[by john]

the flavor bible is my kind of non-cookbook cookbook - it's an encyclopedia of flavors and flavors that go well with them. so under 'pumpkin seeds', you'll find caramel, chile peppers, coriander, cumin... (who knew! well, apparently, a ton of chefs they interviewed.) i was showing off this early xmas present to naveen when he remarked how useful this would be for making up new cocktails. well, uh, yeah....but i hadn't thought of that.

of course we had to put this to the test. to start, i wanted to attempt a friend's challenge - balsamic in a cocktail. browsing to 'vinegar, balsamic', i found a bunch of ingredients more non-drinkable than balsamic, plus cherry and apricot. i decided on the apricot, and after a couple iterations, settled on a 3:1:1:1 rye:balsamic:apricot brandy:lillet blanc. the apricot wasn't forward at all, but it did sweeten up the balsamic enough to make its bitter ending beguilingly light. the drink, by the way, is evil black. cool. not perfected yet by any means - i really need a good apricot eau de vie - but it's a promising start.

next, another challenge, this time self-imposed. i stole some of a friend's amazing raw cranberry sauce (literally just blended cranberries, whole orange, and whole lemon) from thanksgiving. could i take a passage from the flavor bible to make it into a well composed drink? it suggested apples and (more) orange - so i thought armagnac, cider syrup, the cranberry sauce, orange bitters, and some bitter truth decanter bitters, which have big cinnamony notes. an average drink, in the end, but a good direction.

reading the flavor bible will require a lot of culinary exegesis. jesuit education, don't fail me now.


review: lord hobo

[by john]

mike, jim, and i were banging down the doors of (ok, waiting patiently in line at) lord hobo at 5 pm tonight for the public opening of the venerated b-side's replacement. in true insouciant b-side fashion, the bouncer waited to finish his cigarette before letting us into a fashionable, cleaner incarnation of the previous bar. the peninsular bar still exists, but the iron airplane fan is gone and all the spirits have moved to the back bar to make room for the dozens of beer taps down the spine of the peninsula.

despite the obvious beer focus, mike and i immediately scoured the cocktail menu. first observation: no classics. in a good sense, though - they can undoubtedly make them, but decided to present their original variants.

i went for their manhattan-esque offering, the rambler (rye, french vermouth, amaro nonino, maraschino). it ended up too dry and sharp for my taste, and i was somewhat appalled that the bartender shook the drink. mike chose the angelina (gin, st. germain, yellow chartreuse, lemon juice and bitters), which didn't have much at all of the advertised bitter component.

being good experimentalists, we stuck it out for another round despite a so-so start. mike picked out the sloppy possum (for the record: according to urbandictionary, not yet a sexual move) - equal parts fernet and domaine de canton with a bit of lemon juice. what a cool combination. the ginger of the canton pops early, then the characteristic bitter mint finish of the fernet, a little subdued from the canton's sweetness. i got the soylent green, which is essentially a chartreuse swizzle with lemon, cucumber and mint. really good.

so they have good drinks, at $10 a pop. and formidable beers. we also availed ourselves of some charcuterie, which i thought was overpriced at $11 (craigie's version is $15 for a creamier, more delicate offering). one nitpick: their drinks sit too low their cocktail glasses, which make me feel a bit swindled, even if i know they are the same volume as those at drink, say. but the atmosphere on the first night was great and lively, and the bartenders were amiable and helpful. it'll definitely be in the regular rotation.

a parting recipe. i was tempted by the wall st., but decided against it because i thought i had all the ingredients - whiskey, lillet, orange bitters. so i went home and tried to make it, slowly increasing the lillet, until i felt i had the right amount. but it was too dry - do these bartenders like everything dry?! i immediately thought to add benedictine, and once i did, the drink filled out, at which point i dubbed it:

4:2:1 rye whiskey: lillet blanc: benedictine
1 dash orange bitters

stir and strain
only then did i look at their menu online and see that a wall st. calls for lillet rouge - ah, so my sweetening instinct was right! i suppose i'll start with that next time.


Martha Stewart Would Be Proud

[by Mike]

When the Tiki theme was announced for this year's LUPEC party no outfits immediately came to mind. Last year I went all out with a full zoot suit and a Hawaiian shirt just didn't seem sufficient to continue the tradition of over achieving. When the full details of the party were announced, not just Tiki but 1950s Tiki, the ideas finally starting coming.

My initial inspiration was a fusion of a three piece suit and hulu skirt. Weaving a vest out of dried straw wouldn't be too time consuming and properly executed the finished product would be both classy and unique. Dried straw, however, isn't exactly ubiquitous in the city. Banana leaves are another story.

Available in the frozen food section of any Asian grocer, banana leaves are a great freezer staple. After a quick defrost they're soft and malleable, readily wrapped around foods destined for braising or steaming to provide a sweet, fruity aroma. More importantly for this particular application, they're incredibly cheap.

