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Boston Bakes: Chile Olive Oil Charity Bake-off

11 Nov

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(Clockwise l-r) Fig pudding cakes from Treats on Washington, brioche donut from Sofra, and citrus cupcake from Isabelle’s Curly Cakes

The Chilean Association of Growers and Producers of Olives and Olive Oil recently went on a three city tour to promote the country’s robust olive oil industry. Recognizing that hosting a simple olive oil tasting is probably a tough sell, they got creative and threw an excellent free event in Somerville. In addition to sampling Chilean olive oils,  attendees enjoyed free wine and FIVE desserts. The winner of the charity bake-off was honored with a $1,000 donation made in their name to Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer. The only guideline was that each baker needed to incorporate one of the Chilean olive oils into their dessert.

Jaime Davis No. 9 Park Pastry Chef

No. 9 Park Pastry Chef Jaime Davis

Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer founder Carol Sneider was in attendance, sharing the moving story of how she started the charity 14 years ago. When Carol was 16, she lost her mother to breast cancer. Her family’s history of breast cancer combined with having a daughter of her own, she felt compelled to do something. Thanks to her passion and dedication,  hundreds of Boston restaurants will once again offer diners an opportunity to support breast cancer research by enjoying a dessert from from May 6-12th.

Carol Sneider and Chilean Olive Oil met thanks to the magic of Twitter, but I wonder if the embattled Todd English was another connection. English is a friend of  Boston Bakes, a promoter of Chilean Olive Oil, and his sister lost a battle with breast cancer.

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No 9. Park: Vanilla olive oil bavarian cake with grapes, almonds, and celery

My favorite dessert of the night was courtesy of No. 9 Park Pastry Chef Jaime Davis. Her vanilla Bavarian cake swapped in tahini and olive oil instead of butter. The naturally sweet and bold olive oil flavor complemented the candy almond and celery. The olive oil sweet jam was the winning touch. At excellent restaurants, sometimes people get carried away with apps, cocktails, and entrees, that they forget to save room for dessert. If this dish is any indication, that is not a mistake you want to make at No. 9 Park.

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Treats on Washington: Fig pudding cake

Another great dessert was a fig pudding cake by Brighton bakery Treats on Washington. The bakery was started by long-time friends Dana Briley and Jessica Brown who met at the Culinary Institute of America in 2000. Their olive oil pudding cake with black mission figs and citrus glaze made for a beautiful and memorable treat.

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Isabelle’s Curly Cakes: citrus cupcake

The biggest surprise of the night came from Isabelle’s Curly Cakes. I almost skipped the table altogether because I’m not a cupcake fan (I’m a muffin guy, what can I say?). However, out of fairness, I tried their citrus cupcake with spiced buttercream frosting. I’m so glad I did.

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Isabelle’s Curly Cakes: Blood orange curd surprise!

Upon investigation, it was filled with a delicious blood orange curd! Curly Cakes got a close second place on my scorecard.

I wasn’t an official judge, however. That difficult task was left up to Bianca Garcia of Confessions of a Chocoholic, Karen from Fussy Eater, and Susan from Food Service East. They awarded first place to  freelance chef Jon Sargeant. His dessert had some truly great elements, but he suffered from a lack of editing. After his dessert was introduced, he corrected the announcer, saying that he had been inspired in the kitchen and started adding more and more ingredients. Ahh, it all made sense. The olive oil cake with
creme fraiche, cranberries steeped in olive oil, blueberries, orange, basil, rosemary – I wasn’t able to keep up with the long list of ingredients.

Also generously participating was Sofra in Cambridge. Sofra made the brioche donut with salted caramel glaze (in first picture). I’m not a big salted caramel or brioche fan, so it wasn’t my favorite – but that’s by no fault of their own. I absolutely can’t wait to go this week and see what else Sofra has to offer. It’s been recommended to me by several of my most trusted dessert advisers.

This wasn’t my first time nerding out about olive oil. In addition to attending my fair share of olive oil tastings and festivals, I was fortunately enough to learn about olive oil from Tom Mueller, the guy who literally wrote the book on it.

An excerpt from my review of his book launch at Fig & Olive:

“…Olive oil has played an important symbol throughout history: babies used to be slathered in olive oil during baptisms, and it was olive oil that would  in baths and gymnasiums.

“Olive oil has played a significant role in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  ‘In Israel it is obvious that Hanukkah is connected with olive oil,’ said David Eitam, director of the Olive Oil Industry Museum in Haifa, Israel. ‘The famous miracle in 165 B.C., when Judah Maccabee and his brothers found a drop of oil to light the candelabra in the Temple in Jerusalem, was not soy or vegetable oil. It was olive oil, common in Israel from the time of Adam and Eve.’ In addition to lighting, olive oil was used for fuel, medicine, cooking, and ablutions on priests during the biblical period. In the Qu’ran, Prophet Mohammed also drenched himself in olive oil. Other uses of olive oil throughout history includes cosmetics, preservatives, weaving, aphrodisiacs, and contraceptives.

“Today of course, we are more familiar with olive oil in the kitchen. There are 200 active ingredients in olive oil, offering important health and nutrition benefits. There are also 700 different kinds of olives.”

Just as Chilean Olive Oil and Boston Bakes connected through Twitter, I heard about this event through the same magical tool. It was a unique and decadent event – just the type of surprising night that is making me fall in love with this chilly city.

