Thursday, August 14, 2014

Over the Moon...

With both kids away for the summer, Mrs. Palate often take the opportunity to eat at places that we wouldn’t otherwise, if we had the kids in tow.  To that end, I was excited to have the opportunity to try Moonstones in Chelmsford, MA. 

With apologies to my good friends and fraternity brothers from Chelmsford, there is nothing in Chelmsford, except…well, nothing.  Having driven through there a few times, it is probably a great place to raise a family…a relatively quiet commuter community, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.  Happily, Chelmsford can add “gourmet destination” to its community resume.

Moonstones was a strong recommendation from charter subscriber David, who had eaten there a few times for work.  I had heard about it myself through some avenue, and was excited when we had a warm, breezy Saturday night to try it; it would not disappoint.

The building housing Moonstones gives off a slight hint of a former Howard Johnsons…not sure if it was a HoJos, but it does sit in the front parking lot of a hotel…just sayin’.  While it might hint HoJos, it screams sophisticated cuisine.  Walking past an outdoor seating area (beautiful couches with a gas fireplace), we were greeted by a cheerful hostess warmly welcoming us. We were led past an open raw bar, past large dining room and a bar area, and seated in a more intimate, smaller dining room.  While we had an early reservation, the place filled up quickly.  Apparently, Chelmsfordians like this place…a lot.

Moonstones has an eclectic menu with appetizers, global tapas (small plates) and regular, full sized entrees.  At our table, we tried a number of things and we started with a few small plate appetizers.  We asked our knowledgeable waiter for some recommendations…how about froze grapes with candied pecans and feta cheese?  Can you say “unusually awesome!”? 
Frozen grapes with feta!
How about tuna tataki, served with 3 different sauces on a Himalayan salt plate?  Even for me, one who won’t eat cooked fish, let alone raw, I say “bring it on”.  The waiter bragged about the tataki being an award-winning appetizer, and he was not lying.  My mouth gives it an award for convincing me that raw fish can be delish!

Korean wings and braised Short Rib
We rounded out our meal with a variety of other selections.  I had “Fiery Sweet Korean Wings” and a “Asian BBQ Short Rib” braised with a five-spice rub. 
Tofu and bok choy

Mrs. Palate had a tofu dish over bok choy, and another of our dining companions, Critical Lynn, had salmon and Critical David had Thai noodles.  Despite our general emphasis on Asian flavors, the menu is broad and varied.  All of us were impressed greatly, and satiated.  By the time we were done, we were already talking about our next time.  Certainly a success, especially in my eyes, where people don’t call me “critical” for nothing.

While I didn’t have dessert at Moonstones, the added benefit of being in Chelmsford is being next door to Westford, home of Kimball Farms ice cream, THE favored ice cream of the Critical Palate, and apparently everyone else on the Route 495 belt, considering the lines at 9:15pm at night.  For your gastronomic pleasure, I post this picture of a small cup of Peanut Butter Cup…literally, the smallest size they have!  
Chocolate Peanut Butter and Mocha Chip!

A fine meal followed up with fine ice cream…a veritable party in your mouth!

Go to Chelmsford, for what else, I don’t know, but make a reservation and have a great meal at Moonstones.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Connoisseur’s Corner Spots, July 2014

Recently, I recorded more Connoisseur’s Corner spots with Jordan Rich, and for those that don’t catch it on WBZ, here are a few highlights…

Choosing a grill or smoker

With the proliferation of BBQ shows on TV, and with many of you knowing that my patio is covered with four different barbecuing devices, I have frequently been asked “smoker v. grill?”   The answer…“depends”.  Depends on whether you have time, or you want to cook fast…. obviously. 

In the smoker realm, you need to have time.  With time being such a precious commodity, most people don’t embrace the idea of a smoker because the culture of smoking meat is based on the concept of “low and slow”.  Low temperatures take a looooooooong time to cook food; but that’s how the magic happens.  Low temps over long periods of time renders fat and breaks down the collagen in meat, making the toughest cuts of beef tender and melt in your mouth.

