Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Forest Cafe - and online restaurant commentary

Last night, we had dinner at The Forest Cafe - a now venerable Cambridge institution. This place, for those who don't know it, is a neighborhood bar and Mexican restaurant. It's never been a fancy environment. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was for a long time an absolute dive. But that made it all the more interesting when Jim Fahey started cooking sophisticated Mexican there some twenty two years ago. In the interim, Fayhey left, and has since returned. The decor has been somewhat updated, and we've become stuck in Iraq. But that's another story.

Anyway, for the record, our dinner last evening was enjoyable. The thing I wanted to write about here is not our dinner, or even this restaurant per se - but the peculiar phenomena of the write-ups this place has garnered on the web. Before going over there last evening, I chanced to read through a bunch of diner-generated comments on Yelp . I was astonished at the number, variety, and vehemence of the comments about this place. I can't recall seeing another restaurant that's attracted such a varied lot of comments. I would love to hear from anybody who can help me understand how it is possible for people to be so broadly distributed and impassioned in their perspectives on an inexpensive neighborhood joint. Any insight would be most welcome. Thanks.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

To Roast a Chicken

A friend who had joined us for a roast chicken dinner here at Chez Noshstalgia recently asked me today to share the recipe. Truth be told, we don't to it the same every time, but there are certain basics and a couple of main variations that tend to hold true.

Basic principles:
1) Buy the best. Recently, we've been buying Eberly's Organic, Free Range Chickens and we've been very pleased.
2) Unpack, remove excess fat, wash, and dry the chicken well in advance of cooking it - at least a couple of hours, and up to 12 hours before cooking is even better.
3) Once washed and dried, season the bird - again, more time with seasoning in place is better. 2 hours is good, 12 is better. If you won't be cooking the bird within the next couple of hours, once seasoned wrap it loosely so it can breath and put it back in refrigeration.
4) When applying seasoning, apply it inside cavities, under skin directly on the breast, leg and thigh meat as best you can, and all over the outside skin. Try not to puncture or tear the skin in the process and by all means do not remove skin when cooking a whole bird.
5) Allow the bird to come up to room temp (or at least to come well up from refrigerator temp) before starting to cook it.
6) Most of the time you'll want to roast the bird on a rack, not directly on the bottom of the roasting pan. There are exceptions but they are just that.
7) Do not overcook the bird. If you have purchased a bird that provides one of those pop-up timers, you probably have the wrong bird, and you will certainly overcook it if you wait for the timer to pop. These devices are intended to prevent lawsuits relating to food poisoning, i.e. to be sure that every potential pathogen has been well and truly killed - They are not there to assure you of a delectable meal. So, how can you tell when it's done? People talk about the leg moving freely (hard to tell if bird is trussed as it should be). People talk about the juices running clear and this is a good indication if you understand what they're telling you to look for. If I can't tell any other way, I resort to an instant read thermometer in the inside of the thick part of the the thigh. But whatever you do, don't dry it out.

From here on out, we branch to various modes of (oven) roasting:
A) Very high heat, short duration. (500 or even 550)
B) Start high, then settle to moderate oven. (450 for ten minutes then down to 350)
C) Continuous moderate oven. (350)
Certainly there are other approaches in the oven, but they tend to other than "roasted" treatments and so are beyond the scope of this posting.

Our oven is a commercial convection oven and so is very fast in general. Accordingly, I will not post our times as you're not likely to see similar performance in any residential oven. That said, if you go for the high heat option you will be amazed at how quickly you can roast a chicken - and at how succulent a quick-roasted bird can be. I recommend people take a look at Barbara Kafka's excellent book "Roasting, A Simple Art" which presents a number of variations on the quick roasted chicken theme (and many other fine recipes as well). I favor the high-heat method myself, but there are three important caveats -
1) Do not attempt this if you don't have very good ventilation. It will produce smoke and may result in your fire alarms going off if you're not exceptionally well ventilated at the oven location.
2) Do not attempt this if you have not allowed the bird to come up to (approximately) room temperature before putting it into the oven. A really cold bird won't get properly done inside before the outside burns if your oven is up that high.
3) Not recommended if you've got fresh garlic on the outside of the skin as it may burn and produce off flavors at these temps.

