[If we're going to hell in a handbasket, we might as well bring a picnic]
Monday, October 07, 2013
Wedding shower smoothies at Eastern Standard
As I've started again with the food (drink?) writing, it would be remiss of me not to talk about how much I love Eastern Standard. I mean, I've always loved them (as I may have mentioned here once or twice), but on this occasion they went above and beyond.
First off, bad news, boys: Lovely Co-worker Sarah is getting married. (Actually, she's no longer a co-worker, though she is still lovely.) True to form, she decided to have her wedding shower at Eastern Standard; she's even closer to becoming a resident there than I am.
I was so excited to get the invitation, but then immediately started to worry. This was my first public outing, since the trismus kicked in, at which food would be served. What was I supposed to do? Leave early, before lunch? Arrive late, having had? Sit and make small talk at an empty setting while everyone else ate salad?
I asked Sarah, who passed me along to Trish, her best friend and shower organizer. Trish said she'd talk to Eastern Standard.
"Seriously, I don't need anything special," I said. "Tell them to take whatever they're giving everyone else and throw it in the blender."
Well, of course, that's not what they did. Not even close.
Turns out they had separate meetings to decide on a special menu just for me.
I get quite misty-eyed just thinking about it.
So while everyone else had flatbread pizza and salads, I had an amazing chilled corn chowder that tasted as though they'd extracted essence of corn, fresh from the field, and poured it into a glass. Vibrant, light, refreshing. How often can you say that about a soup?
And when the other guests moved on to steak frites (which oh lordy looked so good), I was well compensated with a healthy blueberry-spinach-Marcona almond-Greek yogurt smoothie. The almonds were a great touch; the flavor came through very nicely.
Dessert was perfectly pretty and preppy: macarons in Lily Pulitzer colors (which I could admire, if not consume):
And then everyone got strawberry milkshakes, so I felt more like one of the girls.
Dining out when you can't eat is enough of a challenge. Dining out when someone else is in charge of the menu — and has been kind enough to invite you along — brings a special set of concerns: How much are you allowed to intervene? What responsibility does the host have for your needs, especially when they're also dealing with other guests?
This event went well, partly because the organizer was happy to work on my behalf (for which, thanks a million, Trish!) and partly because Eastern Standard does such a fantastic job with customer service. I'd say when in doubt, talk to the people who know you and know your challenges, and see what can be done.
And happy upcoming wedding, Sarah! No, I'm not taking this picture down - we look too divine!
Harvest Wine Bar, Greenwich, where the chef is always right
(Update: I got a wonderful response from Harvest to this post. You can still get angry at the chef, but then see the end for the follow-up.)
After our fabulous weekend in Atlantic City, we hit the road to head back home. It was a pretty straight ride, with very little traffic even on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, so we hit Connecticut in the early afternoon and decided to find a place for lunch.
The Yelp iPhone app showed a number of places, and based on reviews we decided on Harvest Wine Bar on Greenwich Avenue. The menu looked good (plus extra props for listing the local farms they source from) and the place was bright and cozy, with reclaimed wood on the walls and an open kitchen.
When the waitress came to take our drink order, I explained that I couldn't eat solid food — feeling confident that I could communicate this effectively, after a weekend of successful liquid meals — and she said she'd check with the chef.
A little later she came back.
"Yep, that should be no problem, though obviously some things won't blend very well."
Great. Perfect. I ordered the salmon.
She went to check.
"No, sorry, Chef says he won't blend protein."
What. What? That's a bizarre refusal at the best of times, but as I'd just had two dinners and a lunch in Atlantic City that revolved around seafood, it seemed perverse.
Is it because he's too busy? I asked (a little facetiously, as there were only two other occupied tables in the place).
"No, but he thinks it will change the original flavor of the dish."
Well duh, of course it will. Sorry to stomp on his Vision, but I just want nutrients right now.
Okay, let's try something else. Mac and cheese?
This time, I watched as she walked over to the pass and relayed my request. And I saw the chef say no.
And it wasn't a "Gee, sorry, we're not going to be able to do that."
His expression was this:
It wasn't just "no"; it was "Hell no, I'm not wasting my time."
Please note that I'm not in any way comparing Executive Chef Gustave Christman III with The Situation. However, this gif is as close as I could find to approximating the evident distaste on his face.
This was a little upsetting. Basically the guy was saying that he had no interest in helping me out. He didn't care whether I had lunch or not.
