After an Absence, Some Thoughts.

We were at home, painting the house, slopping primer all over the wooden trim and ourselves, when our phones just started going off.  Some people would say that our phones “exploded,” but after today’s events that phrase just doesn’t seem right.  Keith’s office overlooks the finish line, and his colleagues were under the impression that he had been in Copley Square when the bombs were detonated.  He wasn’t, but still his phone kept on ringing and buzzing, and alerting him that people cared.

I am a New Yorker, born and bred. Up until this point, I’ve allowed Boston a sliver of space in my heart because it raised the man I love. Still, “I’m not from here,” I’ve said. I’ve bemoaned giving up my New York license. I’ve called its people provincial. I’ve scorned its awkward and archaic laws. I’ve derided its class system. I’ve begrudged the bagels.

Today, I’m telling all of you that I’m from Boston. I’m from here, and I’m mad. I’m mad and confused and troubled and upset and pissed off. I’m frustrated with the breathless affect of the news media. I’m sick thinking of all the athletes who were running for a cause, or for a charity, or a for purpose that didn’t include hate or fear or pain or terror. I’m shaking with anger because I need someone to explain to me the point of this.

Something that has really struck me about these events is not how much people hate and want to hurt, but how much people love and want to help.  The Red Cross website was inundated for hours with people trying to glean information on when and how and where to donate blood.  Residents across the Boston Metro Area and beyond are opening their homes to strangers stranded in a maimed city.

This is what’s important to remember: in times of terror, there are moments of triumph, and those moments are made by people.

Wrapped Up in Books.

I’m many things, but a New Years resolutionist I am most certainly not.  That said, I am trying to be a bit more positive-minded, as opposed to my regular the-glass-isn’t-just-half-empty-but-also-about-to-fall-off-the-table-and-smash-into-a-million-pieces-on-the-floor mentality.  So rather than lamenting how I spent barely any time last year on writing posts, I’m instead going to focus on the fact that I spent a good amount reading books. And since I know there’s no way I’d be able to write proper-length posts on all of them, but I’ll give some simple summaries of each, along with my opinions.  Since I started recording what I read last year in April, that’s where I’ll begin.  I’ll keep writing these bookish posts and finish with the last book I read this month.


  • Winston had just died, and all I wanted to do when I got back to Boston from New York was reread the beautifully-written novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, about the titular geisha’s life before, during and after World War II.  I found the following apropos passage on grief, which I then emailed to my mother: “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl has been renamed For You, Mom. Finally for paperback, which is not unusual but still something that surprises me.  Something else that surprises me is that I don’t remember much of this memoir.  This is incredibly odd for me, as I have a remarkable memory.  I’m sure the writing is fantastic, as Ms. Reichl’s always is.
  • I do remember The Report by Jessica Francis Kane quite clearly, as I am fascinated by World War II and found this debut novel about a tragedy in the Bethnal Green tube station/air raid shelter to be ridiculously and enviously well-written.
  • A Polish emigrant and a New York adolescent are the sad and cynical narrators of Nicole Krauss‘s The History of Love.  Strange as it is to say, I didn’t care either way about the plot, but since I loved Leo the Pole so much, I managed to overlook everything else.
  • I’ve been obsessed with Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games trilogy for a while, and reread The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay for the first time in April.  It held up.
  • While I did enjoy Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education — which was made into the multi-nominated film with a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan — I wonder if part of the reason why I flew through it was because it was so short or because I was on a plane en route to Asia and therefore trapped.  Regardless, Ms. Barber is a perfectly fine writer who recounts her life in the heyday of 1960s England in a refreshing, straightforward way.
  • Ugh, I did not like An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, a hardback book club read that I lugged from Massachusetts to Manila, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and back again.  Protagonist Charles Hythloday plays at being a nobly-born country aristocrat outside Dublin; when he’s forced to eke out a living, it was no surprise to me that this insipid loon struggles to find a place for himself in troubled modern-day Ireland.  There’s another storyline involving explosives and actresses, but I can’t be bothered to go into it.
  • Another novel I brought along on my Asia trip was The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, which set me down a path of kidnapping, violence and crime — in my readings, that is.  Mr. Gautreaux’s book is the truly compelling story not just of abduction, but also of redemption and revenge.  Oh, and there are riverboats.
  • I finished reading Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America (by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews) in Siem Reap, and that night in my hotel room I used the dodgy Internet connection to Wikipedia Adam Walsh’s 1981 kidnapping.  From there I read about Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and pretty much every other serial killer I could think of until I was too freaked out to open the door for room service.
Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle + Sebastian.

