Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Great Food, Decent Beer, and a (Brief) Early Summer

It's taken me approximately forever to post about this, but last Thursday I went to what turned out to be a pretty awesome dinner with a friend from work. The good people at Watch City Brewing Company (conveniently located ~1/2 mile from my apartment) had the brilliant idea of doing a prix fixe beer-pairing menu using locally farmed/raised/produced ingredients. Each of 3 courses was paired with one of their beers, all for a grand total of $30. Not too shabby if you ask me... The first course was Crispy Citrus Atlantic Cod with Spicy Aioli served with a spicy pickled vegetable medley (paired with Old School Totem Pale Ale). The first thing we noticed was that this was a huge portion for being the first of 3 affordably-priced courses. This was quickly followed by the observation that the fish was perfectly cooked (incredibly moist flesh, super-crispy crust, and not a drop of grease to be found). I never order fish in restaurants (especially brew pubs) because I assume they're going to screw it up. This was delicious, though, and I would definitely order it again. Extremely yummy...
Next up was the Braised Kurobuta Pork Osso Buco served with steamed spinach and roasted parsnips (paired with Brilliant Brewnette). One of my (many) pet peeves is allegedly "braised" meat that requires the use of a knife to eat. This pork was tender and flavorful, though, and the bone could be easily pulled out without a shred of meat stuck to it (as should be the case). It was different than any other preparation of pork I've had (typically when I make braised pork it ends up in pulled pork sandwiches) and I really enjoyed it.
Finally came the dessert. The on-line menu promised us Chocolate and Hazelnut Gelato, but instead we got Chocolate Cake. (The menu was available for 3 nights, so some changes were to be expected, I suppose...) I am not a fan of cake, but I suppose this was about as good as a cake can be: extremely moist, layered with chocolate mouse, and topped with ganache... (And I guess it was good enough to make me forget to take a picture until both of our slices were gone...) This was paired with my favorite beer of the night, which was the Chocolate Thunder Porter. Despite the hype about brewing it with chocolate, it tasted much more smoky than chocolatey, but it paired nicely with the cake and was quite tasty.
I didn't mention much about the beers here because, with the exception of the porter, they weren't particularly exciting (especially relative to the food). I feel like growing up in the Pacific Northwest made me a bit of a beer snob, and sometimes I'm hard to impress on that front. Ah, well. I'm quickly becoming a fan of the Watch City BrewCo now, after a couple delicious meals there. I'll definitely be back, and will hopefully find more beers that suit my taste...
Summer seemed to come early this last weekend, with temperatures in the mid- to high-90s. I'm a bit of a weirdo in that mid-60s-and-overcast is pretty much my ideal weather. I am a big fan of autumn and have found that spring can be pretty nice, too, particularly following a hard winter. Summer, however, I could really do without. I find the sun oppressive and the heat stifling. Ugh. On the third day of this heat wave I went out and bought a couple window air conditioner units, which improved my disposition considerably. Last night the heat broke with a pretty sweet rainstorm and temperatures are expected to be pleasantly springtimey for the foreseeable future.
I'm definitely looking forward to more produce coming into season. I noticed at Russo's this weekend that dandelion greens are most certainly in season at the moment. A few weeks ago I was buying sad little bundles, but this is what my $3 of dandelion greens (for the bunnies, not for me) looked like this week:
Even though I occasionally feel cranky about how much shorter growing seasons are here than they are in Santa Barbara, I think it will be fun to get used to the seasonality of things here. I guess it should give me more appreciation for produce when it is in season, although I didn't need absence to make my heart grow fonder of things like fava beans... Sigh. Not much longer now, I suppose...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Relatively Awesome 3-Day Weekend...

