Christmas 2009

Things have been a little quiet on the blog, even on the linkblog, this month. That’s because things have been anything but quiet in the rest of my life.

We have all but finished the addition project; I’ll be posting pictures of the finished work later. I’ve been insanely busy at the office, running from a web platform release (our seventh this year) to a couple of large projects to budget meetings. Then there’s been Holiday Pops. I still have a couple more concerts to sing for that…

Christmas itself has been a little challenging this year. My father-in-law fell on the second night of his visit. Originally we thought he was OK, but his pain was getting worse, so we took him to the hospital. Turns out he had a compression fracture of one of his lumbar vertebrae. So he’s spending Christmas in the hospital (that’s a seasonably snowy picture from the hospital window above), and we’re not very festive at the house. He seems to be getting better; hopefully we will have some time with him here at home soon before everyone has to go back to work.

Not that being home isn’t work–what with putting together Christmas presents and moving into our new bedroom, I’ve been a busy beaver indeed. But I’ve still taken time out to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (on one of our Christmas presents–a new bigger flatscreen, so that we can put the old one in the basement guest bedroom). After all, I need to thank Mr. Schulz’s creation for driving a ton of traffic to my blog–the number one search term since Thanksgiving around here has been “charlie brown christmas tree,” leading to an old article about Urban Outfitters’ replica of the tiny real Christmas tree from the show (and amazingly, they still make it).

Ah well. The rest of the family can nap. I’m off to figure out how to cook the duck breasts we got for Christmas dinner. Maybe we’ll give the recipe with the cherries and port sauce another go. Or shall we just do a sweet cherry sauce? A pomegranate-wine sauce? Balsamic and apricot? The blood orange sauce I made for Valentines Day in 2005? Or maybe I’ll just punt and do a pan sauce. We’ll see. I like having these kinds of dilemmas.

Charlottesville dinner: L’etoile

Ah, Charlottesville. You continue to surprise me, even after I thought I had experienced it all. Superbly professional at the C&O? Check. Deep beer list and occasionally funny, regularly reliable bistro fare at Michael’s? Check. Surprisingly regionally wonderful at the late lamented Southern Culture (ah, the sweet potato fries!)? Check. Late night emergency room visit after the mushroom soup at the late unlamented Northern Exposure the night of my graduation? Uh, check.

But nothing prepared us for dinner at L’etoile tonight. Well, appetizers at Michael’s helped. But seriously: duck confit amuse-bouche was a tiny morsel of duck perfection. Sweetbreads: large yet delicate and just browned, with bacon and mushroom demi-glace lending depth beneath. Trout, superbly prepared with a turnip puree holding together just enough Virginia ham and peas still toothsome…. and that’s just what I had. Turns out they’ve been around for more than ten years and we never had found them—until tonight, when sitting over beers at Michael’s, Lisa gave my iPhone a shake, and Urbanspoon came up with the name.

Alas, Charlottesville! As various cleverer people than I have said, I would go back there tomorrow, but for the work I’ve taken on.

Hungry for more Hungry Mother

I’m back in the office for a day after a few days off. What a wonderful Christmas–time well spent with family. I even enjoyed the last Holiday Pops concert we did last Saturday, as well as reading about the audience reacti0n. (Aside: that’s possibly the creepiest concert review I’ve ever seen.)

Last night Lisa and I took a rare night off and went to Hungry Mother in Kendall Square. I’ve been thinking about this place since the first reviews came up last summer, and we finally got to visit. Delightfully, it’s just around the corner from the apartments in which we used to live in Cambridge (formerly known as Worthington Place, now apparently Archstone). The location used to house a neighborhood bar, and now it’s home to this little foodie jewel. Gentrification? Maybe, but the food was so worth it.

First: I don’t know who’s responsible for the cocktail list, but they ride a fine line between insanity and genius. I had a #43 (rye whiskey, tawny port, maple syrup(!) and bitters) and Lisa had a #47 (applejack, aperol, and bourbon). Both were outstanding though a little bit on the deceivingly strong side. Then the meal: a starter of tiny little ham biscuits, fried oysters, shrimp & grits, and fried catfish over hoppin’ john.

