IFT Awesomeness

[by Naveen]

I still have yet to absorb all that happened over the past week, which featured the IFT conference in Chicago. Below is a sampling in alphabetical order.

ADM: Probably not approved by Michael Pollan: corn syrup, soy protein isolate, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, digestion resistant maltodextrin, natural and artificial flavors and colors = a good source of fiber and protein.

Barry Callebaut: Initially I just knew about Fine+Raw Chocolate in New York, but now major companies are looking for ways to retain more nutrients during the chocolate-making process. I wish I took more chemistry as an undergrad.

Bascom Family Farms: Maple syrup is far more interesting than I previously thought. I found a booth than showed aerated maple syrup that had the consistency of butter. They also found a way to concentrate the flavor of maple syrup, without increasing the sugar content, and created various types of maple vinegars.

Chickpea smoothie: There were a lot of smoothie samples, but using chickpea as a base was really unique. By combining with various fruit and vegetable purees, it takes this legume far beyond the realm of hummus.

Consumers: I have a new-found sympathy for people in the food industry. They have a nearly impossible task to satisfy frequently paradoxical consumer demands. It would better if everyone cooked for themselves with raw ingredients, but until we reach that Alice Waters utopia, they will be a fixture of the American food landscape.

Fiber: One of the most interesting talks I attended was about fiber, a topic that I had previously given little thought. Unlike other nutrients, its nearly impossible to find a recommended daily value. Eskimos and some people on liquid diets can survive on none, while vegetarians can get over 70 g/day. The distinction between "soluble" and "insoluble" is not really relevant and is a gross over-simplification for the vast diversity of polysaccharides that people consume.

Free samples: Although I appreciated all the free samples, only some of them were actually informative. Side by side comparisons are good. Free, calorie-reduced, nutrient-enhanced bakery goods are nice, but need context. Color and flavor demos could have been far more interesting by defying the conventional combinations. Giant machines extruding play-dough at the Process Expo are fun to watch.

Good Cacao: I would be happy to be a taster during their recipe development.

Green Zebra: I highly recommend the tasting menu. Someday I'd love to try out the more ambitious (and far more expensive) tasting menus at L2O, Moto, or Alinea.

Inception: Go see it, even if it's not the IMAX screen at Navy Pier.

Innovative Foods, Inc.: I only discovered this booth on the last day, but it did strike me as one of the most innovative. The exhibitor/inventor, Edward Hirshberg, was demonstrating his idea for "pre-cycling." Essentially, by using vegetable by-products and lesser known ingredients (e.g. pulp, stems, assorted legumes), he made energy bars unlike any I've tasted before.

Kraft: They didn't have a booth; they had a restaurant.

Micro-encapsulation: Another hot trend in food science makes me glad to be in Prof. Weitz's lab.

Origami Wraps: This simple idea opens up a world of culinary possibilities. Instead of tortillas or other flour-based wrappers, use a sheet of fruit or vegetable puree: hors d'oeurves, pastry and desserts, glazes, rolls…

Probiotics: Your food will soon take on a life of its own. Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex interactions between your intestinal microbiome and your immune system.

Roquette: I spent over an hour at their booth, chatting with the chocolatier they hired about the challenges of working with sugar-free chocolate, as well as the chocolate-making process in general.

Sensory and consumer preferences: This strikes me as an area of food science ripe for an infusion of Bayesian analysis. I went to their reception on Monday and would be happy to spend more time with this sub-discipline of the food world.

Stevia: you'll be seeing a lot more of this soon, thanks to recent government approval.

Symrise: I was initially drawn by their Happy Hour, but I became fascinated by the flavor development process. I did some side-by-side trials of MSG replacers and soy powder flavor disguisers, then went upstairs (yes, it was a two-story exhibit), to talk with one of their researchers, while sampling flavored potato chips and almonds. It takes eight years of apprenticeship to become a flavor chemist, along with a good dose of natural talent.

That's just a small sample: practically every conversation or exhibit booth triggered some new idea for a blog post, recipe, research project, or career path. There's far more that happens behind the scenes in our food supply than I could have imagined.


Jump Monk

[by Mike]

Last week I had the fortune of traveling to Chamonix, a picturesque little town nestled underneath Mont Blanc in the French Alps, for a statistics conference. The views were amazing, but the food wasn't particularly intriguing. I guess a region known for fondue doesn't offer much for the lactose intolerant.

You do have to respect, however, a town with multiple charcuterie and cheese shops. While browsing one of the better stocked stores, I was amazed to find bottles of Chartreuse, both green and yellow, resting in the rafters above the cash register. Over the course of the week I went back twice, each time leaving with a new product from the Carthusian Monks.

I'm always impressed when I spot a nip of high quality liquor, but this gift set was a revelation. It was worth the bottle of V.E.P yellow alone, a product which I have yet to find anywhere on either side of the Atlantic. The 9th Centenary Liqueur commemorates 900 years of the Carthusian monastery, but isn't much more than a slightly sweeter take on the usual green formulation.

G enepi is everywhere in the Alps. Back in the day montaineers would gather flowers from the slopes and then macerate them in liquor to produce a sweet, herbal, and slightly bitter liqueur. Just about every store sells their own formulation and every restaurant features it on their menu. The Chartreuse offering was actually a bit disappointing; I preferred the versions offered in the local restaurants. Their stronger bitter swallow reminded me of a harmonious combination of yellow Chartreuse and a good amaro.

The bottle that started the string of purchases, however, was the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Sommeliers, or MOFS, special edition Chartreuse. Confused by the unfamiliar label, I spent the following evening googling around for more information. Information was sparse, especially when limited to mostly French websites and Google Translate, but what I could find was sufficiently intriguing to warrant a purchase.

Once back in the States, the first tastes did not disappoint. Somewhere between yellow and green Chartreuse, in color, flavor, and proof, the MOFS Chartreuse features a rich herbal flavor with an unctuous texture and just enough sweetness to round everything out. While yellow, and sometimes green, work wonderfully in cocktails, the MOFS is something to be sipped, slightly chilled, in the middle of the summer. A porch wouldn't be inappropriate.

Even though I've never been impressed with milk chocolate, I couldn't resist one last Chartreuse purchase.

I need to get to more conferences.


Start Me Up

[by Mike]

We've discussed the very beginnings of a bar before, but a few weeks ago I had a chance to put some of these ideas into practice.

I was in Los Angeles for a conference, and had the opportunity to crash with some friends from undergrad. One of these friends has long been intrigued by cocktails ever since he, John, and I nearly had Craigie to ourselves for a night thanks to a few feet of freshly fallen snow, but never found the time to start his own bar. It would have been a shame to waste an opportunity to help him see that through.

The weekend before my flight I dropped by the Boston Shaker and put together a basic kit: shaker, jigger, spoon, julep strainer, and a set of Tovolo ice cube trays. Upon arrival I presented him with the gift, essentially guilting him into a trip to BevMo and an earnest start to his bar. Although to be fair, I don't think much guilt was actually involved.

We began with two classics that any self-respecting enthusiast should master: the Martini and the Manhattan. Plymouth and the vermouths were easy enough to find, but the Sazerak took some searching before we found a single bottle precariously placed on top of a display case. Not wanting to risk a rye-free night, we took the bottle and quickly paced over to check-out.

Teaching an engineer how to mix drinks is a delight. Given the basic steps, their underlying motivations, and a few examples, my friend was quick to pick up on the technique and by the end of my trip he was well on his way to a great bar.


