My first reaction to "health nut"s in general is one of ridicule. Much of the vegan/vegetarian movement is complete bunk, and the crusade against fat in food is founded on a basis of flawed data interpretation and self-righteous asshattery. While I could write, and have written, reams on the misinterpretation of Ancel Keys' China Study data, this isn't really a health science blog, so those interested in more rantage in that direction can contact me in private.
The reason I mention this is that recently, a show called Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution became available again on hulu. While I have some qualms with Jamie Oliver and the approach to his show, I feel like it's at least worth a mention on the blog, as it addresses the sad state of food in America. And what a sad state it is--so sad, in fact, that some of my European friends have told me that a good portion of Europe thinks the state of food in America is an urban legend due to how ridiculous it sounds. Personally, I agree--just the descriptions of public school food in America evoke a very Orwell (or at least Vonnegut)-esque feeling, and I would be skeptic about them as well, if I hadn't lived here and experienced first-hand what "food" is fed to kids in public schools.
For me, the shots on Oliver's show brought back a lot of childhood memories. I remember rectangular "pizzas", most likely cooked by microwave, in bags of thin crinkly plastic film. Sometimes the cheese wouldn't even detach itself from the plastic, leaving a sloppy mess resembling more an item from Ted Bundy's basement than actual food, as my adolescent fingers fumbled with the packaging. Flat-looking hamburgers, luke-warm and tasting of bland gunk and muck with melty cheese and a soggy bun, with a side of french fries or potato puffs, depending on the day. "Breakfasts" of sugary cereals and diabetic danishes. The choice of beverage between the regular milk, and the more-sugar-per-volume-than-coca-cola chocolate milk--whatever the hell happened to water?--or strawberry milk, on rare days. I'm glad my parents threatened to beat me (alright, maybe it wasn't so extreme, but you get the message) if I ever took the flavored milk.
... Actually, looking back now, I don't think any of the "cheese" I mentioned above was actually cheese, as opposed to aerated hydrogenated soy oil. Ditto for the "beef."
I'm not saying the show is perfect, or that I necessarily like Jamie as a whole. The health problem in America is by no means one of just food, but one of lifestyle in general. And personally, I think he takes it a bit too far with the health food evangelism--for example, when he tries to overhaul the menu at a fast food restaurant in L.A., I found myself agreeing with some of the points the owner made about the integrity of the food; fucking around with the ingredients doesn't necessarily make it a "healthier" version of the same food, and his overreliance on yogurt and salads makes me cringe a little on the inside. Jamie also tends to overplay the "peasant" card, with the fake Cockney accent and the over-use of chicken chow mein in the first season (come on, Chinese food is screwed up enough already without your adding to it).
But at the end of the day, is he doing good work? I'd have to say yes. Jamie points out some major stupidity, such as the decision of one school board that it is a bad idea to remove flavored milk from school menus because, in a study funded by a milk processing group, it correlated with a 35% decrease in overall milk consumption--the exact kind of stark raving bureaucratic idiocy that I abhor. He does have a tendency to lean towards the dramatic, but none of the stuff on his show is outright bull, and he hits on all the important points (the overabundance of sugar and chemical processing, especially), so I do rather think it's worth a watch to anyone who cares. Hell, the dramatic flair is probably a good thing; if I had more activist in me, this show would probably have stirred me into a fiery ball of lobbyist energy, whose fury like hell hath no. As it stands, I just nod knowingly (having gone through the same school food bullshit myself) and hate people a little more on the inside.
Trussing a chicken isn't really a "vital" skill per se. But if you spend any time at all around chickens, you'll have to square with the task some day. This applies especially to anyone who claims to know anything about food; say you're anything more than a beginner cook and that you don't know how to tie up a chicken, and people will laugh you right out of the kitchen. In fact, during one of his first jobs Thomas Keller himself had a knife thrown at him by a rather irate chef when he revealed he, despite claims of being a professional cook, could not truss a chicken.
