Tuesday, September 26, 2006

In heaven, there ain't no beer, That's why we make it here

I have a thing for guys who brew. Or at least, I think I must. Why else would I keep giving guys brewing equipment?

You see, I gave my ex-husband a homebrew kit for Christmas one year, because he had said he wanted to try brewing. I should have know that wouldn't work out - he wasn't exactly the sort of guy who was interested in following through on hobbies that take time and effort. The box moved with us unopened through four apartments. Anyway, my boyfriend J. decided last year that he wanted to brew, so I toddled off to the homebrew store conveniently located just a few blocks away (Modern Brewer in Cambridge) and bought the man a brew kit for Christmas. Which then sat, gathering dust, in a corner of my apartment. Every once in a while I would roll my eyes and say something under my breath to the effect of "here we go again," but generally I tried not to bother him about it. God knows there are enough projects of my own sitting around the house, not finished or not even started. Shall we discuss watercolors? Or the sewing machine?

Moving on.

Finally, this weekend, J. decided it was time to brew. We were surprised that the initial part of the process went relatively quickly and easily. Of course, we're using a kit here, so there's no measuring or complications. Like a first time baker, we're learning the process before we start in on recipes. So we read the directions, sanitized the equipment, steeped the grains, added the malt, boiled the wort for a while, added the hops, boiled a little more, cooled as fast as we could, added the yeast and put the brewing bucket in a warm corner to do its thing.

Which it did not.

No bubbling in the airlock Sunday morning. Or Sunday night. By Monday morning, I had become convinced that the yeast, having aged in a corner of my living room through this summer's hellish heat spell, was dead-dead-dead-as-a-doornail-dead. So J. hauled over to the brew shop, got some more yeast (once given the blessing from the nice brewer-man to do so), added it to the bucket, and this morning.

Well, still no bubbles.

But look at what's going on tonight!
(Note: it's hard to get a photo of bubbles)

Posted by Picasa

Bubble action! The beer, she is alive!

*Disclaimer - I don't actually like beer. Really. I like wine, and hard cider, and calvados, gin, tequila, rum, and sometimes bourbon, and I really think that's enough. I could learn to like beer, I'm sure, but I can't see a good reason to. But I love the idea of making it. I am pretty much in favor of learning how to do everything myself, so when the apocalypse comes - which George Bush is doing his best to make happen ANY DAY NOW - I will be deeply valued for my skills and knowledge. It could happen.

Monday, September 25, 2006

One step at a time

Good news from the Boston Globe about dairy.

Good read

The New Yorker has a great article about the Food Network up online. I don't have cable, and my exposure to the Food Network has been mercifully limited. I'm always amazed at how interested the online food community seems to be in these shows, which don't really appeal to me at all. But I do love the recent DVD sets of the French Chef.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Saturday's dinner

Well, this is a "cheese sandwich" kind of post.* So be it. The roast is from Simca's Cuisine, and some of the directions seemed a little off to me (I think the final cooking shoudl have been uncovered, for example), but the flavor was great. She calls for a pork loin roast larded with ham or tongue. I couldn't find a larding needle in any of the four stores I visited, including China Fair, which has such niceties as a spaetzle maker and a croissant-cutter, from which I restrained, but with delight that someone in Boston is making spaetzle and croissants. Anyway, the larding started to seem overwhelming, and the loin was so expensive, I just bought a pork sirloin roast, which comes with its own damned fat, but doesn't look as nice when sliced (see above). I followed her instructions to paint with mustard, then roll in brown sugar, and then brown - at least, up until the browning part. A roast covered in lots of mustard and brown sugar doesn't so much brown as simmer. After the "browning" you add a little bourbon, then light it, which was great fun, if a little scary. Foot-high flames from the pot! Exciting cooking adventures! Bouillon, cover, into the oven, cook cook cook, turn, salt, pepper, cook some more, then add prunes which have been soaked in more bouillon, cook just a bit more, remove meat, more whiskey into the sauce and a little arrowroot and voila! Deliciousness. Even without browning. Prunes and pork, always a winner.

*For those of you who don't read a few dozen cooking blogs a day, somebody wrote a piece a while back about how bad most food blogs are, characterizing the great number of them as "I had a cheese sandwich for lunch today" sort of affairs. In response, the food blogger community posted an enormous number of essays about cheese sandwiches, which I found charming. A "cheese sandwich" post has come to describe a post that lacks any sort of thinking or interest, just a quick description of something someone ate for lunch or, as in this case, dinner. Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Boston Mycological Society

In the fall, when the air in New England becomes crisp again, when the twilight falls early, I can feel nostalgia for the dream of academia I once held. You see, I remember when I believed that college would be like the old books I would read set in Oxford, anywhere between the early 1800s and the Second World War. There would be late nights of deep intellectual conversation, fascinating characters, professors with passion and wisdom and devotion to the great thoughts of man. People would sip sherry and quote in Latin. I would walk with the spirits of the great minds who had walked the ivy-edged paths before me.

Well, college wasn't so much like that, but there were some late nights, and some quoting (if not in Latin) and some places that were magical, like the observatory or the book-filled attic office of my favorite professor, a man equally devoted to poetry and opera. Wesleyan had enough of the old spirit to let me retain a romantic attachment to the idea of academe.