You know, I heard it's not where you're from but where you pay rent... (Then I heard it's not what you make but how much you spend...) With this in mind I couldn't resist throwing down $9.99 at the local drug store on Saturday to pick up this totally fantastic Waltham hooded sweatshirt so that I could represent. Watch City, baby! Better recognize... or something...
Thanks to a commitment to all things patriotic, this was a 3-day weekend around these parts in honor of Patriots' Day. This turned out to be a very good thing, as I'm sure I would not have achieved anything whatsoever at work on Monday after staying up past my bedtime on Sunday... but I'll hold off on that part for a minute in the interest of chronology... (and I'll go ahead and apologize now for the epic length of this post...) Saturday tends to be my Domestic Goddess day (i.e. the day I take care of the bulk of the grocery-shopping, cooking, and cleaning)... I like to get up early and head out to Russo's for my supply of groceries for the week (and for the bunnies' fresh pile of cilantro, spinach, dandelion greens, carrots, and (if they're lucky) arugula).
After groceries I usually hang out in the kitchen for a few hours doing some basic prep work while blasting music and drinking espresso. I probably spend over 30 minutes every Saturday chopping up veggies for the buns (since Pedro doesn't have front teeth with which to tear into big pieces of veggies), but my Saturday kitchen time also involves getting things marinating that need to sit overnight and doing any time-consuming prep (spice pastes, chicken stocks, etc.) of components that I'll need later so that things can go more smoothly when it comes time to cook more seriously on Sunday. This weekend that prep involved my first attempt at making my own Masssaman Curry Paste. The curries in Thailand were amazing, and they made me realize that I'm never going to have an awesome enough Massaman curry at home if I keep using store-bought curry pastes. It's actually pretty easy to throw together your own curry paste once you source the ingredients, but I'm going to have to keep playing with the mix until it's exactly what I'm craving...
Spring is mostly here, so I picked up some nice reclining patio chairs to better enjoy the warmer weather and to make it more likely that I will sit outside in the sun with a good book rather than sitting inside in the dark with a bad TV show... My friend Joe came by on Sunday to help me test the chairs, and they are quite possibly the most comfortable seats on the premises (including my living room set, which short people tend to slide off of when the coefficient of friction between their pants and the leather isn't high enough... not to mention that my couches aren't outside in the sunshine...).
We headed out to try what it supposedly the best "authentic" (which I always hope means "trashy") Mexican food in Waltham. When we first walked through the door at Taqueria el Amigo, the place seemed to have just the right amount of hole-in-the-wall "charm." Joe tried a carne asada burrito (not pictured... it looked like a burrito...) while I decided to check out the carnitas (in taco form; below, right) and the chile rellenos (below, left). The rellenos were probably a mistake (they had an odd pickled flavor to them even though they appeared to be made with fresh roasted chiles... and the rice in the "rice and beans" was just plain, un-seasoned white rice, which is pretty lame), but the carnitas were pretty tasty so I'm not going to pass my final judgment just yet... I'll have to go back (they're on my way home from Russo's) to try the tortas and a couple other taco options (while avoiding anything "complicated" like rellenos and anything involving that bland rice). The sad thing is that this quite possibly could still be the best Mexican restaurant in Waltham... Sigh. I miss Super Cucas.
After lunch and a bit more time sitting in the sun, we headed down to the BU area where we would be seeing a concert that night. After parking at the venue we went in search of pre-show refreshments. I have since learned that we could have found them just across the street if we'd turned left instead of right, but as it was we ended up a couple blocks away at a Japanese restaurant (with a "Cocktails!" sign in the window). This was a definite step up from our lunch at the Mexican place (no real stand-outs, but everything across the board was tasty), and was a nice way to pass the time while we waited for the show.
So... the concert. It shows how out of touch I am with the kids these days that, when I saw "Kings of Leon with The Walkmen" listed, I assumed The Walkmen were sub-headliners (and thus would follow a less awesome opening act) rather than being the opening act themselves. Nope. It's apparently a quirk of Boston that you can only play until a certain hour, as well, so while I read the 7:30pm time on the ticket to mean "doors at 7:30pm, music starting some time after 8pm" it actually meant "The Walkmen will start playing at 7:31pm." I felt bad for them because the place was pretty empty when they started the show. It can't feel very awesome to be playing to all those empty seats... They were absolutely fantastic, though, and I wished it was possible to scream loud enough to get an encore from the opening act. This post is already getting too long so I won't get into every detail of their awesomeness here... I'll just leave it at vague, seemingly-excessive (but totally accurate) praise of how totally and completely amazing they are...
The Kings of Leon were the headliners, and I found their set a bit underwhelming. They rocked a couple songs pretty hard, but there were a lot of little things that bugged me about their show which, taken together, made the overall experience sub-awesome. These things included:
  1. Excessive use of the jumbo-tron for random pictures and bright flashing colors.
  2. Mic levels seeming to be a little off, such that you could barely hear the vocals on the first couple songs and you could just hear a general din on some of the later songs.
  3. Excessive use of smoke machine and colored spotlights.
  4. Wearing of skinny jeans by everyone but the drummer.
  5. Playing the exact same set with the exact same encore as they had the night before (according to the strange man who was possibly a security guard who hung around us and gave us gum during the show).
  6. Making me and Joe feel like old fuddy-duddies.
  7. Failing to rock nearly as hard as The Walkmen.
Nonetheless, I was glad to have gone to the show, if only so that my love of The Walkmen could continue to grow. (If you haven't checked out their most recent album, "You & Me," I highly recommend it... even though nobody else seems to love it quite as much as I do...)
After a late (for me, anyway) Sunday night, Monday was spent lounging around, re-watching a bit of the first season of The Wire (so good to see those guys again... I'd almost forgot how very cool Omar is and how much love I have in my heart for Bodie...), and hanging out in the kitchen prepping lunches for the week (my favorite lunch being some variation of "a grilled marinated chicken breast next to a pile of some type of vegetable"):
and somehow turning these ingredients (note the little dish of homemade curry paste at the bottom left... woohoo!):
into like 12 servings (!) of Massaman Chicken Curry:
The curry was really really tasty, but it wasn't exactly how I wanted it to be... Definitely going to have to keep working on that, but I'll go ahead chalk this up as a fine start.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Seriously, people.