Election Night 2012: Brick & Mortar Goes Red, White, and Blue

9 Nov

cookies

At least we can all agree that cookies deserve bi-partisan support

The excruciatingly long presidential campaign finally came to end this week, and it wasn’t a moment too soon. Not only was I tired of government officials and policy experts telling me that “this issue can’t get addressed until after the election,” those incessant Scott Brown YouTube ads kept interrupting my Kendrick Lamar music video marathons. I was ready to party.

The night began as many of my best Cambridge nights have: at Brick and Mortar in Cambridge’s Central Square.  This bar was on my radar long before I departed LA, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that it was within walking distance of my new home. From the first time I eagerly hopped up the stairs and saw the arched copper bar shimmering in the dim, exposed brick cocktail sanctuary, I knew that I had found something special.

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Brick & Mortar’s Drink the Vote: White

The vinyl’s always spinning, the bar food is simple and delicious, and you can count on the crowd to be lively but never out of control. The atmosphere alone would be enough to make it worth a visit if it was simply a neighborhood bar offering Miller High Life and a shot of whiskey. However, this is not one of those bars. This bar has Misty Kalkofen.

Misty is one of Boston’s greatest gems. She first found herself behind the stick while earning a Masters in Theologian Studies at Harvard. She’s since honed her craft at B-Side Lounge, Green Street, Lilli’s, West Side Lounge, Tremont 647, and Drink. When her friend Patrick Sullivan was ready to open the bartender’s bar Brick and Mortar last year, Misty left Drink to re-team with the B-Side Lounge founder.

Misty continues to be important force in raising the profile of Boston’s cocktail scene. In 2007, she founded the Boston chapter of Ladies United for the Preservation of the Endangered Cocktail (LUPEC), a cocktail society that raises money for local charities while “Dismantling the patriarchy…one drink at a time!” As a vocal admirer of strong, talented, no non-sense women behind the bar, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of LUPEC’s mission and efforts.

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Brick & Mortar’s Drink the Vote: Red

A current cocktail trend is to use as many ingredients and techniques as possible. Why just add a tobacco tincture when you can add liquid smoke and carbonate it? Brick and Mortar takes a different approach, the same kind I try to adopt at home: serve creative and interesting cocktails using only a few ingredients. There’s no hiding here behind fancy tricks – it’s all about balancing flavors.

And if you’ve ever wanted to learn about mescal, find yourself a stool at the bar when Misty’s working (your best bets are Mon-Wed) and order a Slow Dance with Pedro Infante. Normally my first order at Brick and Mortar, it seems deceptively simple but this smoky, bitter mistress just steals my heart every time.

A Slow Dance with Pedro Infante

1.75 oz. Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal
3/4 oz. Gran Classico
1/2 oz. Averna

Stir with ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass.

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Misty Kalkofen shakes up some patriotic drinks

Election night is typically a slow night at bars, so Misty was thrilled when local beer brewing heroes Pretty Things expressed interest in throwing an election event. If you came election night wearing an “I Voted” sticker, you got a gorgeous Pretty Things pint glass, pin, and sticker.

More importantly, you got to order the election night beer cocktail specials. On the menu were three cocktails featuring Pretty Thing’s flagship brew Jack d’Or.

White: Gin, pastis, lemon, and Jack d’Or. 

Red: Scotch, Velvet Falernum, beet, lemon, and Jack d’Or.

Blue: Light rum, blue curacao, pineapple, lemon, Jack d’Or.

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Last Word for Murray Stenson & Finishing the Hat Trick w/ Blue

Despite all being topped off with the same beer, each cocktail was remarkably different in flavor (as well as color, obviously). If you weren’t expecting good news on election night, the White was for you. You can blame the bitter taste in your mouth on the anise-flavored pastis liqueur instead of the election not going your way.

Blue was a bit more familiar: tropical and easy drinking for those having a great night.

My favorite of the night was Red, a scotch drink featuring beet juice that made you stand up and take notice. While I often resist asking such obvious questions, I just had to ask: what was the inspiration for featuring beets? I’m so glad I asked. I was rewarded with an envy-invoking tale of Misty’s trip to the Chartreuse Mountains. The French liqueur Chartreuse is made by Carthusian Monks and is a must-have in my homebar. Misty not only got to visit the distillery, but she got to meet the two monks that each know half of the heavily guarded secret recipe. One of the last cocktails she had on that visit featured beets, and she’s been toying with how to use the ingredient ever since.

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Yes We Cake from Harvard Kennedy School party

After my friend and I finished the Red, White, and Blue beer cocktails, it was time for a little green. My last cocktail of the night was pre-determined: The Last Word featuring gin, chartreuse, lime and maraschino. In addition to being one of my favorite prohibition-era cocktails, Brick and Mortar was donating a portion of the proceeds of each Last Word to a fund for the ailing bartending legend Murray Stenson. You can also enjoy an excellent Last Word while helping Murray at the Hawthorne, as I did recently. If you really want to drink for a good cause, you should join me at JM Curley’s on Sunday night for “This One’s for Murray.”

It was time for me to make my exit, but as luck would have it, one more Jack d’Or was in my near future. Treasure Tip: sometimes it pays off to go up and say hi to someone you’ve only met virtually. After a couple of drinks, I decided to say hi to Todd Alstrom who I had only met on Twitter. In addition to being a co-founder of online beer rating bible Beer Advocate, he’s also a Central Sq local, friend of Pretty Things, and all around nice guy who I found out later bought beers for the first 20 people to find him.

