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!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A “smashing” success?

As most of society moves towards becoming foodies, and eating more health consciously, what better idea than to open a competitor to “Five Guys Burgers and Fries”.  So, without much fanfare at all, no one really anxiously awaited the arrival of “Smashburger”, but if the crowds are any indication, all Five Guys better beware.

From their website, it seems that Smashburger has a strong number of franchises located nationwide.  The location in Natick, Massachusetts, is the first, but, no doubt, one of many, planned to open in Massachusetts.

Smashburger is entering the quick serve market currently dominated by places like Panera and Chipotle or Moe’s Southwest Grill.  While the menu leans towards “fast” food, it is not “fast food”.  Call it “quick serve” or “fast casual”, Smashburger is taking on Five Guys and all other comers with a competitive price point, a better menu, a dressed up environment and an experience that doesn’t leave you feeling dirty or guilty.

There’s a lot to like, depending on the perspective.  

The menu:  First and foremost, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is a burger joint; it might be the name that gives that away.  You can choose from two sizes (1/3 lb or ½ lb), and you can choose from a pre-formatted menu of burgers, or create your own.  They have a list of free sauces and toppings (lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions) and they have several “premium” toppings for a dollar each.  For a complete look at the choices, click here.

In addition to the burgers, you can get any sandwich made with a grilled chicken breast, you can get a salad, and they have four sides:  fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings or “smashed” fries (thin cut fries with olive oil, garlic and rosemary).  More on this later.

Another key focus of their menu is the shakes.  They make them from Haagen-Dazs ice cream (btw, H-D is manufactured for General Mills by Nestle subsidiary Dreyers).  I have heard comments on the shakes ranging from “awesome” to “mediocre”.  I don’t consume that kind of quantity of dairy, so I will leave it to you to decide.

Having worked in both a diner and McDonalds, I can personally attest to the residual “benefits” of working at a fast food restaurant-namely, the stink.  You all know exactly the smell I’m talking about-a mixture of meat and burning fat.  Working, it gets in your pores, in your nostrils, etc…you can scrub yourself in bleach and lye, cook a batch of meth without a hazmat suit on, but you cannot kill that smell.  So too as a consumer at Five Guys.  You cannot spend more than 30 seconds in Five Guys without absorbing THAT smell; you smell it before you even walk in the doors.  With that in mind, I am happy to report that Smashburger seems to be using a special air-handling/filtering system, because not only can you not smell it outside, but there is zero fast-food stench inside; you smell the same coming out as you did going in…for some of you, that’s a good thing.

Ketchup brilliance!
Sometimes, small things entertain small minds…and I am entertained, and impressed, by the Heinz ketchup packages offered at Smashburger.  While they have bottles on the tables, they also offer individual packets.  But these aren’t just any old packets, like the kind you find at any fast food or take-out restaurant…these are FANCY!  These are two-way packages that go both ways…you can squirt it out, or you can dip in it.  For squirting, you break the top off and squeeze…to dip, you just peel the foil off.  Some food scientist spent years dreaming this up, and I’d like to meet this evil genius!  This is quality, and I say “well-done Heinz, well done”.  And hats off to Smashburger for recognizing the need for such a ketchup packet!

One last observation before I further comment on the burger-they have ample staff, working the dining room constantly.  Though you order at a counter, the staff brings the food to you, in a decorative metal basket.  They roam the floor clearing tables, washing them down, and offering to refill your drink for you (even though it is self-service beverages at a fountain).  I find this refreshing and like that the dining area is simple, but comfortable and constantly being cleaned.

But all this would be irrelevant if the food was lousy.  I am happy to report that I like their burgers much better than Five Guys.  Five Guys is just a smidge higher on the food chain than Wendy’s, but Smashburger is a full step above Five Guys, in every meaty way.  The burgers come in two sizes, and with three roll choices and a wide range of toppings, being served to you in a nice basket, they have a more upscale feel than the paper sack, throw-it-at-you service of Five Guys.  I enjoyed the burger and look forward to more, but if I’m not in the mood for meat, I can get the same set-up with chicken-it is nice to have a choice.

Alas, though, not everything is perfect.  Though they offer three different kinds of fries, plus onion rings, I found the “haystack-style” fries (very, very thin), devoid of any potato flavor.  I tried the “smash fries” at their suggestion, which are cooked with olive oil, rosemary and garlic, three flavors I enjoy.  However, all I tasted was the fried coating and because the fries are so thin, the potato taste has seemingly been cooked out of them.  On this score, Five Guys comes out ahead for their dense and always crispy fries.

I like that there’s a new game in town, and if I ever felt like driving 20 minutes east, I could also have a few more choices (Shake Shack, UBurger, etc…).  I especially like someone coming in and basically saying to Five Guys “we’ll see your patty and raise you a chicken sandwich”, giving non-meat eaters (like Mrs. Palate) an option, unlike Five Guys, which sends the message “if you don’t eat meat, grilled cheese or peanuts, get out”. 

