One Good Meal

What is it about one good meal? Lately, everything I eat tastes tired. I am tired of my old standbys, tired of the places where I eat lunch. Sarah has been cooking some new dishes and they are good, but not exciting. I want to taste food that makes me want to cook it, makes me wonder how they got that flavor, and makes me admire the control the chef had over the ingredient. Sarah and I disagree on when something is done and I end up cooking to please her. I want something done the way I want it without a discussion or a compromise.

I had the swordfish over potato puree and Swiss chard with an orange au jus at Chez Albert tonight. Sitting at the bar, eating alone, tasting the food and identifying the ingredients. Cilantro over the swordfish? The saffron aioli was nowhere to be seen, perhaps melted over the swordfish, but no matter. The fish was done au point–perfectly. Cooked, juicy, even a little creamy, it was the swordfish you always think you’re ordering before the dry piece of meat is placed in front of you.. I tasted every bite, swirling it in a little orange au jus, chewing slowly.

I love to eat alone, especially at a good restaurant. I am alone with my words and the memories they evoke. Chez Albert brings out the Francophile so I thought about Jake’s dinner with a poule in Paris in the Sun Also Rises, and remember Laurie’s poet friend Doug, now dead, ordering a simple glass of pinot noir while we sat in a small restaurant in Paris waiting for Laurie and Greg so we could start dinner, I looked at the bottles behind the bar and thought that in Paris, there would be more Scotch, more Martinique Rhum. I sat, overhearing the various conversations, drinking in the friendships. acquaintanceships, strangers who are sitting beside me. Without conversation, I spend my time eating and tasting. You can tell an old married couple–they eat without talking–but Sarah and I do talk, about things great and small. But the simple pleasure of tasting food without a book, a companion, or any other distraction, is a rare and delicious thing.

I recommend it.

No Feast at the CIA

I’ve taken a number of classes at the Culinary Institute of America—a four day Italian Boot Camp that was incredible, and one-day Spanish Tapas and Butchering classes whose only disappointments were that they were only one day long. I could have spent a week in the meat cutting room, happily breaking down large cuts of beef, lamb, veal, and pork and getting my airplane cuts of chicken down pat. (Who needs spatchcocking—it’s just a word that sounds obscene which is why it is so much fun to say—when you can remove the backbone from a chicken and make any number of sautés and pollo al mattones?)

Last Saturday, I took the Feast of India class. It’s one I’ve been eyeing for a while. When I lived in Cambridge in the late Jurassic, my housemate, Riaz, a Pakistani doctoral student, taught me the basics of Indian spicing. When his mother came to live with us for a month, she showed me Riaz’ childhood favorites and how to cook spices in oil until they smelled the right way. Since then, I always go to Indian spices whenever food seems dull and unadventurous. But that was many years and a couple of lifetimes ago and I was thinking a CIA class would catch me up on making those wonderful smells and tastes. No one can approximate Riaz’ mother, but professional teaching chefs can take you a long way.

From the opening meeting, I began to have some doubts. Listening to the chef instructor, it was clear to me he was a seasoned (so to speak) cook and practiced instructor from the words he used—product, fabrication, etc.—and how he always spoke in the plural—”we want this to taste in a certain way.” He explained the differences between powdered gelatin and sheet gelatin as the difference between bakers (sheets) and cooks (powdered) in a way no one in the class is ever going to forget. Continue reading

Birthday, 2012

Family PicturesMy birthday was in February. It was a round number year so I thought about a party. But a party in February–we’d all be inside and at the mercy of the weather. A July BBQ was a much better idea. I started off thinking I’d invite about 75 close friends and family, but by the time May rolled around, we had carpenters and painters, Sarah in Paris for a week, and just too much work. So I uninvited the friends and turned it into a party for my family, some of whom had already made reservations or canceled other things for me.

