Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Harvard MOOC

When I'm not out saving the world from the forces of evil, working, keeping the house tidy or spending too much time at my local Y trying to stay fit enough to keep the world safe from the forces of evil, avoiding work, and making sure I still have the energy to keep the house tidy, I am taking a course, a MOOC, through Harvard University called SPU27x Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. It is harder than saving the world from the forces of evil, working, keeping the house tidy, and working out at the Y (uh, not that superheroes NEED to exercise, of course). But I  know that our BRAINS need to workout, too, so we can save the world from the... well, you know. Whatever. So I'm getting old and puzzles are supposed to be a good thing.

Like many superheroes, Zena has a background in art, chemistry, and information science, as well as being half Greek and loving food and wine and eating. I am taking the "food challenge", and except for my arch-enemy, MATH, it's been a great ride. I'm halfway through this 10 week course and I'm clearly spending way too much time ruminating over how to flip an equation around to solve for E (Energy, something the Goddess of Fire has too much of these days. Don't offer me caffeine unless you have some kind of death wish). Anyway, it has been incredibly interesting and challenging - I've learned a lot, some of it really useful to mortal home cooks and mostly very fundamental to superhero chefs. This is what we've done so far.

Unit 1: Introduction. I calibrated my oven by melting sugar only to discover it was running 44 degrees F below the set point, that I didn't know how to change my scale to metric (got it by now, thanks), and that I can now calculate the number of molecules of glutenin in chocolate chip cookies. This was all very useful.

Unit 2: Understanding the concept of "specific heat" and calories (too many equals large butt, FYI), what sous vide cooking is (little portions of food cooked in a vacuum pack in a water bath set at a precise temperature), and that the perfect egg sets at 64 degrees C. Oh, and how to make ricotta cheese, which has a lot to do with temperature and pH. I am now officially a superpower because I can transform milk (and vinegar) into cheese, which I transformed into an amazing lasagna dish, which has specific heat that can enlarge butts unless you are spending time saving the world or burning excess Joules at the Y.

Unit 3: Phase changes, like being a Librarian by day and Zena, Goddess of Fire by night. I learned what a rotovap was, but who cares, that adding salt increases the boiling and decreases the freezing point of water, and how to make ice cream in a baggie because you've had to much to drink to go to Stewart's for a chocolate depression fix. NOW you can make it using a few simple ingredients ON HAND. It was really delicious. Zena, Goddess of Fire, plays with ice. Served that up with wild blueberry syrup, frozen blackberries, and walnuts. Yes, went out and did overtime in the field that night!

Unit 4: Elasticity. Think squishing things, like the vermin that contribute to crime in our nation, or the doneness of steak. When you cook things using heat their "elastic modulus" changes. I calculated how cooking tofu effects its elasticity. But let's face it - tofu is just plain squishy. Next unit.

Unit 5: Gelation, Spherification and Diffusion: L equals the square root of 4Dt. It took me 2 hours to figure out that the solve for t the easiest was to do it was to square both sides of the equation. I tried the scrambled egg technique for making "wobbly" eggs and they were as good as anyone with a hangover can appreciate. The lab was to make ceviche and to measure hydrogen ion movement via lime juice into the protein. This is not interesting. But the ceviche that I made (see recipe, below) was amazing. Thanks, Cookie, for again being a willing victim of my food prowess.

Unlike most of my MOOC classmates that are also finding MATH to be their arch-enemy and a lot to take on, I have taken the extra zillion hours to refresh my skills and solve for x. And I don't mean my X, FYI. I am determined to get my certificate from Harvard and brag that I not only work hard to protect the world but I can also make the perfect steak AND figure out how many hours I need to spend at the Y, or saving the world, in order to work off those extra calories.Next lab: molten chocolate cake. Very dangerous. I'm ready!

1/2 pound saltwater fish, sushi grade, cut into 3/4" inch cubes (cod is good) [Fin is the place to go for quality fish in the Albany area]
1 cup fresh lime juice (from about 6 limes)
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 cup fresh chopped tomato
1/4 t salt
1 T chopped jalapeno pepper
1/2 avocado, diced 
tortilla chips

Denature the proteins in the fish by soaking in the lime juice for 1-2 hours. Drain. Combine onion, parsley, tomato, EVOO, salt and jalapeno pepper in a medium size bowl. Gently stir in drained fish. Top with avocado and serve with chips. Open a bottle of wine and enjoy, preferably with a good friend like Cookie, who puts up with my foodie thing, who agreed it was OMG delicious!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: We also learned about chocolate having a temper, or something along those lines. Nice to know it isn't just me. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ladies and Sea Dogs

We tasted salt.  We had fancy schmanzy salt and regular table salt.

