Sunday, October 11, 2015

Memories of memorable meals...

The traditional, yet non-existent, happy Thanksgiving dinner
I have long thought about whether this blog should exclusively deal with food, fun and frivolity, since as most of you know, I’m all about the frivolity.   For some, sports have been the “toy store” of their lives, their outlet from the stress and daily grind.  For me, at various times of my life, it has been music performance, whether concert, jazz or “hoop” bands, or drum and bugle corps, whether a local corps (Sharpshooters of Framingham) or a Class A (the 27th Lancers of Revere, Massachusetts).  However, the constant diversion has been food, and not just consumption, but cooking.  At times, I have focused on baking breads, preparing stir-frys, or grilling, and as many of you faithful readers know, I smoke a lot of meat. 

My love of food, both preparing and eating, probably derives from my father, former proprietor of “B.J.’s Diner” in Framingham.  From working there, for him, I got a crash course on food prep, short-order cooking and profanity.  And I took those skills, mostly the profanity, to McDonalds, to my own kitchen, and to the kitchen at Temple Beth Sholom in Framingham.  Along the way, I really thought about what it meant to have a great meal.

Meals can mean a lot.  For some, a great meal is strictly quantity, and for others, it is a certain food that brings back memories of a different time.  In the dark recesses of my mind, I have a lot of great meal memories, a couple of which I’ve referenced before on these pages.  Here are three that standout: 

1)  My father, who likes both quantity and quality, but mostly quantity, once ate 19 lobsters at one meal, at Custy’s Rusty Scupper in Rhode Island.  Sure, they were likely only 1.25 lb lobsters, but they had both claws and the tail, and all the feelers and for a man that stood 5 feet, 6 inches, and only weighed about 150 pounds, it was impressive.  Being witness to my father’s systematic breakdown of these poor crustaceans was like watching Michael DeBakey perform heart surgery at Baylor…confident, expert and precise, leaving no piece of lobster flesh un-eaten (at least as far as my father is concerned-I don’t think DeBakey had the same appetite for organ meat).   All my father needed was a surgical gown and rubber gloves.

Of course, as my dad aged, his appetite waned, and with Alzheimer’s and dementia, he has very little interest in food.  Time has not been kind to him, or his voracious appetite, but the last time I took him to an all-you-can-keep-down Chinese buffet, those poor crawfish had no idea what hit them. 

2.  Taken, in part, from an earlier post:  “House of Roy” was THE Chinese restaurant of my childhood.  This was way before the days of Mandarin and Szechwan cuisine, when all Chinese food came swimming in a brown oyster-style sauce.  This place defined “craphole”; it was a few steps up literally, but several steps down, figuratively.  The floor was collapsing, so you were always leaning left when you walked in.  The bathroom floors weren’t much better, and if you’ve ever been in a bathroom in an old Chinatown building…well, you don’t need any further information. 

For years, we’d truck into Boston’s Chinatown at least twice a month, and dine at the “House”.  We were hooked; we were addicted to that place, like Drago to those injections from Bridgette Nielson.  Sometimes we’d meet other families, sometimes just us, but one thing never changed: the House of Roy Special, and boy, was this special.

Long before I avoided foods that were biblically not kosher (shellfish and pork, for you fans keeping score at home), the “Special” was the apex of gastronomical pleasures.  I only wish I had an old menu so I could explain everything in this bucket of food.  It was a mélange of beef, chicken, shrimp, peapods, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots tossed in the brown sauce.  Poured onto a platter, it was surrounded by fried wontons, and covered with pork strips.  Here me now and believe me later…this was an orgiastic feast for the senses.

My parents promised me that I could have my own Special, the week before my bar mitzvah, as my ticket to manhood.  My father put the gauntlet before me, by saying I could never finish it off, as it was really made for 14 people.  Well, determined to show him…I went deep into training.  I ate light that whole weekend, and didn’t eat at all on Sunday, preparing for Sunday night’s sumptuous repast.  Well, we ordered two, one for the rest of the table, and one for me. 

The anticipation was more than I could bear…I dug into that thing like John Henry, swinging his mighty hammer.  I ate, and ate, and ate some more, and I didn’t make a dent!  The thing was possessed; regenerating itself after every bite I took.  I vaguely recall my father taking the rest, after I passed out into my food coma.  I ate so much; I still think I have some left in me, over 35 years later.