Needless to say, it poured, forcing us all inside. Sarah decided on no plastic cups so we served the Prosecco and microbrew beer in our flutes and pilsners and the food on our collection of plates and bowls. I made a beef brisket, ribs, salmon, and some dishes my grandmother used to make: chopped eggplant (roast till soft, chop with some onions and mild oil) and onion and tomato salad (updated to include cucumbers–seeds scooped out a la Hannah and avocado chunks) dressed only in vinegar. My cousin said it was the first time he’d had chopped eggplant since our grandmother died. The brisket–done with the Texas Crutch–was closer to  Sunday brisket than Texas smoked, but soft as butter and killer tasty. My friend Paul volunteered (!) to be my sous and without him, we just couldn’t have pulled off the food. He made most of the dips as well, which everyone loved. The playlist ran from 60s singles to New Orleans, fados to guitar, Kronos Quartet to Taylor Swift. No one got to hear it–you can either hear the music or hear the partygoers, but I’ll put it on Dropbox for the family.

What made the party so good was that my two families had not really met each other over the years. My brother’s kids had never been to Massachusetts, my cousins had never met Sarah’s kids, let alone our grandkids. Our kids had only met my sister, who visits regularly and the bro who has been to several parties. It meant a great deal to me to take my niece to the top of Mt Sugarloaf (the one in Sunderland) to show off my neighborhood. It meant a lot to have my cousin Beth Ann meet my family since she is eager for pictures and news. My Mom shone, party animal that she is. As I said, it was nice to get everyone together for something besides a funeral.

It stopped raining long enough for some group pictures, a poem by my aunt and my speech. Hey, if you eat my food, you gotta listen to my words.

Running O-Gauge Trains

Last year, I set up my old Lionel train set on the dining room table. I had the locomotive cleaned and oiled and the transformer checked out. I ran a smaller version of the layout I used to set up in my bedroom in Queens. The kids liked it, Soren got really enthusiastic, and I fell in love again with the detail and modeling. So around my birthday in February, I bought a set of modern RailKing trains, O gauge like my Lionel, and started planning a better layout than the dining room. O-gauge means I can mix my old Lionel trains with the CSX diesel I bought last month.

Now that my trains are up and running, I’ve been thinking about the layout. I’ve got buildings for a town, a yard, and a farm from my old set. I’ve got some new buildings Soren and I bought. I’ve been reading some magazines and took Soren to the train show at the Big E to see what the hobbyists do. Their attention to detail is spectacular—fully realized towns, canyons, industrial sidings. Many of them construct stories for their layouts. Some pick a time and place. Others, freelancers, simply go for a look. To me, it’s like writing a novel, a chance to invent a familiar world.

I’m thinking you’ve got to have vignettes on a small layout like mine, shade one scene into another, even if the farm is 20 miles out of town. It’s like one of the Japanese paintings where the edges of one scene blur into white and blur back into another scene. I’m just starting out. I’m laying out the pieces, not gluing anything down or caring much about scale and verisimilitude until I work out what I want. Building scale mountains, with realistic stone outcroppings and meandering streams is somewhat in the future. For now, I’m using cardboard to lay out the streets and sidewalks of “town.”

The town is called Kimball. Kimball, North America, the kind of place you could ride through in a ’47 Hudson or stumble on in a late 60’s road trip or even on modern trip with your family. There’s a school, Valentin Hall, like P.S. 82 in Jamaica, and an apartment building. There’s going to be a diner behind the town, tying the railroad yard to the town. It’ll be a 24-hour diner, the kind of place where the railroad guys eat, where kids buy a bag of potato chips and a coke and eat their bag lunch at the counter, slipping half the chips into the moist tuna fish sandwich for crunch and gourmandaise, where couples go for dinner after work or a movie, and single guys go late at night for a cup of coffee to listen to conversations. I’d love to add a small industrial building, like the laboratory on 90th Avenue around the corner from my apartment building, a low two story brick building with black marble blocks and glass brick front windows, making something like dental molds, taking in and sending out work in small packages.

There’s a rail yard, with a switch tower I built 50 years ago and an overhead trestle from the same era. “We like to build yards,” Dennis, the owner of Hobby World, told me. I figure it’s because it’s interesting to switch cars, it’s a lot of train in a relatively small space, and it’s a place to show your collection. So I’ve got a small yard in the works. I’ve got the switch tower and the crosswalk and the new set comes with some shipping containers that will stack nicely off to one side.

And then there’s the country. The barn is from my old set, with the farm animals, a farm girl, a farm hand, and two tractors. Like Kimball, it could be anywhere—upstate New York, the mythic Midwest, the Berkshires. Ultimately, that’s where the tunnel or the plateau goes, but for now, I’m adding some graduated trestles that drop off coming into the yard.