The purpose of tying a chicken up like this before roasting is to help it cook more evenly. The goal here is to hold the chicken together, and make it as ball-like as possible. You don't want bits sticking out, you don't want bits moving around, and you definitely don't want bits falling off. This way, all the parts cook evenly and you don't end up having burnt wings and a raw breast, or overcooked drumsticks but thighs that are still bleeding. To that end, I also stuff the chicken with lemon and some herbs; more details on this in another post. The method of trussing I favor accomplishes the above without any complication and fancy ropework. And more importantly, it's extremely easy to take off after the bird is done roasting and you just want to get the bastard carved and plated already.
For an average 4-pound bird you'll need a piece of butcher's twine about 3 feet long. Any piece of food-safe (i.e., won't melt or burst into flame in the oven... Cotton is probably a good idea) thin twine will work. Don't bother taking out a ruler; for most people, this is the distance from the middle of the chest to the tip of the fingers as they hold their arms out to the side. Use a bit more to be safe. Lay the chicken down with the breast side up. If you're unfamiliar with which part is the breast, consult your nearest chicken manual.
The first thing you'll notice is that the wings are extended out to the side. In the oven, this would leave them very exposed to the hot air, leading them to overcook. To remedy this, the best way is to tuck them under the breast. This brings it close to the body, and makes the rate at which it cooks closer to the rate at which the breast cooks. It's not imperative to tuck them in picture-perfect here; just accomplish the main goal. Also don't be afraid to force it a bit; the joints are stronger than you may think, and the flaps of skin are very easily moved. The worst you'll end up with is a dislocated wing, and let's be honest here: nobody's going to notice anyway.
Next, point the chicken with its neck away from you. Bring your twine under the breast from the front, then back towards you. Tie an overhand knot, above the tailbone. Some people like wrapping up the tail a bit here but I think that's overkill. Bring the twine above the drumsticks, and tie another overhand knot, getting it as tight as possible; again, you want to make the chicken as ball-like as possible, with as few bits sticking out as possible. Tie it off with a second overhand knot.
And now you have a bird, all trussed up and ready to pop into the oven.
- Name: Aji
- Price: $12~20
- Address: 30 Walnut st, Newtonville, MA 02460
- Website: www.ajisushibar.com
- Phone: (617) 965 - 2801
Aji is a Japanese restaurant located in Newton. Honestly, the real reason I decided to visit it, is because it was the closest Japanese place to my office. The second reason I chose to try it is because it seemed incredibly cheap and yet didn't look like a cheap-ass sushi fast-food take-out.
It's really simple, no fish hanging from the ceiling and no lesbian bamboo in the windows. The menu is just a two sided piece of plastic. The spicy tuna sushi lunch special is $10. Their menu is generally really cheap, supermarket sushi style. Lunch specials come with miso soup and salad. Too bad, no free tea.
Really nothing to say about the soup or the salad, just plain, normal, unsophisticated yet not bad. The sushi came in a mini bento box. They were fresh and definitely better than supermarket sushi in terms of quality.
The lunch special also included a roll of spicy tuna, which was surprisingly good given that I'm paying only 10 dollars for all of this.
Now I asked for the check and got a little surprise. Alex told me once: "in Asia all we get for dessert is oranges". The waitress brought us one slice of orange each, fresh and tasty.
Until now I actually didn't think it was possible to have sushi in a restaurant for $10. Shockingly, I got a lot more than a couple sushi, I actually got an entire meal and it tasted good. Aji is definitely the cheapo sushi destination for not breaking the bank and still eating well without being pretentious.
Craigie on Main is the latest in my tour of upwards-trending buzz-filled Cambridge restaurants. That being said, it was surprisingly easy to get a reservation; I actually snagged on Wednesday night a spot for 5:30PM two days later on Friday. It did require a credit card with a possible $25 reservation cancellation fee, but the process was not painful at all. The guy who called to confirm was named Craig; yes, I was tempted to ask him if he was on the Main, and no I did not.