I enjoy smoking foods.  I have a Primo Oval XL and a Weber Smokey Mountain 22.5.  I would really like a “Stumps” (“Stump don’t build no junk”), but college tuition takes precedent for now.
The Great Primo Oval XL with a BBQ Guru Controller

On the grilling side, it speaks for itself, if you want to cook a thinner cut or meat or vegetables quickly.  I have a gas grill (Weber), but I also have a Weber Performer charcoal grill.  I hear people complain all the time that it takes too long for charcoal to heat up, but that just isn’t true, especially if you’re letting the gas grill heat up; letting a gas grill heat up for ten minutes is about the same time it takes to heat up a full chimney of charcoal. 

For those that don’t understand the concept of a chimney starter, I have covered this in earlier postings, but imagine a large coffee can filled with charcoal.  Light some newspaper in the bottom, and let the fire build from the bottom.  In ten minutes, those coals will be ready to go; just dump into the grill and get cooking.

In any event, and regardless of the cooking vessel used, grilling or smoking allows you to enjoy the primal experience of cooking meat over fire.  In my world, there’s almost nothing better.

Grilling fruit

Grilling isn’t just for meat and some vegetables; how about fruit?

My daughter really enjoys certain grilled fruit.  There’s something unusual but delectable in the combination of a little char and the sweetness of certain fruits.  My daughter likes slices of banana on the grill…a little char on the outside, but soft and warm beneath the surface.  Drop that on a dish of vanilla ice cream, and that’s a tasty summer dessert.

But how about trying a grilled pineapple?  Take slices or wedges of pineapple, sprinkle a little brown sugar on them, and lay over the grill for a few minutes, turning frequently.  Do the same for apples.  The brown sugar will caramelize and give a sweet richness to the fruit, while you’ll get some grill marks that will add a savory char.  Sweet and savory…an umami party in your mouth.

Smoking cabbage

Cabbage is the brisket of the vegetable world-a tough cut that requires a lot of work to break down.  If you’re into smoking, you can treat a cabbage the same way you treat a brisket-smoke for a long time, at a low temp, and you’ll be amazed at what happens.



I turn a cabbage so the core is facing up.  I cut the core out, leaving a well in the top of the cabbage.  In that well, I place chunks of margarine, garlic, salt and pepper, and I coat the rest of the cabbage in olive oil.  I make a ring of foil to place the cabbage on, and it keeps the cabbage upright during cooking.  I cook the cabbage for at least 4 hours in the smoker, while the other food is cooking.  The result is tender, smokey, buttery cabbage leaves that could be a featured side in upscale restaurants.

More short spots coming...stay tuned...

Monday, May 5, 2014

Connoisseur's Corner

Thanks to Jordan Rich for having me in studio today to record another 12 classic episodes for "Connoisseur's Corner".  We'll be rolling these out on Thursday, May 8, 2014 on WBZ 1030am on your radio dial.  11:58am and throughout the weekend, please tune in and hear about some new discoveries, old favorites and great grilling tips.  Here's a taste:

1.  Evan’s NY style deli, Smith Street in Marblehead

A counter service deli with several booths and tables, a real surprise.  NY delis have the reputation of making huge sandwiches, and Evan’s tries to replicate the experience, within reason. 

The corned beef and pastrami are served warm, and are exactly what you hope such sandwiches would be.  Served with a pickle from Guss’ Pickles in NY, and you can’t get much better than that.  They also have two kinds of potato salad, coleslaw and a variety of meats and salads.

Corned Beef on Dark Rye at Evan's!
Pastrami knish...heaven on a plate!
Probably hell on your arteries!
The real treat and star of the show is the knish.  Several different kinds of fillings wrapped in puff pastry, but the best, IMHO, was the pastrami-stuffed knish.  I must have said “wow” three times after my first bite.  That feeling did not subside even after I ate it.  It was decadently delicious.

This place hits all the high notes.

15 Smith Street, Marblehead and a food truck throughout the city.

I love little gourmet markets that sell kitchen gadgets, serving pieces, pots, pans and knives.  Add in samples of all sorts of foods and cheeses, mix in a liquor and wine shop, throw in a gourmet food bar and bakery, around 10,000 square feet, and it’s a huge hit, in my opinion.  That sums up Shubie’s Marketplace on the North Shore in Marblehead.

In business for 65 years, according to their website, and at the current location for the past nine years, if you have a cocktail party or dinner to cater, want some unusual but delicious snacks to serve, and great liquor and wine, it’s the place to go if you’re in that area. 