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Eagerly awaiting the election results, while our host enforces her rule that every guest wears a temporary red & blue stars tattoo

It was hard to say goodbye so early in the night, but I was ready to join my friends for a viewing party in The Forum at the Kennedy School of Government. There was more heated discussion about who had a crush on whom than the validity of Nate Silver’s forecast models, but I got my fill of nerding out. It was time to jump back on my bike and see what the Australians were up to.

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How policy grad students watch the election: jambalaya, Funyuns, & lots of craft beer

As it turns out, the house full of Australian students were more excited about the election than anyone. After too many beers and a regrettable amount of Funyuns later, Obama finally gave his victory speech and I headed home around 1:30 am.

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Love how the foreigners at the party were more excited and emotionally invested than us actual voters

Now that the election is behind us, maybe we can tackle pressing issues like the EU debt crisis, Syria, and Iran while avoiding falling off the fiscal cliff. If we don’t find a resolution to avoid the debilitating cuts that seems to worry Europeans more than us at home, you’ll be able to find me hunkered down in Brick and Mortar drinking away my woes.

Brick and Mortar
569 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02139

Election Season Gets Bloody: Exploring the Legacy of Andrew Jackson through Song at SpeakEasy Stage

6 Nov

A version of this article originally appeared in The Citizen newspaper

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson SpeakEasy Stage

Andrew Jackson (Gus Curry, far left) takes on the Washington Establishment (from left: Joshua Pemberton, Ben Rosenblatt, Tom Hamlett & Ryan Halsaver) Photo courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

There may be no better political theatre than the creative storytelling and mythmaking broadcast live 24-hours a day during the current presidential election season, but SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson comes pretty close for those of us who just can’t get enough horse-racing and realpolitik. Instead of suffering through songs by Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down, and Taylor Hicks at Romney campaign rallies, audiences of this political pageantry get to enjoy a fist-pumping emo-rock score while exploring the legacy of our blood-letting seventh President.

On the surface, the musical attempts to answer the question posed by our wheelchair-bound, pink Crocs wearing narrator, “Was Jackson a great president, an American hero or a genocidal murderer?” The brawling, dueling, slave-owning Andrew Jackson became a national hero for his role in the War of 1812. Tired of an unresponsive bureaucracy controlled by northeastern elites who ignored the needs of Americans on the frontier, Old Hickory attempted to bring the presidency to the people. With a corrupt system mobilized against him and facing seemingly impossible challenges including the “Indian Problem,” the audience must accept the uncomfortable task of exploring the legacy of the founder of the Democratic Party.

At the show’s core, however, is an attempt to address the role of populism in our present day political system. When writer Alex Timbers and songwriter Michael Friedman first proposed an emo rock musical about King Andrew I and adolescent America in 2006, it was really meant to poke fun at President George W. Bush. When Jackson is denied the presidency in 1824 despite winning the most popular and electoral votes in 1824, it’s hard not to think of Bush v. Gore during “The Corrupt Bargain” musical number.

“John Calhoun says, ‘We need to find a scheme to keep the power in the hands of the chosen few.’

John Quincy Adams says, ‘If my dad was president, I should get to be president too.’

Henry Clay says, ‘I’ll make you president if you make me Secretary of State.’

Alexis de Tocqueville says something in French that none of us can translate.

All you educated people, you can talk of liberty. But do you really want the American people running their own country?… Let’s Dance!”

When I saw the musical’s world premiere in Jan. 2008 at the Kirk Douglas theatre in Los Angeles, it seemed like perfect commentary for the populist campaigns of Huckabee and Edwards. When the show made its journey from LA to Off-Broadway and then On-Broadway in 2010, it seemed like sharp commentary on the rise of Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers. With the Obama and Romney election coming down to the wire, there’s no better time to experience the play that explores what it means to be an American and the challenges of being a direct representative of a divided people.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson SpeakEasy Stage

Andrew Jackson negotiates with Indian tribes. From left: Evan Murphy, Joshua Pemberton, Gus Curry, and Tom Hamlett. Photo courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Don’t let me give you the wrong impression. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not all talk of corruption, the spoils system, and the forcible relocation of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. For every uncomfortable truth we are forced to confront about our bloody history, there’s a couple cheerleaders making out in the Oval Office and an irreverent couplet like, “Would you like to see my stimulus package? I’m gonna fill you with Popula-jizz-m.”

Normally relegated to the director’s chair, this project allowed writer Alex Timbers to embrace his inner history nerd (he studied at Yale, but we won’t hold that against him). With allusions to Reagan’s Morning in America ads, political activist Susan Sontag, and French philosopher Michael Foucault, there are plenty of Easter eggs for the political nerds among us. Songwriter Michael Friedman uses the rock and post-punk score to explore the politics of pop music as well as the role of pop music in politics. The Green Day musical American Idiot will surely come to mind when enjoying the loud, irreverent songs and nasal delivery throughout Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but this musical benefits from actually having something to say.

The Boston premiere of the most relevant show this political season features a comically gifted cast under the direction of Paul Melone and an electrifying set designed by Eric Levenson. Musical director Nicholas James Connell does a commendable job as bandleader, but his solos fall a bit flat in comparison to the laudable vocal performances by the rest of the cast. Gus Curry possesses the intensity, rock star presence, and vocal talent to pull off the challenging role of Andrew Jackson.