A Place Called Home.

Here I am now, at home.  I love traveling, and I love going places, and even though I’ve been to Asia more times than I can count, each trip is still amazing and fun and exciting.  That said, I’m glad to be home, sitting on my pouf with my laptop while Bethenny Ever After… is on On-Demand.  (Don’t judge.)

I do admittedly feel that clichéd thing about time fly fly flying but that’s how the trip felt for me: it went by so fast and intense that it’s almost hard to imagine the details of it at all.  I mean, we were in Boracay a week ago, perspiring and getting absolutely gnawed to death by mosquitoes, and now it’s a bit chilly in my apartment and something like 57° outside and sunny, but in a way that makes you want to sit in it as opposed to hide from it, which is what it was certainly like in Asia, particularly for the easily-sunburned Keith.

Speaking of Keith… what a lovely man, what an outstanding individual.  I’ve been sick as a pike since Tuesday and he’s been handling it (read: me) incredibly well.  I arrived in Hong Kong on Monday with a tickle in my throat, and by the time Tuesday rolled around I had run out of medicine and was taking these Chinese herbal pills called Zomoxyl, which smelled like nothing else I have ever experienced.  It had ingredients in it such as herba androgrphitis (40%), herba taraxaci (20%), herba violae (20%), radix scutellarine (10%) and glycyrrhiza uralensis (10%).  The best part was the little English-and-Cantonese write-up that came inside.  I would have scanned it, but it was just too ridiculous and it’s much if I just tell you about it.  Let’s just say that there was a bald eagle, with a waving-in-the-wind American flag behind it, and a star-bedazzled olive branch framing the whole thing.  Here are some highlights of what Zomoxyl supposedly treats:

  • upper respiratory tract infections like otitis media;
  • lower respiratory tract infections like lung abscess, empyema and bronchiectasis;
  • dental infections;
  • skin and soft tissue infections like cellulites and impetigo;
  • genitourinary (?!) tract infections like pyelonephritis, cystitis, bacteriuria, acute prostatitis and gonorrhoea;
  • bone and joint infections like ostemyelitis;
  • and “severe systemic infections” like gynaecological infections, pureperal sepsis, septicaemia, peritonitis, intra-abdominal spesis, menigitis, typhoid and paratyphoid fever.

I kept all the spelling from Zomoxyl sheet as is.

I should never get sick again after fourteen of those capsules, instead of coughing my way across Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui and Victoria Harbour and spitting up funky chartreuse phlegm and trying to walk around in crazy heat and humidity with a congested heavy head that felt like it was slowly going to cave in.  And when I say crazy heat and humidity, I mean the kind where standing still outdoors makes sweat drip down your boobs and your back.  I can’t figure out which is worse, sweat dripping down the front or the back, when neither is preferable.

What I should do now is some laundry and make a grocery list for my empty home, but what I really want to do is take a nap.  More later, I suppose.

Oh, and the vomiting — I’ve been vomiting since Wednesday.  I stayed in bed until noon while Keith bought some tea and stocked up on table tennis gear, then vomited up my Michelin-starred lunch, my water the next morning at the hotel and at the airport, and then who-knows-what on the plane several times and then more at JFK…  Why couldn’t I have gotten sick in Manila, when I was almost always surrounded by a surgeon, a pediatrician and a med student, instead of by Chinese pharmacists with whom communication was a true adventure?  This eagle-loving, USA-emblazoned Zomoxyl better clear up everything that ever has or ever will be wrong with me medically ever.