At you can find their menus, a description of the items they sell, and if you live or work in Swampscott, Marblehead or Salem, they will deliver you lunch for free.  Check them out at 15 Atlantic Ave., Marblehead or on the web!

3.  Ice Cream

With summer upon us, what do New Englanders think about…lobster rolls, clams, and ice cream.  Revisiting my my ice cream tour, here is a selection of some of the best, after I sampled over twenty places recently, and pushed myself in to lactose intolerance!

Leavitt’s (Atkinson NH)-This is a tiny little shop in he middle of nowhere in Atkinson, NH.  We discovered it years ago at camp visiting day.  Other friends really enjoy it as well.  They serve Richardson’s ice cream, and have premium soft-serve.

Honey Pot Hill (Stow, MA)-nothing says fall in New England than the premier apple orchard selling vanilla soft-serve.  A surprise, for sure.  I said to Mrs. Palate that “this is what Vanilla soft-serve should taste like.”  The taste was great, but it had a grainy texture, and it was a poorly formed cone.  Otherwise, great.  I suspect they’ll work out the kinks, and soon enough, it’ll be a nice addition to cider donuts and especially their apple pie.

Rockin’ Cupcakes (Rockport, MA)-ice cream is hidden in this cupcake bakery, and there are a bunch of places to choose from along Bearskin Neck, but I like this one and they sell Richie’s Slushes in a variety of sizes.  It’s almost at the water’s edge, and there’s something very pleasant about grabbing a cone, and a seat at the water, and watching the tide roll in and out.  Just watch out for the seagulls.

Truly Yogurt (Wellesley, MA)-one of my favorite places.  High quality frozen yogurt up the street from the Dana Hall school and Wellesley College.  Great price to value ratio in a town not known for low prices.

JP Licks (Newton)-over-priced and unimpressive.  Built on a reputation that is not all that well deserved.  I like the Brookline location well enough, but Newton and Wellesley…feh!

Trombetta’s Creamery (Marlboro , MA):  nice selection of home-made flavors, Richie’s slushes and soft-serve, though the soft-serve uses a flavor syrup that swirls around the edges of the ice cream, as opposed to being mixed-in.   While I prefer the thoroughly mixed-in, I just enjoy my soft-serve fix at Trombetta’s.  My mother hires them to bring their ice cream truck to her offices throughout the summer, and they know she loves her “purple cow” frozen yogurt.  They’ve been around a long time, and have a solid reputation and well-deserved following.

Lizzy’s (Waltham, MA)-I like Lizzy’s.  It’s not a place that you’ll drive 20 miles for, but if you’re in Waltham, it’s a good place to stop.  They make their own “tofutti” style ice cream, good for the lactose intolerant, and they do a great off-site sundae party.  Full disclosure-we’ve used them twice for parties, and they have been fantastically easy to work with, and alway perform as promised.  Each party was a big hit, and their ice cream is pretty, pretty good too.

Kimball’s (Westford, and other locations)-This is the Disney World of ice cream.  They have a million flavors, the scoopers pile on the ice cream, a phenomenal price to value ratio (my kiddie size was bigger than most places “large” and it was $2.49!!!).  They have a pitch and putt golf course, mini-golf, bumper boats, a country store, a sandwich stand…ice cream as a destination.  And by the way, the chocolate-peanut butter ice cream was the best I ever had, and all the family palates agree!

 4.  Grilling tips

As we reach the summer time, as there are a number of bbq restaurants, nothing beats a backyard bbq with family and friends.  With bbq-ing and smoking as my avocation, I thought I’d offer some of my tips.

