Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kanye West, Jay-Z - Watch the Throne

Unlike films, listening to music is an intensely personal experience, and one whose impact varies significantly with environment and context. Listening to an album in your car is a completely different experience than enjoying it through your headphones, and to this effect, very few albums have the excitement and honesty to be played in both these places. It should come as no surprise that Watch the Throne sounds pretty good in traffic, but you might be surprised to hear that it also excels at my desk through my iPod.

In fact, I would go so far to say that in order to properly evaluate the album, you need to listen to it in both contexts. When I first got a hold of WTT, I threw on my Nano on the way out the door and listened to it five times at work, marveling at the amazing beats but feeling a little turned off by the heavy content. Too many songs laid on the religious and black power undertones way too thick, and I found myself over-analyzing all of the lyrics as a result. After a week or so, I had already cherry-picked my favorite songs and shoehorned them into my Running Mix and was perfectly content to never listen to the other songs again. It wasn't until I saw the "Otis" video that I realized I was overlooking a critical element of WTT that changed the entire album for me.

The Spike Jonze directed video for 'Otis' is genius in its simplicity, perfectly capturing the absolutely astounding luxury-filled lives that Kanye and Jay lead, but also highlighting how much darn FUN they have. Sure they are taking blowtorches and saws to a $350,000 car, and they have 4 supermodels sliding around in the backseat, but beyond that, they seem like otherwise normal guys having an incredible time. They giggle, they pose goofily for the camera, they hang off one another like brothers do when dad takes the video camera out. Sure their car spits flames and they seem to have a private track for donuts, but the whole thing isn't far removed from the best friends in Bellflower who created their own fire-breathing monster in 'Medusa' on a considerably tighter budget. The Otis video underlined the magic that sparked the album in the first place; that Kanye and Jay-Z have nothing to prove to anyone, and whatever came out of their partnership had to capture that 'fun' before all else.

I still think that there are some heavy themes on WTT, but they no longer detract from the experience as a whole, feeling instead like inevitable topics. Maybe if they had slipped in a few guest verses, they never would have mined such dark material, but there's something pretty special about a 16-song album with absolutely zero hip-hop features. That sort of thing just doesn't happen anymore, and goes to show you the creative excitement these two are able to draw out of one another. What Kanye first announced as a 5-song EP, and no fan ever took seriously, actually came out AND didn't embarrass any of the parties involved. That is an impressive feat.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Restaurant Week: Meritage

For those of you from more suburban areas, Restaurant Week is an event where the fanciest of the fancy restaurants open their doors to us common folk and offer three course meals for a mere 33 dollars. Of course, with "suggested" wine pairings and "recommended" side dishes or glazes or other tomfoolery that you feel obligated to splurge on since you are nearly robbing the place blind paying only $33. Many who frequent restaurant week do so with serious reservations and research, knowing that the experience is very much a mixed bag. I know I personally check Yelp a few days into Restaurant week to see what people are saying before I make my reservation. I have had absolutely rapturous meals (Smith and Wollensky) and wholly disappointing meals (Harvest) during restaurant week, and though $33 is a small price to pay for the experience, you still want to feel like you are getting your moneys worth.

This year, I had my eyes set squarely on the creme de la creme, one of the most esteemed restaurants in Boston: Meritage. Located within the Boston Harbor Hotel, it is a gorgeous place that Zagat calls "romantic", "chic", offering "exquisite harbor views" and "beautiful taste symphonies". Seriously. With a glowing recommendation like that, I leapt at the first reservation I could find. Planning it as a surprise for my date, I tried to sneakily use Google Maps on my phone while also confidently leading the way, but when your restaurant is inside of a hotel, you can only get so far before you need to whisper to a doorman. We were seated just before 7pm, just in time to see the some of the last light drain out of the harbor (the sun set behind us, who knew?).

We were quickly presented restaurant week menus, and urged to try either of the two wine pairings our waiter assured us were fantastic deals. He was a dour man of average build, for whom restaurant week was probably at best a nuisance and at worst a sacrilege. We resisted his charms on the wine, placed our orders, and drank in the views. I shouldn't have to tell you, but Restaurant Week is MADE for Filet Mignon. In fact, if I see a restaurant that doesn't have steak on its RW menu, I promptly excommunicate it from competition. This reflex was only further ingrained after having some weird ham slab entree at Harvest two years ago. So needless to say, MT and I both enjoyed the filet...eventually.