So when the waitress came back, I burst into tears (which totally freaked her out - this wasn't her fault, after all!). I tried to explain what was going on, but between not being able to talk properly and crying everywhere and being more than a little hangry, my communication skills were not at their best.
Note that he didn't come out from the kitchen to discuss options personally or see if we could come to a compromise. He easily could have; again, he was hardly in the weeds.
She went back to the pass and somehow got him to change his mind.
Eventually, she delivered a cast-iron dish of mac and cheese that looked as though it had been smooshed into lumps with a fork. I stared at it.
"I'm so sorry, but I can't drink this through a straw," I said.
"I know," she replied. "Let me try again."
This time, I saw her at the bar, holding up a pilsner glass to the chef in a "Do you want to use this?" gesture. But apparently he didn't, because a few minutes later she came back with the original dish, now plated a little less neatly, the contents slightly less lumpy.
"He says this is as good as he can get it," she said.
I added some water from my glass and stirred it to make it more liquid.
But it was still impossible to do more than suck up the top layer. Which is a shame, because the cheese blend was pretty good.
By the time we finished lunch, I was so upset that I was shaking. And although I hate confrontation, when I saw the chef standing at the front of Harvest, gazing across the street, I had to let him know how I felt.
"Really sorry that the concept of 'drinking through a straw' is too complicated for you," I said.
He faced me, arms folded across his chest, unsmiling.
"You can't blend pasta," he said. "Pasta is a starch. It doesn't blend."
Not "Sorry we couldn't find something for you to eat" or "Maybe next time we can do you some veggies."
Pasta doesn't blend. I proved that. And now I have won.
Really? What kind of a chef says this? How egotistical do you have to be to decide your need to prove a point is more important than your guest's dining experience?
Not to mention the fact that, over the last few months, I've blended everything from spinach lasagne to shells. The secret is to add plenty of liquid, but I guess that was over Gustave's head.
So I lost it a little and — I'm not proud of this — called him a "line cook." It was my Doorman Doorman Doorman moment.
And I meant it not to insult line cooks, but more to say his reluctance to customize a dish was more in keeping with the work of a cook who had instructions for completing dishes in a particular way than with an executive chef who (one would hope) had some ability to be flexible and creative.
Oh, and here, one more time, is the lobster orecchiette I had at Mia in Atlantic City on Friday night.
(Orecchiette, Gustave, is a type of pasta. And it blends.)
Harvest co-owners Vincente and Kleber Siguenza left a thoughtful and sympathetic comment on this post. I emailed to let them know I couldn't really use a gift certificate, as we're not usually in the Greenwich area, and suggested they donate it to the Smilow Cancer Hospital.
Thank you for your email. We are sorry you will not be able to return to Harvest, but what a fantastic idea to donate the gift certificate to the Smilow Cancer Hospital! We have been active contributors to the cause through the Multiple Myeloma and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, so we are happy to oblige.
We have worked with the Greenwich Hospital Foundation at its Great Chefs Event in the Spring of 2013. We contacted Andrea Guido from the Foundation and arranged to have the $100.00 Gift Certificate donated to their upcoming Gala on your behalf.
We are also pleased that you brought dysphagia to our attention. This type of awareness is very helpful to our customer service approach, and we will use it to benefit all of our restaurants.
I'm very happy with this response; I can't imagine how it could have been handled better.
The story still stands, though, as a study for other chefs: sometimes a diner will need a little extra accommodation. Please don't be offended if we need to crush your delicious, carefully created vision. We're just hungry.
We have a group of friends we see every week. Literally; with very few exceptions, we've met up every Thursday night for almost 20 years. They all went through MIT with The Boy, so he's known them longer, and I've come to consider them my surrogate brothers (seriously, you guys. Sorry if I'm displaying feels here).
Even though we have the regular Thursday thing, it had been years since we'd done a group activity of more than a couple of hours. So this weekend, we took a road trip to Atlantic City. Because why not?
Of course, my main concern (apart from What am I going to wear?? was food. We rarely eat out any more, largely because the whole "please take your delicious dish and make me a slurry" thing gets tedious. And I hate causing a fuss. So I volunteered to scope out restaurants that would be able to accommodate my stupid trismus but also show the rest of the gang a good time.
This turned out to be easier than I expected.
Our first night's dinner was at Mia at Caesar's Palace. It looked high-endy, spendy, potentially unfriendly. But my email got a quick response, and a promise that the chef had been told about my situation and was cool with it.
Of course, I still didn't know what that meant. But I didn't have to worry.