Lisa sniffed at the biscuits (she said “I’ve been spoiled by your uncle,” a reference to our breakfasts out at the Moose in Asheville), but said the ham was quite good, though she wouldn’t touch the pepper jelly. I thought the individual components were outstanding–the biscuits crusty to soft, the ham smoky sweet, the pepper jelly perfect–but the balance was off when they were together, as the ham disappeared in the mix.

The fried oysters arrived at the same time. These were all for me–though I offered them to Lisa, she shied away. And I’m selfishly glad she did. They were perfect. If you look up perfect in the OED, there’s a picture of these oysters next to the definition. Breaded in cornmeal and fried till the breading reached a dark brown, they were crunchy outside, soft and sweet inside, and the kohlrabi cole slaw was a cool crunch alongside it. The cornmeal breading reminded me of catfish dinners at Warwick Memorial United Methodist Church off Denbigh Boulevard in Newport News, a summer staple growing up, and it wasn’t until early this morning that I realized that the net effect of the breading was to provide a supplemental “hush puppy” flavor right alongside the oyster. At dinner I mentioned how much I liked the breading to our waitress, and she said, “Ask your wife for some of her catfish.”

Right on cue the entrees arrived. My shrimp and grits were good; Lisa’s catfish was divine. Meatier, with fewer bones and less grease than the church fish fry version I remembered from childhood, it was evocative of my childhood but its own distinct fish. It was superb.

I’d like to go back and try everything else on their menu. I’d also love to sit down and chat with the chef sometime to see if he could squeeze a little more Tidewater into the menu–there’s no such thing as a Virginia cuisine, but what’s there at Hungry Mother is evocative enough of what I recall that I’d love to see what he could do with fried chicken, soft shell crabs, Brunswick stew, Bull Island clam chowder…

I’m also left wondering about how the Surrey House is these days. Before the I-664 bridge, we used to ride the ferry to the South Side to have lunch here after church, and it was a little surreal trip into the past. The menu looks the same as it did then, right down to the she crab soup (but did they also have turtle soup then?).

Thanksgiving 2008: Big ass turkey

It’s time for the Thanksgiving menu, and not a moment too soon. I managed to get to Wilson Farms today in the nick of time to pick up my turkey, came home early, and boiled my customary Alton Brown brine (1 gallon vegetable broth, a cup of salt, a half-cup mixed brown and white sugar since we were low on brown, and peppercorns) and iced it down and put it on the porch to cool. After cooking a pre-Feast of the Beast (biftek a la Lyonnaise with a quick sauce Robert) and taking care of a few other odds and ends, I wrangled the turkey into the brine.

That’s not a small task. We have five adults and a small child at the dinner table this year, which means a slightly bigger turkey. Like, 19 pounds. This year I remembered to fish the neck and liver out of the cavity AND to get the paper bag with the other organs out of the neck cavity (very good progress!) before the turkey went into the cooler on a bag’s worth of ice, breast down; the brine went over the turkey; and another half bag of ice went on top. The cooler is now on the porch (mercifully, it’ll be between 30° and 34° tonight) and I’m catching my breath while I think about the rest of the menu.

My mother-in-law, mercifully, has already taken care of dessert—a homemade apple pie. That leaves us with:

What’s up with all the duplications? Well, I made the classic product manager error: I didn’t socialize my plans in advance and got blowback. We’ll see how it goes.

QTN™: American Oktoberfests

I’ve been tasting a variety of Oktoberfest beers, in name if not in style, this fall. The latest, from Avery Brewing Company, is the Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest. And it’s a big beer. A barleywine, in all but name. But it’s not an Oktoberfest. It’s a great big quaffable (if not sessionable), very tasty, 10% beer. But it’s not an Oktoberfest. It’s not a märzen. If they served this at d’Wiesn, people would be screwing in the aisles and fighting with the oompah band. Or vice versa. But the choice of name seems like a cynical marketing choice.

