More Camberville Foodie Adventures

Couple three things to mention.

We were in Davis Square in Somerville last Wednesday evening to see Michael Nesmith (of The Monkees) perform.  He recently had heart surgery and seemed a little worse for the wear, but nevertheless stood on stage for the entire duration of the show.  I only know a little of Nesmith’s solo career, and he only played one Monkees tune, so most of it was new to me.

We had plenty of time before the show to wander around Davis Square and get some dinner.  The restaurant scene in Davis Square has warmed up in the last couple of years, though it’s still not as high-end as Cambridge.  The place we chose, though, is not particularly new to the neighborhood. Martsa on Elm is a Tibetan restaurant that has been open for several years and has a low profile compared to some of the newer competition along the same street.  Somehow over the years, we’ve never been to a Tibetan restaurant.  There have been several around the Boston area, we’ve just never gotten to them. So, rather than check out yet-another-ramen place, we agreed to give this one a shot.

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The decor was elegant and understated, if a little dark.  The menu is clearly strongly influenced by Indian cuisine with curry dishes, vegetarian dishes, and breads, but also touches of Chinese.  We ordered some vegetarian momo (Chinese-style dumplings) that were served with a fiery pepper sauce and an onion chutney.  Bridget went for a more Indian style dish of vegetable and rice balls in a savory sauce as her entree, while I had Gyothuk Chocho — stir-fried vegetables with pork served over pan-friend noodles.  In the end, I think I liked it better than she did, but we agreed it would be worth going back and trying more menu items.

Only a door or two down from Martsa on Elm is a French patisserie called Caramel (which also has a location in Salem, MA).  Because it was late in the day when we popped in, there wasn’t much left in the display case, but what we did see was utterly gorgeous.  What they did have was a slew of macarons in many assorted flavors.  We each got a chocolate one, then Bridget also got coconut and lemon, and I got cherry and raspberry.  Sorry, I am letting you down with no photographs, but they were to die for.  It’s easy to make a mediocre macaron — flavorless, maybe the meringue is a little chewy — but these were crisp as could be and the flavorings were full and delicious, especially the chocolate ones.  I swear next time I will remember to take pictures for you, because there WILL be a next time.

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Saturday morning, we were in Cambridge early enough to have breakfast.  Harvard’s Smith Center has recently completed renovations and one of their new tenants is Blackbird Doughnuts. Given that there is a Dunkin Donuts every fifteen feet everywhere you go in Boston, there haven’t been too many high-end donut places take hold, but this is Blackbird’s third location.  The space is gorgeous, with a dining area that has a soaring ceiling and plate glass windows (which, sadly, look out on a side street filled with construction vehicles, but let in a lot of light). There were probably a dozen varieties to choose from in the case, which seems great but pales in comparison to the donut place we visited in Dublin a couple of months ago, which must have had twice as many flavors to choose from.

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(What you can’t see in that picture is that the display case continues to the right AND goes around the corner to the left.)

Not to quibble about it, though. We each chose a salted toffee donut, and Bridget had a blackberry-currant one while I chose a mocha chip as my second.  The salted caramel donuts were just perfect.  The raised yeast dough has a good amount of body, but is not chewy nor is is nothing-but-air like a lot of yeast donuts.  The caramel topping had just the right amount of flake salt and was not too sweet.  The blackberry-currant donut was the same raised yeasty donut with a fruity glaze.  Sadly, the mocha chip donut, which was a cake donut, was neither chocolatey enough nor the glaze coffee-flavored enough. Bridget pronounced Blackbird superior to the other well-known fancy donut shop in the area, Union Square Donuts.

Sunday afternoon saw us back in Cambridge for the Dumpling Festival, held in conjunction with the Central Flea, a weekly flea market near Central Square that runs every Sunday from May through October. The Dumpling Festival is ostensibly in honor of restaurateur and 1970s TV chef Joyce Chen, who popularized Chinese dumplings at her Cambridge restaurant. There were maybe 10 different tents from restaurants and a few food trucks serving various kinds of dumplings.  Unfortunately, it did not seem especially well-organized.  Lines for each vendor were huge, and the vendors were clearly unprepared for such a big crowd.  They ran out of food, plates, dipping sauces, you name it early in the afternoon, and if you did wait it out in line for the better part of an hour, the dumplings were all stone cold, as no one had any way to keep their dumplings warm.  The prices were very cheap, and there were some good things here and there (we enjoyed some samosas and pakoras from a place rather incongruously called “Bao Nation”), but there’s a lot of grousing on their Facebook page today from unhappy attendees.  Food fests are often underwhelming, so my expectations weren’t too high going in, so I wasn’t super disappointed, but yeah…better luck next year.

Enter And Sign In Please!