First we were greeted by Jason, who had replied to my email and also happened to be our waiter. And then chef de cuisine Paul Hanley (adorable and inked) came out and we had a thorough discussion about what I could and couldn't manage.
"Just throw some stuff in a blender and give me a straw," I said.
"Don't worry," said Chef Paul. "We'll look after you."
First course: lobster orecchiette with cappuccino foam.
Next, the zuppe di pesce I'd originally ordered, creatively split into three: shrimp and scallops in one glass, veggies in the next, and flounder in the third.
It was like a fabulous three-martini fish stew.
And then, even though I hadn't ordered dessert, a lovely surprise ending: a salted-caramel-chocolate shake.
Sadly this was more than I could suck down, and I had to leave some behind.
But the whole experience gave me a huge confidence boost. I could go out for dinner like a normal!
The boys were also well cared-for, the star dish being spaghetti cooked in a red wine reduction until the whole thing was rich and flavorful. Genius idea.
Day Two began with a beautiful sunrise:
And a trip to see Lucy, the largest elephant you can walk around inside:
Then there was mini-golf; my first in-a-casino game of blackjack (in which I learned I'd rather keep the cash to spend on other stuff); and a cocktail overlooking the Atlantic before heading to dinner at Cuba Libre in the Tropicana.
Again, I'd emailed the restaurant in advance, and had an almost-immediate response, reassuring me there'd be no problems. I ordered a black bean soup and asked if they could throw in a little extra avocado, and that's what I got, served up in a milkshake glass with a straw. It had a generous dose of cumin and was fragrant and wonderful.
Sadly I have no photos of this dinner; I blame either the fact that it was too dark to get good shots or the pitcher of margaritas that appeared on the table.
Again, the staff at Cuba Libre was friendly, helpful, and more than willing to make suggestions and see that we all had a good time. Huge props to them.
On Saturday, I faced two potential challenges: breakfast at Teplitzky's at the Chelsea Hotel and lunch at a sad casino diner. Both times, I had to explain my situation to servers who were somewhat harried and distracted. Both times, I got exactly what I asked for: a smoothie-oatmeal combo at breakfast and a clam chowder smoothie at lunch.
Maybe this wasn't so hard after all.
The absolute highlight of Saturday was getting to ride in a helicopter, something I've wanted to do since I was a kid.
Dinner was back at Caesar's, this time at the Atlantic Grill, a classy New York seafood kinda joint (also the place where we heard "Volare" for the third time that weekend).
I was a little worried about this one, as I'd booked through the Open Table iPhone app and it wasn't clear whether my special request info had gone through.
But again, when we turned up they were more than happy to accommodate me, and gave me salmon, puréed potato and asparagus, divided into two glasses and finished with a grilled lemon garnish.
And then we went to see a brownish area with points. She sang for about an hour, which was apparently longer than much of her elderly audience could manage, judging by the slow, careful stream of people heading for the egress. But hey, she did "Cabaret" and "Maybe This Time" and "New York, New York" and this haunting song. Another one to check off the list.
We left Atlantic City somewhat reluctantly on Sunday morning. It had been great to get out of town and spend time with friends. For me, it was especially good to realize my fears about being able to eat out were unjustified.
Maybe this means I'll be writing about restaurants more often?
People keep pointing out to me that I haven't written anything since May. I know, I know.
It's just that I'm still on this stupid, frustrating (and at this point probably permanent) liquid-only diet, and how much can you really say about that?
"Today I had coconut chicken! Through a straw."
"Today I had veggie lasagne! Through a straw."
"Today I had salade Niçoise! Through a straw."
And pretty much every meal looks like a brown slurry (see previous post) so it's not as though there'd be vibrant photos to make up for the dull descriptions.
But then a friend who had heard about my liquid lunches suggested that other people going through similar challenges might find it useful to hear from a fellow sucker.
So going forward, this is for my homies with trismus, esophageal dysphagia, or any other pain-in-the-butt situation that means they can't just open their faces and shove food in there. Let's suck it up together!
Recently I've been trying to remember the last meal I ate.
Actually ate, I mean. With the silverware and the plate and the chewing. But I can't.
There are vague memories: juicy steak frites at Saloon; a ricotta-and-raspberry jam crêpe from Mr. Crêpe; take-out pizza from Eat at Jumbo's. The latter I remember because the sausage was too spicy for my tongue, already tenderized by the double-punch of chemo and radiation.
At some point there will have been a meal that I couldn't finish, because moving anything around my mouth was too painful to handle. And then I switched to a liquid diet.