OK - I guess now we can get on the recipe I was asked for originally.
Prepare the bird as described above with a rub of kosher salt, freshly ground pepper (or better - a pepper melange*), fresh garlic, sweet paprika, thyme**, good Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and either freshly grated lemon zest or a drop (absolutely not more) of pure lemon oil. Truss the bird. Quick roast at high heat (make sure fan is running)

*(Pepper melange - an example: In a spice- (or coffee-) grinder, process 4 parts whole black peppercorns, 1 part white peppercorns, 1 part allspice, a little fresh nutmeg (I cut a 1/4" slice off a nutmeg and use about 1/2 of that slice), a couple of cloves (if they're fresh - more if older))

**If memory serves, on the occasion of my friend's visit, we might have had some fresh thyme on hand and so would have inserted a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme under the skin of the bird so it was in direct contact with the breast meat.

Serve with a nice salad and some crispy roast potato wedges - rubbed with the same rub, cooked in the same oven but under foil for about half the time so they don't burn. You want the high heat to crisp them at the end, but not burn them before they have a chance to cook through.

An earthy Pinot Noir would be ideal with this.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Malts, Frappes, Shakes - and now a scary one

We've been making a lot of malted shakes around here lately. Secondo - approaching 7 requests them after dinner most nights. And why not - they're so good. I remember malts from my childhood and - as Noshstalgia demands - we've been working to recapture the magic here. Secondo has, perhaps, appreciated this particular aspect of our culinary archeology more than some others. Forays into pickling tongues, for example don't so immediately elicit such enthusiasm as our walk down malt-shop lane.

So much for the preliminaries - If you're going to make a malted, you've got to have malt. Many people use the supermarket distributed malted milk products out there such as those from Carnation, but we begin with a visit to the brewing supply store. There you can find actual malted barley, concentrated malt syrup or powdered dry malt extract - all in various shades of toast. Some sources I've seen on-line suggest that only the lightest of malts are appropriate to use in shakes - but we've tried various types with fine results.

Tonight, Secondo requested that we create a shake that "tastes scary" - when you're 6, almost 7, scary is cool. But how to make a scary shake - and one that actually ends up being enjoyed rather than thrown away? Working with available ingredients, here's where we ended up:

3 parts vanilla ice-cream
3 parts whole milk
1 part espresso ice-cream (Double Rainbow Coffee Blast)
2 tablespoons Munton's Extra-Light Dried Malt Extract
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Be patient with the blender - Blend to thick-smooth consistency

So, was it scary? Did anyone drink it?
It was, slightly. And absolutely - It was delicious.

The white pepper contributes a slightly dank and mysterious note in addition to the obvious slightly winy heat. The espresso (in low proportion as used here) created a sort of edge and shadow. The malt a viscosity, depth and dwell. All together a slightly creepy complexity and intrigue.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Super Bowl Disappointment - but not all is lost

As some of my readers may know, I'm a transplanted New Yorker - but after 25 years in Boston my allegiance (at least where sports teams are concerned) is clear. And like everyone else in New England I was very disappointed with that game. But for those of you who made it to John Dewar's, Newton on Saturday to try (and as so many did - buy) our pastrami - and especially for all those who served it during the game, not all was lost.

Those of our customers senior enough to know said they hadn't tasted anything like our stuff in 50 years. And that's a lot longer than we've had to wait between shots at a Super Bowl Championship so...

At Chez Noshstalgia we enjoyed our Super Bowl pastrami (even if not the game) as one of four smoked meats in a multi-meat jambalaya extravaganza. Smokehouse of Boston provided their excellent barbecued ribs, smoked wieners and smoked duck sausages. The pastrami was julienned and incorporated into the rice, bean, onion and pepper base. The peppers included colorful sweet peppers as well as fire-roasted and skinned poblanos. Please pass the hot sauce!