The restaurant is in the middle of Cambridge, literally a few minutes away from Central Station, looking more like a bar than anything else. There was even a slightly hostile-looking guy standing outside with sun-glasses. He turned out to be the valet-slash-doorman, but on the approach it still seemed more likely that he'd ask for change than hold the door. Still, it's appreciated. Inside there actually WAS a bar, situated next to a main dining room with an open kitchen. I was very impressed with the open kitchen. There was literally almost nothing separating it from the dining room at large; this shows confidence that not only will the brigade run smoothly, they will look damn good doing it. During my preliminary research, I came across one review that complained of the "cacophonous noise" and leaving "smelling of the kitchen." Personally, I found the noise level to be quite acceptable, with the loudest thing being "Where are my scallops?!" in a raised voice--sort of like a loud command, or on the quieter end of a shout. And the kitchen itself smelled of roast meats and vegetables and such, so... I don't know what the hell that reviewer was on about. The facilities were, as far as I could tell, kept pretty clean. They did take slightly longer than I'd have liked (about 20-25 minutes) between my appetizer and my entree, but the place (especially the bar) was pretty busy, so I think it's excusable, if not understandable.
As for their menu, it changes every day. It literally comes as a piece of paper on a clipboard, complete with a timestamp of when the menu was printed; I found that a bit pretentious, but a shifting menu is a good sign in my book, as it shows an adaptation to what is best in the market for that particular day. It's worth noting that it doesn't shift TOO drastically from day to day, as the online "sample" menu they have on their website is fairly similar to the one I received in the restaurant that day. The actual dishes are simple, but not simplistic. The ingredients were well-put-together, but not so much as to fall within the realm of "fucking with the food." (Asparagus Creme Brulee with Rhubarb Reduction, anyone? I ate this once; suffice to say my bouche was not amused.) Craigie also offered a 10-course tasting menu for $115 per person, and a much less attractive 6-course for $95 (Really, only a $20 reduction for four courses?), but I opted to test the waters with regular dishes first before dropping such a heavy investment in the restaurant.
The meal kicked off with a half-dozen oysters as an appetizer. Not that there's much to do with raw oysters like this, but for what it's worth it's probably the best I've had so far; I really need to visit more oyster bar type places, food parasites be damned. This dish also really highlighted the latest trend of using foams in food; in this case, I think it was made from a combination of the liquid from the shellfish and some lemon juice, probably some sugar to aid in the cohesion of the liquid to form bubbles. There was also some parsley/cilantro type herb thrown in on top for good measure, and something resembling candied lemon peels or ginger, something along those lines. The bottom line is, the shellfish were fresh and it was good.
The entrees were Vermont Pork three ways, and Irish Trout. The pork was simple: grilled belly, braised suckling pig, and a spiced rib, with an accompanying side of bok choy and honshimeji mushrooms. There isn't much to say, other than that everything was done right; the braising rendered the suckling pig almost melty in consistency, and the grilled belly's fat was crispy on the outside, but sufficiently rich on the inside. The spiced rib was nice, though very tender. I tend to prefer my ribs putting up a bit of a fight, but I suppose you can't tear meat off a bone with your teeth and still retain enough dignity to even pretend you've got good table manners... That's life, I suppose.
The Irish Trout was slightly more complex, coming with an array of shellfish on a bed of root vegetables, on a sauce that I can't really figure out how they pulled off. Generally speaking, I have a pretty good idea of how things are made, but the sauce with that fish was an anomaly to me. The trout also followed the "foam" trend, with bubbles on top of the cut of fish as well as the clams that came with it. It's like chefs just discovered a food-safe version of those soaps with the special heads that automatically foam it up for you, and have decided to fire that thing off at will. Hell, I bet I can find one on amazon--if not, I'll have to try playing with one of the aforementioned soap dispenser heads to make something like this happen. Look forward to it.