And now, laundry!

A Place Called Home” by PJ Harvey.

Is it Weird That…

…I froze my mother’s leftover Thanksgiving turkey bones and drove them* from New York to Massachusetts?  Is it strange that when I got home, I chopped the bones up so they’d fit in my stockpot with carrots, carrot greens, a hacked-up onion, a handful of black peppercorns, some leftover parsley, a smattering of thyme and a couple of bay leaves?  What if I told you I then covered the whole lot with water, and let it all simmer, covered, on the stove for about four hours?  Would that be weird?

Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

Making turkey — or chicken — stock is so simple, there really is no reason why anyone couldn’t do so at home.  All you need are the bones from your bird (ideally with some meat still attached, but no worries if that’s not possible, since the flavor really comes from the cartilage inside the bones), mirepoix and seasoning.  If you want results that  are a bit lighter in color, I’ve read that you can substitute parsnips for the carrots, though I’ve not done this myself.

You can also add a bouquet garni of thyme sprigs, bay leaf, parsley, sage, et cetera.  I highly recommend tying your herbs together with kitchen twine, or making a little cheesecloth bundle, or using a tea strainer, since you want your stock to be as debris-free as possible.

Speaking of keeping your stock debris-free…

Once your stock is ready to come off of the flame, you will need a fine colander to strain it.  I like to fish out the larger pieces with a slotted spoon or a pair of tongs before I go through the straining process, but that’s just a personal preference.  Regardless of what you like to do, you will need to place a colander inside a large bowl to capture all of your freshly-made stock.  I’m a bit clumsy, so I put my bowl and colander inside the sink, since I invariably will splash a bit — well, maybe more than a bit — outside of my target.

If you don’t have a very fine colander, that’s okay.  Michael Ruhlman has a great tip for you:

…Strain [the stock] through a kitchen cloth, cheese cloth if you have it, or any kind of cloth (I use ones that i can wash and reuse because I’m a cheapskate and hate to keep buying cheese cloth).

After all your straining is done, it’s storage time.  I like to freeze my stock in zipper bags because I have a small freezer; this way my stores of stock take up less space than they would in little plastic tubs.  Normally I freeze stock in three-cup-quantities.  To do this, I date and label my bags, then stick them in a clean, empty plastic quart container while I measure out my three cups.  It’s much easier to pour liquids into a plastic-lined container than a floppy plastic bag.

As you can now tell, stock-making is so easy that writing a recipe for it seems a little silly, but here goes:

Turkey Stock
Makes about twelve cups

Leftover turkey bones from a fifteen-pound turkey
6 quarts cold water
4 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
2 large onions, unpeeled and chopped roughly into quarters
4 large celery ribs, broken in half
4 large carrots and their greens, broken in half
bouquet garni of parsley, 2 bay leaves, and thyme sprigs
15 black peppercorns
1 ½ teaspoon salt

  1. Melt butter in a 10-quart stockpot over medium heat.  Add vegetables, stirring to coat.  Lower heat to prevent burning.
  2. Break apart turkey carcass to fit into the stockpot.  Transfer to stockpot, along with remaining ingredients.  Cover with cold water and increase heat to high.  Bring to a boil, skimming scum off as needed.  Reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 4 hours.
  3. If you’re using the stock right away, go for it.  Otherwise, let the stock cool to room temperature, about one hour.
  4. Set a fine colander inside a large bowl.  Carefully pour stock through the colander and dispose of vegetables, bones, peppercorns and bouquet garni.  Stock can be frozen for three months; otherwise it should be used within five days.

* Before the accident.

Atrocious + Terrifying.

I started writing about this yesterday, but found myself getting so mad that I stopped being able to form even the sort of thoughts that an amoeba would call intelligent.  When I mentioned this via email to my friend Beth, she wrote back, “Mad is good!  Get mad!”

