Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sun and the Yardarm

One of my major foodie-ish interests is cocktails, and while I've always enjoyed a wee tipple, my specific interest came about through a somewhat unusual activity: Listening to liberal talk radio. You see, former Air America radio host and current MSNBC TV personality Rachel Maddow is, aside from being both the brightest and funniest voice in contemporary political commentary, a serious cocktail geek. I can't say for sure whether it was a natural evolution of my interests, or just a manifestation of my fanboy crush, but once I heard Rachel talking cocktails, I knew I had to learn more.

They say the sun is always over the yardarm somewhere in the world, and cocktails — including recipes, recipe reviews, and bar reviews — will be a regular feature here, but I'll start with a couple cool places I went in Alexandria on the trip I mentioned in my last post: First was the Columbia Firehouse Restaurant and Barroom, which featured a great menu of the very classic cocktails I'd heard Ms. Maddow wax rhapsodic about. I selected a Sazerac (one of Rachel's faves, and the first thing I've ever had with absinthe in it) and then, just because the name is irresistible, a Moneky Gland. Later in the week, I came back for a Moscow Mule, a favorite of an old friend of mine. (I also ate there, but that's for another post.)

But further down King Street was the real find: A shop called The Hour, which features true vintage and vintage-style barware and bar furniture, along with artwork, books, jewelry, and all things related to cocktail culture. I wasn't in a position to invest in any vintage glassware (it wouldn't have done well in my suitcase!), but I had a lovely time wandering around the shop, taking pictures, and chatting with owner Victoria Vergason. I wish I were local, as they apparently host tastings and other events. You can bet that The Hour will be the first place I look when it comes time for me to outfit a proper home bar. In the meantime, I settled for enjoying the ambiance, along with treating myself to a copy of Dale Degroff's The Craft of the Cocktail as a souvenir of my visit.

Not Dormant!

No, I haven't gone silent, despite only one post in the last three days. Some days are just not going to be foodie days, emerging or otherwise... and in any case, I've been slightly under the weather for the last few.

That said, my goal is to try to average at least one new post per day. For at least a while, when I don't have anything new to talk about, I can regale you with some past adventures, owing to a business trip I took to Alexandria, Virginia, back in early August. After a week on my own, on expense account, in a town chock full of restaurants, I have a backlog of reviews (even some pictures) and other emerging-foodie-related fun to relate.

Starting with the next post... see you then.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lost Weekend

Well, yesterday was the first day since I started this blog that I didn't post anything at all. I spent the whole day volunteering at the local Democrats' booth at Rockville Fest, and essentially didn't eat anything at all 'til mid evening, when I threw together some makeshift jalapeno-cheddar hot dogs wrapped in store-bought crescent roll dough.

Not exactly a foodie day!

Today wasn't much of a foodie day, either, though I did have lunch at a favorite local hot dog/burger joint — City Joe's — which I'll probably review in the not-too-distant future.

I did upon coming home hot and sweaty yesterday, try that Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA I mentioned earlier. Meh.... It was bitterer than I usually like, and lacked the round, floral hoppy notes I enjoy in other IPAs. Not bad — I assure you I finished it! — but not something I'll be hunting for in the future.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dining Out: Missed It by That Much!

So I was out volunteering for my State Senate candidate tonight (Susan Eastwood for the 35th District of CT, for those in the area), and my family called to ask for directions to IndiGo (my daughter is home this weekend, and she still hasn't been). Immediately my mouth began to water, and I imagined expanding my experience of the menu there. I gave them the directions and said "I'm almost done here; I'll meet you there."

Even though I'd had a dinner's worth of pizza at campaign HQ, I thought I could at least try one of the appetizers I'd mentally bookmarked on the menu, and sample small tastes of whatever the family ordered.

The bad news — which is actually great news, really — came as I was driving on I-84: IndiGo was booked solid, and turning people away, when my wife and daughter arrived. I've thrilled they're doing so well, of course, but I couldn't help but be disappointed.