Surprisingly, the same was true of the Oktoberfest from Otter Creek. While sessionable and tasty, the hops made it more of an American pale ale than an Oktoberfest beer. I haven’t done a side by side tasting, but the hops really felt more Cascadian than Bavarian.

This is when I start to wonder why it’s so hard to find a beer that tastes like it was brought in a one-liter mug by a busty barmaid to a table full of enthusiastically drunk German college students and hollering Australians. That’s when I remember the most authentic tasting Oktoberfest I’ve had–perhaps because of its freshness–from Berkshire Brewing Company. Mmm. Mmm. I feel sorry for those outside the limited distribution range, because this beer is right on.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred

Shaking off the weekend (and a very nice weekend it was!), we’ll get things started slowly today, with a little meme. Thanks to Estaminet for the tag. Looks like I’m hitting 89%, so contrary to past expectations I don’t truly eat everything.


  1. Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
  2. Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
  3. Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
  4. Optional extra: Post a comment at linking to your results.

The List

  1. Venison
  2. Nettle tea
  3. Huevos rancheros
  4. Steak tartare
  5. Crocodile
  6. Black pudding (in London and Dublin)
  7. Cheese fondue (a childhood favorite)
  8. Carp
  9. Borscht (a favorite recipe of my late aunt)
  10. Baba ghanoush
  11. Calamari (any way I can)
  12. Pho
  13. PB&J sandwich
  14. Aloo gobi (curried potatoes and cauliflower)
  15. Hot dog from a street cart
  16. Epoisses (how on earth did I miss this? I really love a good stinky cheese)
  17. Black truffle
  18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (rhubarb!)
  19. Steamed pork buns (nyaaghm!)
  20. Pistachio ice cream (Tosci’s)
  21. Heirloom tomatoes (is there another kind? not on a biscuit, there’s not)
  22. Fresh wild berries
  23. Foie gras
  24. Rice and beans
  25. Brawn, or head cheese
  26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper (I guess what I’m trying the next time I make Thai food)
  27. Dulce de leche
  28. Oysters
  29. Baklava
  30. Bagna cauda (I think this calls for a little fondue/bagna cauda party!)
  31. Wasabi peas (favorite office snack ever)
  32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (overrated)
  33. Salted lassi
  34. Sauerkraut (the best was my grandmother’s, usually buried outside in the winter to cure)
  35. Root beer float
  36. Cognac with a fat cigar
  37. Clotted cream tea
  38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O (alas.)
  39. Gumbo
  40. Oxtail
  41. Curried goat
  42. Whole insects (not any time soon, either.)
  43. Phaal (anyone know an Indian restaurant around Boston that serves this? Sounds like a challenge)
  44. Goat’s milk (not knowingly, anyway)
  45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
  46. Fugu (not yet.)
  47. Chicken tikka masala
  48. Eel (mmm, unagi)
  49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
  50. Sea urchin
  51. Prickly pear
  52. Umeboshi
  53. Abalone
  54. Paneer
  55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
  56. Spaetzle
  57. Dirty gin martini
  58. Beer above 8% ABV (oh yes)
  59. Poutine (not yet!)
  60. Carob chips (although not on purpose)
  61. S’mores
  62. Sweetbreads (mmm, thymus!)
  63. Kaolin (in all likelihood, but not on purpose)
  64. Currywurst
  65. Durian (I had to look this up)
  66. Frogs’ legs
  67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (or all of the above!)
  68. Haggis (I really want to. Preferably with a stiff Scotch nearby)
  69. Fried plantain
  70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (I’ve always been curious about the chitlins preparation though)
  71. Gazpacho
  72. Caviar and blini (thanks, Caroline and Russ!)
  73. Louche absinthe (thanks, Dan and the Cheeselords)
  74. Gjetost, or brunost (yay, European breakfast buffets)
  75. Roadkill (nope. I’m Southern with Appalachian roots, but not that Southern or Appalachian.)
  76. Baijiu (sigh, another unique alcoholic beverage to try)
  77. Hostess Fruit Pie
  78. Snail (oh wow. Jetlagged plus escargot = sublime)
  79. Lapsang souchong
  80. Bellini
  81. Tom yum (I make a mean tom yum)
  82. Eggs Benedict
  83. Pocky
  84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
  85. Kobe beef
  86. Hare
  87. Goulash
  88. Flowers (rose gelato and fried zucchini flowers ftw!)
  89. Horse (not knowingly)
  90. Criollo chocolate
  91. Spam (spam spam spam)
  92. Soft shell crab
  93. Rose harissa (sounds good)
  94. Catfish (every summer Friday growing up–thanks, Denbigh Methodist Church)
  95. Mole poblano
  96. Bagel and lox
  97. Lobster Thermidor (I like ’em better just steamed)
  98. Polenta
  99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
  100. Snake