The Gospel of Food

[by Naveen]

Earlier this week, thanks to heat wave-induced insomnia, I read "The Gospel of Food" by Barry Glassner, a book that I picked up at Green Apple Books during my recent San Francisco expedition. Each chapter questioned mainstream nutritional advice and led to haunting questions about food and nutrition.
  1. False Prophets: Culinary Correctness gone awry: What if one's enjoyment of a meal affects nutrient metabolism? The first study mentioned in the book shows how Thai women absorbed more iron from a meal with spicy food, while Swedish women absorbed more from a meal of hamburger, potatoes, and beans. Rather than a quest of self-denial against fat, carbs, eggs, milk, soy, or the trendy nutritional demon of the week, what if we find ways to enjoy food more?
  2. Safe Treyf: Pretending to Be a Saint: What if the nutrient-fortified food products sold by companies ranging from small "organic" workshops to vast multi-national corporations lower the efficacy of prescription drugs and the absorption of nutrients from whole foods?
  3. Promises to the Fathers: How the Food Industry Sells it Wares: I was thoroughly impressed by the descriptions of recipe creation at culinary R&D facilities. The author writes how he "was bowled over by how many of the rank-and-file were foodies and expert chefs. Many had, in addition to training in food technology, degrees from top-ranked culinary institutes, and the bookshelves in their cubicles and lab areas were filled with cookbooks, restaurant guides, and culinary magazines." (77)
  4. Restaurant Heaven: Defining Culinary Greatness: What if the food that "anonymous" diners eat in fancy restaurants is different than food served to restaurant critics and VIPs? This is a controversial claim, but critics can have a huge impact on future business and VIPs can spend far more money on profit-laden drinks than normal diners.
  5. The Food Adventurers: In Search of Authenticity: Food authenticity is a somewhat nonsense concept. Many of the people writing the reviews have never been to the host country. Moreover, chefs in the country or origin often incorporate new ingredients into their own cuisine. I think that these food adventurers, just like beer geeks, oenophiles, dieters, and others, are looking for a sense of community and shared culture (a tribe) rather than a specific food.
  6. Restaurant Hell: The Dissing of McDonald's: It's easy for people like me to demonize McDonald's. However, I wonder how many of the critics have to worry about the source of their next meal or the location of a safe playground to take their kids. For people worried about the environmental consequences, take a look at the jewelry industry. According to the environmental group Earthworks, twenty tons of waste are generated in producing a single gold ring. For the anti-capitalists out there, the author notes that McDonald's is no where to be found in the top hundred on the Fortune 500 list. No one would argue that more fruit and veggies would be better, but viewing fast food as the enemy and condemning the poor as ignorant or lazy is no way to solve the actual problems.
  7. What Made America Fat: It's Not Just the Food: Conventional wisdom touts the "fiscal view" of nutrition: calories in (diet) - calories out (exercise) = weight gain/loss. What if stress has the predominant impact on the absorption of nutrients and the metabolic rate of a person? What if lowering one's weight doesn't lead to improvements in health? What should one do if weight gain is correlated with being social (e.g. the more people present at a meal, the more a person tends to eat)?
Take home message: Nutritional studies, even large ones, often extrapolate percentages from a couple extra incidences of disease or death. More food for thought: two strong correlations with weight gain are low-income and being on a diet.

My personal theory: being "too busy" is the root cause (see Scott Berkun's manifesto). How are American's spending their time differently than people in other countries?


campari and salt

[by john]

campari doesn't do it for me. i've seen lady gaga rock it, i've had it in cocktail form, and i've even sipped it with a slice of orange at a sun-drenched italian cafe. still. that bitter finish is not pleasant like other italian amaros' bitter finishes. medicinal.

but, holy shit if this didn't change (a small portion of) my life: add a dash of saline solution to campari and it turns delicious! i tried their 'campari martini' the other night and...fruity? sweet? this is campari?! i'll leave the taste science to mike or naveen, but for now, it just tastes good.

the guys at rogue cocktails (go, click that link!) are on top of their game. salted cocktails are definitely trending, but i hope they rise to prominence faster - it seems like there's a large, fertile, unexplored parameter space out there...

white lily

[by john]

this drink, the white lily, has two amazing virtues.

first, its ingredients are readily found at any fratty house party (hosted, presumably, by some dude who smuggled absinthe back from europe after spring break '07), and their combination in a single drink just amplifies the frattiness ('look bro, a shot each of rum, gin, triple sex [sic], and some of the green fairy. race you to the bottom!), but that blend yields a refined, fruity, crisp, and flipping tasty result.

second, like the pegu club, the eensy bit of modifier (absinthe for the lily, bitters for the pegu) transforms the drink like a necklace of pearls around an otherwise fine neckline of a black dress.

i won't forgive myself for keeping this one on my to-make list for so long.

the white lily

equal parts of:
white rum
triple sec
a dash of absinthe

stir with ice and strain


West Coast Rejuventation

[by Naveen]

With just under three days to explore as much of the Bay Area culinary zeitgeist as possible, I started with Heidi Swanson's list of San Francisco Favorites, combined with recommendations from friends and a good dose of serendipity.

Spice Kit: I followed Heidi's advice to check out the recent issues of Tablehopper for inspiration. I picked this “chef-driven Asian street food” restaurant for my first meal, based on a note in the June 29th edition. The owners, Wilfred Pacio and Fred Tang, alumni of the French Laundry, Per Se, and The Dining Room at the SF Ritz-Carlton, lit up the interwebs with their application of "Farm Fresh ingredients" and "techniques that Frenchmen would love" and now I can better appreciate the thrill of discovery felt by the bloggers.

Nopalito: After following the linecook blog for several months and hearing rave reviews from John, I knew that I had to go to either here or Nopa. The menu combined traditional Mexican cooking with "local, organic, and sustainable" ingredients. I really want to visit one of Rick Bayless' Chicago restaurants now, as well as make an eventual trip to Mexico (perhaps with Mike as tour guide).

Burma Superstar: One of my high school friends and Heidi both recommended this wildly-popular venue. Despite calling in at 8:30 pm, we weren't seated until 10:45. It was totally worth the wait to experience this unique fusion of Southeast Asian flavors. Combined with John's trip to Thailand, the experience reminded me that I need to return to that part of the world.

Dosa: Another one of Heidi Swanson's recommendations. The atmosphere was totally different than the Little India restaurants and hawker center stalls in Singapore, but I enjoyed the food just as much, especially since I got to introduce one of my friends to this South Indian specialty.

The Plant Organic Cafe: Thanks to the Yelp app on my new smartphone, I found this amazing new restaurant at the Ferry Building. It shattered my negative pre-conceptions of pizza, showcased some amazing locally-grown vegetables, and ended with a great contrast between the molten chocolate cake and vegan blackberry cheesecake desserts. After months of resisting, I am glad that I finally decided to upgrade my Motorola RAZR (it still makes a nice alarm clock, though).

There is still plenty left for future visits. Top on my list are Gracias Madre (vegan Mexican), Aziza (Michelin-star Moroccan), and Coi (sadly, closed for renovations during my visit), but I'm sure there are dozens of others that I have yet to discover. Besides the restaurants mentioned here, I also visited the Farmers' Markets, grocery stores, and ice cream shops, which were equally inspiring. As you can tell from my summaries, this trip renewed my interest to travel the world. My last memory of the trip is gazing at models of Shanghia sky-scrapers, as part of an SF MoMA exhibit at the SFO airport, which I hope is a case of foreshadowing.