a.              Don’t be afraid of charcoal.  I dare say most people here use a gas grill.  Turn the propane on, hit a button and hopefully the grill lights.  Most people complain that charcoal is messy, and it takes too long.  Using a chimney style starter, which is essentially a big can with a handle, can get the charcoal burning hot in 10 minutes, without the need for smelly or foul-tasting lighter fluid. 
Chimney starter in action

b.              Use natural hardwood lump charcoal or briquettes.  Kingsford is the big player in charcoal, but you get a nicer, smoke-wood flavor, by using natural lump, which is real wood burned down to coals.  The pieces are irregular, but burn hot and long, and impart a delightful smoke flavor.  If you want consistent shape, there are some brands that make natural hardwood briquettes.  Some of the more popular brands of natural lump are Cowboy, or Royal Oak, both of which are usually available at local big-box retailers.  These start easily in a chimney starter without lighter fluid;
c.               Make sure you start with a clean, hot grill.  I always pre-heat my gas grill for 10 minutes, then I scrape any residue off, and I lightly oil the grates with a paper towel with some canola oil on it.  If I’m using my charcoal grill, I do the same, and let the charcoal get the grates really hot;
d.              Learn fire management.  Whether on the gas grill or a charcoal grill, have different heat zones.  I have a big pile of burning coals on one side, and a lot less on the other.  This allows me to move the food away from the fire if there are flare-ups or cooking too fast.  Same in a gas grill;
e.              Use the grill like an oven.  I love the flavor from the bbq.  In the nice weather, and sometimes not so nice, I love cooking whole meals on the grill.  Many gas grills have multiple burners, so you can create a convection oven at a specific temp;
f.               Season.  Many people complain that their food is burned after grilling.  The secret to avoid that-avoid saucing until the end.  Most commercially prepared sauces, especially bbq sauce, have very high sugar contents.  Sugar burns easily and will burn long before the food is done.  The secret is to sprinkle spices liberally on the meat, called “rubs”, cook, and sauce them at the very end, just to add a little glaze.  If you watch carefully, you’ll get great results without the burnt meat;
g.              Try “smoking”.  Everyone has seen the bbq shows on TV that are becoming so popular.  For a real treat, people should try smoking.  If you have a kettle grill, you can smoke by building a fire on one side, getting some wood chucks, like oak, maple or hickory (available at big box retailers) and placing them on the smoldering fire.  Chicken will only take a couple of hours, and while longer than regular grilling, will be well worth the wait.  If you want to engage in the hobby in the more serious way, purchase a Weber Smokey Mountain, the best entry-level vertical smoker;
h.              Don’t forget your veggies.  Vegetables grilled are a fantastic treat.  I toss peppers, baby carrots, mushrooms and onions in a little olive oil and salt and pepper and throw them on a disposable perforated grill pan (to make sure things don’t fall through the grates) for a while.  You can also do potatoes, but I usually steam or microwave them for a while before grilling, to make sure they get cooked through.

Please tune-in to WBZ to check out what else we say.  Eat often!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

It's a Slow Bone...

I know my meat!  The edible kind…

As you faithful readers know, I love meat.  I love meat cooked over an open flame, on a hot griddle, roasted in the oven or a barbecue grill, or slow smoked over 12 hours until the meat melts in your mouth.  I especially like that! 

I am particularly a fan of Texas barbecue.  I follow Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ in Austin, TX, John Fullilove of Smitty’s, Edgar Black of Black’s and Keith Schmidt of Kreuze Market, all of Lockhart, TX.  What these people can do to a brisket will make your eyes, and mouth, water.  I can talk about the point/deckle and flat of a brisket, and chat you up about the best way to get a smoke ring in your meat.  Bullet water smoker, offset stick-burner or ceramic Kamado-style smoker, doesn’t matter to me…Brisket, prime rib, burnt ends, beef ribs, chicken, salmon…if it comes off a smoker it’s going in my mouth.

Up here, in the Boston area, we have sad pretenders in the bbq realm.  While eating at any number of local joints may satisfy, for a brief while, my need for the taste of smoke in my mouth, mostly they are not good…at all.  I could list them for you, but if you live in Massachusetts, you know who the big players are.  I assure you, the worst bbq I had in Austin (County Line, with multiple locations throughout the Austin area), is better than the best bbq up here.  Why?  Because it’s not just a method of cooking food down there…it’s a way of life.  It’s in their blood.

In Texas, bbq roadhouses are authentic.  Most have been in business for decades, and the walls are naturally darkened with the rich patina of age, smoke and the ghosts of briskets past.  The air is redolent with the wisps of burning Post Oak logs, the essence of smoked meat and there is a comfortable, welcoming feeling as you walk in and are greeted with a friendly “how you doin’ today?”  There is a quiet pride in cooking this food, and you can feel and taste it with every bite.