Tagging: Tin Man, JPixl, Jenny.

Over the grimy deep

I participated in a corporate regatta sponsored by America’s Growth Capital yesterday, which will no doubt surprise those of you who know I don’t sail. It was an interesting experience. Three of my coworkers and myself, fortunately accompanied by an able and professional captain, on a sailboat, running races back and forth between the Boston Harbor Hotel and East Boston across the lovely waters of Boston Harbor.

My job was to be on the foredeck, hoisting the spinnaker, assisting with the genoa and the jib as we tacked, hiking out my bulk to keep us from keeling over in the strong wind of the last few races, and otherwise staying out of the way of the boom and the sheets. It was entertaining for sure, but a good reminder that I’m a little shy on exercise.

Afterward we grabbed dinner in the North End, at Assagio. It was frankly disappointing. I remember having a very decent meal there almost eight years ago when we were just getting started at business school, and scoring a few points with my tablemates for recommending a red wine from Campania which turned out to be outstanding. Last night, by contrast, the most exotic wine I could find on the menu was a Chianti from a producer that I knew that turned out to be too lightweight, and my meal proved that amatriciana, mozzarella, and gemelli don’t mix, and that Assagio doesn’t know real pancetta from their elbow, and that they don’t know that amatriciana needs hot peppers. As Nero Wolfe would say, pfui. Fortunately the North End has its compensating pleasures, like a dish of grapefruit gelato that was perfectly tart and light, giving a nice end to the day.

Julie Powell liveblogs the James Beard Foundation awards

Along with the bloggers from The Paupered Chef, Dr. Vino, Savory Cities, and Snack, our intrepid heroine is out there right now, liveblogging the James Beard Foundation awards (and her search for a drink and some food) while the JBF awards are going on.

What’s the word for being absolutely riveted by liveblog coverage of something you’d never ever pay this much attention to if it were on TV? Blogsmacked, perhaps.

Ham and mushrooms, butter and garlic

It’s been a while since I wrote a food-oriented post—and of course a holiday weekend is just the thing to trigger one. Lisa’s parents were here this weekend, so our relatively freewheeling Easter dinner that we have honed over the past few years got expanded a little stylistically while reining in a few of the more eccentric ingredients.

The menu: deviled eggs for hors d’oeuvres; glazed ham; mashed potatoes; asparagus; and mushrooms. The deviled eggs were the most restrained compared to past years, where I used wasabi in place of the horseradish my parents always used to perk things up. Instead of wasabi, I just used hot sauce, slightly increased the salt for flavor, and diced up some shallot very fine to mix into the filling. The eggs were superb: eminently edible but leaving one still hungry—and thirsty. As is also traditional at Easter, I accompanied mine with a small amount of bourbon over ice as I was cooking. This year it was Blanton’s, a serendipitous find that I was delighted to have in my liquor cabinet. No juleps this year, though; for one thing, at 30-something degrees, it was too damned cold out to have them or want them.