Unfortunately, banana leaves provide little in the way of structural integrity. The leaves easily rip along the grain and those that do survive in one piece are extremely perishable, drying out into a brittle mess in little more than a day. My strategy was two-fold: layering and hemming the leaves would help reduce ripping along the grain while sealing the leaves in acrylic would help retain moisture and avoid fragility.

Without any experience with sealers, I eventually decided upon Mod Podge upon the recommendation of the staff at Pearl. The acrylic sealer was easily brushed onto the leaves and dried with an attractively glossy finish. It would have been perfect if not for a fatal flaw: when exposed to even mild heat the sealant would soften and become tacky again. Once assembled the vest would stick to itself, becoming vulnerable to ripping upon separation.

After initial testing and design, the vest came together in three pieces: the two front flaps and the back. The fronts were quick, almost entirely single banana leaves hemmed along the sides with folded leaves, while the back involved cutting the leaves into strips and weaving them together into a singe piece. I used hot glue for all the adhesion and then sealed the pieces on all sides with the Mod Podge.

The afternoon before the party I completed the assembly and adding some finishing touches: wooden buttons and faux pockets along the front. To reenforce the seams I added some duct tape along the interior, an addition that would prove all too insufficient.

Not long after arriving at the party, the vest began to rip along the chest. The weight of the vest, especially the weaved back, proved too much for the leaves that laid along my shoulders. Without any backup tape, little could be done to salvage the effort. Well, little beyond lots of hands holding the whole thing together. I don't think anyone caught a picture of the weaved back at the party, so I took a few after the party for posterity. You can already see the banana leaves curling up where the Mod Podge sealant failed and the surface was exposed to air.

Save for the premature structural failure, I was really happy with the effort. Immediately after assembly the vest looked great and with a few improvements it would have lasted long into the night, maybe even through a few dances.


It's Better With Bacon

[by Mike]

This past September I was over at a labmate's apartment for the Boston area celebration of International Bacon Day. As you might imagine, there's not much to International Bacon Day besides lots and lots of bacon, with plenty of whisk(e)y to wash it down. The brilliance of the festivities comes with the creative applications of bacon.

My initial contribution, bacon chocolate chip cookies, wasn't bad but it was quickly shadowed by the collective efforts of the revelers. The inspiration escapes me now, but it wasn't long into the party that we had set our eyes on a practical bacon straw. While the host and his friend went out for reserves I went to business, wrapping bacon around a bundle of buttered skewers. After half an hour in a hot oven the bacon had cooked into solid, waterproof tube that could be used to sip everything from rye to Bloody Mary's.

The pictures documenting that day were lost due to an unfortunately taxi incident, so the telling has had to wait until today when I finally had time to recreate the infamous bacon straw. This time I used 1/2'' copper pipe left over from an earlier project, wrapping two rashers around in opposite chiralities (one a clockwise helix, the the other a counter clockwise helix). The two layers are critical for a watertight seal.

After 30 minutes in a 400 F oven the meat had shrunk around the pipe and formed a continuous piece of succulence. I had suspected the 1/2'' diameter would be too large, but it proved just fine for sipping from the full glass; it only became a problem when trying to slurp up the final few drops.

Beyond the novelty, the bacon straw adds some welcome notes to spirits. In addition to providing subtle smokey and savory flavors, the bacon contributes fat which dissolves into the alcohol quells some of the more astringent vapors*. It's a perfect addition for overproofed ryes such as Rittenhouse.

Of course, the bacon straw is far from finished. Additional flavors can be added by spicing the bacon before roasting; cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, chile, coriander, cardamon... well just about any spice comes to mind. Any structural issues could be remedied by the addition of transglutamtes (think meat glue) in between the two layers of bacon.

The possibilities are near endless. Who's up for some "collaborative research"?

* For those interested in the details: alcohol readily dissolves fat, and once in solution the fat binds with some of the less delicious esters in the alcohol. Once bound, the unfavorable esters don't contribute nearly as much to taste and aroma. Fat washing takes this a step further, adding much more fat and straining it out before serving the spirit.


fall comfort

[by john]

i associate some great smells with fall. root vegetables roasting in the oven, dead leaves, whiskey...

this autumn, i finally got to avail myself of a new england taste/smell tradition: apple cider donuts. warm, sugary, cinnamony, crispy outsides covering cakey, slightly appley comfort inside. i mean, wow. kevin, mike and i trekked to cider hill farm for some of those ambrosial delicacies, and i happened to pick up four gallons of raw apple cider as well.

i've already started a few batches of cider fermenting (another post if i achieve any modicum of success), but i still found myself left with a lot of the raw stuff. so i made two kinds of cider syrup - one i simmered with cinnamon sticks and sugar until it reduced by half, and one that i just shook cold with sugar until it all dissolved.

there're some foodie camps out there who claim that heating destroys the good, natural flavors in the cider. well, they're wrong. the heated syrup is something amazing. the apple flavors have intensified and rounded out, and come delayed after the initial sweetness.

the syrup worked great in an old fashioned. but to amp up the fall-itude, i tried a brandy old fashioned:
2 oz brandy (e&j xo, the cheap stuff)
1/2 oz cinnamon cider syrup
1 dash whiskey barrel bitters

build in a glass, add ice, and gently stir.
this one really nailed it. the apple and cinnamon were superb and autumnal on the nose, the brandy gave just the right edge (without sharp vapors), and the bitters recovered the complexity of a whiskey that the brandy couldn't provide.

to fall!