The thing about these fancy restaurants are, is regardless of how you are dressed and present yourself, you can't help but feel that something is "giving you away". This is especially acute when you begin to feel miffed or disappointed. For example, shortly after placing our orders, we were each given three different pieces of bread. Once was a traditional dinner roll, plump and fluffy, which MT attacked with reckless abandon. Another was a meager slice of cinnamon raisin bread, cut from a loaf that was surely sat on. The final roll was a crusty, porous bread that was everything I could ever ask for. We were also given a heaping dish of whipped butter with a huge cursive M emblazoned across it, to remind us where we were. Admittedly, it was a cute touch that really brought home the fact that this place was really insanely fancy. I don't know how else to put it. Unfortunately, after we ate this bread, we waited a good 40 minutes before the first course showed up. Being unaccustomed to restaurants of this stature, I gave them the benefit of the doubt and told myself that they were surely following the advice of their resident gastroenterologist and giving our stomachs ample time to handle those complex carbohydrates. It wasn't until other tables started getting their food in a timely fashion that I started to feel hungry/grumpy. I blame MT, since she claimed to have seen our waiter, appetizers in hand, turn around and head back into the kitchen after emerging and seeing her with bread left on her plate. Why he didn't just come back in 5 minutes is beyond me, but we waited patiently.

When it comes to appetizers at these places, you are probably better off rolling a dice than trying to visualize what you are actually going to get. MT ordered a Salmon, Avocado and Creme Fraiche dish that looked a bit like a slightly more unstable leaning tower of Pisa above leafy brambles. Not what I would have expected from the description, but upon further review, it explicitly mentions the word "tower" so I suppose I should hold my tongue. I had spinach and shallot ravioli, which were pretty tasty, although the "wrapper-style" ravioli was a bit gummy. After another forty minutes, the main-course showed up and I was grateful. Not grateful enough apparently, as the waiter deemed it necessary to hover above me "waiting for his thank you" (his words) before excusing himself. Perhaps this turn of phrase simply came out incorrectly (he was French, but seemed more Spanish, and neither of us were convinced either accent was real), but I was a tad offended that he needed an expression of gratitude before we would let us enjoy our meal. Perhaps the wait staff is trained not to leave the table until everyone is satisfied with their food, but like I said, the word choice was unfortunate. With that being said, the filet was fantastic, as were the steamed carrots, whipped potatoes and potato "chip" (I use that term loosely).

MT and I decided to go our separate ways for dessert, with she opting for the chocolate tasting plate, while I chose the artisan cheeses. It felt like my duty to order the cheeses after enduring some heckling from my cheese post. I'm happy to report that all of the cheeses were delicious and unique. Maybe it's because cheeses are so often served as appetizers, but I rarely give their flavor and texture as much attention as I should. But when it's being served as dessert, and your girlfriend is eating some chocolate/caramel/pretzel cup, you get to know the cheese pretty intimately. The fontina was especially fantastic, soft and exploding with flavor, that I didn't expect. It tasted like distilled macaroni and cheese, and I mean that in the best possible way. The double-Gloucester was also great, and CM is right, it did taste a lot like cheddar, though with a bit of a sweet finish to it. The gouda was my least favorite, but MT loved it, so go figure. The chocolates were good also, but I've never been a big dessert guy, so I only tried a couple. All in all, the meal was quite good, though ranking in the middle of the road as far as Restaurant Week experiences go, mostly due to the off-putting waiter and the agonizing wait times.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lists: Cheese

A little birdie told me that music reviews and recipes don't really get the blood pumping like a rant or some old-fashioned snark, so I thought I'd jump the tracks for a little bit and get back on the "List" train I've been known to frequent in the past. I like lists because they are chock full of opinion and tend to get comments which means (though doesn't guarantee) that someone is reading this godforsaken blog. I've done lists about Cereal, Trader Joes, and Summertime refreshment, but I think it's about time I did one about one of my favorite foods: cheese. My love of cheese-flavoured snacks is the stuff of legends, and perhaps I this list will inspire a future list of my favourite cheesy snacks, but you may be surprised to know I have opinions about ACTUAL cheese as well! Well, probably not as encyclopedic as my knowledge of Cheez-its, but I'm going to give it a whirl. Behold a comprehensive list of cheeses that I enjoy and others that are a waste of bacteria. Authors Note: Wikipedia lists about 600 cheeses on their website, so in the interests of time, I'm going to narrow this list to my Top 5 and my Bottom 5. Apologies.    