That was, let's see ... six weeks ago? Hard to pinpoint, but certainly it was at least three or four weeks into radiation, and I had my last treatment a month ago last week. So maybe more than that.
These days, a typical menu looks like this:
Fresh-fruit shake with protein powder
Smoothie of oatmeal or Weetabix, yogurt, ice cream, coffee. No, I mean all at once. In the smoothie.
This isn't too bad, actually; I add spices (cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon), which helps. The yogurt is for extra protein, and the ice cream boosts calories.
The Sardini (with apologies to Dr. Zoidberg)
This is pretty much exactly like a Martini, except you use cucumber instead of vermouth and a whole can of skinless, boneless sardines in olive oil instead of gin. And you add Greek yogurt. Huge protein punch.
You'd think there'd be endless variety here, but no: I still need to keep things fairly bland. I can't do anything spicy or acidic — tomatoes are painful, as is a surfeit of leeks or peppers. Smooth is better than lumpy, as anything fibrous is difficult (corn; beans that shed their outer layers). This basically leaves me with root veggies (sometimes roasted), well-cooked greens, cheese sauces.
Now and again I go bigger. There have been fish chowders and slow-cooked beef short ribs. Tonight is a chicken and eggplant stew, vaguely North African but without the spice, of course. Cooked long enough, puréed well enough, they make a nice change from squash soup, though they're still harder to eat.
The whole thing is becoming tedious.
Plus, it's changing my attitude toward food in general. I can still see it and smell it, of course, but the taste aspect — and that includes the anticipatory pleasure, looking forward to the taste — isn't there any more. So now I regard a beautifully plated charcuterie selection in much the same way as a flower arrangement: Yes, it looks lovely, and smells wonderful. And that's as far as it goes.
What's more, I no longer distinguish between types of food. I have as much use/need for a lemon meringue pie as for a plate of raw pink chicken breasts. I've never liked mushrooms, but right now they're no different than a fresh orange or a bowl of pistachios or a bar of chocolate.
I know I shouldn't complain. There are people who have been through worse than this; people who have lost all ability to eat, who will spend the rest of their lives getting nutrition through a tube in their stomachs. My condition is temporary, and should clear up in a few more weeks.
I have visions of the first proper food I want to eat. A cheese sandwich: good white bread, lots of butter, a salty Cheddar. When I described it to my dad, he said, "You mean where you take a bite and there are teeth marks in the bread and the butter and the cheese?"
I'm not a stickler for tradition. Okay, well maybe a little, especially when it comes to adherence to proper grammar and basic traffic rules (don't. Get me started).
But when it comes to food, I love creativity. I love the idea of subverting expectations and presenting standard dishes in new ways. That's part of the reason our Madrid lunch at Club Allard is in my Top Ten Meals Evar; every dish took straightforward concepts and rebuilt them in unexpected ways — like the egg-that-wasn't for dessert.
But now I feel the need to speak up. And as it happens, the subject is eggs.
Scotch eggs, to be precise.
See, I grew up with Scotch eggs. (That sounds like they raised me, like wolves, but that's not true; the pork pies did most of that work.) And I know what they are: Boiled eggs, wrapped in pork sausage meat, breaded, deep-fried.
Though frankly, even that parsley garnish is improper.
In England, you can get them in chain supermarkets and village butchers and motorway service stations. They're great for picnics and quick lunches. I've even seen them served at a wedding (though to be fair, it was the sort of reception where the drink for the toast was whiskey for the gents and sherry for the ladies. I, of course, demanded the manly option).
You'd think I'd be happy, right? Finally, the outdated view that British food is uniformly awful — everything overcooked and under-seasoned — is disappearing, and humble dishes like the Scotch egg are enjoying a moment in the sun.
And yet ...
I think it's just that my idea of the Scotch egg is very particular, and deeply rooted in nostalgia. I know, clearly, unhesitatingly, how it should taste: tiny breadcrumbs gritty on your fingertips, dry and yet leaving a faint greasy residue; textures changing as you bite through breading, then densely packed meat, then smooth, squeaky egg white, then soft yolk; peppery sausage contrasting with the clean purity of the egg.
Once you start experimenting with squash and spices, you're messing with my childhood.
This may seem a hypocritical rant, given that I'll jump to order Scotch eggs at any bar that offers them. The example above is from the Salt hill pub in Lebanon, NH (where they were listed as "Celtic eggs"). Here's the version from New York's Jones Wood Foundry, which also does a solid steak and kidney pie and possibly the best chips I've had in this whole country.