If you google salt tasting you can get a whole bunch of really good ideas regarding how to go about this.  Of course with Zena, Goddess of Fire as your tasting companion you’re going to do it with a little bit of flare, so we mixed it up with our regular appointment and did a pop up tasting at our hair stylist’s salon.

Just a moment about our Hair Stylist at High Maintenance Hair Studio:  She’s top notch. We recommend her for all your hair styling needs, manicures, pedicures – the whole shebang.  And she does a mean salt tasting too.

Of course salt is salty. But when you do your salt tasting you’ll realize that there’s more to it than that.  That’s why you do a tasting.

This is our tasting list:

Morton fine table salt 
Balene  coarse sea  salt – France
Morton fine iodized salt  
Alea coarse red Hawaii
Morton fine sea salt  
Guava lime smoked - Hawaii
Potassium Chloride
Gray coarse sea salt [unrefined] France
Saharan Desert  fine salt
Fine rock salt [unrefined] – Utah

fyi Morton Salt has a map of where they get salt:

We added bread, butter and cucumbers to get a sense of  what the salts taste like with various foods. You can add as many foods as you like, but since we were doing a pop up tasting in a salon we kept it minimal. I think we had more than plenty of salts for one tasting. Since we only had three people I put all the little salt piles on the small square plate and set all the bags and containers with labels around the plate to show what was what. If you have a lot of people you probably want a much more spacious arrangement so that everyone can reach everything. I’d recommend that if you’re going to taste this many salts that you give yourself plenty of time and something to eat and drink in order to give your mouth a rest. Salt is strong.

Once the tasting began it was all exclamations of various kinds and speculation regarding how we’d  use each one.  Everyone was interested to find out how differently the salts taste from one another.  This is why you want to get your friends to bring over some different salts and have a tasting yourself.  Be adventurous. Since salt doesn’t spoil you can try some of those really expensive ones and divvy them out one sprinkle at a time for special occasions. Invite a goddess because that always makes the event special.


The biggest surprise for me was the potassium chloride – woah.  That is some potent salt.  Definitely taste before you use it because it will easily ruin your food if you apply it like ordinary salt.  It is often used as a salt substitute for people who don't want to use sodium as an additive to food.

We all liked the Alea Red Hawaiian and would use it for all kinds of things. In the photo you can see how we sprinkled it on a little bread and butter.  I liked trying them with both the bread and butter and then the cucumber. The moisture in the raw cucumber produced a specific effect.

Zena, Goddess of Fire, recommends the guava lime smoked salt for margarita glass rims.  To me the coarse salts provided a more intense experience and the fine salts spread across my tongue very quickly. You will find out for yourself the very interesting effects of each kind, so get out there and get tasting and let us know what you find.

Monday, November 18, 2013

From the Garden: Take Two

With a nod to the Profusser, I agree that one pass at a restaurant isn't enough to really get a feel for what it has to offer, even if you are a superhero (or a paid critic with an expense account). So I accepted an invitation to return to From the Garden on Lark Street here in Albany to see if I had any more thoughts about the experience compared to my first posting.

We made a reservation. All they had on Saturday night was 5:30. There was no one there when we arrived. They opened at 5:00. That was curious.

My friend Cookie agreed that the dining room was dingy.

When we got seated the waiter asked if we had been there before. Cookie said it was her first time. The owner, manager, host, sommelier and server asked us the same question as he poured our first of what would be three wine pairings for tonight's menu. I was glad they offered that right away, unlike the first time, when we ordered wine when we sat down because nothing came to the table until we were served a first course.

Not that we had a clue yet what was being served. This is what they had online for the week:

Anyway, the first wine was a Vermentino from Sardinia, although I didn't see the label. I was spared the long lecture about the wine - he was informative but not verbose. Spicy, crisp, very floral, served cold, it was quickly followed by a potato and leek soup (all ingredients from the Eight Mile Creek Farm in Westerlo, NY - a USDA Certified Organic farm that also won the Agricultural Environmental Management award in Albany for it's "outstanding stewardship of the land", which is cool). A nice size serving, easily three times what I got the last time, and it was very tasty, a nice texture, a bit salty but not too much so for most mortals. Hints of ginger and a new spice we couldn't place. The chef introduced us to a sample at table side of something called "braai" from South Africa, but I'm still not sure what it is. It's a blend of some sort and I'm sure there are many. She was very nice. This is what I found in wikipedia:
  • The word braai (plural braais) is Afrikaans for "barbecue" or "grill" and is a social custom in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The term originated with the Afrikaans-speaking people,[1] but has since been adopted by South Africans of many ethnic backgrounds. 