The Era of Jacksonian Democracy may be long gone, but the legacy of the deeply controversial and complicated veto-wielding President is still unsettled. The script continued to evolve as new scholarship emerged on this polarizing figure responsible for expanding our territories and preserving the union, as well as the deaths of countless Native Americans. Jackson may be on the $20 bill, but his role in shaping our current political system often goes unnoticed. It’s about time this important period in our nation’s history got the pop-culture treatment. As the show’s poster promises, “History just got all sexy pants.”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through Nov. 17 at the SpeakEasy Stage, Boston. Tickets are available at speakeasystage.com with student rush tickets available for $14 at the Box Office window an hour before curtain.

Boston Cocktail Summit: Do You Speak Amari?

1 Nov

amaro

14 Amari for breakfast? I think I died & went to my own booze-soaked heaven

My most-anticipated class at the inaugural Boston Cocktail Summit held in October was “Do You Speak Amari,” and it did not disappoint. Having the opportunity to try over a dozen different amaro in itself was enough to make it a worthwhile event, but it was presenter Franceso Lafranconi who made it my weekend highlight. The warm, knowledgeable, and charming Franceso started behind the bar in Northern Italy when he was 18. He now serves as National Director of Mixology & Spirits Educator at Southern Wine & Spirits of America and gave an informative and polished presentation.

So what is this amari I keep talking about? Literally meaning bitter in Italian, an amaro is an Italian bitter herbal  liquor. It is considered a digestive that is usually consumed at the end of a meal.

The process begins with selecting the herbs and spices  that will give the amaro flavor. Fernet Branca, for example, is a blend of over 40 herbs and spices. These herbs and spices are then ground and pressed in order to extract the active compounds. The next step is infusion and filtering or maceration. This mixture may then go through a partial distillation. A dark and bitter extract is then obtained, filtered, and mixed with sugar.

shauna

My good friend & fellow writer from LA “The Minty” checking out the bottles of amari we tried

While all amari share basic characteristics like bitter botanicals, a minimum ABV of 15%, and sugar content under 10%, certain dominant ingredients and flavors can be identified with a little attention. Cynar and Fernet Branca have long been must-haves in my home bar. Cynar was developed in 1952 and is made from an infusion of artichoke leaves. Cynar is a favorite among bartenders when adding a bitter element to a cocktail, and it’s inclusion in a drink typically makes it a must-order for me.

Created in 1845 by Bernadino Branca, Fernet Branca is the #1 selling digestive in the world. It’s ubiquity has lead to the common misconception that Fernet is a brand, but it is actually a category of amaro with several new Fernet liquors entering the market. We had the opportunity to try Fernet Luxardo, which was developed in the 1960’s and is higher in alcohol content and lower in sugar than Fernet Branca. Coming in at 90 proof, Luxardo is strong on licorice, cinnamon, saffron, and the flowering plant gentian (which is also featured in Angostura bitters and Aperol).

fernet-artss

Amaro Averna is also one of the most widely available amari. Created by an herbalist friar in 1868 as a healing bitter elixir, it was either given by the monks to Salvatore Averna as payment for help, or the stolen recipe was bought by Averna from someone at the monastery. Either way, this lower proof and sweeter amaro now leads the amari market in Italy and remains in the Averna family. At 58 proof, this almond, orange, and liquorice-forward elixir is good anytime.

Another amaro you may have encountered at a well-stocked bar is Rabarbaro Zucca. Featuring steamed rhubarb and weighing in at only 32 proof, Zucca has been enjoyed as a before dinner spritzer since 1845. I can’t wait to experiment with it in cocktails after Francesco shared some good pairings: lemon, strawberry jam, and gin.

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Also on our tasting menu were some less-commonly seen amari. Perhaps the most unique, and most bitter, was Amaro Sabilla. Founded in 1868 by Girolamo Varnelli, the company is still in the Varnelli family. 30 herbs and spices are heated in a wood fire to a boil with honey from the Sibillini Mountains, water, and alcohol. The micro batches are stored for six months in stainless steel tanks and yield a 68 proof honey and gentian-forward amaro. Just a few dashes of Sabilla in a cocktail will add a bitter & honey touch. I shared Francesco’s appreciation for the beautiful logo and bottle, and he was kind enough to arrange for the company to send me a poster. And yes, it was sent by a Varnelli.

Amaro Sibilla by Varnelli

I’m excited to get my hands on a bottle of Nonino Quintessentia. Once we were told it paired great with ginger beer and ale, as well as Prosecco cocktails, I knew a trip to a North End liquor store laid ahead. Made with grape distillate and stored in sherry oak barrels, it features orange and liquorice root notes.

braulio-amaro-alpino-bormio

We were among the first in the US to try this amaro

Francesco still had one surprise up his sleeve. We were among the first in the US to try the Braulio Amaro Alpino – definitely worth seeking out amari lovers.

fernet-bike

The class was sponsored by market leader and king of cool Fernet Branca. A drawing for a Fernet bike captured the hearts of so many of us cocktail nerds.

I do not recommend recreating my first amaro experience. My friend accidentally bought Fernet Menta instead of the more common Fernet Branca. After a particularly heavy home-cooked meal, he was pushing shots in order to drain the bottle and provide justification for purchasing another bottle of Fernet. Fernet Branca is already pretty mint-forward, and Fernet Menta was a straight minty punch to the face for my uninitiated palate. Yet, after a big meal the next day, I was craving a sip of Fernet. It hasn’t been the same since – I’m currently sipping on Fernet Menta as I write this post.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bus to the North End to catch so I can buy a few new amari favorites.