When we left, I don’t think I made it 10 feet from the steps, but I’m sure Roy appreciated it when I decided to decorate the parking lot instead of his rest room.  It was immense, intense, and a fine “how do you do” into the landscape of bingeing, and apparently purging.  Unlike my father, who can consume and immense amount of food, and eat 19 lobsters, I was a mere amateur.  Don’t worry Joey Chestnut, your crown is safe from me.

3.  In November 1992, after a long academic push for both Elayne, and me, our professional licensure exams were in our rear-view mirror:  hers the CPA exam, and mine, the bar!  Our parents decided it would be time to celebrate these occasions; though she had been at Grant Thornton for over a year by then, slacking off, only working the mandated minimum, which back then, was 80 hours a week…in the slow season.  Elayne and I saw it as a chance to celebrate entering our careers, while we came to understand that our parents were really celebrating getting us off the family payroll!  An evening at Spinnaker Italia with a corner table overlooking the Charles on one side and downtown Boston on the other was booked, replete with wine, food and more wine (at least for some).  It was a fine night, with a fine meal…but ended with my mother disappearing for quite a while.  This was well before cell phones, and we had no idea where she went.  She came back, and when pressed for what happened, she merely said she had gone to the restroom, and bumped into someone on the way back.  As we completed our dessert, a young couple, not older than 22 or 23 came by, and could not stop thanking my mother.  It was as if she was the Queen of England and these people had just been granted an audience.  Our entire table exchanged “what the hell???” glances as the couple thanks her some more, and then left.  Now we needed answers.

My mother was not quite inclined to share details, but I have a certain amount of relentlessness in me (geez, is that where my kids get that???).  As the story goes, when my mother was coming back from the bathroom, she walked past that young couple.  They had come the restaurant to celebrate some special event, and had a gift certificate, but the certificate had expired.  Without money to pay, and without a valid gift certificate, they were stuck.  My mother approached a manger, without their knowledge, and paid the bill.  As they were leaving, the manager identified my mother to them, and they thanked her.  Somewhere out there, this story is part of their personal history (if they’re even still together), and if you happen to read this…hi.  Soooooo, our special dinner that night was also made special for them, by a stranger’s kindness, and probably some drunkenness as well.

I’d love to share other people’s stories too, so feel free, dear readers, to email me at criticialpalate at gmail dot com and if fit for human consumption, I’ll post them here to share.

Until next time America…

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The incredible, edible egg


I grew up eating and working in diners.  My dad owned one and I was a schlepper there for years.  I’ve had eggs a million different ways, from soft-boiled to hard, to sunny-side up to scrambled and omelets.  My preference is over-easy on top of corned beef hash, if anyone cares (and I know you all do).

However, all the rage these days seems to be an entirely new way of eating eggs…as a condiment on a burger.  Formerly found only at little crap-holes seen on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” with that clown Guy Fieri, the egg has gone big-time and can be seen on menus everywhere, including “The Local” in Wayland, and “Ted’s Montana Grill" in Westborough .

Honestly, I questioned the logic behind this movement.  Why is this necessary?  It just looks so odd (to me).  An item that has been a breakfast protein staple for years is suddenly a topping on a burger, in the same spectrum as cheese, onions and mushrooms?  Who decided this would be a good idea?  What kind of demented mind comes up with this sort of thing???

I put off jumping on the egg cart for a long time.  Last winter, a friend started enjoying these sorts of burgers, with an egg on the top, but it didn’t resonate with me at all.  I just couldn’t embrace the egg in that way.  From delightfully fluffy scrambled eggs, to crepes, I’ll jump in the yolky pool, but sitting on top of a perfectly grilled burger?  Are you kidding me?