Medium Raw

[by Naveen]

I discovered Kitchen Confidential at the start of my year in Singapore and read his other books (and watched all of No Reservations) during my remaining time on the island. I explored as much of the local food culture as I could, while struggling to find a balance between my undergrad vegetarianism and Bourdain's total gastronomical immersion. He's not a role model, but he's always thought-provoking in a way that challenges my too-comfortable grad student life. The new book isn't the best introduction to his philosophy, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it as the transcript of a hypothetical conversation in a bar after a few drinks.

One of my reasons for reading Bourdain's travelogues and essays (as well as the similar books by Bill Buford, Gordon Ramsay, and Michael Ruhlman) was the intense devotion of each to their craft: a combination of relentless curiosity and almost inhuman diligence. What drives chefs? Bourdain looks at the case of celebrity chefs, such as Emeril, Godron Ramsay, and David Chang. With regards to Mario Batali:
"He gets off on successfully filling a restaurant that everyone said was doomed, or bringing the cost of food below 20%. He likes to do the difficult thing, the dangerous thing - like take a gamble that what America needs and wants right now is ravioli filled with calf brains, or a pizza topped with pork fat."

Does Bourdain have regrets? Yes, many. One of the biggest ones is not seeking out a challenging position in the kitchen of a top-ranking chef after culinary school. He writes:
"The simple fact is that I would be - and always have been - inadequate to working in the kitchens of most of my friends, and it is something I will have to live with."

Wylie Dufresne is a hero. Bourdain writes "To his constant peril, he experiments, pushes boundaries, explores what is possible, what might be possible." I caught a glimpse of this during a conversation with him at TEDx Cambridge and from my dessert at WD-50, so I'm hungry for more.

A major internal debate for me still is between the optimal nutrition of elite athletes like Scott Jurek and Brendan Brazier and the fearless exploration by numerous vagabonds and a smaller number of food critics. With regard to tasting menus, Bourdain writes
"If cooking professionally is about control, eating successfully should be about submission, about easily and without thinking giving yourself over to whatever dream they'd like you the share."
This excludes over-intellectualizing the food, taking photos of every course, and focusing more on the future blog post than the seamless passage of time.

Finally, back to his thoughts about vegetarianism:
"I guess I understand if your desire for a clean conscience and cleaner color overrules any natural lust for bacon. But taking your belief system on the road - or to other people's houses - make me angry."
He elaborates on this anger for quite a few pages.

Has anyone else read the book? Has it changed the way you eat?


First Foray into NYC Dining

[by Naveen]

Here's the synopsis of my first expedition to one of the dining capitals of the world:

wd-50: life-changing desserts: my top recommendation. Visit the website if the photo at the top isn't incentive enough.

Souen: Macrobiotic Meal: close to the opposite of the dessert last night, but also quite sastisfying. This plate was filled with piles of brown rice, plain beans, squash, broccoli, and hijiki, optimized for nutrition.

Otto: Olive oil gelato with sea salt: made me want to buy the Flavor Bible and read all of the "They Go Really Well Together" posts on the kymos blog.

Lombardi's Pizza: "Best Pizza on the Planet" according to Zagat: good, but not enough to have a charcoal furnace installed in my apartment. Excessive free pizza at grad school meetings has dampened my enthusiasm for pizza in general.

Liquiteria: like Jamba Juice, with more nutritional content and a correspondingly higher price. Meals in a bottle could be seen as a revolution in time-saving technology or a place to showcase conspicuous consumption.

Hummus Place: in defense of chain restaurants: I would be happy to see this spread to Boston.

Stogo: vegan ice cream, which is fascinating from a food science perspective (plant-based fats don't seem close to the complexity of the protein-coated fat globules in milk). Chocolate chip cookie satisfied my nostalgic cravings, but I would appreciate more adventurous flavors.

Recommendations for San Francisco? Chicago? Where else should I go?


Dessert topping or floor wax?

[by Naveen]

Dessert topping or floor wax? Both.

I recently returned from my first real (i.e. more than 24 hours) trip to New York, justified by the monthly meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective. The speaker, NYU Chem Professor Kent Kirshenbaum totally changed my view of plant-derived amphiphiles in one of the best science presentations that I've seen. He started with the Saturday Night live skit that introduced New Shimmer to the world. After some initial slides about the science of soap, he demonstrated how to make soap from various plant extracts, called saponins. A small amount of quillaja extract in a bowl full of water turned to foam with the help of an electric mixer. He used this to clean off the white board and some spots on his tie. When dispensed from an iSi whipper, it looked a lot like a dessert topping.

The second challenge was to make something that tasted good enough to put on butterscotch pudding. Many middle eastern desserts incorporate all types of unique plant extracts, like salep, an orchid extract used to make stretchy ice cream (see this Cooking Issues post for more info). In this case, Prof. Kirshenbaum used a different extract to make meringues and a type of mousse, which the audience got to try. They had a somewhat bitter, herbal taste which was balanced by some fresh fruit toppings. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the recipe could use some work before going mainstream. Still, there is an expanding market for vegan or egg-free desserts. A company called Angel Food in New Zealand is making vegan marshallows and meringues, and there are likely others out there.

Not only are these saponins floor cleaners and dessert toppings, they could potentially be used as medicine. There is a long list of the purported health benefits of saponins. Many of the claims are probably too general to prove, but there is preliminary evidence that they can bind to cholesterol, suggesting the possibility to be used in a cholesterol-lowering drug. The Masai people of Africa eat a diet rich in meat, dairy, and cattle blood, yet have surprisingly low cholesterol. This could be due to their practice of cooking their food with the bark or stems of certain plants that contain high levels of saponins.

Even if a cholesterol-lowering, floor-cleaning, vegan confectionery doesn't hit the supermarket shelves anytime soon, I still had a great time learning about saponins. Perhaps I should watch old SNL skits for more PhD thesis topic ideas.


PhD in Chocolate

[by Naveen]

a model of the solar system, constructed by master chocolatier Enric Rovira, one of the inspirations for this post

My latest obsession has been the science of chocolate. After several literature searches and interviews with people about the transformation from cocoa pods to chocolate bar, I'm starting to get a sense of feasible thesis topics, which would be both scientifically interesting and industrially relevant (as well as delicious). Two main frontiers in the chocolate world that can be explored from a soft matter physics perspective seem to be:

1. Design a simple, reliable "temper-meter." By melting and cooling molten chocolate in a specific way, chocolate makers can create a solid bar that is glossy on the surface and breaks cleanly. If this procedure isn't done right, the chocolate can be crumbly and develop an ugly whitish coating on the surface, called bloom. The main difference relates to how the cocoa fat molecules are stacked within the chocolate: well-tempered chocolate has all these molecules packed tightly together. Unfortunately, the only way to determine this conclusively is with x-ray diffraction, which isn't especially convenient for artisan chocolate makers. A more common method is to measure the temperature of the chocolate over time as it cools, which works okay, but apparently there is still considerable room for improvement.
2. Glossy coated almonds (or nibs, cocoa beans, etc.). In a technique known as panning, the nuts are placed in a large rotating vat and molten chocolate is slowly drizzled over them. As the nuts tumble around, a layer of chocolate gradually develops around each nut. Somewhat surprisingly, the resulting coating is smooth and fairly resistant to bloom, despite not undergoing the specific tempering process. However, it's still tricky to attain a glossy, rather than matte, surface on the product, so additional coatings are typically used in the industry.

Armed with my physics knowledge of mechanics, electricity and magnetism, acoustics, and (high-school level) chemistry, I think that I can discover some interesting things while I pursue these problems. If I'm incredibly lucky, I could help solve some major problems in the chocolate industry. At worst, I'll have fun playing around with chocolate.