So, people, I’m about to get mad.  To understand what I’m mad about, first you have to read this.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

To sum up, Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, just over an hour outside of Boston, is replacing their lovely-sounding collection of over twenty thousand books with the following:

  • flat-screen televisions;
  • laptop carrels;
  • electronic readers; and
  • a twelve thousand dollar cappuccino machine.

This would be a good time to try and calm me down.  No?  I’ll continue.

The administration’s argument is books are “outdated,” in the same way that once binding pages together became commonplace, scrolls soon became archaic.  They also state that the books take up too much space, and during the last school year, during a random library inspection, they found that less than fifty books out on loan to students.  Of that amount, over sixty percent of those checked out were children’s books.

In my mind, if students are mainly borrowing children’s books, it means that Cushing’s now-diminished collection must have had a spectacular range of literature geared towards those readers; in fact, the article even mentions that with the exception of “a few hundred children’s books and valuable antiquarian works”, the academy’s books had been donated to other local libraries and schools.  We all know I love a good piece of young adult fiction; you should know I adore a well-illustrated children’s tale as well — but where is mention of Cushing’s selection of relevant adolescent-centric works?  I can only assume that the library neither had nor focused on them, because I can practically guarantee you that if they had, the students would have read them.  I once convinced a book-averse sophomore to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Last Days of Summer for summer reading; later, his mother told me she couldn’t get her son to put either down.  If I could do this out of sheer enthusiasm for authors Stephen Chboksy and Steve Kluger, imagine what a trained librarian could do.

Obviously, Cushing’s librarian is opposed to the academy’s turning her workplace into a “learning center,” but even I, a Godzilla-like devourer of books, fail to be moved by her logic.

“It makes me sad,” she says.  “I’m going to miss them. I love books.”  She goes on to say that when the collection is replaced with Kindles*, something special will be lost: the smell, feel and physicality of books.

To me, this argument is sad.  It would be sad if a librarian didn’t love books, and wouldn’t mourn their loss.  It is sad that a librarian can’t evoke from within her- or himself the passionate debate that a child not encouraged to read — a child praised for Facebooking and Wikipedia-ing — is not one adept at imagining possibilities or producing an analytical deduction.  What’s the point of reading comprehension if all you have to do is type in your questions into a search engine (or a blog post’s comments section)?  All we will end up with is a generation of adults who know how to best formulate search queries and type really fast.  And what is the point of that?  So what if Google can generate answers faster than the human brain?  It is supposed to.  That is its job.

I hate to say this, but I will anyway: if the best argument Cushing’s librarian can rally up is that books feel nice and smell good, then perhaps her library should be taken away.

I’m petering out here, people.  What do you say?

* To be fair, I want a Kindle, but only because when I travel I pack an average of 1.5 books  per each day I’m away.  Basically, that’s my entire carry-on for anything up to two weeks, and a whole suitcase for anything longer.

An Eating Weekend, Chapter Two: Dinner at Small Farm.

It’s so nice to get something in the mail that isn’t a circular or a bill, which is why a few weeks ago I was so excited to find, amongst many circulars and bills, an invitation from Amanda to dinner at Small Farm in Stow.

Dinner at Small Farm, 1Small Farm is owned by Barbara and Dwight Sipler… who also happen to be Amanda’s parents’ cousins, so my friend has had the enviable pleasure of visiting, working on and reaping the benefits of the farm for most of her life.  In fact, after everyone arrived and mingled a bit late Sunday afternoon, Amanda herded us into a circle and spoke briefly about her Small Farm memories; she then asked Barbara and Dwight to talk about their history as farmers.

The farm, Barbara told us, started out as a hobby.  “So be careful of your hobbies,” she said gravely, looking each one of us in the eye.  She then informed us that, over the years, she and Dwight have come to think of the farm as “a ministry,” which I found utterly fascinating.  What a wonderful way to describe something you love, don’t you think?