MassMouth: Connecting Boston through Storytelling

24 Oct

This story originally appeared in The Citizen, a newspaper of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

140 character tweets. Ten word emails hastily composed on our smartphones while walking to class. Three sentence life updates sent to friends on Gchat while watching pithy one-liners being traded on TV. Technological advances have improved the efficiency and convenience of communication, but there is a real concern that online engagement is leading to offline isolation.

We are fortunate to attend a school where isolation is difficult by design. As an undergrad at UCLA, I could go a whole day without bumping into anyone I knew during my 15 minute jaunts from class to class. At the bite-size Kennedy School (UCLA had parking structures that could fit three of our campuses), the challenge is not finding a familiar face. Instead, the challenge is resisting the urge to interrupt a friend who is furiously finishing a problem set in the Forum. By being organized into cohorts, familiarity comes naturally.

HR Britton, Audience Winner (Photo courtesy of Paula Junn, MassMouth)

Despite the advantages of this uniquely engineered environment, we often find ourselves struggling to communicate on a personal and more meaningful level. We were repeatedly reminded during orientation to resist the natural tendency to fall back on the typical “Where are you from? What do you do?” elevator conversation. Much of our time around the water cooler (or free coffee machine in the study) is spent commiserating about upcoming exams and piling up homework…err, I mean “problem sets” since we are professionals. When was the last time you heard a fully-fleshed story that was moving yet comical, animated but personal?

For me, it was just last week. I stumbled upon a story slam at folk music venue Club Passim in the heart of Harvard Square. The concept of a story slam is simple: audience members can throw their name into a hat, and if selected, step up to the mic and tell a short personal story related to that evening’s theme. What’s harder to describe, however, is the feeling you get as an audience member listening to these incredible stories by that guy who may also be your waiter at your neighborhood restaurant.

“Everybody uses and appreciates stories,” explains professional storyteller and MassMouth co-founder Norah Dooley. “This comes as a standard feature of the human ‘operating system.’ Stories help us understand and value our own lives. Since the dawn of human language, people have shared wisdom, joy and troubles through story.”

Daniel Joan tells an unbelievable tale of paranormal activity

Co-founders Dooley and Andrea Lovett have been hosting MassMouth events for over four years, but even after my very first slam, I know that Dooley was right that there is something hardwired in us that responds to the simple and pure beauty of storytelling. For the first time since arriving in Cambridge, I felt connected to my new community.

Take the evening’s winner Justin Werfel, for example. I doubt he even saw my face in the crowd as he told his story under the stage lights, yet I feel like I know him. As he recounted his race against the sun to complete a prank during Rush Week at MIT under the security of darkness, I felt like I was right there getting my hands dirty with him. I was grateful for the cover of darkness in Club Passim as runner-up Ayala Livny, program manager at Harvard Square’s homelessness drop-in center Youth on Fire, talked about one magical night under a meteor shower as a camp counselor; without the darkness, everyone would have seen just how much her story moved me. The audience’s favorite was HR Britton, who brilliantly incorporated music into the world’s oldest story, the circle of life.

It appears that I’m not alone in this desire to connect with my community. I found MassMouth serendipitously through a failed attempt to attend The Moth at Cambridge’s Oberon Theatre. The Moth began in founder George Dawes Green’s New York living room in 1997. The Moth’s success on public radio prompted an expansion to four new cities this season, including a Boston premiere last week.

Justin Werfel, Winner of the Storyslam (Photo courtesy of Paula Junn, MassMouth)

Unfortunately, I failed to beat The Moth’s bizarre system where 50 advanced tickets are sold online for $16, and the last 150 or so seats are sold for $8 to story lovers willing to wait in line for over an hour. After Nadir Vissanjy (MPP1) and I were turned away following 30 minutes of waiting, I was ready to admit defeat and return home to finish a problem set. Fortunately, enterprising MassMouth volunteer Dan Dahari explained that another story telling event was taking place down Mass Ave. Since my new goal of saying yes whenever possible, especially if it’s out of my comfort zone, has contributed to some of the most memorable experiences of my short life, Nadir and I were on our way.

In addition to providing an opportunity for Boston residents to enjoy the timeless magic of live storytelling, MassMouth brings this experience to local school children. MassMouth is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that goes into local schools and teaches students how to share their own stories. Slam attendees donated $114 to go towards providing prizes for the best storytellers at these schools.

As public narrative students can testify, each of us has a story to tell. We’re fortunate to have organizations like MassMouth providing opportunities to tell, and most importantly hear, each other’s stories.

The next story slam at Club Passim will be Nov. 19 and the theme is “Foodie.” Tickets are $6 for students. Find a complete schedule of events and download MassMouth podcasts at massmouth.ning.com

Toro: The Best Meal I’ve Had in Boston, So Far

30 Sep

crudo

Atun Crudo

Toro is the closest I’ve come to reaching food nirvana in this great city. Bold and creative tapas by two of the most buzzworthy chefs in town: Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette.  I had been cooking quite healthy all week, so I chose to go all out with my selections. Vegetarians, might want to skip past some of the next pictures.