So people, get out there and eat.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Holiday Gifts

For you listeners of WBZ's Connosieurs’ Corner, the following is the list of the food gifts we discussed on the air.

Chococoa Whoopie Pies,

I have written about these whoopie pies before, bought and sent them around to clients and served them at a major family event...these are always a HUGE hit, and the best whoopie pies I've ever had!  You cannot go wrong with these.

Gingerbread Construction Company,

Muffins the size of your head, and delicious loaves and cookies.

Grandma’s Chicken Soup,

Good for your soul, and your tummy!

Dancing Deer,

Boston Coffee Cake,


You've never had popcorn like this!

Enjoy, and share some delicious gifts this holiday season!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

There is no need to knead…

So says Jim Lahey, author, owner and head baker of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City.

Back in 2006, Mark Bittman of the New York Times interviewed Jim Lahey which morphed in to a video short for broadcast on the New York Times website, which in turn, created a bread baking movement that can only be described as “viral”.  Jim’s method is perfect for those bread bakers at home who can be described as “lazy”.  Since that perfectly described yours truly, I figured “why not”?

What’s the secret you ask?  In a word:  time.  Jim Lahey’s method involves mixing 4 ingredients together (recipe below, but flour, yeast, salt and water) by hand, or with a spoon, for 30 seconds, and letting it sit for at least twelve hours, or longer.  His theory is that this long, slow rise allows the yeast and flour to do their voodoo and allows the gluten to form naturally.  After rising, because you cook it inside a Dutch oven, which acts as a miniature steam oven, you get a spectacular crust and more spectacular crumb. Having made the recipe (I have his book, “My Bread”, but you can learn how to do it from the 6 minute video here or below), I can tell you that it works to perfection, turning out a beautiful artisan style loaf.   Or, if you don’t have the book, and you don’t like Mark Bittman, you can watch one of the thousands of videos from people like you and me who have done this method, or other closely related iterations.

The basic method (from the Sullivan Street Bakery website):


3 cups flour
1½ cups water
¼ teaspoon yeast
1¼ teaspoon salt
olive oil (for coating)
extra flour or cornmeal

Mix all of the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Add water and incorporate by hand or with a wooden spoon or spatula for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Lightly coat the inside of a second medium bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest 12 hours at room temperature (approx. 65-72°F).
Remove the dough from the bowl and fold once or twice. Let the dough rest 15 minutes in the bowl or on the work surface. Next, shape the dough into ball. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal; place the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with flour. Cover the dough with a cotton towel and let rise 1-2 hours at room temperature, until more than doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 450-500°F. Place the pot in the oven at least 30 minutes prior to baking to preheat. Once the dough has more than doubled in volume, remove the pot from the oven and place the dough in the pot seam side up. Cover with the lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake 15-30 minutes uncovered, until the loaf is nicely browned.”

I say, take it out, put on a cooling rack, and enjoy after cooling, if you can wait that long.  Make sure to have some butter handy, for a schmear, because nothing tastes better than a hot piece of bread with melted butter soaked into it.  I assure you, if I can do it, so can you…take a look at this loaf!

Next up…no knead challah. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Better Late than Never!

Thanks to Jordan Rich, for adding me to the “Connoisseurs’Corner” line-up on WBZ 1030AM here in Boston.  These great one and a half-minute spots run at 11:58am and other times during the day.  Subject matter ranges from food and gourmet events around town and in Massachusetts and other New England states, to specific restaurants and foods.  You can here them live on the radio, or by clicking here to listen to a recent few.

Though a little after the holiday, several readers have asked me for my potato latke recipe.  There’s nothing surprising here in the recipe…most latke recipes focus on the usual potato and onion mix, and this one is no different.  But, the key to success is adding something to keep the potatoes from turning brown, and someone once told me that a Vitamin C tablet, dissolved, and added to the mix early keeps them from turning, and does not impart any off taste.  The second key to success to hand-shredding the potatoes and onions (it tastes much better after you’ve bloodied your knuckles…almost like you’ve earned the right to eat something so bad for you), and lastly, frying in a cast iron skillet, or an enamel covered cast iron skillet.  The cast iron is important…anyone who has cooked in one knows that the heat retention of these cast iron vessels cannot be replicated in any other way, and imparts a golden brown deliciousness that brings tears to your eyes…

Trust me…hand shred and use cast iron.  You will not be disappointed and will be crowned the “Latke Hero” when these hit the table.

Without further ado…

1 Vitamin C tablet, dissolved in a couple of tablespoons of water
4 large russet potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes, or sweet potatoes-make sure you peel them
1 large onion
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
2 tbl flour or matzah meal (I prefer matzah meal)
Canola oil or Olive Oil (traditional)

Hand shred potatoes  (or use a food process if you’re lazy)
Hand shred the onion (or use a fine chop)
Mix all ingredients together, and fry in a cast iron skillet
Drain on paper towels and serve hot.

Cry, as you revel in the taste, and in taking a few more minutes off your life.