All's well that ends well, though: We ended up at another favorite, Sukhothai in downtown Manchester. I'll no doubt be reviewing Sukhothai here in the future, but tonight all I had room for was the Tod Man (spicy fish cake) appetizer and a spoonful of leftover sauce from my wife's beef red curry. Delicious, but not enough for a review; watch this space!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Unreality TV

Last night I watched the reunion show for the recently completed 7th season of Top Chef, and a point was brought up that has occurred to me often while watching the various cooking competition shows: After a montage of his numerous failed dishes, cheftestant Stephen Hopcraft said (with what I considered startling clarity) that he didn’t disagree with any of the criticisms. He pointed out that his method of working, when he develops new dishes for his restaurant, involves a lot of trial and error, and that didn’t fit well with the format of the competition. Chief Judge Tom Colicchio quickly agreed that there are chefs whose creative process just doesn’t work for Top Chef’s particular type of competition.

Why Stephen didn’t realize this before he signed up to appear on the show — which has broadcast 6 previous seasons, after all — is a separate question, but the exchange brings up a point I’ve long thought bore mentioning: What the chefs do on shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef America, and Chopped isn’t really much like what professional chefs do in their actual working life.

If I might digress... I have a Master's degree in English/Creative Writing. Happily, I was able to do a collection of short stories as my thesis project, to complete the degree, but my fellow MA candidates who were studying literature had to do something called a set text examination, in which they were given a short list of literary texts, expected to study the texts and critical work about them on their own for several months, and then take a (IIRC) 4 hour closed-book essay exam on the works, citing specific sources for critical commentary. It occurred to me, as I watched them prepare, that they were being tested on something nobody actually does in the academic world: Students would have the benefit of a whole semester of class discussion and lecture before taking such an exam; working scholars would never be expected to write from memory, nor in such a constrained time period.

In the same way, timed cooking competitions, often with arbitrary constraints on ingredients, "test" skills no chef would actually use in a professional kitchen: In conceptualizing a new dish, no chef would serve the very first attempt, without any tweaking or development of the recipe and procedures. And no chef in a working restaurant would serve a dish that failed in execution simply because an arbitrary time limit ran out. And yet, in all these cooking shows, chefs are required to make up dishes on the fly, within an arbitrarily short period of time, and to serve their first attempt, whether it's been successfully executed or not.

Given that on many of these shows, the contestants are high-profile chefs, with real reputations (and restaurants) to protect, I always wondered how it affected them when their work was harshly criticized in front of the TV foodie audience. As the exchange between Colicchio and Hopcraft reminds us, though, what we see them do in TV competition is not what they do in their own restaurants.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Beer Hunter

I love beer.

But I'm not one of those beer lovers who has zeroed in on a brand or a few beloved styles. Instead, I love to range through the (increasingly endless) varieties of beers and beer-like beverages. Often I'll go weeks or months without buying the same beer twice, not because I'm not finding anything I like, but because for me, variety is an end in itself.

When I eat ethnic food, I choose beers from the same country or culture as the food (thus, my mention of Taj Mahal in the IndiGo review), and if there's one I haven't had before, so much the better.

And when I go to the liquor store, I love nothing more than just browsing the specialty/craft/import beer section, looking for something that I haven't tried before, and that looks interesting. From time to time here, I'll tell you about my finds.

Tonight, it's the Espresso Oak Aged Yeti imperial stout from Great Divide Brewing Co. of Denver, Colorado. The suggested food pairings on the bottle menu include eggs Benedict and breakfast burritos, but I haven't yet had the Espresso Yeti for breakfast. Instead, I popped open a 1 pt 6 oz bottle of the espresso-infused stout a couple evenings ago and enjoyed it all on its own.

I lack the full vocabulary of a practiced beer taster, but Espresso Yeti delivered precisely the combination of bitterness and rich, creamy maltiness that I love in good stouts, and the espresso added a sharp, biting note. I couldn't explicitly tease out the vanilla notes the label attributes to the oak aging, but what I could taste was delightful. Since learning to poach an egg is one of the near-term goals of the Emerging Foodie project, perhaps I will try this with (homemade) eggs Benedict sometime soon. (FWIW, Great Divide has a blog that, while apparently not updated all that often, has some interesting-looking beer recipes.)

In the meantime, I've got a bottle of Great Divide's 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA chilling in the fridge... yum!

The Morning... Err, Evening... After

Well, after re-reading yesterday's review of IndiGo, I'm afraid I can give myself no better grade as a restaurant reviewer than Needs Improvement.