I hate when I forget to snap a pic before eating. Yes, we were both hungry!!!

Next we got the artisan salad - a couple of big fat grapes, two thin apple slices, and a bed of romaine and red cabbage with a slice of white radish, a couple of small celery and carrot sticks on top plus a sprinkling of sunflower seeds. The dressing, were were told, was made with pear, apples and a Japanese mustard. A nice size salad, fresh and crunchy, but very plain,. There was too little dressing to coat the salad ingredients, and with no oil it didn't cling at all. Here a bit of salt would have been most welcome. There was none on the table. I forgot to take a picture, but it was very pretty.

We then got a couple of small toasts and a Greek olive tapenade with some black olives from Astoria, Queens that the owner, manager, host, sommelier, and server said he'd never seen before, but we didn't get a name. It was tasty. This was served with a Torront├ęs (Rioja?) from Argentina, a white wine again served cold; very aromatic and light, perfect with the salty olive mix.

The third wine pairing was a deep red Italian dolcetto. The owner, manager, host, sommelier, and server told us it comes from a special small grape made with its stems, making it very dry, and that this bottle was so good (again, I didn't get to see the label) that he had a bunch shipped over special (of bottles, not grapes) . It was DIVINE, dry, rich, delicious. It was, however, poured into a USED tasting glass. The restaurant by this time was filling up. Maybe they didn't have enough little glasses to go around. We ordered another glass each - the guy certainly knows his wine!

Main course: "Tender Confit", this time made with both duck and chicken, a long cooking process summarily described but I missed why chicken, served over a big mound of rice, with two crispy potato chips (cooked in duck fat?), and a side of roasted veggies. Tasty, too much rice, but without it the plate may have looked skimpy. A bit too salty for my tastes, served with a liquid not unlike how the bratwurst was braised the first time I ate here, sans caraway seeds. It was good, tender, and again, not terribly creative or attractive. And it wasn't hot when it was served. Cookie said she would have liked it hot.

Finally, a chocolate sorbet for dessert. Cookie doesn't do chocolate late in the day so one of the servers (there were three by this time) offered her an apple pie sorbet (made from apples from Indian Ladder) and I got to eat both of the chocolate ones. Heaven. Really rich but dairy free. Gotta like that.

We had a Living Social coupon, $40 for $80 worth of food with the wine pairing. I emailed the Thursday before and asked how much it was for dinner and the reply was "alternates between $25 -30 per person". We were charged $40. When I asked about the price I was told that it's because the duck is a lot of preparation, and I'm thinking "Hey, I paid $40 for the bratwurst the last time I visited and no one can tell me THAT preparation is time consuming or that the ingredients are overly expensive". I kept my mouth shut. AND they knew on Thursday what they were serving on Saturday so they could have told me in the email OR when I sat down that the cost would be $40. But here's the clincher: there are NO PRICES listed anywhere - not online, not on a printed menu, not on a table card, not on a chalkboard, no where. So do they just charge what they feel like charging? Did we get charged $40 because of the coupon? I'm not sure, and I don't mean to e a bee-ach, but I think this is just a wee bit unscrupulous.

The food is pretty darn good, not great, not abundant (no leftovers possible, but that's OK - like the Profusser's posting noted above,  I don't want to waste my money on leftovers, which always suck the next day anyway). It is healthy, and local, and the wine is amazing. But until they clean up the dining room, find some linen napkins, buy a few more glasses, and print a real menu I don't think I'll be returning any time soon. Not even with the coupons.

Zena Goddess of Fire

(They hand-wrote "Suggested 18% Gratuity $18.27" on the bill. I think that's tacky.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

DOING DISHES:The Mussels Series, Part III of V: The Bier Abbey

I hate when I read "professional" reviews of bar food in the local paper. Bars are bars and we generally go there for beer and OK tasting eats which we hope are cheap, and we don't go in with high expectations. And if the food sucks no one really cares that much, they just won't order food the next time. Most bars aren't trying to impress us as much as fill our tummies so we don't stumble too much when we head out the door at last call. It's just a bar, OK?

On Thursday last week FF and I went to Schenectady, NY to try mussels at The Bier Abbey, and they fit my low-bar profile of bar food, though to their credit they are trying to give a Belgian twist to the usual fare of burgers and wings.