I’m sure you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole on YouTube at least once.  You watch a video and then the algorithm “helpfully” suggests every other video just like it that the site has, so you just keep watching.  It’s a little different than “binge-watching” on Netflix, but only slightly.  And even if you don’t watch all of them in one session, it will continue to suggest them to you until you watch something different, and so on ad nauseam.

A few nights ago, I went looking for something to watch, and one of the suggestions was an episode of “What’s My Line” from 1953 featuring Eleanor Roosevelt as the mystery guest.  Well, in one of my previous incarnations, I used to be a serious scholar of broadcasting history, and I love to watch old kinescopes and videotapes of early live era television shows, but YouTube didn’t know that, it just knew that I had recently watched a compilation video of old commercials.  Nevertheless, it was right in my wheelhouse, so, of course, I watched it.

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If you are under the age of fifty, you probably have no idea about “What’s My Line”.  It started in the very dawn of the television age, February 1950, and ran as a weekly show on CBS until 1967, whereupon it went into syndication and continued to run with new episodes until 1975.  Once in a while the Game Show Network on cable even runs the original shows in the middle of the night. I am not old enough to remember the original series, but I did watch the syndicated version as a kid.  The idea of the show is that a panel of celebrities try to guess the occupation of the contestants through yes-or-no questions. Every episode also featured a mystery guest who was usually a celebrity; the panelists would don masks for the guest, who would have been recognizable on sight.  If the panel could not guess the occupation after ten “No” answers, the contestant won a very modest cash prize.

Though there would be hundreds of game shows on television, “What’s My Line” was pretty much the first and created a style for many of them with a panel of celebrities being witty and charming and glamorous in the fashion of the 1950s (evening gowns for the female panelists, dinner jackets and bowties for the men).  After the first year of the show, it settled into three regular panelists: journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress Arlene Francis, and publisher Bennett Cerf, plus a rotating collection of other celebrities in the fourth slot.  The editor-in-chief of ABC News, John Charles Daly, hosted the show for its entire network run.

It wasn’t the first time I had watched an episode of WML on YouTube, I had just never really gotten into it, but something clicked with me and I watched two or three more that evening, and then a few more a couple of nights later, and one or two more the next night, and now I am hooked.  And I am unlikely to run out of episodes anytime soon.  There are literally HUNDREDS of episodes on You Tube. I will probably get bored of the whole thing long before I run out of episodes to watch.

Yesterday, while I was roasting tomatoes to make tomato sauce, I went all the way back to the very beginning and watched the first two episodes of the show. These shows are nearly 70 years old now, and it’s like watching history.  You can see that they barely knew what they were doing in these first couple of episodes both from the standpoint of the game and from the aspect of producing a live television show.  The panel was also considerably different in the beginning.  Dorothy Kilgallen appears in the first program and Arlene Francis in the second, but the other three panelists are somewhat odd ducks: former New Jersey governor Harold Hoffman, writer Louis Untermeyer, and psychiatrist Richard Hoffmann.  They are stodgy and stiff and totally unlike the charming and graceful celebrities that would come to dominate the genre.  Also, unusually, John Daly and Arlene Francis can both be seen smoking on-camera during the show.

I may write more about this as I plunge headlong into the episodes.  There was scarcely a popular figure from the 1950s and 60s who didn’t turn up on WML at some point.  Plus there’s the mystery surrounding the sudden death of Dorothy Kilgallen in 1965 to talk about.  Don’t touch that dial!

Under Pressure

I know I said I don’t really use cookbooks, but that doesn’t stop me from buying more.  I just bought this sous vide cookbook from the America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Illustrated juggernaut, thanks to a suggestion from my friend Karan.

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Back at the beginning of 2018 I bought an Anova sous vide cooker. I’d been toying with the idea for a while, and finally bit the bullet when it was on sale on Amazon AND I had a gift card from my boss. It’s definitely a cooking toy worth having if you’re into experimenting with cooking methods.  I don’t know that it’s as everyday-useful as, say, the Instant Pot (which is the other cooking toy I’ve bought in the last year), but it definitely has some practical uses.

After cooking the obligatory Perfect Steak with my cooker, the next project was cooking short ribs for a dinner party of ten people.  And here’s where the sous vide cooker really was worth the investment.  I cooked the short ribs for 36 hours at a very low temperature (144 degrees Fahrenheit, if I recall correctly). The cooker kept them at the exact temperature, and by the time they were finished, they were melt-in-your-mouth tender. Plus, leaving them to cook in the water bath unattended gave me the time I needed to prepare the other dishes being served without having to fuss over the meat.  It’s obvious why restaurants love sous vide cooking.

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I’ve used it a few more times since, but I felt like I wanted a good guide to the basics of using the cooker, and the one thing you can say about ATK is that they are methodical and thorough.  I glanced through the cookbook last night and am already looking forward to trying several recipes, notably the porcetta.  Of course, I need some people to cook for, as is always the case.