The review was essentially nothing but applause... which is fine, as far as it goes: IndiGo and Sheen surely deserve all the applause I can give them. But I fear I didn't give y'all much real sense of what the food was all about... what it tasted like, and looked like, and smelled like. Or, for that matter, what was in it. I should've taken notes; I should've taken pictures.

More than that, I should've said more about how good the service was (and yes, even at a buffet, good service matters). I've come to be so confident that Sheen and his staff will be impeccably friendly, generous, and fast that it almost goes without saying... but I shouldn't have let it actually go without saying.

I'll get better at this... really, I will!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dining Out: IndiGo Indian Bistro

My wife and I pretty much knew we'd like the new IndiGo Indian Bistro on Spencer Street in Manchester, because we already loved Sheen Mathew's previous restaurant, Utsav, in Vernon. Sheen's new venture features a full dinner menu, lunch and weekend buffets, and takeout lunch boxes, along with party platters and catering services.

Sunday night, we went to IndiGo for their weekly Tandoor and Dosa Night buffet, which was excellent. The buffet line — much more convenient and accessible than at Utsav, where the buffet is tucked into an awkward corner — was well stocked with tandoori favorites, including my wife's go-to Indian dish, Chicken Tikka Masala, and the classic standard Tandoori Chicken, both of which were superb. Among my favorites were a cold potato salad with chickpeas, cilantro, and red onions; tandoori-roasted mixed vegetables; and Hariyali Murgh Tikka Kebab, a tandoori grilled chicken marinated in green herbs (cilantro and mint, according to Sheen) and spices. This dish, which appears on the regular menu as an appetizer, is rather alarmingly green (not unlike the color of the Spring Lamb Chops, which I'm eager to try on a future visit), but it was purely delicious. Dosa (filled rice and lentil crepes) and naan bred are served at the table, and were just right: the dosa crisp and delicate, and the naan hot and perfectly cooked.

IndiGo is a new restaurant still waiting for its liquor license, so I was unable to enjoy my favorite Taj Mahal... but the tasty fresh lime soda I had instead almost made the lack of beer A Feature, Not a Bug™.

Of course, even with a previous visit for a dinner from the regular menu, we've only scratched the surface of dishes IndiGo has to offer. I love Indian lamb dishes, and the IndiGo Aadu Ularthiyathu (Kerala-style lamb fried) I had on the earlier visit was spicy and delicious; dishes I particularly look forward to trying in the future include the Mirchi Bhaji (hot chilies in chickpea batter), Chili Paneer (spicy cheese stir-fry), and Andhra Chili Chicken appetizers, along with the aforementioned Spring Lamb Chops, the Kerala Fish Curry, the IndiGo Snapper (whole snapper marinated in spiced yoghurt and tandoor roasted), and... because I'm all about the spice... the Chicken Vindaloo. (My only disappointment with IndiGo so far is that there's neither a lamb nor a goat vindaloo on the menu.)

Count on reading much, much more about IndiGo here, as we explore the menu in increasing depth.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Recipes: A Peck of Pickled Peppers

Okay, I promised my friends at Pharyngula that I'd post recipes, and since I've been talking about canning1, I guess that would be as good a place to start as any.

I started growing hot peppers because, well, it seemed like it would be a cool thing to do. Somewhere during my first growing season, it dawned on me that I don't actually have any use for many pounds of jalapenos, red peppers, and habaneros... especially since they all show up within about 6 weeks at the end of the summer, and also especially since I'm the only one in the household who really likes hot stuff.

So naturally, I had to learn to make preserves: I had a cherished Texas cookbook (Texas On the Halfshell: A Cookbook of Tex-Mex, Barbecue, Chili and Lone Star Delights) that had a recipe for jalapeno jelly, and when I went to buy jars and canning supplies, I found the Ball Blue Book guide to home canning, which had a recipe for hot peppers. I was in business.