1. Cheddar - I don't think anything needs to be said about cheddar. If you are an American, you like cheddar (NOT American cheese, more on that later). If you are from New England, you LOVE cheddar, and if you are from New Hampshire or Vermont, well, it's part of dessert. Seriously, Apple Pie and Cheddar is an amazing dessert. There's not much better than a slice of extra sharp cheddar on a Triscuit or similar cracker. For my money, Cheddar is the cheese to beat.

2. Goat - Goat cheese is an incredible cheese, though sometimes it needs some help to realize its full potential.   With a little olive oil and some herbs, it is nearly unbeatable when it comes to dipping/spreading/eating-the-whole-thing-in-one-sitting cheese. If you see anyone selling little pucks in tubs at a Farmer's market, make sure to grab yourself a couple. I don't care as much for the Goat Cheese "logs" that are available at TJs, mostly because they are so crumbly/dry that they either break the cracker or make a mess.

3. Parmesan - Parmesan is a versatile little cheese. When I grew up, we only had that green shaker of Parmesan dust that everyone put on their pasta, but nowadays it no longer has suffer the embarrassment that goes with being alongside other condiments. In my opinion, Parmesan is BETTER when it is central to a dish, especially in baked goods, as it has a tang and a sharpness that keeps it from being overpowered by other strong flavors. It's amazing in scones and breads, especially when it gets a little crispy and melts together at the bottom of the pan. Any good cheese is better a little burnt. If you see any of those green tubes of parmesan at any of your friends houses, you have my permission to throw them away and blame it on me. I'll cut them off a piece of my block.

4. Mozzarella - If you want a satisfying cheese or a cheese that will help you get away with murder, Mozzarella is your cheese. The gummy strings of mozzarella trailing off a pizza or the business end of a mozzarella stick really get the salivary glands in a frenzy, even if those delicious treats are accompanied by the most dangerous choking hazard known to man. The threat of imminent death and embarrassment is worth it to enjoy that gob of cheese in your cheek for the next 5 minutes. Mozzarella loses a few points in the flavor department, although I have had a few varieties with sufficient punch.

5. Pepper-Jack Cheese - Every time I have Pepper-Jack cheese, it tastes like the first time, and I wonder why I don't have it more often. It has a wonderful smooth and hearty cheese flavor, but also has little flecks of pepper that ignite the sort of dull burn that can only be satiated with more cheese. Great for melting and for snacking, Pepper-Jack is a dark horse cheese that should not be underestimated.

Honorable Mentions: Feta, Gorgonzola, Asiago (maybe if I ever tasted it outside of a Panera bagel), Gouda (lost points for puns), Cottage (half of it usually rots in my fridge).


5. Blue Cheese - There are times when Blue Cheese is tolerable, but most of the time it takes a great deal of discipline to stifle a gag-reflex. I am working on my aversion to "stinky" cheeses, but I'm convinced people only enjoy Blue Cheese because it is conducive to dipping. If Cheddar were a liquid at room temperature, Blue Cheese would be shown the door. Sometimes I can handle blue cheese if it is on the tamer side, but the risk of getting a ripe one is too high to justify. Interesting note: as it turns out, "Blue Cheese" is also a name for a popular strain of Cannabis, as I found out while trying to Google image search for this entry. So at least it has that to fall back on.

4. Swiss Cheese - Swiss is another cheese I don't think I will ever like, which is a shame, because I think it has ruined ham for me simply by association. It has a strange nuttiness and bitterness that does nothing for my palate except make me think, "I wish there were more holes in this". I've had it in baked goods (it nearly ruined croissants too), and its bitterness and nuttiness and umami-esque flavors are only enhanced by heating. If you're looking for something to lace with poison, Swiss cheese is the way to go; they'll probably never notice.

3. Nacho Cheese - Is this even a type of cheese? I've only seen it in dark corners of convenience stores or at baseball games, but that gelatinous stream of orange mucus is the stuff of nightmares. There is no discernable taste or texture, just a race against the clock to consume it before it coagulates. No one has ever succeeded. It probably comes in a bag with a spigot. I would never slap that bag.

2. Easy Cheese - Perhaps I have bad memories of Easy Cheese from a troubled college acquaintance, but I don't think I will ever understand the allure of the canister of spray-able cheese. In this day and age, you can get ANYTHING in individually-wrapped, convenient packages. There is no reason on God's green earth that any human being needs a cheese product to be extruded under pressure for their suckling pleasure. If a person is too obese to cut a slice of cheese, perhaps Easy Cheese is what got them in this predicament in the first place.

