shortbread cookies that are almost too crumbly to pick up. Arrowroot barely salvages an attempt at yogurt from fat-free milk. Mistakenly making vegan "mayonnaise" with silken, instead of extra-firm, tofu leads to unappetizing yellow goop. Whole spice garam masala is ground finely and added at the wrong time in a recipe. Each of these experiences inspires me to learn more about the particular technique, which to me is far more interesting than following a recipe and making something that's just "good."

However, one of the greatest things about being a home chef (and a grad student) is the ability to fail often and with relatively minor consequences. This isn't pediatric neurosurgery. No paying dinner guests or restaurant reviewers are tasting my food. A failed experiment in lab just means I'll need to try again the next day. I'm looking forward to making as many types of mistakes in my cooking and research as I can over the next several years, before entering the "real world." This is prime-time to practice my mistake-making skills, so I don't end up in a rut of making the same mistakes.

John: You should really carry a map or some directions with you next time.
Me: Yeah, I'll do that.
John: That was totally unconvincing.


Vegan Cookie Invasion

[by Naveen]
Me: "The food processor isn't working."
Jeff: "Did you put in the blade?"
Me: "No."
While struggling to get some results for lab meeting presentation #3 this month, one of my lab-mates asked if I would "volunteer" for taking care of next week's coffee break: every weekday at 3pm our lab congregates around a small table for caffeine, cookies, and conversation. Any sane person would have requested a postponement until after lab meeting presentation #4, but my time-management skills leave much to be desired. As if that wasn't bad enough, I decided to bake my own cookies, hoping to add some variety to the endless stream of Milano's, Oreo's, and Chips Ahoy. However, as my house-mate pointed out, it's hard to make anything taste bad with butter, flour, and sugar, so I decided to take on the challenge of making all vegan cookies.

After my group meeting presentation and a microbial journal club meeting, I stopped by Shaw's to get the raw ingredients and then set off to a marathon of cookie prep. I had done some background reading from Shirley Corriher's Cookwise, which offered a plethora of great information. Some samples:
  • Cookies made with butter (which has a fat content around 85%) spread out more than cookies made with shortening, since the texture changes more rapidly as a function of temperature.
  • Cookies made with brown sugar will brown more than table sugar (I guess that's not surprising). Honey is somewhat hygrosopic, so will absorb water after cooking, resulting in a chewier cookie.
  • Lower protein flour will lead to a lighter, more cake-like cookie.
I also read a related article in the Boston Globe about pie crusts, which dicussed the merits or butter vs. lard vs. olive oil vs. shortening. Vegatable oil fared surprisingly well. Michael Ruhlman also offered some insight from his Ratio philosophy. However, I couldn't find any data about coconut butter, which I would be using in several of the recipes.

Although the recipes varied in the specifics, the basic outline was:
  1. Mix together flour (spelt, brown rice, or whole wheat), oats (if needed), flax seeds (if needed), baking power and/or soda, and spices.
  2. Separately mix the sweetener (maple syrup, sucanat, etc.), fat (i.e. coconut butter, olive oil, peanut butter, or tahini), and apple sauce (if needed).
  3. Combine the dry and wet ingredients (food processors are amazing) and stir in the raisins, chopped walnuts, chocolate chips, etc., if needed. I ruined one of the batches by doing this all in the food processor, which turned the beginning of a gorgeous batch of chocolate chip-oatmeat-walnut cookies into brown sludge.
I now have five batches of dough sitting in the freezer, ready for a (hopefully) epic week of cookies.

Me (looking at five fist-size blobs of dough in separate Tupperware containers, after two hours of work): "I don't think this going to be enough."
Jeff: "Yeah."
Me: "I think I'll need to make a trip to Star Market."


I'm Giving Summer Just One More Chance

[by Mike]

The rain has left, the sun has returned, and strawberries are coming into season. Who's ready for a cocktail?