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Asado de Huesos

Bone marrow doesn’t get much better looking than that. The roasted bone marrow was generous with radish citrus salad and oxtail marmalade on bread.

foie-gras

Foie Gras con Duraznos

Why stop at just marrow when foie gras is on the menu? I don’t go crazy for foie like a lot of my friends, so it wasn’t a predictable choice for me. However, something about the new foie ban in my hometown of LA made it a bit more enticing. The perils of bad public policy, I suppose. I’m glad I gave foie yet another try – a nice sear and a delicious peach jam really did the dish justice.

mussels

Mejillones

Toro’s Barcelona style really came into focus with a bowl of mussels with chorizo and basque cider. If you tend to find mussels a little too subtle in flavor, you’ll love the addition of chorizo here.

uni

Uni Bocadillo

The bread in the open-faced sandwich recalled a canvas, with the orange sheen of the fresh uni recalling the surreal characters by Os Gêmeos. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time at museums lately. The miso butter and pickled mustard seeds were nice touches.

tuna-belly

Tuna Conserva

I feigned at ordering a lighter dish, but that’s not just ordinary tuna . Mmm… Spanish tuna belly, with tomato tapenade, and celery leaves.

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Perro Picante & Stratocruiser

Toro backs up its excellent food with a good cocktail and wine program. My best drink of the afternoon was the Perro Picante. Deaths Door Gin (delicious) got the grapefruit treatment, with the spicy pepper rim adding considerable depth. Highly recommended.

I also tried the Stratocruiser because although I order any shrub on any cocktail list, I’ve never seen a blueberry shrub. The vinegar with New Hampshire blueberries are combined with gin, maraschino, and lemon. Don’t be fooled: it’s not as sweet as it looks. In fact, the overpowering vinegar flavor may have needed a bit more balancing.

cocktail-toro

Sanguinello Highball

The Sanguinello Highball was refreshing and a perfect choice for day drinking. Aperol and blood orange satisfied my quench for something bitter, but instead of using my favorite nightcap spirit whiskey, it featured my day drinking spirit of choice: gin.

dessert

Manchego con Membrillo and Churros con Chocolate

For dessert, I found the churro average but its accompanying very salty chocolate sauce delicious. The better choice was the traditional Spanish dish, aged manchego with a quince paste.

toro-bar

Toro Wine Bar

Not only do I want to come back to Toro to finish off the rest of the menu (starting with their famous corn), I want to try Oringer’s other joints Coppa, Clio, Uni, La Verdad, and Earth. New Yorkers are in for quite the treat with a Toro on their way.

Toro
1704 Washington St
Boston, MA

Brazilian Street Artists Os Gêmeos Invite You to Enter their Surrealist World

30 Sep

back-in-the-days

Back in the Days, 2008

Portuguese twin artists Os Gêmeos first captured my imagination at the Aug. 2011 Art in the Streets exhibit at LA’s MOCA. Their vivid and surreal depictions of urban and rural characters were intoxicating. And the colors – not enough can be said about  their trademark palette. I was tickled when I noticed the above work at the current solo exhibition at the ICA Boston, because it is actually owned by MOCA’s embattled director Jeffrey Deitch, currently the most hated man in the LA art world. Below is my article that appeared in the Sep. 25. 2012 issue of The Citizen newspaper.

A street art exhibit featuring Portuguese twins who alternate between playful depictions of rural traditions and critiques of social inequity – the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Os Gêmeos seems custom-made for Kennedy School students. Need further proof? It’s free for Harvard students.

upside-down

Amanheceu De Cabeca Prabaxo (Upside Down Sunrise), 2012. Mixed media on panel

The first US solo museum exhibition of the São Paulo twin brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo runs through Nov. 25 and is well worth the T ride to Boston’s waterfront. As with all great graffiti success stories, the twins’ tale begins during the explosion of hip-hop in mid-1980s New York City.

Inspired but lacking affordable spray paint and concrete knowledge of how the New Yorkers did it, Os Gêmeos were forced to pave their own path. Armed with paint rollers and latex paint pigment, the twins developed a signature style featuring yellow-tinged characters and surrealist scenes. While they are known for their large-scale murals celebrated around the world, their paintings that incorporate household objects and wood sculptures are among the most moving in this exhibition.

stars-fish-out-of-water

The Stars Are Fish Out of Water

On the 3rd Sat. of each month, local musicians will bring the sonic sculpture Os Musicos to life. A Brazilian or hip-hop soundtrack would be a welcome addition the rest of the time, but I suppose it may interfere with the enjoyment of the free audio guide.

last-station-of-spring

The Last Station of Spring, 2010

After you exit the small one-room show and relish the breathtaking views of the expansive waterfront on your four-story descent, your surrealist street art journey is far from over. Armed with newly acquired insight and perspective, it’s time to find the twins’ murals around town. Start at the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway at Dewey Square, where you’ll find a controversial but awe-inspiring 70-ft mural on a Big Dig ventilation building. Then make your way to Stuart St.’s Revere Hotel before completing your journey at Webster St. in Somerville’s Union Square. The cross-town journey will be rewarded with the chance to experience the artists’ talents the way it was originally appreciated: on the streets and on a massive-scale.

os musicos

Os Musicos

Os Gemeos runs now through Nov. 25, 2012
Institute of Contemporary Art
, Boston

 

Bols Genever Gets the Barrel Aged Treatment at Hawthorne

21 Sep

bob

Bob McCoy Pours The Nook  at The Hawthorne

Bols Genever has been one of the most exciting spirit brands to follow the past couple of years. It seems like every respectable cocktail bar in my hometown of Los Angeles started featuring a cocktail using the newly rediscovered Bols Genever within the past year. As a juniper head always on the look out for a new gin to try, I’ve eagerly welcomed this development; but while Bols Genever shares the similar juniper profile of gin, it belongs in a distinct spirits category. The defining characteristic of Bols Genever is the use of malt wine.  The presence of wheat, corn, and rye triple-distilled in copper pot stills give genever a taste all its own.