Dwight provided us with a few interesting facts.  There are, for example, over 3000 other small farms in Massachusetts, meaning they fit the USDA’s definition of such based on their gross sales below $250,000. Middlesex County is is ranked first in the state for direct sales of farm produce to consumers, a tidbit that made me feel very fancy and important.  Something else that made me feel fancy and important was the fact that Keith and I didn’t get lost on the way to the farm (even though I was navigating), a feat I proudly announced when Amanda asked us each to share something that we were grateful for.

Dinner at Small Farm, 5While many people rightfully said that they were thankful to be at the farm that day, I’ve got to confess I agreed the most with Chris‘s statement: “I’m grateful for tomatoes.”

Small Farm grows a ridiculous amount of tomato varietals, many of which are planted in a “maze garden.”  Types include the Sun Cherry and the Wapsipinicon Peach, the name of which we all had to ask Dwight to repeat several times before we could manage it ourselves.  I love tomatoes — one summer, Darlington gifted me with thumbnail-sized orange tomatoes that she had picked from the farm; after one taste, I immediately ate them all.  They were like tomato-flavored candy.

It was a bit too early in the season for tomatoes to make an appearance on either our dinner menu or the vine, but it didn’t stop many of us from traipsing through the still-growing maze.  Sure, we could all see over the tops of the leaves and stakes, but it was easy to imagine what the plants will look like in a few weeks’ time.  Even if the tomatoes don’t grow to be six feet tall, it doesn’t matter; the maze is geared towards young children — who, I’m told, are shorter than me.  They’ll do just fine in the maze (though Heather did suggest I shuffle through on my knees for a more authentic maze experience).

Dinner at Small Farm, 2After we all expressed what we were appreciative of (seasons, friendship, sunny days, film), Amanda quickly described what it was we would be eating for dinner.  As the meal was meant to be a celebration of the summer ahead of us, she had picked numerous pints of strawberries — which I personally consider to be the summeriest of summer berries — and turned it all into a sweet chilled soup, into which she directed us to drop a dollop of sour cream.*  We also had several different kinds of salads, (one of which also featured strawberries).  Most of the greens came from Small Farm’s lettuce beds, though I can’t say the same about the two  delicious and colorful pasta salads, or the hearty salmon/asparagus/peapod salad Amanda provided for additional protein.

Dinner at Small Farm, 3Oh, and you can’t tell from the photos here, but my plate was much fuller than it seems.  I didn’t think to take a shot from the side.  Had I thought of it, the picture would have looked like a veritable mountain of edible green.  It’s taller than it appears.

Our dessert was equally strawberry-centric; Amanda had set aside a large bowl of berries for us to spoon atop vanilla ice cream from Erikson’s Dairy up the road.  For our huge group, I think we had something like ten gallons.  I may be overestimating here, but I honestly doubt it.  Regardless, most of it — if not all — was eaten.

Aside from the strawberries and (ice) cream, there were also chocolate treats: two different kinds of cookies** and the densest, richest, most perfect little brownies I have ever eaten.  I went for seconds, which means that one of Amanda’s other guests probably missed out because of my gluttony.

I should take a moment here to note that this would have been a bad photo for the side-view angle; my bowl was extremely shallow, so anything would have appeared monstrous from the side.

That may or may not be a cover-up for my ravenousness.

Dinner at Small Farm, 6Prior to our eating, Barbara explained that the day before the dinner had been Small Farm’s 2009 opening day, which was why the crops “still look so pretty.”  She then kindly said to us all, “Today, Small Farm is yours,” and encouraged us to pick flowers, fruit and vegetables to take home.

While I wanted to make a run for the fields, I showed restraint and held back; Keith and I have a weekly CSA box, after all, and besides, I’m looking forward to returning to the farm as a paying customer.  I’ve got to do my part as a Middlesex County resident, haven’t I?