But it bugs me that compromise is necessary: Sure, we'll take your awful limey snacks, but we'll mess with them to make them more acceptable to our audiences. Hey, we do it all the time with TV shows!
I guess I should be happy that another staple of UK cuisine is now somewhat available over here. Maybe it's part of a very very (very) slow British invasion? Who knows what's next: pork pie? Steak and kidney pudding with suet pastry? Real proper fruit cake?
We just celebrated our fifteenth anniversary. FIFTEEN. WHAT?? It's crazy that I've spent almost one-third of my life married to The Boy, but there you go. We're still having fun, even during the medical crappiness of the last couple of years.
So how to mark the event? We left it kind of late to do anything big, partly because I was due to start the new ritual of weekly chemo and twice-a-day radiation and we didn't know how I'd feel. As it turned out, I was doing okay, so with just over a week to go, we found a hotel in New York and booked train tickets for the following weekend.
The big question, of course: Where to eat?
Scoping around for something new, I checked in with our friend Eric, who a) reminded us that he and his wife had recently had a fab meal at Momofuku Ko and b) pointed out that reservations for our Saturday night would open up the following day.
In theory, at least.
The deal with Ko is that they have 12 seats — not tables, seats — which become available ten days ahead at 10am. The trick is to be online at 9:58am and hit "refresh" constantly.
So I was. Click, click, click. Refresh, refresh, refresh. One minute to go ... 9:59:48 ... click ...
Ten o'clock. Click.
Yep, them's the breaks. Luckily, I also knew to keep clicking; people cancel, spaces open up. And lo, after only another 30 minutes of hitting "refresh," I saw an opening. Click. Got it.
(And then another couple of heart-pounding, adrenaline-filled minutes where I had to fill in contact details and give a credit card number while a timer counted down 120 seconds. Aaagh, the number's wrong! Aagh, I can't spell my own name! This, it seems, is why I'm not cut out for the bomb squad.)
So, after a fun day in Manhattan, including a lovely pub lunch at Jones Wood Foundry (bangers and mash! Steak and kidney pie! Listening to New Yorkers concerned about the contents of toad in the hole!) and a romantic walk through a rainy, misty, almost-deserted Central Park, we headed to the East Village.
Okay, a disclaimer now: Ko is known for discouraging photography. As the website puts it:
But whatevs. No lovely food shots here, but a few observations to give you a sense of the experience.
The room is long and narrow, and dominated by a counter running down the middle. On one side are 12 stools; on the other, three guys with sharp knives and a lot of stainless steel.
The music is eclectic — Wilco, Pink Floyd, NWA ("it's the big boss man's iPod," we're told) — though loud; we have to shout to communicate allergies to the staff, and we don't always hear all the details of each dish as they're presented.
That, combined with the fear of being yelled at for pulling out a phone, means we don't take notes. And it's hard to remember all ten courses plus snacky extras.
Still, there was:
Light-as-air chicharrón dusted with huitlacoche;
Melty Spanish mackerel contrasted with pickled shallots and blood orange;
Tiny, delicate shrimp with a texture I can only describe as creamy, something I've never encountered before;
A rich potato chowder with soft littleneck clams and andouille (just outside my current capacity for spicy food, but still fabulous);
Venison tartare, served under sunchoke and Brussels sprout leaves and over fermented black beans. No, shut up, it was insane. The venison was like maguro in texture, the beans added a deeper meaty angle, the leaves gave a crunchy foil to the soft flesh. The only thing even more better was the egg.
Ohhh, the egg. Soft-boiled, smoked, served with a generous spoonful of caviar on top of buttered onions. Simple, right? Oh look, here's a recipe. And a better picture.
The other dish often cited in discussions of Ko is the lychees with Riesling geleé topped with chilled, shaved foie. It's like a rich, grown-up, sophisticated sundae. Sadly, by the time it appears for us, I'm dragging — it's well past my bedtime — so I can't give it the full attention it deserves.
And I hardly touch the last savory course, a tender piece of duck with baby turnip and berries. Which makes me feel bad, especially as the poor guy firing up the first batch accidentally set the whole pan alight and had to start over.
Oh, a word on the chefs. There are some jobs I'm just not cut out for: teacher, nurse, anything in sales. Add to that: Cooking in a tiny restaurant where you're almost nose-to-nose with the diners. These guys had an incredible Zen-like approach, calmly, methodically prepping and plating, slicing translucent slivers of fish, using tweezers to pick out the perfect microgreen garnishes, trimming meat down to its tastiest essence, while dealing with distracting customer chit-chat. I'd last ten minutes before I was throwing plates across the room.