The Bier Abbey is located in a neat row of cool old buildings with bars and restaurants along one section of Union Street near Union College. There's a small parking lot on the corner - the lot was full, so even on a quiet night I had to park my hyperoverdrive superturbo Honda Civic on the street. Entering the restaurant through oversize rattley double doors led us into what was probably an old house, with the parlor on the right that can be closed off for a private party, and a large seating area to the left. You can move to the back of the restaurant through a corridor that also leads to the loo and kitchen, or through the busy bar, with a few booths nearby. The backity-back is set up  like a sports bar with a 10,000,000 square foot (approx.) flat screen TV. We took a booth because we like to eat with our feet on the floor. The benches were hard and the table was too far away from the bench to be comfortable - leaving us to lean into our food all through the meal. Overall the decor, look and feel of the joint was wonky and cheap. They did have real cloth napkins though, which I appreciated.No students, mostly guys drinking beer. No surprises there.

OK it's just a bar, right??? So we started with a beer order, of course. The Bier Abbey has a nice long selection of beers from all over the U.S. and we didn't know quite where to start, so we ordered a few created closer to home, then included one more that our server recommended. We had four 4-ounce beers so we could sample, with the price running $2.00 or $2.50 each. These included (reading left to right in the photo, below) New England Galaxy, an American pale ale from Woodbridge, CT (cloudy, tan, stinky, and bitter); Dales Pale Ale from Oskar Blues in Lyons, CO (my personal favorite - smooth, light amber); a Scotch Ale from Smuttynose in Portsmouth, NH (sweet - tasted like scotch!); and De Levende Doden from Rushing Duck in Chester, NY - a Belgian porter with cherries (rich and chocolatey with a smell of coffee off the top), which FF very much enjoyed. I wish I could find their beer listing online.

FOOD: FF and I ordered the "Classic Mariner" style mussels, prepared with shallots, garlic and wheat bier ($12 for 2 pounds). Also a spinach salad with candied walnuts (not too sweet), pickled onions (very interesting), fresh sliced strawberry (lovely color), and lumps of goats milk cheese (salty and creamy) all dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette. It was a really lovely salad, and a nice generous serving ($8). Our server brought the mussels then the salad. It's a bar, right??? But the food came quickly, so that tells me the kitchen and waitstaff are pretty well organized. I immediately asked for more bread to soak up the broth, and FF asked for spoons to taste it alone. The spoons were also handy for dividing up the salad. We got our extra bread right away and set to tasting.

The mussels were a disappointment. The sauce tasted a bit bitter and overly salty when tasted alone - there was NO sweetness as you might find in a wine sauce. Maybe we were also tasting the mussels more because the sauce was subdued, which meant I tasted more than a few mussels that were very fishy and that I superhero burped fishy as the evening progressed, telling me that they were NOT all that fresh when they were thrown in the pot. And the toasts ended up heavily doused in garlic salt, which, if I had known, I would have asked for the extra to be plain. It tasted like GARLIC SALT. So did everything by the end of the meal. And fishy. I'm glad we had strawberries to cleanse the palette. A lemon wedge might have been a nice touch on an otherwise boring plate. Next time I'll order the burger, just to be on the safe side.

If you read this blog to the end you are doing better than me. It's a bar and it was just OK. Who cares??? I don't know, but it was good to get out of Albany for a change. And heck, what superpower doesn't want to go on the occasional adventure to deepest, darkest Schenectady?

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Into the Fire: Mio Vino Wine Bar & Bistro

I spent the afternoon of a half-rainy Saturday in Thacher State Park with my friend Cookie, hiking all over the place, eating hazelnuts we stole from the squirrels, and munching on pears fallen from long forgotten trees. We were feeling sustainable and green, which of course modern superpowers do ALL THE TIME.

And though our feet don't get cold and we don't wear out and we don't fall on slippery rocks and actually admit it, I was sure my mortal friend Cookie was tired and hungry so I suggested we go to Mio Vino Wine Bar & Bistro in nearby Altamont for an early dinner. I offered to send a telepathic message but instead she used her mobile to text Stretch, who met us at the bar just after 5:00. We couldn't get a table, since we didn't have a reservation, but that was fine. The bar area was very comfortable and it wasn't being used as an overcrowded holding pen for people waiting for a regular table. Warm and cozy.

Mio Vino is located on the corner of Main and Maple, across from the old train station in this picturesque rural upstate NY town sited just below the Helderbergs. Really charming. Opened in late 2011, Mio Vino is the only place in Altamont where you can go out and buy a drink.

And the neighbors noticed. This was a yuppie crowd - no beer in sight, a few cocktails, and WINE on every table. I looked through a few walls into the adjoining small dining areas and the same was true throughout. Voted "Best Wine List" in the Capital Region in 2013, Mio Vino has an upscale menu with a sophisticated following away from the low hum of downtown Albany.