Some of my favorite summer cocktails are also some of the most simple. Take the strawberry margarita: fresh strawberries chopped and muddled into a syrup with a little bit of sugar and shaken with the standard 3-2-1 margarita recipe. Deviously refreshing and dense with the complimentary notes of agave and fruit.



pet pet

[by john]

thailand, perhaps realizing the current cocktail craze might pass them up uncrazed, has unveiled a new national cocktail (the guardian via drinkhacker):

At the very least the drink's ingredients are far from bland: a shot of vodka, coconut liqueur, a dash of chilli pepper and sugar, lime juice, a few slivers of lemongrass and ginger, with the whole mixture shaken then strained into a glass with ice and soda water.

by the looks of it, it's an alcoholic tom yum. personally, though, i'm turned off by the blank canvas vodka-and-soda combo.

having tried my hand with thai cookies, why not a thai drink? my endeavor was purely inspired by this post on homemade thai chili tincture, and the fact that i had lots of leftover thai chilies from the market.

so here it is, the pet pet (thai for 'really spicy'):
pet pet

1 1/2 oz old monk rum (no substitute for this kind of rum)
1/2 oz green chartreuse
2 barspoons thai basil syrup (homemade: equal parts raw sugar and water, steep with thai basil leaves)
7 drops thai chili tincture

stir and strain. garnish with basil leaf.

i like this drink. it has three parts: a fragrant smell which belies the spiciness, then a roiling combination of flavors, and finally a long, slow burn.

the only problem is that it's just half thai. the rum is indian, and the chartreuse is french. i'm willing to say 'oh well', but then that would be giving up on the idea of a truly thai cocktail. apparently, there are, uh, indigenous liquors distilled from rice. they have, however, have been likened to nail polish...which will make this challenge even more challenging.

well, until i get my hands on some genuine spirits, this will definitely be my go-to thai drink.



[by Naveen]

I'm currently experimenting with the Dogma Box from Boston Organics, which features produce that originated as close to Boston as possible. The shear quantity of greens that has been passing through the kitchen lately was at first daunting, but is now a welcome challenge. To briefly summarize my plan of attack:
  1. Lettuce: doesn't keep very long. A good excuse to experiment with salad dressings. A failed tofu "mayonnaise" turned into a decent vegan caesar salad (capers helped a lot).
  2. Bitter greens/kale/etc: also don't keep very long. These are great for stirring into bean stews. Beer or adobo chili lead to great sauces.
  3. Cabbage: works well when cooked with rice. This week I added pine nuts, currants, and dill to some black rice that I had in the cupboard.
  4. Collard greens: great for wraps, after briefly dipping in boiling water.
  5. Bok choy: I plan to try braising these tomorrow.
I already have a deeper appreciation for fruit as a result of the experience (that includes tomatoes). I have to confess that I still buy bananas every week from Shaw's, so I'm far from being a true locavore. We'll see how I deal with a bounty of root vegetables in the winter: I've already spoken with several Dogma dropouts.

Not Eating at Alinea

[by Naveen]

After a month of six group meeting and journal club presentations, I'll be completely ready for a rejuvenating weekend in Chicago to see Lollapalooza with my college roommate. I've been listening to all the bands on the line-up and asking friends for recommendations in anticipation of the big event.

By some type of coincidence, I recently read the latest article in a series of posts by Grant Achatz, the chef of the cutting-edge and controversial restaurant Alinea in Chicago, which brought up some interesting parallels with the music world. He actually starts his article about "when a chef gets famous" with the analogy to seeing Bono live for the first time. Now many chefs have rock-star status as the Food Network and other media outlets have catapaulted them into the realm of celebrity. This has its downsides, since it means less hands-on time in the kitchen, leading to dissapointment by some diners.