Well, I caved.  Despite all of my pre-conceived notions and biases, I decided to go for broke, and while eating at the Farmhouse Grill and Tap in Burlington, Vermont (where every menu items seems to be identified by the farm from which it came), I ordered the burger with cheese and a sunny-side up egg.  And how was it?  How was my first ovo-bovine experience?  Decidedly…interesting.  
LaPlatte River Angus Farm Beef
from a cow named "Morty"

arugula, cheddar, pickled red onions and egg

The Farmhouse burger did have a textural difference as a result of the egg on it, but boy, oh boy, was it messy!  However, the egg was not cooked completely, even as a sunny side up egg, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled.  But, since this IS a thing, I knew I had to go for another round…so, just to be fair, I tried a second burger, this time a bison burger, with cheese, sautéed mushrooms, sautéed onions and a fried egg, over easy, at Ted’s Montana Grill in Westborough.  This one, well, it was better, but girl, oh girl…it was MESSY!  But messy is a good way. 

American cheese, grilled onions and mushrooms topped 
with a fried egg

It’s a very interesting combination.  I liked the yolk running down along the side of the meat (and my hands and arms), and when you get to the combination of the meat and the yolk, it was really unctuously delicious.  I’m not sure the white of the egg really is important to the whole affair, but I can taste the specialness of having a warm, runny yolk oozing down the entire burger, ultimately soaking into the bun.  After doing this twice though, I’m not sure I want to attack this on a frequent basis (or my heart will “attack” me).  It is a mess, and I’m not sure if I wanted to celebrate this, or be disgusted with myself (like my sister and mother probably are just by reading this).  But it was delicious, in a strange, twisted way.  Given the popularity of this these days, done well, it is a burger worth eating.  If at a place that offers the fried egg topping, give this new condiment a try. 

And remember, brown eggs are local eggs, and local eggs are fresher.

More hits...quick and otherwise...

While my CC spots have wrapped up, here are a few of the last ones.  However, there are plenty more long and short spots coming, in preparation of my appearance on The Jordan Rich Show of WBZ1030am on August 1.

Ice Cream

With summer upon us, what do New Englanders think about…lobster rolls, clams, and ice cream.  Here is a selection of some of the best, after I sampled over twenty places recently.

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.

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 like at Conehead’s.   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 always 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!

If there’s one thing the suburbs need, it’s a quick serve or quality take-out Asian destination.  Well, in a non-descript building that formerly housed a D’Angelo’s sandwich shop on Route 9, just the place has opened…Rice Theory.

Rice Theory is the fast-casual brainchild of a former Wellesley College student who was always looking for healthy, yet authentic Thai restaurants.  When she couldn’t find what she wanted, she opened her own.

Sure they have pad thai, but they have an authentic Thai version as well as the Americanized version we eat.  They offer 12 different base dishes,  all that can be customized with 6 different kinds of rice or noodles and 6 different proteins.

While the interior is Spartan, the execution of these dishes was excellent.  I very much enjoyed my visits and look forward to more.  My theory is Rice Theory will gain some serious traction with this delicious food.

Sometimes you want to go off the beaten path and try something unique…welcome to Tango in Arlington.

Tango is located on Mass Ave in Arlington, right across the street from the Regent Theatre, making it a perfect stop before or after a show.  You can start your meal with some delicious and unusual appetizers, like Polenta al Malbec,  homemade pan seared polenta, Malbec-mushroom sauce, truffle oil, parmesan cheese  or Provoleta a la Parrilla, which is grilled provolone cheese, in a cast iron skillet.  But, it’s an Argentinian steakhouse, with a variety of traditional, succulent beef cuts, as well as the exotic, including blood sausage and veal sweet breads.  All my dining companions, and there were ten of us, thought the meal at Tango was worth dancing about.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Not so quick hits...

While the CC spots are running on WBZ, here are some tips on grilling or smoking:

68 inches...taller than I am!

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. 

I enjoy smoking foods.  I have a couple of specialized smokers…a Primo Oval XL and an Assassin 28, shown above (a highly specialized competition model whose pit builder’s slogan is “slowly smokin’ the competition”).  But you don’t need to invest in any real equipment beyond a kettle grill.  With coals on one side and the meat on the opposite on the top grate, you have a makeshift smoker.

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.

To me, there’s nothing better than dining on succulent meats kissed by smoke, but we can talk about hot and fast grilling too.


Grilling speaks for itself, and its what we do mostly up here in the summer.  If you want to cook a thinner cut or meat or vegetables quickly, there’s no better way than over a hot bed of coals.  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; 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 other discussions, 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 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, but mostly it takes too long.  Using a chimney style start, 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. 
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.

Until next time America...get out there and light up a smoke!