Founded in 1575 by Lucas Bols, Bols has been crafting Dutch genever since 1664. Despite genever’s long tradition and distinction as a bestseller in the 19th century, it wasn’t really available in post-Prohibition America until Bols reintroduced it in 2008. In fact, many of your favorite classic gin cocktails were originally crafted with genever. I knew I was in for a treat when Boston’s new cocktail hotspot The Hawthorne hosted a Barrel Aged Bols Genever tasting.

Katie Emmerson Tops Off My Wit Haven

The perfect drink to start off the evening was the Wit Haven, billed as a “Mariner’s Sly Apertif.” Bols Genever, white port, agave, lemon, bitters and prosecco to make it sparkle. Prima Perla prosecco dances on my tongue, while the citrus bite brings a crisping finish. With this refreshing yet flavorful apertif cocktail, my night was off to a great start thanks to Katie Emmerson. Katie has spent some time at NYC’ hotspots The Raines Law Room and Death & Co., and is now behind the bar at The Hawthorne, named one of America’s best new cocktail havens.

bob-dutch-oven

Bob McCoy Pours a Dutch Oven (Bols Genever, soda water, 2 types of bitters, grapefruit)

When you need that classic cocktail to end a  long day and cold night, the Dutch Oven is there to comfort you. Fortunately, you can recreate this Old Fashioned Bols Genever variation at home with the recipe they shared with Serious Eats.

Several of my drinks this evening were courtesy of Bob McCoy, officially Beverage Programs Laison for Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and The Hawthorne. Hired by Hawthorne Owner and Bar Director Jackson Cannon in 2007, his fingerprints are all over the cocktail menus of many of Boston’s best cocktail establishments.

reason

Bols Genever: Jackson Cannon, Barrel Aged, and standard

The main event of the evening was tasting the standard Bols Genever, the Barrel Aged Genever aged for at least 18 months in Limousin oak, and the exceptional and rare Jackson Cannon Limited Edition Single barrel Bols Genever, hand-selected by the Hawthorne’s owner. We were fortunate to have Lucas Bols USA Managing Director Tal Nadari on hand to lead the tasting. Son of an Israeli restaurateur and acclaimed bartender in Holland, his passion was infectious. Always ready with an answer no matter how difficult the questions, I’m hoping one day to soak up some more knowledge from him over a Kopstootje (“little head butt,” because you must bend over to sip from a tulip glass filled to the rim with genever, paired with a beer).

starlight

Josh Childs, Owner of Starlite Lounge & Silvertone Bar & Grill (L), Hawthorne’s Bob McCoy (R)

I could happily sip on any versions of Bols Genever straight for an evening, but do yourself a favor and check out the Cannon four year barrel aged, avaible exclusively at The Hawthorne. Jackson Cannon spent several days in Holland with Bols Master Distiller Piet van Leijenhorst learning about the history of the spirit before deciding on a barrel.

trio

(L-R) Andrea Novak, Manager Sara Kate Ragsdale, and Katie Emmerson

“What a killer playlist. Who’s spinning over there?”
“I dunno, let’s go find out.”

Oh… its none other than Brother Cleve. A staple of the Boston cocktail scene, Boston Cocktail Summit goers can drink from his wealth of knowledge and experience  on topics ranging from Pisco to the Manhattan.

klee

Brother Cleve Provides the Tunes

Back to more cocktails. Another noteworthy creation was the creamy and spicy Nook (Bols, agave, lime, tabasco, worcestershire). The creaminess was thanks to shaking the generous serving of agave, and the drink only got spicier as you savored it. After the event was over, I sipped some Fernet and started contemplating my first non-Bols cocktail.

I was tipped off to the “Call Me Maybe,” but ordered it only after server Andrea Novak, who isn’t a stranger to being behind a bar herself, promised to sing me a verse. Featuring tropical housemade vermouth, plantation rum, and cardamaro, it’s delicious but there is one serious problem with ordering the Call Me Maybe: that damn song will get stuck in your head for at least another 24 hours.

cocktails-hawthorne

“Call Me Maybe” (L), Dutch Oven (R)

Thanks to an informative tasting and inspired drinks by The Hawthorne’s bar staff, it was my best cocktail experience to date in my new city. I’m looking forward to returning to see what other gems are on their cocktail list.

night-of-drinking

Making New Friends over Bols (L-R): Dr. Ned Sahin, The Hawthorne’s Katie Emmerson, Ben Miller, The Hawthorne’s Andrea Novak, and a happy me

The Hawthorne
500 A Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
(617) 532-9150

More pics here
Note: A portion of the cocktails were hosted

Throwing Down at Blue State Coffee

20 Sep

finalists

The Final 3: Glad I’m Not Judging

It’s the third Thursday of the month, which can only mean one thing: time to THROWDOWN! If you’ve never been to a coffee throwdown, it’s pretty simple: baristas from around the city compete in a latte art competition for some cash and bragging rights. While baristas compete in head-to-head matches until the final round, the rest of us drink beer and munch on party food like pizza and pastries.

Ryan in the Championship Round

Pressure’s On: Ryan Soeder (Counter Culture) during the Final Round

Anticipation: Who will win?

Can Cut the Anticipation With a Knife: Who Will Be Crowned this Month’s Champion?