On the other hand, this trend is great for people like me. Even if I ate at Alinea (which would be considerably more expensive than the Lollapalooza tickets), I almost certainly wouldn't get to talk to the chef. However, through magazine articles, his recent cookbook, and numerous other sources, I can start to understand his approach towards food. I haven't gone so far as this woman, but it has still led to several great conversations about whether this style of cooking is a worthwhile exploration at the frontiers of food or nothing more than a collection of "molecular gastronomy" gimmicks.

I see another analogy to music. A butterfly-collector can buy tickets to listen to all of the Top 40 bands live. However, I doubt that he would enjoy the music at the same level as a long-time fan of a particular band who has been following the evolution of the their sound over time, keeping track of tour dates, saving money for the tickets, and sharing his enthusiasm for the music with friends. With restaurants, is the diner trying to amass a collection of eating at the "best" restaurants in the world or is he sincerely intirgued by the chef's work?



[by Mike]

Fresh juice is without question a requirement of a well stocked bar, and maintaining a fresh supply can be a bane to any amateur cocktail enthusiast. Citrus left out at room temperature squeezes well but quickly acquires bitter flavors as the fruit ages; storing fruit in the refrigerator can delay the onset of off flavors but at the expense of firmer flesh that can make significantly reduce juicing efficiency. Even fruit kept in the fridge, however, will eventually spoil. With an oft random schedule vulnerable to aging citrus, what is a graduate student to do?

In the past, I would either try to use old citrus (to the detriment of many a cocktail) or swallow the waste and throw it out. After my last big cocktail party, however, I had nearly a pint of freshly squeezed juice that I couldn't bring myself to trash and I began to research alternatives. Eventually my search stumbled upon the unsung hero of preservation: the freezer. Freezing the squeezed juice in 1/2 ounce increments would dramatically increase the effective lifetime while providing convenient serving sizes. Conveniently, one of my ice cube treys held exactly 1/2 ounces in each well. The experiments were on.

My main concern was that the frozen juice would take too long to thaw and limit the convenience of the method. Fortunately, chemistry proved a powerful ally; something in the juice (not sure if it's the low pH or just the solutes impeding crystal formation) reduces the latent heat of the cubes. Build a drink, throw in the cubes, and you'll only have to wait a minute or so before they melt and the drink can be finished with the introduction of ice and a quick shake.

The initial batch of lime and lemon cubes have been in my freezer for over a month now and I have yet to notice any significant reduction in quality. I would definitely pick up some fresh fruit in the case of a party or the occasion to impress someone, but the cubes are definitely sufficient for today's grad student on the run.


Food, Inc.

[by Naveen]

I read Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma soon after each of them arrived in bookstores, so it's unsurprising that I went to see Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan in Robert Kenner's latest film. The attempt to present multiple sides of such a complex and emotionally-charged issue was quite well-done.

I especially appreciated the portrayal of the tough choices many Americans have to make when deciding between 99 cent cheeseburgers and far more expensive produce at the local supermarket. It's easy for me and many others in the Cambridge area to jump on the local/organic bandwagon and enjoy cooking at home, but the movie reminded me of the millions who work far more than 40 hours a week to struggle to feed a family. It cetrainly makes my troubles with grad school research seem trivial by comparison.

The other interviews were similarly enlightening: an industrial food scientist demonstrating the chameleon-like versatility of corn, the CEO of an organic company that "sold-out" to WalMart (in some people's minds), the founder of an idyllic farm that refuses to compromise his principles (and may never spread his vision beyond elite foodies), a seed cleaner who was sued for patent violations, a food safety advocate who lost her son to a virulent strain of E. coli., a union organizer for slaugherhouse employees...

Like Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," the movie ended with some cute typography giving out a plan for action. I'll keep shopping at the local Farmer's Markets and figuring out creative uses for the contents of my weekly Boston Organics box. I already don't drink sodas or eat meat. I could sign some petitions, write to Congress, and be a more active citizen in general. I'm still struggling with the question of what I could do that would actually make a difference versus cosmetic, "feel-good" changes.