The potatoes were simple too—half and half and butter in the place of the chicken broth and buttermilk that I’ve used in the past to give them flavor, and I thought the potatoes were bland as a result. But! They were a perfect foil to the mushrooms (sliced, cooked in olive oil and butter with more diced shallot and two cloves of garlic, and then finished covered in the pan), which were a hit. The garlic was definitely the thing. Alas the asparagus! cooked much too long.

The ham was tasty, but—and here regional prejudices rear their head—I do wish I could have found a proper ham. And by proper, I mean country ham, dry-aged, the kind that comes in a burlap bag and tastes a little like a salt lick and a little like a smoky prosciutto. That’s the ham I had a lot of growing up, both at home and at church, where ham biscuits were the order of the day after a sunrise service. But this ham—a spiral sliced ham with a brown sugar and orange juice glaze, was pretty good in its own way—just not quite the way my mouth remembered it.

After dinner, of course, the requisite ham biscuits. Mine reflected my inner culinary struggle, with mustard on top and butter on the bottom. Yes! Butter with ham. And if you think it’s insane, ask the street vendors in Provence selling jambon cru sandwiches with thick local butter about it, and then come back and tell me I was right. Of course it‘s not the Provençal coming out in me so much as the Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother, but oh well.

Others had clam chowder with dinner—Legal’s, sold prepackaged, and it occurred to me how much easy access to the greatest ambrosia breeds contempt. Watching the others eat it made me think about the Bull Island clam chowder I grew up with, cooked with a clear broth, not milk, and certainly not with tomato.


I’ve been drinking some pretty high hop content beers lately. A few days ago, I brought home (finally) the new Sam Adams Hallertau Imperial Pilsner, which bears approximately the same relation to regular Sam Adams as regular Sam bears to a Budweiser (American version). Floral, elegant, bright with hops (Hallertau, of course) without being overly bitter, and pleasantly complex. The beer raised Lisa’s eyebrows, and that’s hard to do.

Her eyebrows were raised a bit higher when she tasted tonight’s beer, the Unearthly Imperial India Pale Ale from Southern Tier Brewing Company. Imperial, connoting a higher-alcohol variety of a standard beer variety, is getting a workout here, taking a standard IPA to unheard of heights. 11% ABV and high but well-balanced IBUs are the start of the story, as is the unearthly orange glow and the aroma, reminiscent of standing over an opened bag of fresh hops. Little to no head, lacing the side of the glass very slightly. Initial sharpness from the hops gives way to a lightly malty back of the tongue with good strong floral character throughout. I wasn’t familiar with this brewery before tonight but I’ll be seeking it out in the future.

Update: Nice article from the NY Times Food section tasting a variety of “extreme” beers, in which the Unearthly is namechecked (though not actually tasted).

Everyone is agog over … absinthe?

The title of this post is a reference to an old Bloom County strip in which Opus, promoted to the “Lifestyles” section (then a new concept) of the local newspaper, does an article on eggnog (“Everyone’s agog over eggnog!”), inadvertently starts a trend, and picks up a check for a couple thou from the U.S. Eggnog Association. He closes in the last panel with an aside to the audience: “I knew this was a racket!”

The thought crossed my mind after seeing articles about absinthe in the Boston Globe and the New York Times today (the latter owns the former). Hmm. If one were to follow the money, would one find a big absinthe concern behind the apparent coincidence?

I’m encouraged by the honest discussion in the latter article about the quality of modern absinthe prior to this latest revival. I tasted the stuff in the late 1990s—a former Cheeselord brought back a bottle from Europe. I thought it was interesting, but ultimately not something I would want to drink much of, thanks to the overwhelming licorice-like flavors. But I knew the drink’s reputation and was curious about how it might have been better in its heyday. Looks like I won’t have to wait long to find out.

(Oh: and regarding “agog over eggnog”: if you are a lifestyles editor yourself, don’t use this phrase in a headline. It’s been done.)