The Science of Vegan Cooking

[by Naveen]

After recent inspiration (both in terms of running and cooking) by Brendan Brazier, Scott Jurek, Matt Frazier, and Terry Waters, I've been doing more vegan cooking lately. This has prompted a slew of food science questions, since eggs and dairy play such a diverse range of roles in a whole spectrum of foods. I could write a whole series of posts about this, but for now I'll just give some examples, ranging from the straight-forward to potentially intractable:
  • Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble: My version of this dessert got rave reviews, even by swapping the butter with coconut oil (and the sugar with stevia). However, the crumble probably wasn't too sensitive to the physical properties of the fat (e.g. water content, melting points) and it's hard to make a dessert like this taste bad. Many other pastries depend more critically on the type of fat used, so doing a one-to-one swap might not work.
  • Six-seed Soda Bread: I can replace the buttermilk with 1 cup of non-dairy milk + 1 T acid, but the buttermilk provides more than just acidity to balance the baking soda. Which milk substitute and which acid would go best with the recipe? I used unsweetened vanilla almond milk and apple cider vinegar, since that's what I had in the fridge. I'll want to look more into flavor pairings before going further.
  • Cashew cream: I've come across several recipes that utilize cashews to replace traditional dairy creams, of the both sweet and sour varieties. My own attempt at blending soaked cashews and apple juice was quite palatable, but wouldn't fool anyone in blind taste tests. How can I replicate the complex emulsion of protein-coated fat globules with something from the plant world?
  • Aged vegan cheese: An even more ambitious target would be to find a non-dairy substrate for culturing the rich microbiota that lives in a piece of aged Camembert or Bayley Hazen Blue, for instance. Experiments are scheduled for later this month.
Any other ideas? I know rheologists, microscopists, microbiologists, and mixologists to help find answers.


what (free stuff) i got out of tedxcambridge

[by john]

as naveen alluded to, tedx was such a phenomenal event that it has so far eluded my attempts at summary or theme-threading. i learned so many things, from academic, communication, and even emotional standpoints, but i shouldn't write them all down, lest i use my budget of run-on sentences for the year.

instead, i'll look back via the very grad student lens of the freebies i got.


i'm so glad i stumbled into a volunteer position that let me meet every speaker. mike and i were running the floor - mike the slides, me the stage - so we got to chat with and advise each speaker during their practice slots.

all this small talk and handshaking helped de-deify food gods like kenji alt and wylie dufresne, while also putting faces on some remarkable ideas and accomplishments, such as david waters' community servings.


the presentations all ran off of my computer, which means that i now have gigabytes of food porn (dufresne had a 14 minute slide deck) and great stock images like this from john gertsen:

see those wigs? those guys are colonizing, not thinking about what's in the bowl.


francisco migoya supplied the audience with free chocolate-maple-brioche-bacon bars, delicious examples of his pursuit of non-traditional food pairings. my pimenton-cantelope combination last night seems downright pedestrian compared to that. which is good; it gives me license to explore.


besides defending the thesis that the company you keep at a bar matters more than the drinks you drink there, john gertsen (and ted, of no. 9 park) presented an à la minute pousse-café. this strange collection of french words was made by raising two straws - one filled with bitters, one with cassis - up out of a glass of soda. the bitters floated, the cassis sank, et voila, layers!

the two barmen came well equipped with lots of straws, and i offhandedly mentioned i might steal some. (note: i have been lusting after such black straws for a while now - they're way more elegant for testing a drink than shaw's brand bendy straws.) when john gave the go-ahead, the cocktail geek in me sprang into action, stuffing these black straws into a gallon freezer bag.

well, john and i had been talking earlier that, despite his talk's message, it is alright to geek out every now and then. (phew!) so i just laughed after my kleptomania subsided, knowing that straws are cool, but the friends sipping through them will take precedence.

inside jokes

when you charge a chef's ipod on your computer, you find out what they name it:



TEDx Afterglow

[by Naveen]

Classes are over and I'm riding on a wave of inspiration and adrenaline after a TEDxCambridge event that left me nearly speechless. I feel honored to have been the equivalent of a line cook with the amazing team of various designers and other graduate students who put the event together.

There are probably other, far more comprehensive summaries of the event on the internet, so I'll offer a brief synposis of a few of my own take-away lessons:
I'm ready for summer.


hot jupiter

[by john]

a few weeks back, elisabeth, one of my friends, defended her thesis on transiting exoplanets. the after-after-party was at our place, and i had been hemming and hawing for days on whether or not to make a special drink for the occasion. i ended up on the hawing (?) end, opting for the easy champagne route, when, with no more than an hour to spare before the first guests showed up, my roommate (a very good friend of elisabeth's) decreed that a special drink be made. being a good physicist, he prescribed well defined boundary conditions:
  • the drink shall be named the hot jupiter,
  • the said drink shall contain rum,
  • thai chili tincture shall be used,
  • and it shall require an orange and (transiting) maraschino cherry garnish.
well constrained, indeed, but there was still a lot of parameter space to explore! i first tried the boozy route...spirits-based...several rums...maybe vermouth...then turned to herbal...chartreuse, benedictine, becherovka...yet all with limited success. stressing out, with only half an hour left, i took a step back.

this drink needs to appeal to a wide audience, i figured. not just cocktail junkies with a taste for the herbal edge. what about citrusy and sweet? a classic 4:2:1?! a classic 4:2:1 turned out just great, in fact. satisfied, i measured out a large batch, making a large dent in a bottle of cuban rum for the 4, splitting the 2 between grapefruit and lime juice, then syrup for the 1. damn palatable. and just in time to start a round of congratulations and toasts to ephemerides.
hot jupiter

4 parts rum (havana club reserva)
2 parts citrus (2:1 grapefruit:lime)
1 part syrup
few drops of thai chili tincture per glass

shake and strain. garnish with a central star (orange slice) and transiting planet (maraschino cherry).
the spicy tincture was obviously just for novelty, but it added a curious afterthought to each sip. the hot jupiter proved versatile, as it also worked with dashes of bitters or a champagne float.

i don't have any pictures of the drink, but it looked something like this:


irish-catholic guilt (hmmm, that should be a drink name...)

[by john]

as much as i don't want to be that (millionth) blogger penitent for inactivity, i can't help myself. we're all still alive!

believe it or not, we've had a couple nights of cocktail brainstorming, some out of town travels to talk about, trips to new restaurants, and there's even a phenomenal event this weekend called tedxcambridge (a local, organic version of ted) which we would be remiss not to document.

in recent news, i saw john gertsen at the wine and cheese cask tonight. omg! i only recognized him as he was getting his receipt, though, so there was no time for him to sign my bottle of plymouth...


Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

[by Naveen]

As I struggle through the latest round of problem sets, it's easy to lose perspective and become entrapped in a web of partial differential equations. However, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution project has been on my mind a lot lately and helps me keep in mind what really matters. At the latest TED conference earlier this year, he proposed his wish to "to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.”

I feel totally disconnected from the public school system right now, but his message resonates me for several reasons:
  • I'm helping develop the "Science of Cooking" class to be taught at Harvard this fall. The class itself is only open to Harvard undergraduates, but many other people have expressed interest in the course. I think that food is a great way to introduce all types of people (including elementary school students) to topics ranging from physics and chemistry to neuroscience and ecology.
  • I'm also helping organize a TEDx event in Cambridge, inspired by Jamie Oliver's TED wish. I've already discovered many fascinating new ways of thinking about the issues he raised by reaching out to potential speakers.
  • I recently finished reading Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, Born Round by Frank Bruni, and Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, which explore the intersections of food, psychology, and behavior change.
  • One of my role models for giving effective presentations, Garr Reynolds, is similarly inspired by the Food Revolution project (see here or here, for instance) and his written several times about the contrasts between fast food in America and traditional Japanese cuisine.
I'd love to hear more about your thoughts of Jamie Oliver's project, but now I need to return to the realm of reaction-diffusion equations.