What ruined things for me was Harvard.

I work at the School of Public Health, and a less romantic place has never been found on this earth. The building was thrown up in the great ugliness-construction efforts of the 60s and 70s. It is charmless. The people are intelligent and earnest and do good work for the world, but the idea of the passionate intellectual, the man or woman devoted to ideas, the Renaissance scholar who may specialize in one field, but reads broadly and deeply from across the body of human knowledge, the professional scholar who remains an enthusiastic amateur naturalist or gourmand or musician, Nabokov with his butterflies - well, that is gone, my friends, dead and buried by the pressures of publication and specialization. The brilliant scholars watch American Idol with everyone else, read Tom Clancy, eat from the cafeteria, and churn out work with an eye to the next conference, the next publication, the next award, the next research grant. Eccentricity can not thrive in this environment. It is tiring and dull.

But even at Harvard, the slickest academic institution around, there can be little places, little moments, in which the ghosts of older academe whisper again. Tonight, I went to the Harvard Herbarium for a meeting of the Boston Mycological Club, and I heard them singing.

The Boston Mycological Club is not strictly a Harvard organization, but its links to Harvard are strong, and they are permitted to meet on Harvard grounds. The club is the oldest amateur mushroom society in the country. They get together for walks in the woods to collect mushrooms, then they use their collective expertise for identification. I signed up for a four-night course of lectures on mushroom identification, their recommended introduction to the world of mushroom gathering.

The room was not an elegant one. I had hoped the Herbarium would be located in the lovely old building that houses the Peabody Museum, but it was next door in a much later, less attractive structure. No matter. The interest of the people there, their obvious pleasure in learning more about a subject they care about passionately, was a thrill. I was, not surprisingly, one of the youngest people there. About half of the attendees, and nearly all of those pointed out as good sources of information, were in their fifties or sixties of beyond. Many wore unfashionable moustaches. One expert looked like a white-haired Johnny Fever, an aged hippie who probably became interested in mushrooms for reasons best left ignored; another seemed the embodiment of the research scientist, enthusiastic and a little nerdy. The older woman who watched the door was delicate and birdlike, with lively eyes. The thirty- and forty-somethings generally had European accents.

One exception, besides myself, was a couple in their late thirties who had just come back from a trip to Italy. They clearly had food on the mind, which naturally was why I was there as well, but something about such a straightforward desire felt almost unseemly. Other people showed great interest in spore patterns and so forth; a real amateur naturalist would surely not look at the fascinating variety of colors, forms, and growth patterns laid out on the table of specimen and think only "dinner." But that doesn't mean the love the real mushroomers had for mushrooms was cold and intellectual. They stroked the gills, smelled the caps, took one bunch into the closet to see if it still glowed (!), and, yes, rhapsodized about the pleasures of the best eating mushrooms.

I walked out into the chill air with dual dreams: of afternoons spent wandering in the woods, comparing notes on species with quirky characters, consulting field guides and making very serious noted in a special leather-bound journal, and of sautéed wild mushrooms over pasta with thyme and cream. A proper Renaissance gal would want no less.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Whisper in his ear all her favorite fruits and the most exotic places they are cultivated...

I like nearly all fruits. Even my exceptions I don't actually believe to be exceptions - that is, I am convinced that if I lived somewhere where guavas grew, I would have the opportunity to try an excellent guava and would come to love them as much as I do pretty much every other fruit. That said, I have a fresh fruit hierarchy, like anyone else. Someone blogged about his or her fruit favorites list sometime in the last week (but I've forgotten who, so I can't credit.) At any rate, all things (like ripeness and peak-of-season perfection) being equal, my fruit ranking would be thus:

The top, the top, Tower of Pisa:
Black cherries, blackberries, red raspberries, blueberries, figs, pomegranates, pears, apples, passionfruit.

Still excellent, but not quite as adored:
Plums, peaches, mangoes, Concord grapes, strawberries, pineapple, lychee, melons.

Very nice and all, but I won't go out of my way for them:
Green or red grapes, guava, papaya, starfruit, grapefruit, rhubarb.

I expect the most surprising thing in this list is the relatively low placement of those two universally adored fruits, strawberries and peaches. It's not that I don't like them: I do. But I don't get the same thrill from them that I do from the "A" list fruits, except under the right circumstances.

The right circumstances for peaches have been coming fast and furious in the last few weeks.

Some years are better for one fruit or another. Last year was a great year for pears. This spring was lousy for strawberries, but this year's peach crop has been fantastic. J. brought me three beautiful peaches this weekend, so juicy I had to eat them over the sink, sweet and perfumed. And last weekend, I made these little peach cobblers. There's something about having your own individual serving of cobbler that is particularly satisfying. Nothing special to the recipe, just a standard drop biscuit dough, unsweetened, over peaches lightly sweetened, thickened with a small amount of tapioca, and flavored with just a squeeze of lemon juice. I like to bake the peaches for about 15 minutes before covering with the dough, which gets sprinkled witha little sugar. As you can tell from the picture, these spilt over a bit in the oven, but they were plenty juicy anyway.

 Posted by Picasa