This month’s throwdown will be held at Thinking Cup Coffee Shop. Who will be deciding which barista deserves the glory and kitty of cash? The judge will be last month’s champ, Ryan Soeder of Counter Culture.

The Finals

The Finals: Another Look

On my very first day in Cambridge, I wandered into Barismo’s flagship coffee shop Dwelltime. Six hours later, I found myself at a latte art throwdown at Blue State coffee in Allston.

Ryan's Prize

Ryan Soeder’s Prize: Two Kinds of Paper

The competition was fierce, resulting in three competitors making it to the final round. After much anticipation, Soeder took home not only the cash, but also some coffee filters.

Jake's Runner-up Prize

Jake Robinson Enjoys His Runner-Up Prize

Taking the consolation prize was his Counter Culture coworker Jake Robinson.

macchiato

Excellent Macchiato at Blue State Coffee

I had such a great experience at Blue State for the throwdown, I recently came by to see how it was on a more typical day.  The first thing you’ll notice is that it is a BU hangout and study spot. You’ll mostly see people slowly drinking giant lattes and iced teas in between furious highlighting.

cortado

8 oz Cortado at Blue State Coffee

If you are dense like me, it will take you awhile to realize that the store’s called “Blue State” because it has a liberal social justice bent. Political quotes are scrawled on blackboards around the shop, and every customer gets to vote for which local charity should receive a donation by the shop. Perfect for a college town.

Thomas Jefferson

It’s Not Called Blue State for Nothing

I found the young and casual energy of the place perfect for my morning reading. There was something fitting about reading gender bias theory while listening to full albums by Lauryn Hill and Fiona Apple while sipping on espresso by three female baristas and deciding if I should cast my charity vote for gender reproductive rights or science clubs for girls. Fortunately, the money is distributed to all four charities proportional to the number of votes they receive, so every vote counts and every charity wins.

Charity Votes

Dont’ Forget to Cast Your Votes for Charity

In addition to enjoying the atmosphere, I was impressed by my beverages. I found the cortado just average, and a bit unexpected at a hulking 8 oz instead of the typical 4. What won me over was a truly excellent macchiato – same house espresso blend in both drinks, but this barista just nailed it. Between manager Ryan Ludwig’s leadership and the inviting atmosphere of the staff, I’m looking forward to making Blue State a regular stop on my “studying at coffee shop” rotation.

Tonight’s Throwdown:
Thinking Cup
165 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02111
info@thinkingcup.com
(617) 482-5555

Last Month’s Throwdown:
Blue State Coffee
957 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
https://twitter.com/bluestatecoffee
(617) 254-0929

Counter Culture Coffee Training Center: A Look Inside the New Somerville Digs

16 Sep

stained-ground

It’s not a party unless something gets spilled

After nearly a year and a half of planning, Counter Culture’s Coffee Training Center in Somerville opened their doors this past Saturday for an open house. Nothing like spending a bunch of time and money making a place look lovely just to let a bunch of us trash the place on the first day.

The large space is not only beautiful (in a minimalist Third Wave sort of way), but highly functional. The front room (above) is reminiscent of a typical high-end coffee bar, with a “DIY Espresso” station tucked in the back.

cupping

Beautiful cupping space

Most of the real estate is devoted to a separate room containing two long tables (above), perfect for cuppings and fooling around with the many coffee toys hidden around the training center.

Katie Carguilo

DIY Espresso Bar: USBC Champion Katie Carguilo giving some tamping advice

It’s a great space, but don’t try to order a macchiato next time you’re in the Somerville neighborhood. The training center is primarily for training Counter Culture baristas and public coffee education classes. Classes are $150 for a full day, and $75 for a half day,  which is actually a pretty good deal for the quality of classes. Topics include milk chemistry, brewing science, coffee origins, comparative cupping, and many more.

Sam Lewontin & Ryan Soeder

Sam Lewontin of Everyman Espresso (Soho, NY), & Ryan Soeder of Counter Culture

In addition to local Counter Culture superstars like Ryan Soeder and Jake Robinson, quite a few baristas made the trip for the Boston Training Center opening. Sam Lewontin of Everyman Espresso in Soho was pulling endless shots of a special Ethiopian espresso, which was prepared more like a Kenyan roast with a dry fermentation to open it up and amp up the savoriness.

Counter Culture Pour-Over

Comparing two Guatemalan pour-over coffees by Counter Culture

Also on hand was 2012 US Barista Champion Katie Carguillo (Brooklyn, NY), who is sticking around Beantown through the weekend to kick off the first stop of the “Fruit Bombs & Fermentation Tour.” Taking place Monday night at 7 pm at the Boston Training Center, green coffee buyer Tim Hill will join Carguillo in discussing experiments in the fermentation process with Ethiopian coffees – the very topic that won her the championship. Details available here.

Tommy Gallagher

Tommy Gallagher of Counter Culture (Brooklyn, NYC) taking a much needed coffee break after serving a packed house

My favorite coffee of the day was courtesy of Ryan Soeder, who has spent the past 8 months preparing for the training center’s opening. The chocolaty Rustico Organic espresso is just as perfect for a morning cortado as an after-dinner macchiato.

coffee-counter

The goods on display

As a Cambridge resident, I’m excited to have the “cool kids next door” actually next door to me in Somerville. It might not help me get an excellent espresso on a daily basis, but I’m excited to see how they use the beautiful and versatile space to up the ante in this coffee-rich town.

Counter Culture Training Center
374 Somerville Avenue
Somerville, MA 02143