Grass-Fed Beef

[by Naveen]

Last weekend was an interesting juxtaposition of food-themed events: the agricultural sustainability sessions at the Union of Concerned Scientists 40th Annual Symposium and the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival. One of the highlights of the UCS meeting was the panel discussion featuring Bill Kurtis from Tall Grass Beef, who gave a compelling argument about how eating grass-fed beef is far superior to the current corn-fed product. Although the vegans in the Boston Vegetarian Society would likely disapprove of any sort of meat consumption, a recent article in the New York Times proclaimed the benefits of grass-fed beef. Large tracts in Brazil are being cleared for monoculture soy production that could end up in all sorts of vegan-friendly products, whereas pastures in this country could reduce soil erosion, increase biodiversity, and potentially sequester carbon dioxide. However, if the industrial meat production model in this country shifted to grass-fed beef, consumers would need to shift from viewing a burger as a convenient meal at a fast-food restaurant to an occasional delicacy to be enjoyed at a place like Craigie on Main. As a vegetarian who has never been to a ranch, I feel rather disqualified to offer any type of policy recommendation, but I would certainly be interested to learn more.


Random Thoughts

Your friend has his eye on a cute little number sitting at the bar across the room, and after a drink of courage he makes his way over and offers to buy her a drink. Now she can respond to her liking, shooing him away or inviting him to sit at the stool next to her, and then proceed to order that drink, but isn't that a little inefficient? Couldn't the two steps be combined and the entire process streamlined? What if she should just order a "Not Tonight" or a "I've Been Waiting For You All Night" and avoid the awkward conversation entirely?

Now I'm sure there are plenty who appreciate the opportunity to converse, but I think there's potential for a suite of well made cocktails with utilitarian names. Conversations could span loud restaurants, with drinks purchased from across the room serving as the lone communication. Instead of fighting through a crowd to tell a friend that you're leaving, you could order him an "I'm Out".

The logical generalization is to binary shots representing bits that could be combined to produce any message, but decoding binary after the last shot becomes something of a challenge.


Agricultural Genetic Awesomeness

[by Naveen]

Genetically modified foods have gotten a lot of bad press lately and it's too bad they don't have a better PR effort behind them. Most people are opposed to GMO due to knee-jerk associations with global corporate agriculture and view it as the anti-thesis of the locavore trend. This misses out on the efforts of plant biologists and farmers in countries ranging from Mexico to the Philippines to Australia to produce crops that are drought-resistant, salt-tolerant, and safe from the latest viral or bacterial threat (see here, for example). It has also been criticized for being over-hyped about its ability to feed the world. After several weeks of researching these arguments, I tend to agree and suspect that better farmer education and food distribution in rural areas will be more important.
I learned all this while preparing for a public talk last week for the Science in the News lecture series. Two other grad students and I explained the history and biology of agricultural genetics, presented some case studies (Bt Corn and Golden Rice), then explored the role of genetically-engineered foods in solving world hunger (that was my part). While researching this topic, for which I felt increasingly under-qualified, I talked to Peace Corps volunteers, farmers, and Friends of the World Food Program. There is so much more to the history of edible plant biology than gets mentioned in the highly-polarized debate about GM Foods, so I thought I would share some of my findings:
  • Wide crossing allows two different species of plants to breed with each other. The plant isn't too happy about this and tries to eject the hybrid embryo, but scientists can rescue it and grow it up in vitro to a viable new plant. Scientists did this in the 1970s to save the Asian rice crop from the grassy stunt virus.
  • A floral toxin called colchicine causes a plant cell to double its number of chromosomes by messing with its microtubules (similar chemicals are sometimes used as anti-cancer drugs). The confused plant cells often end up producing seedless adults (e.g. watermelon, grapes). This chromosome doubling method was also used to create tritacle, a wheat-rye hybrid that I first learned about from a Kashi cereal box.
  • During the pro-nuke days of the 1950s and '60s, a collaboration between the FAO and the IAEA sent out portable radiation sources to farms all over the world. By irradiating, for instance, 100,000 seeds, the second generation might have 30-50,000 adults, which can be whittled down to a few beneficial mutants. Supposedly much of the organic beer in Europe comes from barley that was a product of radiation mutagenesis.
The wide-crossing, chromosome doubling, and radiation mutagenesis are all decades old and (to the best of my knowledge) can still fall under the label organic. In fact, there was a debate in the late '90s about whether new genetic techniques would fall under the USDA certification, since they would not require external inputs like fertilizer or pesticides. For their credit, genetically modified organisms have done several good things for us lately, including producing insulin for treating diabetics and vegetarian rennet for making cheese.

For more info, I recommend these two books:
I'm sure there are countless other resources out there and I encourage you to learn more about this fascinating topic. Please let me know if you find out anything else interesting.