When we arrived I noticed the street had the sweet smell of wood smoke - it made me feel really joyful, because I am the Goddess of Fire. I know, whatever. Anyway, their delightful offerings include wood fired pizzas, build your own or order one of the half dozen or so combos, some of which I tried last spring on a Friday night when it's FREE pizza at the bar from 400 to 600 p.m.

We felt relaxed after our afternoon of raw food, ready for something less virtuous. And a drink! Our server introduced himself and so did we - he was very sweet, professional and charming all at once. He messed up my name the first time but I told him he could call me Zena, Goddess of Fire, if that was easier to remember. We ordered a bottle of 2010 Belasco Llama Malbec from Argentina, but were served a 2012 Old Vine, also by Belasco. When I pointed out the difference our server told us that the vintages are subject to change by the purveyors, but I still think patrons should be forewarned. Anyway, the wine was delicious - heady, smooth and fruity. Not much of a deal by the bottle, however - $9/glass or $34/bottle saves you maybe $2 - but nothing to get all fired up about, I guess. We ended up ordering a second bottle of wine between the three of us. A lovely bottle for sure.

The menu isn't long but has a nice range of choices, including small plates, salads, fish, carne (the only part of the menu in Italian, which was kinda funny), sandwiches and pizza. The variety means that just about anyone can get what they want, even just a burger for you burger fans out there. The small plates included Seared Tuna Tacos, Spinach and Artichoke Dip, as well as Danish Pork Ribs and Risotto Cakes. I decided for my main meal to order the mussels ($12) from the small plates section of the menu. They were prepared with garlic, Pinot Grigio, pancetta, fresh basil and tomato in a light cream spinach pesto sauce. This with a few slices of sourdough was, for me, a perfect repast. The mussels (a full pound, I'm guessing) were sweet, incredibly tender (even soft!), garlicky and served nice and hot. Delicious. Not part of our official Doing Dishes tasting series but they could have been. Definitely a contender.

The garlic knots served in the bread basket were divine - warm, cheesy, greasy and truly addictive. By this time I had forgotten about the nuts in the park and concentrated instead on my nutty friends.

Stretch and Cookie both ordered sandwiches, served with a side salad. Stretch had the Curry Chicken Sandwich ($11), a masala spiced chicken with celery, raisins and walnuts in a curried mango chutney mayo between warm naan. She said it was good,  not too spicy (could have been spicier but assumed it was milder to hit more mainstream tastes). The chicken salad, however, was cold - which wasn't bad, it just wasn't expected to be. The menu didn't say anything. Not cool.

Cookie enjoyed the Seared Ahi Tuna Sandwich ($14), made with hoisin-glazed tuna encrusted with black and white sesame seeds on a brioche bun. The bun was dark like a pretzel, shiny, and delicious; the tuna was perfectly seared, still nicely pinky-red in the center, tender and tasty. 

She had been here earlier in the week and ordered a beet salad served with poached pears, gorgonzola and candied walnuts, with the dressing on the side. She and her buddy both thought the salad had a musty taste, and even though they deconstructed the elements and tasted each they couldn't figure out where the funny flavors were coming from. Tonight, the ladies each had a side of Mio Salad (mixed green), served with a house dressing. OK, simple, and guess what? YES, it still tasted musty to both me and Cookie, but Stretch didn't seem to mind the taste. We were wondering if there was some herb in the mesclun mix that wasn't complimenting the flavors overall. Although I am a superpower I apparently am missing some small ability to taste cilantro, so to me it tastes soapy. The mystery remains unsolved on the salad.

By 630 the restaurant was full, including the bar. Some folks were eating, some just having a mixed drink or a glass of wine. The setting is low light (too dark at the bar, though, to read the menu - we used the flashlight apps on our mobile phones to see by [well, I could see it because of my incredible superpowers but my mortal friends needed a bit of illumination and I was happy to use the latest technology to help out]). Open T, W, R, Sunday 500 to 900 pm and F, Sat 500 to 1000 pm this is not a place to rock the night away. The kitchen and staff are focused only on offering a good dinner and a nice glass of wine in a comfortable,welcoming environment and, I think, they have succeeded nicely.

We stayed for a couple of hours and definitely plan to return. Dinner for three was $130 including tax and tip, most of which was wine money well spent. And the waiter even remembered my name (see above ) - very impressive!

Zena Goddess of Fire

PS: Why is there a TV on in the bathroom???? That was definitely weird.