Cheese rind: eating my research

[by Naveen]

For my microbiology class final paper, I am planning to write about the microbiology of cheese rinds. Until recently, I didn't appreciate that nearly all cheese rinds (with the except of wax-coated cheeses), are thick layers of microbial communities, known as biofilms. For the past year, I was studying biofilms in a rather different context. I was examining a single strain of bacteria, known as Bacillus subtilis, to try to understand the mechanics of its growth. The cheese rinds are far more complicated, with successive waves of colonization by various microbes over the course of several months:
  1. Lactic acid bacteria are first to the scene and convert lactose to lactic acid.
  2. Yeast cells eat the lactic acid, which de-acidifies the cheese.
  3. New waves of bacteria can now colonize the curd. If the cheese is brined, then these are predominantly salt-tolerant bacteria.
  4. Fungi can also colonize the cheese later in the aging process.
Each of these microbes has its own mix of peptases and lipases, which can break down the proteins and fats, respectively, in the curd to produce flavorful compounds and change the texture of the cheese. One of the first people to thoroughly study cheese from a microbiological perspective was Sister Noella Marcellino, also known as the Cheese Nun, who got a Fulbright grant to travel around France and study the micro-ecology of all types of artisan cheeses. Below is a figure from one of her papers (N Marcellino and D R Benson, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Nov. 1992, p. 3448-3454), which shows some of the microbial diversity living on the surface of a piece of St. Nectaire cheese:

At the top (a) are fungal spores and collapsed hyphae (chains of cells). Below that (b) is a layer of yeast and bacterial colonies. More fungal hyphae can be seen growing further inwards (c). The boundary with the curd (d) can be seen near the bottom of the figure. The total thickness of the rind is about 1.5 mm.

Categorizing this microbial diversity is just the first step. In my paper for the class, I am proposing a study to figure out how these microbes are interacting. One well-known method is through quorum-sensing, in which bacteria send out small signal molecules into their environment and listen for the concentration of these same molecules. If there are a lot of the same species around, the concentration of these molecules is high, so the bacteria know they are not alone and start behaving in new ways, such as forming a biofilm.

Cheese is a great system for studying microbial ecology, since it's more interesting a single species on an agar plate, but still far simpler than the overwhelming diversity found in nature. It's another potential topic for my future gastro-science PhD.


Chocolate: gateway into the sciences

[by Naveen]

My gastroscience research for the past month has focused on the physics of chocolate. It's taken me a while to write this post since I've been a bit overwhelmed by all the science involved in one of my favorite foods. Below is just a small subset of the questions one can investigate:
  • Botany: where do cocoa plants grow?
  • Microbiology: what's the best way to ferment the cocoa pods?
  • Organic chemistry: what are the flavor molecules in cocoa particles?
  • Physical chemistry: what is the structure of the cocoa fat?
  • Rheology: what is the viscous/elastic behavior of chocolate at different temperatures?
  • Physiology: how do we taste chocolate?
  • Neuroscience: how does eating chocolate affect one's mood?
Since several books and numerous research articles have been written about the subject, in this post I'll just focus on the phase transitions in the cocoa fat. In elementary school I learned about phase transitions like ice melting or water boiling, but chocolate is way more complicated. One can't take a simplistic view when it comes to producing chocolate that has a smooth, glossy surface and that breaks cleanly (aka "tempering").

The fats in chocolate, like most foods, are triacylglyerides (TAGs), which have three fatty acids attached to a carbon backbone (#1 in the figure below). The fatty acids (labelled R1, R2, and R3), can be either saturated (straight) or unsaturated (with a kink), with the center fatty acid often being unsaturated (#2). The composition of fats changes depending on where the cocoa pods were harvested. Unlike the E-shape shown in the chemical formula, the fatty acids distribute themselves on opposite sides of the carbon backbone to form a chair or tuning fork shape (#3). These TAGs can stack in several different ways. In one of these forms, the chairs pack in a double length configuration (#4). A tighter packing is possible in a triple-length configuration (#5). This tighter packing has an observable effect, a chocolate bar can contract by 1 or 2% if it solidifies in this configuration.

The type of packing is determined by the temperature of the cocoa fat. The tighter packings require more energy to form, so their melting point is higher. In cocoa butter, there are six different types of packings (aka phases), labelled with either Greek letters or Roman numerals. The fifth form (Form V or Beta-1) is the goal when tempering the chocolate to achieve a nice, glossy appearance. In the tempering process, molten chocolate is cooled enough to allow the Form V crystals to form, but also to keep the temperature above the melting points of the undesired forms. Once enough Form V crystals have formed, the chocolate can be cooled all the way down to room temperature.

This is where things get complicated and I'm still working to sort out the details. The crystals can form over a range of temperatures and the crystal structures can transform among themselves in particular ways over times that can range from minutes to months. This is the cause of chocolate bloom, in which a dull, whitish coating can form on top of chocolate that is stored improperly. I've tried to show a rough idea of the types of crystals that form at different temperatures in the figure below, but I welcome the feedback from anyone with more authoritative knowledge on the subject.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to phase transitions in chocolate. The rate at which crystals nucleate, the effect of shearing the chocolate, the presence of other fats (like in milk chocolate), and numerous other variables can affect this process. There is certainly enough left to explore to fill an entire PhD dissertation.


if only elevators had cocktail bars

[by john]

i've really been digging some books on public speaking lately (both via naveen) - presentation zen design and confessions of a public speaker. the latter has very good advice on distilling your presentation to different degrees:
In effect, by working hard on a clear, strong, well-reasoned outline, I've already built three versions of the talk: an elevator pitch (the title), a five-minute version (saying each point and a brief summary), and the full version (with slides, movies, and whatever else strengthens each point).
the same methodology can apply to conversations at a bar or party, where you present yourself layer by layer, without the usual academic powerpoint crutch. this skill is essential in a place like cambridge, where your average craft brew aficionado also cures cancer or microlends in southern india or scans meditating monks in an fmri machine.

drink 1. this is prime elevator pitch time - you have to hook your conversationmate before they take two sips. i usually stick with the half lie 'i do rocket science'.

drink 2. ok, 'rocket scientist' worked, so now i can transition to what kinds of x-rays come from space, how we can best detect them on said rocket, and why this is important for silly things like carbon-based life forms.

drink 3. if you're still asking the right questions at this point, i'll be laying down terms like 'superconductor' and 'ionization state' to fill in the details between those earlier broad strokes. i'll be drawing graphs in the frost of your silver julep cup. i'll describe the mechanics of a supernova so vividly that you won't even think to make a joke involving the oasis song.

further drinks. well, at this point i would hope to have segued to something more entertaining, like cocktail history. otherwise, i'd be yammering about the best kinds of tape for cryogenic purposes, and that's not good for anybody. but at least none of my julep diagrams would use comic sans.


freeing the butterflies

[by john]

the pernicious condition of butterfly collecting can befall any experience-trapper - cocktail nerds, foodies, movie buffs, and travelers alike. the original pastime, once enjoyable, collapses to single-minded pursuit of a checklist of must-have specimens. naveen and i have talked plenty (and he even posted [twice]) about this problem, but still i fell into it.