I instead ambled towards the assorted herbs, plants and vegetables, brushing my hands in the thyme creeping along the ground and fingering the downy fuzz of as many sage leaves I could.  I thought about stretching out under the morning glory teepee but worried about mudstains and impropriety; instead I pointed out to Keith where the amaranth would come in, in time, and where the blackberry patch was, brambles and bees and all.

At one point, we debated over this funny little figure living in the middle of the cherry tomato maze.  I think it’s a hippo; Keith and Melissa think it’s a polar bear.  I’ll take a gander and say that no matter its species, it’s pretty damn cute.

Dinner at Small Farm, 4Small Farm is now open for the 2009 growing and harvesting season.  While the farm does not offer a CSA program, it does have a farmstand; hours are from ten in the morning until six in the evening.  There you can purchase whatever produce Dwight and Barbara have chosen to grow, as well as pick your own flowers.

Like many of the nation’s other small farms, Small Farm is an uncertified organic farm; this means that while Barbara and Dwight have always followed organic farming practices as defined by the USDA’s National Organic Program, they have opted not to apply for certification.  To do so would mean to pay a not-insignificant series of fees, which would result not only in a certificate from the NOP but also in an equally not-insignificant increase in prices for the consumer… something Small Farm isn’t interested in.  Should you have any questions about Small Farm’s method of growing their produce, feel free to email them here.

Certification or no, take my advice: make the trip out to Stow and stop by the Siplers’ farm.  You’re bound to love it.

Need more convincing?  Check out the photographs I’ve taken during my visits at Small Farm here, and some far more impressive photographs Dwight has snapped over the years here, including of the party itself.

Small Farm
184 Gleasondale Road
Route 62
Stow, Massachusetts 01775

* Amanda doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to give me the recipe.
** One of which I baked.  I hate going to parties empty-handed.

Marathon Monday, or Getting Out of the City.

I remember my first Marathon Monday in Boston: I had to go to the printer to pick up copies of a short story I was submitting to a writing workshop the next day…  and of course the printer I ended up using was in Copley Square, practically sitting on top of the finish line.  I know, don’t tell me —  dumb move, but come on.  I was new to the city!  I didn’t know any better.  I had to elbow my way past throngs of marathon aficionados, and what normally would have been a fifteen-minute walk ended up being something like forty-five, because of all the revelers and runners.

Anyway, my point is this: unless you’re super-into marathons, get out of the city.  Which is exactly what Keith and I did, heading up I-95 to Newburyport.  Though we had a two Newburyport destinations in mind and one in Salem to loop us back home, our main goal was to do what the Filipino side of my family calls making paseo.  Making paseo is easy — it’s basically a mini-road trip.

joppa-fine-foods When we got to Newburyport, we first made our way to Joppa Fine Foods in the Tannery Mall, which is made up of all really cool and interesting converted mill space.  After sampling a few different cheeses, we decided on Pradera (Dutch cow’s milk) and Erhaki (French sheep’s milk), as well as a bottle of my favorite peach Lambic and a crusty, crunchy baguette.  In retrospect, I’m surprised we didn’t devour it in the car, but that might have been because I was too excited about our next stop, Tendercrop Farms.

tender-crop-2Tendercrop Farms is a small farm in Newbury that not only sells its own fruit and vegetables but also its own meat, poultry and baked goods.  Keith loaded up a basket with two different kinds of sausage (andouille and sweet Italian), corncob smoked bacon and cinnamon-raisin bread while I checked out the selection of herb seedlings in the nursery.  Something else I checked out was Buffy, Tendercrop’s buffalo; if you click on this photo, it will take you to a short slideshow of Buffy trying to ignore me.  I’m not joking when I say it’s a short slideshow — Keith pretty much pulled me down off of the rock I was perched on, saving you all from a twenty-frame slideshow of Buffy chewing.  (And yes, I needed to stand on a rock to see over Buffy’s fence.  What can I say?  I’m short, and that fence is tall.)  What you can’t see in the photos is Buffy’s penmate, a nameless white llama who also ignored me.