Here are the recipes, mostly from the above sources, with a few tweaks of my own:

Jalapeno Jelly
4-6 large jalapenos [My peppers are smallish, so I use 6-8.]
4 green bell peppers
1 cup apple cider vinegar
5 cups sugar
6 oz liquid pectin

Procedure: The original recipe says to seed and devein all the peppers, but because I like a little extra heat, I leave in the seeds and veins of the jalapenos; the seeds in the jelly don't bother me. If you like even more heat, you can add a single small habanero. Chop all peppers fine. Liquify peppers in a blender or food processor with the vinegar, dividing into 3 or 4 shifts if necessary. Mix liquified pepper/vinegar mixture with sugar and boil gently for 10 minutes. Add pectin and boil hard for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and skim any foam (if necessary; I usually find there's very little foam). Ladle into hot, sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace and wipe the jar tops clean if necessary. Cap with 2-piece canning lids. Place in a cool place and don't disturb for several hours (preferably overnight). Once the jars have cooled and the jelly set, check the lids for a tight vacuum seal. Yield: About 6 half-pint jars, or twice that many 4 oz jars.

Serving suggestion: The classic application is on Ritz crackers with a smear of cream cheese. The combination of crispy, salty, creamy, sweet, and hot is to die for!

Pickled Hot Peppers
~2-3 lb hot peppers
6 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
3 cloves garlic, crushed

Procedure: The original Blue Book recipe calls for a mix of banana peppers, jalapenos, and serranos, but I simply use whatever I have at hand... mostly jalapenos, supplemented with habaneros, cayennes, and (this year) red Portugals. You can leave small peppers like jalapenos whole for pickling, but I like to cut them into the classic nacho-style rings. Mix the vinegar, water, and garlic in a large saucepot. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Pack peppers, in whatever combinations desired, into hot, sterilized canning jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Ladle in hot pickling liquid, also leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Cap with 2-piece canning lids and process for 10 minutes in a boiling-water canner. Yield: About 5 pint jars, or the equivalent in other sizes (half-pint jars are a convenient size for taking to cookouts or potluck dinners).

Two notes relevant to both these recipes:
  • If you haven't canned before, check the Blue Book for a description of the equipment and general procedures, including especially how to prepare jars and lids.
  • And when working with hot peppers, you might want to consider wearing gloves. I haven't actually received any burns from handling peppers barehanded, but I've heard of others who have... and if you don't wear gloves, your hands will retain some chemical heat for at least a couple days, no matter how much you wash. So be careful where you put them. If you know what I mean... ;^)

1 Fair warning: I'm going to construe cooking broadly to include stuff like canning, ice cream making, mixology, concocting homemade liqueurs, and (if I ever get 'round to it) brewing, in addition to, you know, actual cooking. I fear it's the only way I'll have much to talk about here!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Better Than Sex? My Ingredient Virginities

Well, I've just watched last week's episode of Iron Chef America, "Battle Truffle," and at one point Alton Brown declared to sideline reporter Kevin Brauch that, "white truffles are better than 97 percent of the sex you'll have in your life."


As I think about that, it dawns on me that I've never tasted truffles in my life. That is, it's barely possible that I've had something that had truffles in it... but more likely not, and in any case, I've never tasted them in a situation where I knew what I was tasting. Aside from knowing that they're somehow related, taxonomically, to mushrooms, I have not the first clue what truffles might taste like.

The same is true, it's slowly dawning on me, about more than a few of the ingredients that crop up on the food TV shows I watch: High end ingredients like sea urchin roe (uni), foie gras, and wagyu beef are mysteries to me, but so are more pedestrian things that turn up in the Chopped baskets, like celeriac (celery root), parsnips, and tomatillos.

When I first started watching Chopped, I used to pause the DVR just as each basket was revealed, and try to imagine what I would make with those ingredients... but I had to stop doing that, because far too often there would be at least one ingredient in the basket whose taste I had no clue about.

I'm'a hafta' fix that. For the stuff I can just pick up at the megamart, it should be easy to break my ingredient cherry, but it's going to take a bit of figuring to get my truffle on without breaking the bank. I'll let y'all know how it goes....

Emerging Foodie? Emerging Idiot!

So I'm typing this with a rubber glove covering the bandage on the middle finger of my left hand. Remember when I said my one knife skill was not chopping my own self up? Not so much: Today while chopping peppers for another batch of jalapeno jelly, I took a bit of a divot out of my fingertip. It's not serious, but it hurts a bit, and will probably leave a scar.