Desserts were lovely — a coconut-lime sorbet with meringue and banana and a sour-orange sorbet with panna cotta, Earl Grey and caramel — but seemingly not as creative as the mains. Which reminded us of dinner at Rosanjin, in which a dinner of dishes in a formal, traditional Japanese style concluded with ... cheesecake and strawberry ice cream. So maybe it's a thing.
After about two and a half hours, we rolled out, tired and full and happy. Ko goes in our Top Ten Meals of All Time.
And now I'm back to sucking scrambled eggs and milkshakes. At least I still have tastebuds, for now. Once they're gone, I'll entertain myself with looking at photos of dinner at Ko.
Wait - I seriously haven't posted since NOVEMBER? Where have I been??
(Short answer: Chicago, New York, England, Wales and Tampa. Possible posts to come on some of those. Though if I haven't managed anything yet ...)
The latest cancer treatment news is that I start a new round of radiation tomorrow. A second set of radiation, you say? Isn't that risky and stuff? Well, yes, but it's that or live on chemo until the chemo stops working. So.
Because I know the next few months are going to be Not Fun, The Boy and I have been trying to fit in as many happy things as possible. A small one, but something we've always wanted to try, was making cheese. So for Christmas I got him a mozzarella-making kit from Roaring Brook Dairy.
It came with a small block of rennet; baggies of cheese salt (which has no iodine) and citric acid; a small thermometer; and a pair of rubber gloves.
"All you need," it said, "is one gallon of milk!"
So, cool. Milk acquired and decanted into the Dutch oven. In other news, we learned we had a one-gallon Dutch oven. Phew!
Once the temperature reached 85 degrees, we added the citric acid. At 100 degrees we added the rennet. Suddenly, we had primordial cheese.
After a ten minute rest (for us and the cheese) it was time to separate the curds and whey.
The goal was to get as much liquid as possible out of the curds. This took a while.
Some amount of manual labor was required (with gloves because hot cheese).
Then I noticed that the instructions mentioned putting the curds in a microwaveable bowl.
This was a problem.
We don't have a microwave.
There's no real reason for this; we're not purists. We've just never felt the need. And our counter space is pretty much occupied with other things at this point, so getting a microwave would mean moving things around and squashing our available workspace even more.
Yes, it's a little annoying when we buy things (say, proper Christmas pudding) that requires an hour of steaming in a bain marie or a quick 15 minutes in the nuker.
It's even more of a pain in cases like Project Mozzarella, where the assumption is that there's no need to include instructions of the analog kind, because who could possibly be so ill-equipped?
So I hopped on the Googles to see what our options were. First stop was The Pioneer Woman's blog; she had a whole post on making mozzarella. Look at her and her gorgeous, wholesome friends, going back to the old ways!
And then they got to this part:
12. Then transfer the cheese to a microwave-save bowl and microwave the curd on high for 1 minute.
Okay, she's a modern pioneer woman, I guess. Unless I missed the Little House episode where the Ingalls clan takes the covered wagon to Best Buy.
At this point, I wasn't in the mood to plough through a bunch of sites looking for help. The Boy vaguely remembered seeing a show about cheesemaking that involved something like oversized steam tables, so we improvised with a bain marie (two references in one post!). The goal was to cook the curds enough to wring out more whey, and then heat the cheese up to a stretchable texture.
This proved tricky, and took a while, but eventually we were there. And no, I didn't take any photos of that part. Go back and look at Pioneer Woman's sexy photos and imagine that's what it looked like.
The end result: not pretty.
But pretty good for a first attempt. And pretty tasty, too; more buttery than the shop-bought stuff. A little more chewy, but certainly edible.
Dinner that night:
The original plan had been to do the whole pizza from scratch: I'd already made a dough; we had a basil plant, still holding on from the summer; and I had a final harvest of cherry tomatoes that I'd oven-roasted and frozen for a moment just like this.
However, I'd forgotten that I'd already used up the tomatoes in a (very delicious) stew. So I went out and got more (I know! Seasonal produce FAIL!), which I roasted guiltily.
Plus, also, prosciutto, which we didn't make from our own pig.
Plus, after all that, I forgot to use the basil.