the-old-spotAfter Tendercrop, Keith and I made paseo down to The Old Spot in Salem, where we were planning to have a late lunch (or early dinner, depending on how you look at it). I decided to order The Old Spot’s eponymous meat pie ($15.00) and a shandy with Hefeweizen ($5.oo).  I love a shandy: it’s happy and light, and a perfect counter-balance for something like meat pie — which Keith described as “cold, winter food.”  He’s not wrong there.  The Old Spot’s meat pie is made Guinness-stewed lamb and beef that is then smothered with rich, buttery mashed potatoes; with toasted corn kernels adding a bright sweetness and scallions giving the dish a crisp crunch, it’s a hearty one-course meal that would warm any stomach, no matter the weather.  (One note: I did think the beef and lamb were a bit under-seasoned, but those potatoes were perfect.)

Something else I should mention: Keith got the slow-roasted pork sandwich ($8.00), and it was fantastic, layered with Swiss cheese, Dijon mayonnaise and crunchy pickles, which gave the sweet pork a zippy bite. I would go back to The Old Spot for the sandwich alone.

The Old Spot is a British-style pub located on a picturesque corner of town across from the Hawthorne Hotel; it’s also near the Peabody Essex Museum, the Salem Witch Museum and the House of the Seven Gables — which inspired the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name — so a stop at The Old Spot is ideal even for a Salem-centric trip…  something I’m already thinking of planning for the next three-day weekend.

Joppa Fine Foods
50 Water Street
The Tannery
Newburyport, Massachusetts 01951

Tendercrop Farms
108 High Road
Newbury, Massachusetts 01951

The Old Spot
121 Essex Street
Salem, Massachusetts 01970

Old Spot on Urbanspoon

Lunch at Blackbird.

Friday afternoon found Keith and me in almost the same place as the night before, but instead of being at 615 West Randolph, we were at 619.  And  instead of sitting inside Avec‘s slick wood-paneled walls, we sat by Blackbird‘s sleek floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the street.

Blackbird is owned and operated by the same team behind Avec, but the parallels between the two restaurants mainly end there.  Both spots share an attention to detail, but it’s clear even from the sidewalk that Blackbird is Avec’s more sophisticated older sister.  While Avec is all edgy hard angles, Blackbird’s interior could only be described as, well, sexy.  It’s almost as if each surface craves human contact, particularly the soft gray banquettes.

Sexy or not, lunch is definitely the more economical way to experience Blackbird, where the dinner entrées average out at $32.50; the restaurant offers two different prix fixe menus alongside its à la carte choices.  You can select three courses from a set menu for $22.00, or spend $15.00 on a sandwich and a salad; for an additional five dollars, you can even get a glass of Blackbird’s featured wine.

blackbird-1Regardless of the special lunch deals, I ordered off of the regular lunch menu, mostly because one of the appetizers sounded too good to pass up: duck tartare with dried strawberries, A1 and tater tots ($14.00).

First of all, isn’t this the prettiest plate?  Second, a clarification: the A1 smears each encased dollops of strawberry preserves, and  were dotted with crumbled up bits of dehydrated strawberries.  It was not mixed with the tartare, which was probably the most surprising thing I’d eaten in a long time.  The first bite I took brought Asian flavors to mind — mostly sesame, specifically — but after that all I could think about was its marvelous texture and delicate taste.  In fact, I soon realized that I was sliding smaller and smaller amounts onto my fork, to make the tartare last that much longer.  When my plate was scraped clean, I asked for more detail on the tartare, and learned this: the following parts of the duck are roasted at a low temperature for four hours, then bound together with a housemade mayonnaise — breast, skin, and heart.  Now, eating heart didn’t and doesn’t bother me at all, but I did say to Keith that I found it interesting that this particular ingredient hadn’t been listed on the menu.  Should it have been?  Or is Keith right in saying that the sort of person who doesn’t mind eating a duck tartare probably wouldn’t mind eating heart?