1. American Cheese - The WORST cheese. Why do people eat this? It has the disturbing tang of Miracle Whip, has the texture of human skin, and comes wrapped like a maxi pad. It is some amorphous solid that defies any law of motion or thermodynamics and is the cheese of choice for terrible lunch products like Lunchables that people have some misplaced Nostalgia for. If it weren't called American cheese, it would probably not exist, but because it is named after our country (USA!), people feel some sort of civic duty to eat it. If you are buying American cheese to prove your patriotism, you should have your citizenship revoked.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

EDU: Slow Cooker Beef Brisket

If you'll recall, I recently mastered the two fundamental barbecue dishes, pulled pork and ribs, and tentatively set my sights on beef brisket as my swan song. Brisket presents a unique challenge compared two my previous endeavors, as most supermarkets I searched didn't have it available, or had paltry cuts that were far too meager for any recipe. Thankfully, the ever reliable McKinnon's meat market had exactly what I needed, despite smelling strangely of farts and rotting meat. Perhaps this is how they keep costs down. Whatever the case may be, I bought a 4.5lb brisket for $14, wrapped it generously in a plastic bag, and biked home with it in my backpack. I tossed it in the freezer for a few days while I researched recipes, before deciding on 'Busy Day Barbeque Brisket', by 'Shannon :)'. I'm going to assume ':)' is her husband's last name, because any woman responsible for a recipe this fantastic won't stay single for long. Wonderfully simple, the recipe simply required a slow cooker, an easy spice rub, and a little patience. I could handle the first two, and I found distractions for the patience part. Here's what you'll need:

1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3 pounds beef brisket, trimmed of fat
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke flavoring
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 cups barbeque sauce

Step 1: Rub liquid smoke into both sides of the meat. I was skeptical about this curious elixir, but it really does seem to impart a natural smokey flavor you've come to expect from barbecue. Shortly after this, I mixed all the spices together in a small bowl and proceeded to rub these into every nook and cranny. Note: This recipe was for 3lbs of brisket, so I was a little more generous with the liquid smoke, but the spice rub was plenty. 

Here are the spices pre-mixing. 

Here is the meat pre-spicing:

Here is the brisket post-rubbing. Looks a little bit like someone dropped it on the ground, but I can assure you I did not.

After applying the rub, I set the slow cooker on low and poured the 2 Tbsp Worcestershire and 1.5 C Barbeque Sauce (I used TJ's Kansas City BBQ, it's great) into the bottom of the cooker, followed by the meat. To my surprise, the meat was MUCH too large to fit into my slow cooker, and needed to be sliced in half and nestled into place. Not knowing exactly why the BBQ/Worcestershire sauce was put on the bottom of the pan, I was concerned that this flavor would fail to reach the brisket and result in disaster. As you can see from the photo below, my fears were unfounded:  

In fact, when I returned from a double featured at the beautiful Brattle Theatre (2001: A Space Odyssey and These Amazing Shadows, if you're curious) I found that the liquid level in the cooker was quite alarming. The added sauces combined with juices from the meat to form a marinade that had almost completely submerged the brisket. As it had been nearly 8.5hrs at this point (the recipe suggests 8-10), I gave it a sturdy poke with a fork and decided to take it out when it nearly disintegrated on contact. I set it out on a plate, and got to "pulling".

I'm not sure if brisket is typically "pulled" like pork, or sliced, but these brisket was too moist to be served any other way, so I went to work on it and served it on a fluffy roll with some extra BBQ sauce. And you know what? It was pretty great. The spices were quite flavorful and the meat itself was tender and satisfying. Certain portions of the meat were drier than others (I hypothesize that these parts either weren't submerged long enough or weren't submerged at all in the cooker), but after adding more BBQ sauce, they joined rank and were just as delicious as their meaty brethren.

Surprisingly, the leftovers seemed to get better and better as the week went on, with the meat absorbing more and more barbeque sauce and somehow becoming moister in the process. I'm sure this made coworkers especially envious, but they did their best to pretend they were enjoying their Lean Cuisines. This concludes my barbecue experiment. I hope I have proven to you that you do not need a "smoker", a "pit", a "grill" or any other elitist barbecue contraptions to make delicious barbecue in your own home. But you don't have to take my word for it!