Warms (or is that burns) the heart just thinking about it.

Please stop by our next Deli Arts(TM) pastrami tasting at Savenor's, Charles Street, Boston on Saturday, February 16 from 2 to 5PM. See you there.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

NOSH-IN Alert...Pastrami Tasting This Saturday

Hello Deli Lovers and fellow Noshstalgics. Shameless commercial plug time:

I'm pleased to announce that we'll be providing free samples of our Deli ArtsTM Hot Pastrami at John Dewar's, Beacon Street Newton location this Saturday from Noon to 3 PM.

It's well known, there's no place better in Metrowest Boston to provision your weekend - and especially your Superbowl Sunday than John Dewar's.

Less well known - but equally true - our artisan Pastrami, fresh out of the steamer - not chicken wings - is actually the ideal football food. Nothing else so distills the essentials of football sustenance - Beef, Spice, Warmth, Smoke, and Beer Affinity.

Please come by and try a taste and invite your foodie friends - especially those who are serious about their deli.

If you're in the Cambridge area, and just want to stock up, our pastrami is available right there at world-famous Savenor's on Kirkland Street. And for those in the Back Bay or Beacon Hill, look for us on Saturday, February 16th at Savenor's Charles Street location from 2 to 5PM.

Well that's the end of the commercial plug.

And now on a personal note - I really love feeding people. It makes me feel good. These events are great fun for me. So thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Feedback on pastrami day at Savenor's and a lovely dinner out

Yesterday's pastrami tasting at Savenor's was fun for me.  It's very gratifying when people enjoy what you've created.  Even more so if they buy some - and quite a few did just that.  I look forward to subsequent events like this at a number of venues around town.  And next time, I'll try and post notice in advance.
Now as to dinner - after feeding people all day, I wanted to be served last night and we found our way to Nancy's Airfield Cafe in Stow, MA.  What a delight to find such warmth, hospitality and good food in such an out of the way and unique setting.  Our hosts, Don and Nancy, and our server Sharon could not have been nicer and the meal was very good.  
They were doing a South American themed series of specials this weekend in addition to their regular menu.  We started with a sampler of two empanadas - one meat, one cheese.  I confess, I never did get to try the cheese - so it must have been good.  Certainly the meat item was enjoyed - a savory filling of beef and pork.  I moved on to their muqueca - a Brazilian fish stew.   White-fleshed fish (barramundi?) and shrimp in a tomato based broth with a bit of coconut milk and palm oil.  My wife had the orange-ginger salmon (a regular menu offering).  We finished up with a shared chocolate bread pudding and espresso.  A thoroughly enjoyable visit. Nice people and good food.  And for those that are still paying attention the prices were very reasonable.  I can't recall having felt better served or having been provided with value as good out in this area.
If you're in the neighborhood, I recommend you try it.  Dinner is served only on Friday and Saturday nights.  Otherwise it's breakfast and lunch at Nancy's - which I'm sure would be terrific, plus you'd get to see the planes coming and going at the airfield right out the picture windows from the dining area.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Debut Performance - Pastrami Tasting in Cambridge Today

Well, after way too long I have some news to report.  Our obsession with pastrami has turned into a product.   

We're conducting a pastrami tasting - free to the public -  today (1/19) at Savenor's Market, Cambridge, MA.   Savenor's is a famous place - long recognized for their supreme quality and full-service meat department, and their specialty foods leadership.  Some readers may remember the name from many years ago when Jack Savenor was famously Julia Child's butcher - and sometimes appeared on Julia's show.  Jack's son, Ron has carried on the family tradition and expanded the business.  Today, Savenor's have locations in Boston as well as Cambridge and they also supply many fine restaurants with the very best meats.  I am very proud that Savenor's has chosen to carry and showcase our product. 

We have also picked up some additional foodservice and retail accounts and will announce subsequent tastings or other events as they are scheduled.