The Rendezvous Revisited, Turners Falls

It’s been a while since I was last at the Voo. A couple of friends and I traveled there shortly after it had reopened under its present management. A former dive, they were upgrading the food and the atmosphere and turning The Rendezvous into a 21st century dive. I liked it, but it was clearly hadn’t gotten where it was headed yet. A Yelp review called it a “hipster kind of place” and while saying that makes me feel decidedly unhipsterish, it is an apt description.

My wife and I and some old friends had dinner there last week and the Voo has arrived. The menu was more interesting, there were a half dozen good brews on tap, and the place had a good feel. It’s the kind of place you want in your neighborhood so you can become a regular.

The menu is good: Standard and unusual appetizers (pretzel and two mustards, nachos, crostini, etc.), burgers and Panini on the lunch/quick end, some entrees for a real dinner and interesting sides like Asian Slaw and Curried Carrot Kickshaw (in Jamaican Aioli). We shared the crostini for an app and there were enough small squares to go around yet not so many to ruin an appetite. And good, too.

Sarah ordered the roasted half chicken, which turned out to be a boneless breast and a thigh/drumstick combo, smaller than the half a bird I’d envisioned, but good. (Of course the menu completely warned me it was boned, so the expectations were definitely my own.) For some reason, I wanted Mac n Cheese (perhaps the proximity to Holy Smokes BBQ and Deli, also in Turners and maker of incredible spicy mac n cheese had something to do with it), which was a large portion of good cheese and macaroni, not as soupy as I’ve come to like it, but neither dry nor overcooked. Sided with a nice mixed green salad, it made a fine course, especially when I traded some for some of Sarah’s chicken.

Our friends had a seared tuna steak and meatloaf. I didn’t get to taste Carl’s tuna, but it vanished in pretty short order. My friend Joan sent her meatloaf back for reheating. The flavor was good and the smashed potatoes under it were fine, but not the kind of hot both she and I like. We’re both hot food hot eaters—I want my pizza with the cheese melted and runny not merely warmed up—and I agreed that the meatloaf needed some more temp. Still, it was a good meal all around.

For dessert, most of the Rendezvous desserts involve chocolate. The ladies shared a flourless chocolate cake, which was deep and chocolately, but a little freezer burned. I got a slice of cherry cheesecake, with the cherries swirled into the cake rather than the usual florescent red goo atop of the cake. It was a good cheesecake, a touch creamier than a New York style, but it had heft and taste and the cherries were a good addition to the basic mix. In my opinion, when you fork off a piece of cheesecake, it should look like the side of a brick or a block of cut clay, which this one did.

They were setting up for bingo night as we left, and the place was filing up. On other nights, they have music or other entertainment. There’s a good feel to the place. Besides, the bathrooms are large and clean, which removes it from the category of dive bar, but I doubt anyone will be complaining. If you find yourself in Turners or you feel like getting out, it’s a good place to wind up.

Lumberyard Restaurant – Amherst Mass

In New England, no one gives directions to where something is, only to what used to be there. At the Lumber Yard Restaurant in Amherst, you don’t see Fenton’s, the sporting goods store that used to be there. Instead, you see a well-appointed and very calm restaurant that you’d never guess opened barely a month ago.

I’d read one review and heard some good things, but mostly people were asking each other if they’d eaten there. I did hear they had a good wine list, so while her husband and my wife were together at a UMass basketball game, I met my former business partner Kitty for dinner. Kitty appreciates wine and is one of the people most likely to understand the wine list.

Without reservations, we waited for a short 15 minutes on a comfortable couch beside the bar. The Lumberyard is not a college hangout; the couples and foursomes were generally older, with some experience, some money to spend, and nary a single baseball cap kept on inside the restaurant. I had a glass of Prosecco and Kitty had a glass of white, while we waited.

You can eat in one of two ways at the Lumber Yard, from the smaller bar menu with appetizers and smaller entrees or you can opt for the full dinner. The entrees are in the low $20s and wines by the glass are around $8, so if you go the entrée route, two things happen: you know you’re going to spend a little money and your expectations are raised. Kitty selected an Australian Shiraz and a California Rhone, both good choices.