my dc experience in january set things in stark perspective - the expectation-free neighborhood joints, like bourbon for no-hassle cocktails or fireplace for no-frills beers, outshone the capital-c cocktail bars that i, as a capital-c cocktail lover, was obliged to visit. it was as if i went to a country for the passport stamp, not the experience.

each of the 26 cocktail blogs i subscribe to has made it increasingly clear that, no, i cannot keep up the joneses with all three chartreuses and every arcane amaro in their home bars, nor their launch party invites, nor their historical knowledge. but hell if i can't enjoy myself with a drink in my hand! a few recent experiences have shown me that i don't need to kill each butterfly to ensure enjoyment:

genever & rum

i threw a party as an excuse to catch up with some friends i hadn't seen for a while. unlike the last two day festival, i actually relaxed this time. chatted, joked, didn't pin myself behind the bar...like a host ought to do. and yet i managed to introduce just about everybody to the oddities of genever and the joys of rum, with a damn good menu to boot. and as satisfying as that was, mixologically, it was more pleasurable to hear about grandmothers' recipes for pâté and fine dining faux pas.

italian on st. patrick's

as i sedulously examined the cocktail menu at coppa, the newest south end hotness, my friends chided me: 'are you gonna blog about this?' 'no', i retorted. clearly, i lied, but for a different reason - instead of taking notes on the creative workarounds for a place without a full liquor license, or a forgettable genever and yellow chartreuse cocktail (how far i've come to say that!), i chose to enjoy the palpable giddiness at the table from the vermillion pitcher of aperol and springlike weather in mid-march. the duck prosciutto and gossip didn't hurt the memorability, either.

four nationalities walk into a bar...

after beers and whiskey at a typical boston irish pub, i decided to drag three foreign visitors to green street for cocktails. it's always fun to nudge people outside of their beer comfort zone, and even more so when the colonizers (the briton and dutchman) had already traded barbs with the colonized (the american and south african). the cocktails were fine to bad (rum and fernet? never again.), but the conversation was excellent - health care, wal-mart, the superiority of the south african accent for picking up girls, dirty secrets of radio astronomy... who cares what you're drinking if that's how you're talking?


The Science of Whipped Cream

[by Naveen]

Whipped cream has been on my mind a lot lately. A classmate and I just gave a presentation about our experimental studies on the physics of these aerated dairy emulsions for an Applied Physics class that we're taking. People have made whipped cream since at least the mid 1600's, but it has only become more common in the past hundred years thanks to centrifugation (to separate out cream from whole milk), refrigeration (to shorten the whipping time and make stiffer foams), and pressurized nitrous oxide dispensers. Even more recently, scientists have begun to examine its micro-scale characteristics.

From a physical perspective, whipped cream is more complicated than most typical foams, which are just a dense packing of air bubbles held together by surfactant (like soap). The air bubbles in whipped cream are all coated with fat molecules, which is why it tastes so good, and why you need to start with about 30% fat content in the cream. These fat molecules are initially contained within a coat of proteins, but somehow need to escape to attach to the entrapped air.

The physics of mechanically whipping cream is fairly well understood. The whisk introduces large air pockets into the cream, which break into smaller air bubbles. At the same time, the whisking breaks down protein-coated fat globules in the cream, which allows naked fat molecules to adhere to the air bubbles. If the temperature is slightly above freezing, then the blobs of fat only partially coalesce, leading to a more rigid structure.

However, whipped cream that comes out of a can or nitrous oxide-powered dispenser follows a completely different process. The gas is initially dissolved in the fat globules, but comes out of solution when the pressure is released and the whipped cream is dispensed. With the traditional method of making cream, large air pockets are fragmented into small air bubbles. With aerosolized whipped creams, dissolved gas expands to form the air bubbles. We wanted to know how the resulting creams differed.

To be more quantitative about the mechanical properties of the various types of whipped creams, we put a small amount of each in a device called a rheometer. The device consists of two parallel circular plates that can rotate relative to each other in a controlled way. By placing the whipped cream between the plates, we can measure how viscous (like honey) or elastic (like a rubber band) the material behaves. In one experiment we rotated the plates back and forth over a range of frequencies and saw how the mechanical properties of the whipped cream changed. I'd be happy to discuss the results in more detail, but the basic idea is that additives in store-bought whipped cream make the whipped cream less elastic, but more stable.

We also did some preliminary microscopy measurements. My favorite was the confocal fluorescent microscopy, in which we added a lipid-soluble dye that revealed the location of all the fat globules. In the image below, you can see the fat globules clustering around an air bubble (the field of view is about 0.2 mm).

These early experiments are far from rigorous, but they do suggest all types of further studies. There is no shortage of variables to control: the amount of surfactant, the types of fat molecules (e.g. saturated vs. unsaturated), the protein composition (pasteurization can have a major effect), the air bubble size distribution, etc. Moreover, chefs are finding all types of novel uses for the refillable whipped cream dispensers, such as making espumas of seafood, mushrooms, and vegetables, as well as single-serving cakes.

On the agenda this month: the science of chocolate.


your neighborhood fancy cocktail bar

[by john]

warmed by an almost uneatable quantity of soup dumplings, my birthday revelers and i ambled across the channel to drink, where an unexpected present awaited - john gertsen's gracious hospitality, undivided by other patrons. the bar manager lavished attention, stories, and enthusiasm over the eight of us for two long rounds.

at a later point in the night, john and some of us got onto the topic of drink styles by city. down to the quarter ounce differences between nyc-style and boston-style. but, being an obsessive consumer of cocktail blogoculture, i knew that boston's style would lose out to nyc's regardless, because nyc's bartenders get better press. (i had even suggested earlier that a friend might like the right hand, a milk & honey creation.) so i asked john why we didn't see drink putting out original recipes to get their name out there.

and he replied, thoughtfully, that he wants drink to last. not - he backpedaled - that he was slighting these nyc establishments, but, focusing on his own bar and staff, he considers a thorough knowledge of the classics a more enduring model than trying to keep abreast of trends and publicity. then, once the foundation has been set, they may try some crazy molecular mixology or the like.

his answer floored me. one, it was so frank. two, it was so heartening. three, it was so...unexpected. i have always thought of that bar as a trendy, idea-driven bar (no menus - genius). that idea has now been upended and replaced by drink as a classic bar for the generations to come, which just happened to prioritize the idea of bartender interaction. i had just assumed that it was designed to come, make money, and go, with patrons' interests or the wind, like a shaker-weilding mary poppins (rum punch!). that is the modus operandi in nyc, after all.

maybe i can give myself license to consider myself a regular now.


january budget

[by john]

i haven't written about hitting my booze budget target lately because, well, i had been hitting it. but, as evidenced by all the dc posts, i blew way past it in january. the trip to julio's liquors for rum, apricot liqueur, rye, vermouth, and genever certainly didn't help, either.

we're talking a factor of two in overspending. (that's not so bad for astronomers usually, but...) a couple things salvaged january from going down in the cautionary-tale-of-profligacy or cut-up-my-credit-card categories. first, i had plenty of xmas and birthday money to blow through, so i knew the size of my cushion. and second, i reminded myself that a budget is not a hard limit as much as a guideline; E[x], not max(x). i'm already well under for february, so things will average out nicely.

moreover, budgets are flexible. i just ran through my 2009 spending and found, for instance, that i overestimated zipcar and clothing expenses, so i redistributed them to other pleasures, like dining out.

well, until i can experiment enough with those bottles from julio's, this will be my budget-saving drink of choice:

2 oz italian vermouth

pour on the rocks. add a dash of bitters if feeling adventurous.


drams in dc: px

[by john]

both washington dc and i matured since the last time i visited. in the next few posts, i'll tell how i tried to drink it under the table this month. (i lost.)

there are two things fatally wrong about px, the generally agreed upon best bar in dc: they've overshot the idea of a cocktail, and they run a damn poor operation. my experience there nearly drove me to join yelp, just to excoriate it in a more visible forum.