As you may be able to tell, the mozzarella didn't get as melty as we'd hoped. Not sure whether that was the result of overly enthusiastic manual stimulation, or the issue with the heat, or what. But that cheese kit will allegedly provide us with chances to make another three pounds of cheese, so we'll just keep trying.
I'm always interested when people pair food with something else. Wine, yes, obvs, but more than that: theater, music, story — a different aspect that brings an extra dimension, or context, to the act of eating.
So I was excited to learn about Sensing Terroir: A Food Opera (PDF), a collaboration between Bondir chef Jason Bond and Ben Houge, a digital audio artist. Their plan was to create a dining experience that paired each course of a meal with specific sounds, connecting dishes to the farmers and producers that contributed the ingredients.
I’ve long appreciated fine food, and somewhere along the line I realized that enjoying a well-crafted meal was an inherently time-based experience, akin to ballet, music, or film, but tailored to the sense of taste. This is true not only in the succession of courses, but in the way a course evolves, as flavors meld, textures break down, and hot and cold converge to room temperature. Even psychologically, our perception of a new dish changes as we become accustomed to it. Once I acknowledged this, the desire to compose music to accompany a meal, just like a dance or film score, followed naturally.
The idea was to synch the sounds to the dish each individual diner was eating, using video-game technology and tabletop speakers, so that the experience would be customized to each person, regardless of when they started eating or how long it took them to finish.
When we arrived, the first thing we noticed was the drone. It filled the space, a low, electronic sound, gently rising and falling in intensity, with occasional accordion-like trills underneath. The sound came from speakers at ceiling level and large pods on wooden stands on the floor.
You can see one of the floor-pods just next to The Boy's hand (plus Houge talking to a table behind us):
Each table also had a set of these:
These smaller speakers were intended for the specific sounds that would accompany each dish.
The low drone continued throughout the evening. And while we looked over the menu, we heard this from the tabletop speakers:
(Water? Traffic? Fryolator? Not sure.)
One of the waitstaff came over to check in. "You've been here before, haven't you?" she said. "You sat over there." She pointed to the table we had last time.
Wow. We were last at Bondir three months ago.
"How could you remember that?" I asked.
"You had blue and green nail polish," she said, smiling.
Maybe it's just that I have the world's worst memory for faces. But that was scarily impressive.
The first course was a poached egg, warm and soft, with beets in solid and sauce formats and a ginger-sesame foam. The sweetness of the beets, the spicy-sweet foam and the richness of the yolk were a lovely combination.
This was served with Pu-Erh tea in the world's daintiest cup:
Interesting idea, to start with tea, and it marked the first of five excellent beverage pairings. The next course came with a hot spiced chianti that was more delicate and streamlined than the usual mulled wine. It was a great accompaniment for the pig's ear terrine.
I've only had pig's ear in crispy form, so this was new. It was tender and delicious — not chewy, not over-salted. It came with Roxbury Russet apple (which made me excited, as I'd learned from Amy Traverso's The Apple Lover's Cookbook that it's the oldest variety of apple in the US, bred in what is now part of Boston).
For the next course, The Boy and I went different ways, as he can't do anything that wears its skeleton on the outside. I had lobster (from Scituate) on top of a baby pumpkin stuffed with creamy, rich, delicious grits and a garnish of caramelized seaweed.
(BTW, I realize the photos aren't great; the light wasn't quite strong enough for my little camera.)
The Boy had the other option, a sweet potato tart. Which had spent, unfortunately, a couple of minutes too long in the oven.
It was good, apart from the very burnt bits.
Somewhere around here we realized we weren't getting the full son et nourriture experience. Apparently the system had crashed (ah, techmologee!) and after the reboot it wasn't reaching all the tables.
Part of the reason it had taken us so long to notice was that the whole room was so loud. If there had been any customized sound, it had to compete with this:
The system was soon back up, but it was still hard to hear anything from our tabletop speakers. There was occasional dialog (Houge had interviewed some of the farmers whose produce we were eating) but much of it was washed away in the sea of room noise. I heard something about growing butternut squash, but that was about it.
Oh well, more food. We diverged again for the next course: The Boy chose chicken with bacon, chestnuts and turnip, the meat juicy and tender.
I had a fennel gratin with assorted fall veggies and a cube of teff polenta. I think that was my first time with teff — would def do again.
And then dessert. There were two choices, so we got one of each and shared.
Chocolate "enlightenment," a dense, rich mousse that came with, among other things, a parsnip purée that worked surprisingly well:
And angel-food cake with a lovely black walnut ice cream and a deep, fruity swirl of huckleberry sauce.