The menu is on-line—entrees of salmon, lamb, a burger, a pan-roasted chicken breast, bolognaise sauce, and a pork chop. There was a New York Strip special, so we decided on the chicken breast and the steak, and ordered the steak “slightly past rare.” We split white bean crostini and some braised fennel as an appetizer. The white beans were smooth and creamy, but needed more seasoning, salt and definitely a little more garlic. They came with three rolled white anchovies which provided the salt, but we still wanted more garlic. A lemony salad—frisee I think—was a nice counterpoint. The fennel came topped with bread crumbs which added a nice texture to the fennel, which had a good licorice undertone.

The steak arrived on a bed of spinach, sided with some duck fat roasted fingerlings and topped with sautéed tomato chunks. A steakhouse on a plate. The steak was flavorful and cooked as ordered, and we both enjoyed it tremendously. I didn’t get much duck fat from the potatoes, but they were also well-cooked with a nice crust. The chicken was an airplane breast, the frenched first wing bone sticking straight up out of a salt-crusted and juicy breast. One continual battle between my wife and I is that my wife likes her chicken much more well cooked than I do. I don’t know what she would have thought of this one, but I thought it was juicy, flavorful, with not a touch of pink. Since I avoid chicken breasts like pork chops because they are both usually dry no matter how much brining they undergo, this was a surprise. The chicken came with feathery light gnocchi, which I am not sure were the right side, but were very well executed.

For dessert, I had a yoghurt panna cotta, topped with some pistachios and sided with some ripe berries and a really flavorful flowery honey. Someone in the kitchen really likes textures because each dish had a noticeable play of smooth and crisp.

I haven’t eaten at the new Chez Albert yet, but I’d say this is the best restaurant in Amherst. Make a reservation. Even in January.

383 Main Street | Amherst | (413) 253-4200. Open for dinner and closed on Mondays. Plenty of parking in the lot behind the restaurant.

Crab Cakes, Eggplant, and Unexpected Surprises

So what do you say when you don’t cook much anymore? When you find yourself falling back on the now tired recipes that you’ve lovingly developed over the years, that ones that reflect your style and how you want your food to taste, but that now seem as boring as the roads you’ve driven on for the last 30 years?

When cookbooks all seem like product and the magic of discovery in magazine recipes just looks like the business of content and successful pitches?

When all of the local restaurants serve standard variations on the same common ingredients and if you get a side of broccoli one more time, you’re going to scream? When the places you eat at out of town serve pale reflections of the latest trends?

When none of your ideas seem to generate much passion and your agent’s only comment is that she can’t sell 30,000 copies and try again?

When you are in love with words and the thought of not writing something of value is as unthinkable as is the thought of having no words to polish.

I suppose you write about what’s in front of you. The crab cakes you cooked the other night, using jumbo lump crabmeat and a recipe from the Annapolis Junior League, that came out crisp and filled with pieces of crab with no taste of breading, sided with a remoulade/cocktail sauce combination. They were the kind of crab cakes that you always want to get when the server tells you the kitchen makes the best crabcakes she’s ever had and you know that you know better, but hope springs eternal and no matter how filled with shreds of crab they are, they arrive tasting only of breading.

You think about the shrimp that you shallow poached in a thick soup of Old Bay and lemon juice, omitting the hot peppers in the faint hope that small children might be tempted to try them, that came out cooked a point and tasting equally strongly of Old Bay and shrimp. You slide by the less successful, the albodigas that had too much coriander for your taste and give another wry smile at the crudites you served with a roasted onion dip from Whole Foods that was an organic version of French Onion soup dip.

Or, you think about the scallop appetizer that you ate in at The Evening Star a couple of nights ago. One bite of the smooth, confident, gently-pickled eggplant that the scallop was sitting on and suddenly you were tasting shulutah again, the eggplant, carrot, celery, and garlic pickle that your Romanian grandmother simmered in half white vinegar and half water, keeping a quart mayonnaise jar in her refrigerator at all times. Talking with the service manager at the restaurant, she said the chef had based it on a version of chow chow that had originally come from France (chou chou?) and from Eastern Europe before that. It’s not that I have become someone who rails about the present and wants only what he used to have—it was just that it was so good, so familiar and so unexpected. And so tasty.