Check In

Putting my money where my mouth is:

So far the $5 fountain pen I bought has been fun to use, along with the notebook I bought with it.  I’ve been trying to get back into the habit of doing the ten-minute free-writing exercises that are the core of the “Writing Down The Bones” writing practice.  I haven’t done it every day, but I have been doing it at least a couple of times a week, usually in the late afternoon.  I think I might be better off trying to do them first thing in the morning, so we’ll see how that goes.  But, all in all, I am pretty pleased that I nailed three of the things I posted about here simply because posting about them got me interested again.

Studying Latin again, on the other hand, hasn’t gone very far.  Mea culpa.

After I discovered a reliable source for the Irish whiskey I was looking for, Facebook started throwing me adverts for some special whiskey glasses from a company called Norlan.  I generally pride myself on never clicking on ads anywhere on the Internet, but I succumbed to this and bought a pair of them as a birthday present for myself.  They’re pretty nice, to be honest.

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I don’t know if it makes the whiskey taste any better or not, but they look nice and it was my birthday, after all. I also bought various Riedel wine glasses years ago, so I guess I am a sucker for these things.

I’ll check in on all of these again in a few weeks.  Maybe by then I’ll have made some progress with Wheelock’s Latin.

Beer Here

Reminding myself that there are a couple of beer events in my neck of the woods here in Massachusetts in September. Mmm…beer.

Notch Brewing has a Traveling Biergarten that will be in North Andover the weekend of September 15-16. They are based in Salem and they mainly brew German and Czech beers like lagers and pilsners. Appropriate for an Oktoberfest event, to be sure, though not my favorite styles.  Weather depending, I think this would be a fun thing.

The local Shriners temple is holding a beer fest at the Aleppo Shriner’s Auditorium in our town on September 29.  This one will have 100 local craft brews.  It’s a $50 ticket, but the money goes to the various charitable efforts of the local Shriners. They can’t all be IPAs, can they?

I also came across this map of Massachusetts breweries the other day. If you visit all the breweries in one of the five regions of the map and have them stamp your “passport” (a printed copy of the map), you can mail it in and get a t-shirt.  If you’re really ambitious and visit them all, you can win a commemorative glass. According to the map there are only seven breweries north of Boston.  That’s doable.

Cooked

I had an idea to make a series of posts about all the cookbooks I own, but as I started thinking and writing, I realized that I don’t use my cookbooks very much.  Which is not to say that I don’t use recipes or don’t use recipes I have found in cookbooks, I just refer to them very infrequently.

One of the reasons for this is that I do very little serious cooking any more.  I live with two fussy eaters and am always trying to juggle their confoundingly different food preferences, so my daily cooking has settled into a predictable repertoire of “Things We All Like” with the odd foray into something one or the other will not eat.  Thus is the way of most home cooks, I imagine.  In my very rich fantasy life, I cook lavish dinners for my dear and wonderful friends, but I don’t really have any dear and wonderful friends nearby to cook for, since they all live on the Internet now.  So I remain a somewhat frustrated chef.

Nevertheless, I would argue that I do have a pretty broad repertoire and can cook without the safety net of a recipe most of the time.  Training and experience really do make a difference.  I think of recipes more as inspirations than “how-to” instructions.  They suggest combinations or preparations that offer some novel twist, but sauteeing is sauteeing and chopping is chopping and so on. The only real exception is in baking, where the techniques and procedures are sometimes very particular and always less familiar to me.

So my collection of cookbooks is decidedly more inspirational than practical.  If I were totally honest about it, I would have to say that I have never made a single recipe from most of the cookbooks I own.  Some of them were at one time very useful, but if they were at one point, I have by now memorized the recipes I gleaned from them and do not need the books to make this dish or that.  Others are merely part of that fantasy world of dinner parties and lots of people gathered around a table that only exists in my imagination. Yet I still have an entire bookcase given over to nothing but cookbooks, and that’s after having given away a bunch of them the last time we moved. And tonight it’s macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Stayin’ Alive

I am fifty-five years old today.  Getting older requires so little of a person, but exacts its toll in small ways, until you look at yourself one day and realize that you are a completely different being.   Greater and lesser at the same time.  I don’t hold much in the idea that age brings wisdom, because I still make the same stupid mistakes over and over again, but I do think that age removes you bit by bit from the trivialities of the world and forces you to see fewer details and more patterns.  Nothing is new except the thin surface of life, but as you lift above it, your grasp becomes more and more tenuous.

When I first started to realize that I had crossed the event threshold of irrelevance, I struggled mightily to stay.  I still don’t think I have reached the point of acceptance. At best, I’d say, it’s a recognition of the inevitability of the advance.  Now and again I am still pulled up short with surprise when I am confronted by some evidence of my changed status, but there’s less resistance on my part.  Now, there is more apprehension and fear of what is to come than there is trying to hold on to what has past.