Beverage news: Ardbeg, Dixie Beer

Two unrelated beverage news items in my browser this morning. I was just thinking the other day about how you never see Dixie Blackened Voodoo anymore, when I saw this article about the devastation at the original Dixie plant as a result of Katrina. The brand is being brewed in Wisconsin on a contract basis, but I hope they can bring the original brewery back around. Blackened Voodoo and the original Dixie are too good with Cajun food to continue to be brewed that far north.

And Ardbeg, which I enjoy as a fallback when I am drinking Scotch away from home if Laphroaig is unavailable, has been crowned the World Whiskey of the Year and the best Scotch Single Malt. I like Ardbeg for combining the peatiness of Laphroaig and other Islay malts with the smoothness of a blend.

Flavia: about misuse of coffee and the English language

I keep meaning to write this post about the vile branding job that the Mars Company did with Flavia, their single serving coffee offering, and deciding that the names of the product suite really kind of tell the whole terrible story. First of all, there’s “Flavia, the Café of Choice,” which is the oddest tagline ever. I know it’s supposed to make me think that I have options, but I think it just makes it sound like a third tier Roman household god. Is a Café the household god that watches over coffee related items? Flavia, Café of Choice! Lavia, Café of Coffee-Related Metabolic Disorders! Starbuck, Café of Ubiquity! Tremora, Café of Caffeine Withdrawal!

Then there are the product packets, of which the worst offenders are:

  • Creamy Topping: OK, not supposed to be a flavor by itself. But just picking up something that says “Creamy Topping” feels wrong. I don’t care how many “recipes” you can make with it.
  • Milky Way Swirl: it’s caramel and … something, OK? I don’t need to envision a candy bar in my coffee. I’ve made that perfectly clear before.
  • Exotic Chai: After you make the flavor packet, you can go and watch Exotic Chai do a little dance for you! (Oh, wait, not that kind of exotic.)
  • Green Tea with Jasmine: nothing wrong with this one. Oh, except that brewed into your average paper cup, it tastes like drinking the water that I soak cedar chips in for the grill. Woody, astringent, nasty. Much like Flavia’s Ethiopia Sidamo… or most of the product, actually.
  • Choco (grand prize winner): Based on the name of this drink, I always assumed that Flavia was from a Middle European country where people didn’t speak English as their first language. Choco sounds weird because the word it comes from doesn’t actually get pronounced that way. It’s pronounced chock-lit, not choc-o-late. Choco sounds like a character in The Sopranos, not like a drink. Finding out that Flavia is a British company makes me even more ashamed to be in marketing. Someone who is conversant in the language of Shakespeare shouldn’t come up with a name like this.

Saying Choco makes my flesh crawl. And that’s even before you taste it. It’s reminiscent of the Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy tells Linus that the hot chocolate he has made her is terrible; “it’s too weak! It tastes like someone dipped a brown crayon into hot water!”

Linus replies, “You’re right… I’ll go and add another crayon!”

So here we are with our little single serving machine, adding another crayon to hot water and washing it down with … shudder… creamy topping. Er, ™.

The inexplicable thing is that people get attached to these machines. Take this guy. Please. At least he provides a useful service for those that are incapable of reading directions that tell you how to use the coffeemaker… the directions that appear right on the screen as you make the coffee. And people really do make their own beverages, like the unspeakable Creamy Topping®/Choco/Espresso combination that this guy dubs “Flavia Mother of All Beverages.” I think the mother of all beverages is actually some kind of vodka.

No mention of Flavia would be complete without a reference to the Urban Dictionary article, which is pretty much complete actually.

Starbucks: Turf invasion by McDonalds

The Boston Globe writes about the newest competitive threat to Starbucks: the McCafe. The problem with shifting your product mix from premium coffees to candy milk drinks isn’t just that you lose your soul in the process. It’s that it is so much easier for other players to imitate you and horn in on your turf.

Because, really, could you imagine Dunkin and McDonalds imitating really good high quality coffee? But it’s really easy for them to steam some milk, dump in some flavored corn syrup, and call it a latté.

Howard Schultz is right: once you take that first step, it’s a long slippery slope down to slinging fast food with everyone else.