None of the offerings looked too impressive, and Japonaise was only a few train stops away so I opted out of dessert. Maybe I just have a higher standard for pastry and dessert work, but most restaurants' options seem rather lackluster to me. Perhaps I've just become too jaded and can no longer properly appreciate fruit tarts and chocolate orbs. The dinner bill did come with a set of diminutive chocolate macarons though. My evaluation: Not as bad as the travesties in L.A. Burdick, but not anywhere near as good as La Maison. I'd gauge it at about Financier's macarons after letting them sit around for about a day. (Note to self: Must write a post on the various macaron shops I've hit in recent memory, and a comparison between all of them)
The bill is the only real piece of criticism I have for the experience. Even with my rather extravagant sensibilities towards food spending, this place put the rape on my bank account. The total was $130 after tips etc. for two people, which outclasses basically every other restaurant I've ever eaten at. In relation to that, the portion sizes for the entrees were very small for what they charge; yes, very well done and delicious overall, but still high on the price scale. A big part of the cost was the drinks. Sparkling water was $7 for, I would guess, a bit more than a liter (I had two such bottles; what can I say, I'm a heavy drinker). This is twice the running market price for water on par with San Pellegrino and Perrier; with those prices, I really hope the water is drawn up by trained virgin monkeys or something. On the bright side, the water does come in a funny bottle.
The food is made of fresh ingredients, and the kitchen did its job expertly. Craigie ranks amongst the best food I've had in a restaurant, but definitely takes the cake in the list of most expensive restaurants I've ever eaten at. Will I come back? Yes, definitely. Just not within the next few months, or more if I decide to go for the 10-course tasting menu. If only they would cut their prices a bit, I could definitely become a regular; perhaps I'll test out their bar food in the near future.
At first glance, Savenor's is a small market tucked away in Cambridge. From the outside, it looks like the average local grocer, a mom-and-pop version of Whole Foods. But (call the cliche police) it's much more than that.
I only wandered in on rumors from a friend that there was alligator (yes, alligator) meat for sale there, along with a number of other exotic things. The first time I went, I was not disappointed--I saw duck (something that is conspicuously absent from a lot of western supermarkets I visit, for no reason), venison, some good cuts of beef, and... Wait for it... A lion steak. Unfortunately, it was $42 for the size of an average New York sirloin, so I could not afford it at the time. And to be perfectly frank, I spent 10 seconds wondering whether hunting selling lion meat is legal, and what the packing/storage/etc standards were for it, before telling myself to stop being such a wuss. As it turned out, I didn't have the cash, and so had to pass on lion steak with mashed potatoes for dinner. I did return recently to Savenor's; unfortunately, the lion steak was not there this time, but there were a variety of exotic meats I did not catch before, including patties made from yak and elk, and the usual suspects of duck, beef, deer, etc.
Of course, the novelty of the items there is not the only attraction of the store. They have a pretty good (from what I've seen) produce section, with the usual western vegetables and herbs: bell peppers, basil, thyme, celery, potatoes, onions, etc etc. They also had a more interesting selection of mushrooms than you would find at other markets, including (and I walked home with a bag of these on my last trip) morels. Somehow, I've only managed to find morels in Whole Foods just once, years ago; I've never seen anything more interesting than old chanterelles since, but that's a story for another time. Savenor's also has foie gras, and a variety of pates and pastes. I particularly like the mousse imperiale (duck) and mousse truffee (chicken liver and truffle); hell, I like them enough to make a special trip to Savenor's just to get some, as I've failed to find anything equivalent at any other market I've been to. I've tried the duck bacon and maple-smoked bacon that they carry as well but, call me pedestrian, I wasn't really a fan.
Of course, the downside of all this (like with most small markets combined with exotic, hard-to-find products), is the price. This place will eat your wallet alive if you attempt to extract a week's worth of groceries from it. As mentioned above, the lion steak was $40 for a portion big enough for an average person. The foie gras (right) is $37; though in all fairness, it is large enough to feed several. But the bottom line is, if you're not watching carefully it's extremely easy to blow a fortune here. For example, my most recent trip ended with a payload of 2 portions of pate, 1 portion of salmon paste, 1 small bag of morels (enough for 1, maybe 1 1/2 meals), and a small block of goat cheese, and the total came to $40. Of course, I was targeting the stuff that was rare and could be found exclusively at Savenor; I have no idea what the prices on their vegetables and such are like, but since even the more common items are advertised as organic and sustainably farmed, I highly doubt you're going to get cheaper prices than the factory-farmed Perdue chicken and altered bell peppers you'll find at the local Stop and Shop. In short, definitely not the sort of place to shop if you're scraping by to feed a family of four. However, if you have an excess of cash coupled with a curious mind and a stomach for the strange, this is a market to add to the list.