I watch all these cooking shows and I'm invariably surprised to see chefs cut themselves, but I shouldn't really be surprised that I do. The idiot part of this deal is that sitting on my counter was a perfectly good kevlar cut-resistant glove, which I bought after the last time I cut myself (on a mandolin slicer)... but which I didn't bother to use today! <sigh>

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oy! Hot Stuff

It's the frickin' middle of the night, and my eyelids are suffering from hypergravity, but having just started this blog, I don't want to go to bed without posting. In the coming days, I'll have plenty of stuff to rattle on about, but for now I'll just note, with very little further comment, that it got to be the frickin' middle of the night in the first place because I was busy canning this evening (no, not caning; that's a whole different thing...).

I dunno if folks count home canning as cooking, but regardless, I prepared and pickled 3 pints and 6 half pints of various hot peppers from my garden, including jalapenos, Thai reds, habaneros, and cayenne and Portugal long red peppers. Tonight's work brings the total for the season to 7 pints and 7 half pints of pickled peppers, 6 half pints of jalapeno jelly, 3 pints of fresh salsa (using cherry tomatoes from the garden, too), 2 batches of smoked dried jalapenos (I've been calling them chipotles, but that's not quite right, as these were green when picked, and proper chipotles are made from overripe red jalapenos), and 1 batch of smoked and dried mixed red peppers.

Tomorrow (well, today, actually... Saturday) I hope to make another batch of jelly (6 more half-pints) and some hot relish.

The garden is still putting out produce, but who knows for how long; there's been a bit of a chill in the air recently.

Here's a small sample of my canny masterfulness:

Friday, September 17, 2010

An Epiphany

Welcome. I've been thinking about starting this blog for a while now, but have been dithering because I didn't really know where to start until recently, because I couldn't quite figure out what my food-blogger identity should be.

I had always been interested in food (well, who isn't, right... but I mean beyond the everybody-has-to-eat level), had been a casual fan of Iron Chef, and had puttered about the kitchen at various times in my life, but I wouldn't have described myself as a foodie of any stripe. Then a few years ago I was bedridden for about a week with whooping cough (ask your doctor about updating your vaccination, by the way; you do not want this), and at some point during that week I stumbled onto a season-so-far marathon of Top Chef Season 2 episodes on Bravo.

I was hooked. Before long, I was watching every cooking competition show I could find — Iron Chef America, Next Food Network Star, Next Iron Chef, Top Chef Masters, Chopped, even Worst Cooks in America — along with noncompetition shows like Alton Brown's Good Eats and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. I started putting cookbooks and kitchen gear on my lists for every gift-giving occasion. I bought an ice-cream maker.

For years I'd been growing hot peppers in a tiny garden patch in my yard, and occasionally pickling the meager yield or making jelly; now I added tomatoes and cucumbers, and containers of herbs on my deck. From listening to Rachel Maddow on her old Air America radio show, I'd become fascinated with cocktails, and had acquired bar tools and stocked the liquor cabinet. I'd dabbled in homebrewing decades ago in college, and now I purchased gear to try it again.

But I still wasn't cooking. In theory, I'm an amateur cook and mixologist and brewer and... but it's all just theory; in fact, what I really am, so far at least, is a food voyeur. Not only do I not cook, I don't even really eat: Though my wife and I eat out a lot, we don't manage to go to real fine-dining restaurants very often.

All this crystallized for me a few days ago. I'd been out running errands and listening to the audiobook of Bourdain's Medium Raw, and when I got home, I sat down to prep some of my jalapenos for canning. By chance, I'd just heard Bourdain's paean to the artistry of the fish prep chef at Le Bernardin, and here I was hacking through my peppers with all the subtlety of a weedwhacker. I mean, the closest thing I have to a "knife skill" is the ability to (usually) avoid cutting any part of myself off. I felt silly even trying.

But then it dawned on me: Of course I'm a hacker; what else would I expect to be. The fellow Bourdain so praised was a trained professional, and had been honing his art at one of the best restaurants in the country for a couple decades. It was stupid in the extreme of me to make that comparison at any level, even in a fleeting passing thought.

And it further dawned on me that I haven't been cooking much because, subconsciously, I know I can't cook like the people I watch on TV. And I don't go to fine restaurants because I know I don't have the palate of Bourdain or his friend Eric Ripert or the hosts and judges on the shows I watch.

Well so what? Of course I can't, and don't. It's been silly of me to let that hang me up. So now I'm going to just frickin' cook... or at least I'm going to try to. And I'm going to write about it here, along with anything else that pops into my head that has to do with food and drink. Maybe a few folks will come along for the ride.