If you see the movie, I'd love to hear your thoughts. If you need a little extra incentive to see it, Chipotle is offering free screenings across the country.


My personal test kitchen

[by Naveen]

A recent presentation to my research group led to the hiatus in posts lately. I'll be giving at least four more related presentations this week, and I'm actually looking forward to the opportunity to get feedback from my colleagues. In grad school it's possible to go for weeks without any type of clear indication of whether one is on the right path. After weeks or spending far too long in front of my computer doing finite element modeling simulations, I desperately sought out the clarity offered in the kitchen.

For instance, I've been enjoying the challenge of using up the weekly assortment of vegetables (and tomatoes) from the Boston Organic's Dogma Box. I was excited to get a bag full of garlic scapes, which I had never used before. I had seen a recipe for a garlic scape soup over a year ago that I've wanted to try since then. However, what should have been a simple, refreshing summer soup turned into a two-hour ordeal in the kitchen. I didn't pre-cook the scapes enough ahead of time, so the immersion blender ended up getting clogged with a green fibrous mess. I tried transferring to a miniature food processor, which was too small and only spread the green goo further across the kitchen. I didn't have spinach leaves, so I added some other leafy greens from the box, which turned out to be some type of extremely bitter plant and totally ruined the flavor. Every chef these days seems to talk about "ingredient-driven" cuisine, but now I'm really understanding how a failure to understand the properties of a ingredient can ruin a dish.

Making bread was slightly more successful. I made my own sourdough starter, which started smelling quite pungent after a couple days. This Saturday I got around to actually making the bread. After making no-knead bread several times before, I initially forgot to knead the dough before shaping the ball. On top of that, I made the mistake was using all whole-wheat flour without any type of compensation, which yielded a dense product that overwhelmed any flavors from the patiently cultured microbes. Fortunately, there's more started int he refrigerator, so I can look forward to more experiments.

I was really looking forward to making a buttermilk summer squash soup. However, the ingredients list on the side of the carton dampened my enthusiasm. I'm still on the lookout for real buttermilk, but have yet to find any.

On the subject of dairy, I'm now a fan of powdered yogurt-starter: it yielded my best batch yet.

I'm not the only one interested in food. All the free local weekly periodicals seemed to have gastronomical-themed cover stories. I'm planning to see Food, Inc., later this week, too.

After missing the Taste of Somerville (lab meeting), Taste of Fort Point (rain), Taste of Cambridge (journal club), I was really looking forward to the Taste of Allston, which seemed like a great way to discover new restaurants on the other side of the river. Moreover, it was much less expensive than the Cambridge event (which offered a "taste of Cambridge" in terms of prices as well). However, I ended up feeling like a butterfly collector. Potlucks (and food-themed microbial science events) are far more satisfying experiences.

Miscellaneous observations:
  • Was my last post too "emo"? The question has been haunting my thoughts recently.
  • Am I also butterfly-collecting when I seek out the most unusual beverage in a cocktail bar? I appreciate the patience of the Boston bartenders and will have a more thought-out request on my next excursion.
  • I'm starting to like Southern food more, but it'll be a while before I'm cooking like Paula Deen.
  • Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes), featured in the first photo, are now my favorite root vegetable.
  • When you love to cook, the world becomes a potluck.


my drink is average

[by john]

if i were to judge, based purely on the reviews and musings i read in the cocktail nook of the internets, i would think that just about every drink ever drank tasted good. nobody ever says, 'meh, this drink was...okay.' it's like grade inflation for the tippling set. well, it's bothersome, so i hereby start my battle with the fine and dandy:
fine and dandy

1 1/2 oz gin
3/4 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz triple sec (cointreau)
1 dash angostura bitters
well, as advertised, it's average. the lemon juice and triple sec keep each other from making the drink too sweet or too tart, and the bitters add depth, but...it's nothing miraculous. perhaps a good drink for beginners, but nothing i'd come back to much.

tonight, i had an ordinary drink. mlia.