(px is a speakeasy in alexandria. they require reservations to enjoy their apartment-turned-cocktail lounge environment, which is filled with lots of loveseat couches ideal for dates. i brought will, my host, for second opinions on the drinks, witty company, and a betting partner for which couples would last two more dates.)

fatal flaw one: overthinking it. for our first round, will chose the admittedly delicious boris karloff (housemade elderflower liqueur, gin, kaffir lime). but why, i pondered, would one (1) go through the trouble of gathering bushels of elderflowers to make your own liqueur and then (2) hide it behind the citrus while (3) the final creation sports a simple taste profile which i feel can easily be replicated at home? hrm. my drink, the 3rd course, had lots of ingrediental promise (foie gras infused armagnac, huckleberries, marjoram), but fell flat - my immediate thought was that they had poured me sloe gin with foliage sprinkled on top. again, they tried to soar so far beyond typical flavors, only to circle back (unknowingly, it seems) to the simplest tastes.

unfortunately, the bar manager todd thrasher, whose hagiography can be found on the website, wasn't tending bar that night, otherwise he may have been able to justify those nullifying complexities.

fatal flaw the second: running a bad bar. the first slip downward came as the doorkeeper rushed us (past a couple streaks of empty barstools) to our couch in the back room. not a relaxing start to the evening. i was a little edgy that we couldn't be at the bar (despite requesting it on their reservation form), but wanted to give it a chance - my booth-confined milk & honey experience turned out well enough with a knowledgeable server. no such luck. the doorkeeper returned and revealed herself, first, to be our waitress, and, second, to know nothing about the bar menu besides the names of the drinks to write down on her pad. unacceptable - servers must conversant with the menu and have opinions on the items therein. at the very least she was useful in getting us seats at the empty bar after our first round.

once there, i was a bit taken aback - not only was our waitress everybody's waitress, but there was only one bartender as well, who occasionally handed off a drink to his only barback to shake. the bartender was freaking out trying to put out the drink orders. since he wasn't being too engaging, i took a longer look around - the other two rooms were somewhat full, but without many empty glasses. i couldn't understand how a bar that, by its nature, had a self-imposed, well defined maximum capacity couldn't handle this kind of throughput. surely they could afford to hire another bartender with the profits off their $12 drinks.

finally, when he deigned to talk to us, i tried to get him to off menu with a new orleans style drink he might fancy. he produced a dry, bitter mess of rye, cognac, averna, oj, and many bitters that was pretty bad (i noticed he didn't straw-taste it). i didn't have the heart or patience to send it back...a decision which hurt all the more when i got charged an extra $2 for it. completely unprofessional move - i've never been subject to a surcharge for a bartender's time (because it certainly wasn't the special ingredients).

and to add heartache to the insult to the injury, they ruined the avett brothers' latest album for me by playing it through two and a half times during the length of our stay, oblivious to yet another fine point of hospitality.

drams in dc: ps7's

[by john]

both washington dc and i matured since the last time i visited. in the next few posts, i'll tell how i tried to drink it under the table this month. (i lost.)

i sidled up to ps7's swanky, brightly colored bar just around opening. after bantering around with chris, the bartender, for a while, i decided on their ss balvenie, primarily for the way he described the presentation - a whole poached local seckel pear sharing a glass with some balvenie 12 yr scotch. (i was given a fork and spoon to eat it, but ended up using my hands.) i was also curious to try it because scotch is trying to become a cocktail ingredient nowadays. disappointment, alas - the saffron poaching liquid (mixed in with the scotch) didn't come through, so the scotch was just scotch. points for ambition, though, and i appreciate how they brought the small-meal-in-a-drink idea beyond the bloody mary.

i asked for their scorched milk cocktail as a 'nightcap' (it was only a bit past 5 pm...). this drink is borderline brilliant. the process: milk is heated with spices to just below boiling, then chilled and bottled. shake that, some bourbon, and a sweet wine together, pour into a coupe and garnish with fleur de sel and cinnamon. it has a wonderful sweetness that isn't cloying, and unlike its cousin the brandy alexander, it's not heavy and thick.

and just to remind me where i was, the two other guests at the bar were discussing some heavy duty political strategy over their their dirty martinis.


drink to haiti

[by john]

drink is the last place in the world i expect to be handed a cocktail menu. but extraordinary events can lead to extraordinary measures. they're now offering a menu of barbancourt (a haitian rum) based cocktails, proceeds of which will go to doctors without borders.

my guy and i stopped in for two drinks off that menu after 'in the heights'. we were ready for some rum cocktails anyway after all the caribbean themes running rampant through the musical. but of course, this being drink, we had to order off the menu - my guy got a milk & honey creation, a 'right hand' (rum, campari, italian vermouth, xocolatl mole bitters), and i got a yellow chartreuse rum swizzle.

our barkeep even had to laugh about how strange it was to be pushing menu creations. stranger things have happened, though - like a rap musical winning a tony.


drams in dc: bourbon

[by john]

both washington dc and i matured since the last time i visited. in the next few posts, i'll tell how i tried to drink it under the table this month. (i lost.)

if i lost, then it was bourbon that won. it kicked my ass with its energy, creativity, and that 107 proof nightcap of old rip.

i immediately fell in love with their menu - simple 4-ingredient sort of drinks that feel like edgy classics. lots of amaro usage, maraschino, tequila, homemade goodness, and, naturally, bourbon. i jumped on 'the rested fig' (tequila, fig syrup, averna, lemon), and downed it alarmingly fast. the fig didn't come through much besides as general sweetness, but the balance was right on.

the neighborhoody vibe at bourbon was great. young folks, old folks (including the guy next to me sipping woodford reserve - seriously...dozens of bourbons in front of you and you go for woodford?), and 'snakes on a plane' on the tv. overall, a tighter and neater operation that the gibson, with a much more approachable feel.

my bartender patrick was incredibly hospitable - he gave me recs on places to go when he found out i was an out of towner, quite a few tastes of his preferred bourbons, and even introduced me to the unofficial tasting party going on at a table (rye genever...who knew). when i put him on the spot for something he'd been working on, he admitted that he didn't have much because he had a young kid at home to distract him. fair excuse! but while i was diverting myself with his rye version of a bijou from the menu (and samuel l. jackson), patrick slipped me a rum/walnut liqueur/honey/grapefruit creation that was plain blissful. maybe could've used some bitter depth, but a great first pass.

bourbon really hits a sweet spot in the bar world - the beer-and-whiskey neighborhood hangout plus quality drinks minus the craft cocktail solemnity.


drams in dc: the gibson

[by john]

both washington dc and i matured since the last time i visited. in the next few posts, i'll tell how i tried to drink it under the table this month. (i lost.)

for my first drink in dc, i found the unmarked door of the gibson and ordered the stranger on the highway (rye, benedictine, maraschino, absinthe). the buyer's remorse was immediate - because i knew i'd like the new orleans style. and i did - it was delicious. but i didn't come to dc to stay within my comfort zone, so i asked next for something with sherry, an up-and-comer in the the cocktail world, and something i know nothing about.

i asked the bartender (not my original guy) for something with sherry, but he admitted that john (my original guy) was the one playing with it more, and that he'd be back in a bit, having run out to alexandria to pick up ginger essence from px. i thought this was a nice gesture, and when john returned already armed with a pack of ideas and questions, it was hard to contain my smile.