Dessert came with a glass of Dolin red vermouth. More restaurants should serve tea to start and vermouth to finish. Just sayin'.
So, was this a successful experiment? From our perspective ... almost. The concept was great, but the setting was, I think, an obstacle.
Even if, as Houge's manifesto notes, "the awareness and appreciation of food happens intermittently, during pauses in the conversation," there's an assumption that those pauses will allow for an aural experience because people are quietly eating. In a busy restaurant, however, any pause in one table's conversation is filled by laughter and conversation from surrounding diners.
So, for instance, I wasn't able to hear the farmers talk about their work, but I did get to hear all about Montessori schools from the next table, whether I wanted to or not.
I'd be interested to see how this concept develops, and whether the answer involves more specific targeting of directional sound. Or smaller audiences. Or having someone stand over every table like this:
Like the formation of a new and delicious galaxy, there has been something of a slow-motion explosion of interesting places to eat in the Boston-Cambridge-Somerville area over the past year or so.
Which is particularly frustrating when one spends a considerable amount of time unable to eat (or at least unable to eat in polite society). I spend my days reading local food blogs and noting the new arrivals with a mix of curiosity and chagrin.
On good weeks, I'm torn: Do I try out a new restaurant, or do I fall back on an old favorite (especially if I've been craving, say, Eastern Standard's charcuterie plate while sucking cold soup through a straw)?
Last night we decided on the former, and headed into Davis Square to check out new southern restaurant M3, which is in the corner spot that used to be Out of the Blue, which was in the spot that used to be Dolly's.
It's a small space, and was pretty busy when we arrived before 6pm. The only available seats were at the counter, which suited us fine, because we were able to watch the action in the tiny kitchen.
The decor is retro-kitsch, but not precious. The walls are covered in chalkboard paint, the lights are hung inside canning jars, and the beer fridge is vintage and chubby.
We ordered beer and studied the menu: frogs' legs? Fried green tomatoes? Oyster po' boy made with Island Creeks? Duck fat (gasp!) burger?
No, wait. Of course, it had to be:
Deep fried cheese curds.
We had discussed going to the Big E again this year, pretty much for the sole purpose of tracking down the cheese curds vendor. But now we didn't have to.
Which, as The Boy pointed out, was not necessarily a good thing.
"It was better when they were a two-hour drive away, and only available for a few days a year," he said, between mouthfuls of popplers. "Now they're just down the street. How am I supposed to control myself?"
The curds at M3 are less cheesy than their state fair cousins — rather than being in big chewy chunks, the cheese is smaller and melts into the batter. But we could still imagine ourselves stopping by M3 for a beer and a quick cheese-curd fix. Often. Too often.
Anyway, there was something more dangerously tasty on the specials board yesterday: chicken and waffle nuggets.
Imagine brined chicken, dipped in waffle batter, deep fried and finished with poached cherries.
The whole thing is soft and warm; the batter is pillowy and a little sweet; the fruit adds a slight tartness and pulls everything together.
Now we really could have stopped there; a little deep-fried goodness goes a long way. But we'd already ordered mains, all of which come with a choice of three sides (hence "meat and three," or M3). So:
For The Boy, chicken-fried steak with corn, Brussels sprouts and sweet potato casserole.
The steak breading had an almost chocolatey note to it, which was unexpected and good.
I've never quite understood how marshmallow became the default topping for sweet potatoes, but there you go. This was Fluff, which I guess counts as locavore (??).
I had the catfish, with more Brussels, the mac and cheese, and the root veggie hash.
The fish was nice and flaky, though sliced so thin that it was a little overwhelmed by the batter for my liking.
The sprouts were small and plentiful, and the mac and cheese ... was a thing of beauty. Light, creamy, with a mild cheese sauce, it reminded me of the baked macaroni pudding desserts we'd sometimes have when I was a kid.
But yes, we had indeed ordered way too much food; the portions are extremely generous.
How generous? Put it this way: we had our sides boxed up to bring home. I weighed the leftovers, which clock in at just over a pound.
In other news, dinner tonight is sorted.
I currently feel a little overwhelmed at the number of new places to try. Do youse guys have any suggestions? Is there a new restaurant we really should check out while I'm still able to eat?
Born and raised in northeast England. Moved to the US in '93. Became a citizen in '06.
LimeyG occasionally answers to the name Carolyn Grantham, especially in the context of such questions as "Where's Carolyn Grantham? I was going to ask if she wanted a cocktail."