But back to my dish…

I should take a second to say that the tater tots were fantastic.  Not too long ago, Keith and I ate at Cambridge’s Garden at the Cellar with our friend Melissa; the three of us discussed the restaurant’s tater tots.  They’re like deep-friend balls of mashed potatoes, I had said, to which Keith had replied, Isn’t that what all tater tots are? Melissa and I tried to explain that sometimes tater tots are made of shredded potato, which is exactly how Blackbird makes theirs.  Crunchily, saltily, perfectly so.

blackbird-2For my main, I chose the croque-madame, a grilled ham and Fontina sandwich topped with a fried egg and served alongside a substantial pile of pommes frites ($11.00).  I’m always so torn as to what to do with the egg on a croque-madame; I don’t know if it’s “proper” to break the yolk and let it soak messily into the toast, but that’s how I like it.  While the sandwich itself was very nice indeed, I almost felt sorry for it, as it had to follow as incredible an opening number as the tartare.  Personally I’m very familiar with having to play second fiddle, so in that regard I’m sympathetic to the  croque-madame, charming as she is, but at the same time I don’t know if anything on the menu could compare to my starter, I really don’t.

There’s a thoroughness at Blackbird that’s lovely to behold; Keith had a gorgeous little baby spinach salad with morels and white asparagus ($12.00) that was so beautifully composed that I wish I had a photograph of it to share with you.  Since I haven’t, I’ll just hope that those of you who can do drop by Blackbird.  Take advantage of the lunch menu, and pretend I’m there with you, praising each plate set in front of us.

619 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661

Blackbird on Urbanspoon

Snacks at Kingsdown Vaults.

I adore cheese and Keith loves wine, so when Judy suggested dropping by her favorite wine and cheese pub before we all sneaked into a private party to see Dorian’s band, we pretty much all simultaneously started looking around for a taxi to take us to Kingsdown Vaults.

While I might not be much of a drinker, it’s neighborhood pubs like this that I wish we had more of here in Massachusetts.  The closest that I can think of that captures the same sort of laid-back mellowness is the bar at Union Square’s Independent, but even that’s a bit of a stretch.  After all, even the Independent has a TV, something the Kingsdown Vaults does not.  Instead of television, the Vaults’s got battered tables, a wicked assortment of mismatched chairs and the requisite fire roaring in the fireplace.  The Vaults also has board games and books stacked on its slightly saggy shelves and arbitrary guns hanging on the walls which may or may not be real.  Add groupings of tall, fat and drippy candles trailing tails of wax down their sides and you’ve got an altogether cozy atmosphere that can’t be replicated.

wine-cheeseFoodwise, the Vaults offers small bites like smalec (a Polish spread made of pork fat, bacon and bits of onion) and miscellaneous cheeses.  The three of us shared a fondue (£4.50) and feta-stuffed peppers (£2.90) which were described on the menu as bell but were in fact way too hot and too small to be bells.  I’ve got the feeling that they were Fresnos, simply from their size and heat.  The thing is, it doesn’t matter — Kingsdown Vaults is a place to go for a drink (or series of), a long chat and maybe a board game or two.  It’s not necessarily the best spot, culinarily-speaking, but does that even matter when there’s wine and bites of cheese to be had?  Sometimes, that’s all a girl like me needs.

Kingsdown Vaults
29-31 Kingsdown Parade
Bristol BS6
+44 117 924 9134

Montréal to Massachusetts Soundtrack.

I spent a good portion of the ride back to Massachusetts either asleep or playing Meteos on my Nintendo DS, but Keith assured me that I didn’t miss a note off of these CDs.

*This is a fantastic box set, one that is a must for any music lover.  My favorite disc is four, which features such songs and artists as “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie & The Banshees, “California Über Alles” by Dead Kennedys, “Another Girl, Another Planet” by The Only Ones (a personal favorite), “Babylon’s Burning” by The Ruts, The Cure‘s “Boys Don’t Cry” and the absolutely seminal “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division.