he made a variation on a bamboo (amontillado sherry [lustau], french vermouth, dashes of bitters and absinthe, flamed orange peel). its simplicity let the sherry show its true colors - which are weird. the amontillado starts off with a huge void of flavor, like it's prepping the tongue for the subtle warmth and dry strains of citrus which come later.

we got to talking about the fermentation process, tasting it alone, and then other varieties. apparently amontadillo is the temperamental stepchild compared to its fino and oloroso brothers - it's very dependent on the amount of yeast which forms in the barrels.

after some more back and forth, john remade the bamboo with sweet vermouth for me to try. his intuition was successful - the sweetness started immediately and held my tongue's interest across that would-be void until the dryness came through.


the pleasant bartender interaction was only heightened by the sexy, antiquated speakeasy atmosphere - candles, edison bulbs, dark wood, a leather-topped bar. the menu was fun to read (they sort of assign personalities to cocktails) and well composed, if long - my perpetual criticism, i guess.

however, i would have expected a tighter ship from an establishment of its reputation. the back bar was messy the entire night, a product of the bartenders' experiments on a slow sunday night. (the place must be making bank, because they were making up drinks with full pours of spirits, and only testing the result with a couple sips!) another bit of smugness showed through when the non-john bartender kept jumping the i-got-something-for-you gun: no sooner had i given a hint of what direction i might want to go with a drink, and he'd start collecting bottles without further input. i had to call him back each time so he didn't do something disastrous...like make a drink i'd already had.


two down, two hundred to go

[by john]

i've been doing a lot of traveling lately, which means a lot of new bars to visit. rough, i know.

in my latest trip to nyc, i practically had to drag my guy to two cocktail bars. (with cheap happy hour specials and gimmicks like 5 shots for $10, why pay the equivalent of 75 dumplings for a drink? which is a valid point - despite all the cheap food and booze establishments in new york, why are cocktails 50% more expensive than in boston? suffer on, drink geeks.)

pegu club

'man, i had no idea how asian this place was.' i uttered this to te and steven at some point after noting in the geometric wooden window screens, the waitresses' kimono-esque dresses, and, uh, our bartender. apparently, the place is inspired by an old officer's club in burma.

i got a kill devil (rhum agricole, green chartreuse, sugar, bitters), which was agreed to be 'odd'. my guy got an improved strawberry daiquiri with thai basil (it came through great) and an omniscient-third-person view of a first date. steven stuck with a little italy (rye, sweet vermouth, cynar), which was solid, and apparently a pegu original - surprising since i've seen it elsewhere.

the bartending was slow. inefficient, i would say. we were sitting at the half empty bar, so we saw the slow assembly, one restart (cardinal sin of adding the liquor first and then messing up on the syrup amount), stirring one drink at a time, even though he was using wide beaker mixing glasses, and then letting the stirred drinks sit with ice while the citrus one got shaken. eek! if it weren't for the name on the door, i wouldn't know this is one of the top bars in the world.

overall, unimpressed with the skill and the tepid drink list.


after a wtf moment outside death & co (closed for a private event? on a saturday?!), we rallied and got some vegetarian banh mi before heading to the tequila mecca, mayahuel.

the kitschy (yet somehow believable) glazed tile and wrought iron decor felt cozy, minus the icy blasts of snow whenever someone new entered.

i got a red ant river swizzle (mezcal, sugar cane, absinthe, lime), and my guy continued his variation on a theme with a fresa brava (muddled strawberries, jalepeño-infused tequila, and yellow chartreuse). both fine, but not transcendent. no significant complaints, except for the enormous menu, which is almost necessary with such an unfamiliar family of ingredients (except to mike).

but the hipster bartenders commented on my hipster moleskine, so that made it worth the trip.


Cleanliness -Is- Close To Godliness

[by Mike]

I've mentioned fat washing in an earlier post, and while the concept has always intrigued me I had never attempted the technique until over the break. That's a shame, really, because fat washing is perhaps the latest trend most cooperative to the home mixologist; the application is straightforward, fast, and by its very nature cheap.

For the unfamiliar, fat washing is all about hacking booze. When sugars are initially fermented into alcohol, the byproducts are not just ethanol and carbon dioxide. All kinds of molecules can be created, some which give an individual spirit its unique character and others that can contribute off flavors or be outright dangerous. Distillation is all about extracting as much of the desired ethanol and flavor compounds as possible while avoiding those less agreeable to the palette (or health, depending on your priorities).

Careful distillation produces a finer, smoother product at the expense of yield; aging further reduces undesirable compounds at the expense of time. Because both approaches cost money, the end result is that quality spirits tend to correlate with lighter wallets.

Is there any use for the cheaper bottles, then, besides fueling college misadventures? Like so many things in life, the answer can be found in fat. You see, some of those unappealing flavor compounds are highly fat soluble. Once fat has dissolved in alcohol it will start binding with the molecules, particularly those responsible for the astringent vapors so characteristic of bad booze. Removing the fat then leaves a much smoother spirit at a fraction of the cost.

Almost any fat can be used, but easy removal necessitates animal fats that will solidify in the refrigerator and can be simply strained out of the alcohol with a fine mesh. Because fat dissolves so well in alcohol, trace amounts will be left behind no matter how well the alcohol is strained. While flavor neutral fats such as lard can be used to avoid introducing any new flavors, the real magic of fat washing happens when particular fats are used to impart complementary flavors to the spirit at hand.

The most famous applications so far have been with whiskey, utilizing both bacon fat and butter to round out younger bourbons and ryes while adding a rich note rare to most spirits. When considering my own application, however, I reached for unaged tequila with grassy and vegetal flavors complementary to more savory fats. My fat of choice would be freshly rendered duck fat.

Again, the process could not have been more simple. After picking up an inexpensive bottle of Sauza blanco, I added melted duck fat (75 parts base spirit to 4 parts fat) and let the solution sit overnight. The next day I threw the bottle into the fridge and by the evening I was sipping a smooth, velvety spirit laced with the luxurious taste of duck.

An improvement over shots, no?


Ghost of Cocktails Past

[by Mike]

Could you identify this drink? Transparent, white spirits... maybe a martini? Would you guess a margarita?

Yesterday a friend forwarded me a link to Cooking Stuff, the writings of two technically minded staff at the French Culinary Institute who spend their time playing with food science (and rapidly becoming my favorite blog). Reading through a few of the entries I came upon Stupid Simple Agar Clarification: a straightforward, completely vegetarian technique for clarifying all kinds of liquids. I'll leave the details to the original post, but the short story is that technique allows for the removal of solids suspended in any solution to leave a strikingly clear liquid with all of the original flavor.

Besides requiring no specialized hardware and being extremely simple, the agar clarification is fast: you can have a clarified liquid within a half hour. Other techniques, which require on the order of a day to complete, can't be used with perishable liquids such as citrus.

Once I read about clarified lime juice I was sold. Sneaking out of work this morning, I ran down to Chinatown to pick up some agar and began to clarify as soon as I made it home in the evening.

The excitement implied by the Cooking Stuff post and the past few paragraphs may sound hyperbolic, but I cannot overstate how amazing the whole process is. In fact, the only downside is that the clarification is not total. Some opacity remains, and the transparency fades when looking through enough liquid.

The applications are many, and my mind is still racing with the possibilities. After margaritas I threw together a Mexican Firing Squad for my testers (particular thanks to Leo, who also provided photography coaching), a drink that becomes hard to distinguish from one based on rye based on sight alone.

There's just something pleasantly devious about stirring a margarita, don't you think?