Dear people who don't understand basic spelling and grammar,

I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have seen this lately, but it is starting to drive me completely insane. Here's the deal, people: While it is true that there is a word spelled "lead" that sounds exactly like the past tense of the verb "to lead," that word is the name of a metal. I believe the word you were looking for is "led." I know these homophones can be sneaky, but if you're going to publish a journal article or give a presentation to a room of educated people at a robotics conference, maybe you should crack open a dictionary when you get confused. I really can't take much more of this. Thank you for your consideration.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More Random Thoughts...

It's was a relatively uneventful weekend (with the exception of the bunny-centric fun in the post below) so, for lack of anything earth-shatteringly exciting to report, I figured I'd post about a few random things that have been kicking around in my brain...

1) The Myth of Cooking Times: I use the power of the interweb to stalk how people find my recipe blog. (Everyone on the planet has been googling "grilled leg of lamb" this past month, by the way...) One search I see on occasion is from people looking for cooking times for various hunks of meat, and it reminds me that this idea of "cooking times" is one of the most irritating (to me) myths in cooking. Here's the thing: If you have a perfectly calibrated heat source and your protein is the exact shape that the recipe was written for, then you're golden. I would like somebody to explain to me, though, how they can claim to know the cooking time for meat on a grill. Different grills I've owned have all had different versions of "High," and some of my less-awesome grills have had different versions of "High" in winter than they did in summer. There is no freaking way you can tell me that something cooks for a set amount of time on a grill.
Similarly ridiculous is suggesting cooking times in X minutes/pound for things like beef tenderloin. As Alicia's wise South African friend noted when she prepared us a lovely dinner in Dubai (featuring perfectly cooked tenderloin), the diameter of the tenderloin doesn't change with weight, just the length. The doneness of single portions of meat is straightforward to judge by touch, but if you find yourself cooking big hunks of meat, do yourself a favor and buy a meat thermometer... Ideally, buy yourself a remote digital meat thermometer like the one below (which, you will notice, is sticking out of the hunk of lamb on the grill above) so you can enjoy a cocktail in the other room while your meat cooks to perfection.
2) The Naming of Things: Someday I would really like to learn about the psychology of advertising. It must work - at least to some extent - or companies wouldn't spend so much money on such things... But I wonder about the data that supports product name changes. Do more people eat at KFC now that it's not called "Kentucky Fried Chicken" (thanks to the absence of that ugly F-word in the new name)? Do more people really buy the Uniq Fruit now that it's not called the Ugli Fruit? Really? Do more people buy "dried plums" since they lack the stigma of "prunes"? I really can't imagine these techniques being successful... I would love to hear if they actually impact sales, or if they just make companies feel like they're being proactive and shifting paradigms and thinking outside the box...

3) Brilliant Discovery: There are a few products in the world that I love deeply and tell everyone I know to run out and purchase. The one I rave about most often is probably Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. (Seriously. If you have marks on your walls and don't have a Magic Eraser, you should go buy one right now... Don't even finish reading this first... I'm mean it.)
Anyway, the newest addition to the list is Powdered Peanut Butter. This stuff is absolutely amazing. It's made from roasted peanuts that have been pressed to release the fat (which the company then turns into the world's most fantastic peanut oil), so it's all natural. It doesn't taste super-fantastic straight out of the jar, but is perfect to cook with. I had stopped making this Ginger-Peanut Chicken Salad that I love (below) because the peanut sauce ends up being so full of fat, but it tasted just as good as I remembered it when I made it with powdered peanut butter, and a quadruple-batch of peanut sauce prepared with the powdered peanut butter contained half the fat of a single-batch prepared with regular peanut butter. Awesome. I can't wait to do more cooking with this stuff.

Speaking of delicious things, below is a picture of the awesome shrimp salad (with lots of dill) that I made to celebrate spring... Unfortunately it was freezing cold and pouring down rain when the time came to grill the shrimp, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I learned that they were super-tasty cooked (indoors) in a court-bouillon instead...
In other news, I'm learning the ins and outs of my neighborhood and feeling more and more like a true "Walthamite" (if that's what we're called). I've found some pretty awesome short-cuts to avoid the main drag (which has ridiculous traffic on weekends and stands between me and pretty much everywhere that I would like to go) and I found a Korean grocery about a half-mile away so I can stop complaining about the dire state of the Asian aisle in grocery stores here. (Today I even managed to fine-tune my route home from work such that I've shaved a good solid 45 seconds off of my commute. Needless to say, that makes me pretty happy.) Everything else I can think to say involves the bunnies, so I'll leave it at that for the non-bunny-related news of the week... I'll be attending a conference on robotics for the next couple days, so expect me to be much smarter by Friday...