So…when a new place opens up here, I have to wonder if this is the “one”.  Will this be the place than finally replicates the taste and environment that is Texas bbq, or will it be just another spot with kitschy bbq d├ęcor, trying to be something it’s not, and failing miserably in the attempt?  Can Slow Bones Modern Barbecue in Burlington make a case for itself?  The answer is a qualified “maybe”.

Slow Bones is a new concept from the founder of Boston Market, and when you walk in, you are immediately reminded of BM.  From the counter-style ordering, to the stainless steel smoker (replacing the BM rotisserie) to the display of side dishes behind the glass (including some that look suspiciously like they came from the corporate cousin), they are clearly looking to capitalize on their Ford-style production methods that were such a great success at BM.  There are a few differences, but let’s talk about the food.

I read enough of the Yelp reviews to keep my expectations in line.  Having eaten most bbq in the Boston area, and as a smoker myself, I am familiar with the difficulty in replicating true bbq flavor.  Most mass-produced bbq up here is an ugly stepchild to real bbq.  In Massachusetts, it’s a menu item, in Texas, it’s dyed in the wool.  So, with that said, Blue Ribbon in Newton, Massachusetts, has the best locally prepared smoked brisket, other than my own.  It was the local standard for me. 

Fatty Brisket Platter
I ordered the brisket platter, which came with two sides of my choice (Memphis slaw and black beans).  I asked if they had “burnt ends”, and ended up with fatty brisket.  In this case, I mean “fatty” in the best possible way.  (As an aside, a brisket is comprised of two different muscles, connected by a layer of fat.  The bottom, or “flat”, is large and very, very lean.  The top, known as the “deckle” or “point”, is heavily marbled with fat and when cooked right, is a party in your mouth, with its unctuous  deliciousness.)  Making burnt ends is a little bit of an art form.  After an initial 12 hours in the smoker, you take the fatty deckle, and smoke it a second time for at least six hours.  Then you cut it in to chunks, sauce it, and smoke it some more.  By the time you eat these heavenly morsels, all the fat has melted away, and a tasty crust has formed that takes your tastes bud to another dimension of time and space.  When I ordered burnt ends at Slow Bones, I expected little gobs of goodness, but instead I got slices of the fatty brisket.  There seems to be a misunderstanding about bbq definitions.

I can say that the fatty brisket was tender and moist.  It had a softened bark that was tasty, but not crispy at all.  This is a problem with bbq in the northeast…because much of it is pre-cooked and held for long periods of time, usually wrapped in foil, the bark softens (unlike in Texas, where the food is consumed in large quantities, and quickly).  It had the taste of smoke, but it was not a great reminder of my Texas experiences.  It was good, and among the better that I have had around here, but as I said, the worst bbq in Texas is still better than the best bbq here.  I didn’t expect it to be the best, but the fatty brisket did exceed my expectations.  I also ordered some regular brisket, which was cut from the flat.  Very lean, with a little smoked flavor, but a meaty taste.  Not bad, but I certainly prefer the fatty cut.

Cornbread with real corn!
I cannot say the same for the sides.  I don’t care much for a lot of sides, but I was underwhelmed with the slaw.  Too much junk in it, and heavily sweetened with sauce.  I really liked the black beans, and thought it was a pleasant surprise.  We also had a few chicken wings, and they had a nice smoky flavor and were tender and tasty.  Lastly, my company enjoyed the cornbread, which had whole kernels of corn and was actually better than expected.

I had two mystery diners with me, and they were satisfied, while not overly impressed. They too had some brisket, but also dug on some swine and ordered the lean St. Louis Ribs.  They both thought they had better elsewhere, but were satisfied with the brisket.  They also enjoyed vegetable sides and salads.  They were also very satisfied with the attention of the service staff.  Though this is a counter service place, “Devin” who was extremely helpful, had a great memory for names, and really brought his “A” game.
St. Louis ribs with fresh cucumber salad

smoked and sauced chicken wing

Overall, I give it a “forked up”.  Slow Bones is located at 80 Mall Road in Burlington, in a space in a strip mall formerly taken up by a D’Angelo’s sub shop.  While not a destination location, if you’re in the area, there are many worse places you could eat.  I look forward to business expansion and more locations, and a little refinement.

Now get out there and eat!