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Case for Frozen Peas

So, I posted a while back about how much I absolutely loathe frozen corn, and I mentioned how the incredibly wise Jacques Pépin believes that frozen (petite) peas are the only acceptable frozen vegetable to cook with and that Julia Child grudgingly agreed that frozen peas are OK to use if you absolutely must... On Saturday I found myself in one such situation for the first time in my life. Living in Santa Barbara, you get much longer growing seasons for most produce, so I was sort of trained to start craving fresh peas and fava beans as soon as I was feeling springtimey, even though they're both generally considered summer vegetables.
Thus it happened that I was having an intense fava bean craving on Saturday when I headed out to Russo's (aka The Greatest Produce Store in the Boston Suburbs). I got there and found that, not surprisingly, the favas were looking pretty lame. I'd been mulling over a recipe idea involving fresh peas, and the peas weren't as obviously un-good, so I went ahead and grabbed a few handfuls. I also picked up some spectacular Porcini Ravioli that a friend at work had recommended to me. Unlike some prepared foods that I occasionally rant about, these are hand-made on site. The dough is as nice as my own (which I've never found to be the case with store-bought pasta) and, given how expensive porcinis tend to be, they made a lot more sense than making my own. Not to turn this post into a full-on love letter to Russo's, but I also picked up some fantastic (and reasonably priced) Prosciutto de Parma to use as a component in my upcoming amazing dinner.
My thinking for dinner was this: Back in my days as an impoverished college student when I was feeling like eating something other than rice or Tuna Helper, I would sometimes make a pasta dish that copied something I had ordered at a local restaurant (which was much more affordable to make myself than to order). It was a pasta with prosciutto, peas, sautéed mushrooms, and a white wine cream sauce. I figured the Porcini Ravioli could act as the pasta and the mushrooms, while the prosciutto and fresh peas were much higher quality than the discount domestic prosciutto and frozen peas that I'd used in college. The cream sauce is much the same, except that I used whole milk instead of cream* so that I wouldn't feel too gluttonous about this dinner.
Anyway... The dish turned out absolutely spectacular and I was just thinking to myself "Wow. I am a culinary genius!" when I tried a bite with one of the larger peas in it and... not so genius. The peas were starchy and flavorless, nothing like the sweet and tender peas you can buy in season. When I re-made this dish on Sunday night I substituted frozen peas and it was a big improvement. The frozen peas weren't nearly as good as in-season fresh peas would have been, but they were much much MUCH better than the out-of-season "fresh" peas. Thus: the case for frozen peas. Julia and Jacques spent a lot of time living in New England and knew all too well the problems of out-of-season peas, while this was my first experience with such atrocities. The thing is, I knew they were out of season. I knew they wouldn't be good. But I bought them anyway. I blame the fava beans...
In other news, I made a big batch of Scorching Chile Chicken (above) on Sunday to take to work for lunches this week. This batch was so spicy that it almost made me cry when I first took a bite, but I'm sort of a fan of such things... Every day I spend out here on the east coast I start to love it a little more. We're having huge rainstorms these days, which sort of feels like being back home in Portland. I love how the rain makes everything feel so fresh and alive, and how good it feels to snuggle up under a cozy blanket with a good book on a rainy day. I'm looking forward to spring, but I'm not in a big hurry for the rain to leave just yet...

*For the White Wine "Cream" Sauce, I sauté ~3 small shallots (minced) and 2-3 cloves of garlic (minced) in about 1 - 2 tablespoons of butter until very soft and starting to color. I add about a cup of dry white wine and allow it to reduce until there is almost no liquid remaining. I sprinkle in about a teaspoon of flour and a pinch of sugar and stir to combine. Next I pour in milk (maybe a cup?) and a couple tablespoons of cream (optional) and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. After the mixture begins to thicken, I season to taste with salt and pepper, then strain it through a fine strainer which will take care of any clumps of flour while also pulling out the minced shallot and garlic. The result is a yummy, semi-healthy, white wine-infused "cream" sauce...

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Not to start working my (occasionally raging) feminism into the ever-expanding list of non-food-related content over here, but I saw this at Sociological Images and wanted to share. It's hard to believe this is from 1970 (I might have been less surprised by 1950's or earlier), but it is apparently a real page from a book entitled "I'm Glad I'm a Boy! I'm Glad I'm a Girl!" (Click to see larger image.)
I think my favorite is "Boys can eat. Girls can cook." I would be glad to be a boy, too, I guess...