Monday, October 17, 2011

The Year in Beer, NH Edition

I consider myself lucky that New Hampshire is fertile ground for local breweries and, of course, the festivals that celebrate the area's finest beers.

We have brew pubs like...

In addition, we have actual breweries as well, from the tiny...To the pretty good sized...
  • Red Hook Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH, which has a national presence so you can try some of their concoctions even if you aren't in New England!

To the rather big...
  • Anheuser-Busch Inc. in Merrimack, NH--winter home of the Clydesdales!

(Note: This list isn't meant to be exhaustive, but includes most of the places I've visited or beers I've had the pleasure of trying.)

There were a quite a few nice beer festivals this year, although I didn't get to go to every one--it's not really feasible, unless your life is devoted to sampling beer all the time!

This year, I had the pleasure of attending the following brew fests:
  • American Craft Beer Fest (ACBF), in Boston last June. This was the biggest of them all, with thousands of people attending at Boston's Seaport World Trade Center.
  • Southern NH Brewers Festival, held at the White Birch Brewing company in Hookset last July. This event was outside during one of the heat waves we had in NH this year, and--unusual for a beer festival!--they provided giant electric fans placed all around the tents, large buckets of bottled water on ice (very popular!), and free food as well. I really appreciated the thoughtfulness of the free stuff--it was very much appreciated by this attendee.
  • NH Brew Fest, held at Red Hook Brewing in Portsmouth, and presented as part of the Prescott Park Arts Festival last weekend.

My tastes in beer currently lean toward the "hoppier" beers--the more hops, usually, the better, depending on the hops. That means that I tend to gravitate toward the India Pale Ales (IPAs), and American Pale Ales, although I'm willing to try others, especially at the festivals.

Sandra, who doesn't really drink beer all that often, usually finds a few brews that meet her particular tastes. These usually include the "fruity" beers--ciders, blackberry or blueberry wheat beers, and some pumpkin beers as well. At the NH Brew Fest, she found a barley wine that she liked as well.

The festivals weren't just attended by local breweries; there were many breweries from all over the country, from states like Colorado, California, and even Hawaii!

The NH Brew Fest last weekend was probably the last fest I'll be attending this year, but I'm quite looking forward to them all again next year.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, October 6, 2011


It's autumn in New England. In the northern areas of NH, the trees are starting to show their wonderful colors, and pretty soon those colors will be making their appearance here as well. The weather is getting cooler, and the apple orchards are open for business, selling varieties such as Cortland, Gala, McIntosh, and my family's favorite, Honey Crisp.

As much as this blog is mostly about food, the Apple I'm thinking about this cool autumn day is a company. Its founder, Steve Jobs, passed away yesterday. My thoughts are with his family and friends as well as the employees of Apple. He will be missed by many people. I'll leave it to the pundits and others ponder how his passing will affect the company he so loved, as well as Disney, where he was the largest single shareholder.

With autumn the season where we gather the harvest for the year, it's interesting the Steve passed during Apple season.

I'd like to quote something Steve said in 2005, at the commencement ceremonies at Stanford University:

Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.

I cannot think of anything better to say than what this intriguing man said about the subject.

Rest in peace, Steve.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


One of the great things about being married is marrying into the cuisine of the family of the person you are marrying. I can tell you from experience that I have learned quite a lot about Italian cooking from my wife and her family.

One of the nicest surprises was when I had spaghetti and meatballs at my in-laws' house before I got married. It seems that everybody has their own take on Italian sauce, and I remember hearing an interview with somebody that grew up in Brooklyn or Queens that on a Sunday evening, he could walk around his Italian neighborhood and just from smelling the "Sunday Gravy" cooking at each house, he could tell what part of Italy the family came from... one family might add a bit of cinnamon, one family might add some other special spice, etc. Sandra's mother's sauce was different than the one I made. It was tasty and delicious (not to take away from my own recipe, now...!), and a couple of things were noticeably different. First, she cooked her meatballs directly in the sauce, whereas I would sauté them first. Second, where I would sometimes throw a bit of beef into my sauce, Sandra's mom would have this special kind of stringy meat that was incorporated with egg and some other stuff. She called it "braciole," which is the title of this blog entry.

For nearly a dozen years or so, my only experience with braciole was when Sandra or her mom would make it. Sandra's technique is to take a thin slice of flank steak, added sliced hard-boiled eggs, some spices, and Parmesan cheese. Next, she'd roll the steak (like a jelly roll), and secure the meat with toothpicks. She would put the entire roll of meat into her tomato sauce for it to cook with her meatballs. Before serving, she would remove the toothpicks, and slice the roll, putting the disks onto a platter and adding a bit of sauce on top. This would be a separate dish from the meatballs and sausages.

My first time having braciole outside of Sandra's family was at a restaurant (which won't be named). I saw braciole on the menu, and realized for the first time that this was how it was spelled. Knowing that I loved Sandra's version, I ordered it. What I received surprised me. It contained bread crumbs. There were no eggs. It was kind of bland, actually. I was disappointed, but I always had Sandra's to fall back on.

Another time I ordered braciole at a restaurant was a different experience. I was at Kitty's restaurant, a place in North Reading, Massachusetts that's been in business for almost 65 years. I'll probably write about this restaurant in another column, but I must say that this place has some very, very good Italian food, and their portions are huge. Anyway, I noticed braciole on the menu, and figured I would give it a try. This was much closer to the braciole that Sandra and her mother made with one very noticeable exception: garlic. Not just "garlic," but "garlic to the extreme." At Kitty's, the braciole is chewy and garlicky, and very, very good. (It has since become the one thing I order there.)

Other restaurants had braciole, I started to notice. Some used pork tenderloin, some used beef. I've found I like a few different types, but Kitty's is probably my favorite from a restaurant.

So, after having the braciole at Kitty's, guess what I do? I try to "improve" Sandra's braciole, of course.

Now, anybody that is married will know that one of the big no-nos in a marriage is to try to improve something that your partner is proud of. I knew it in my heart, but I was just thinking, "if we could just add a bit more garlic..." I'm still married, and I didn't sustain any injury, and to her credit, Sandra did let me add more garlic to her recipe. The end result was a slight improvement (to me), and a slight deterioration in its taste ("Too much garlic," she decided). The end result is that when she makes it, she makes it her way, and when I make it, I make it her way, with a bit more garlic on one of the bracioles, and let her have one with the "right" amount of garlic for her own consumption.

Taking a bit of a detour here, I'm also a fan of barbecue. I saw this gigantic book in a bookstore about ten years ago called, "The Barbecue Bible." In it were some recipes that I noticed were very similar to braciole. It was flank steak with different cheeses, rolled, and then tied up (using butcher's twine instead of using Sandra's toothpicks). It was grilled, and wasn't served with tomato sauce. I tried making some of these, and Sandra wasn't particularly fond of any of them, but the ideas they contained were useful.

When I make my own version of braciole nowadays, I have Sandra butterfly the flank steak for me (she does this very nicely). I also use Sandra's standard ingredients, except for some extra garlic on one of the rolls. I also sometimes "jazz" it up using things that Sandra and I agree on up front. For example, we sometimes use slices of Parmesan or shaved Parmesan instead of graded or shredded cheese. Another thing we agree on is occasionally using uncut leaves of basil. I've tried precooking the meat by sautéing it in a bit of oil before adding it to the sauce, but I didn't taste any great improvement, and Sandra thought it tasted worse, so we just throw the raw meat into the sauce and take it out cooked after an hour or so. We always slice it and serve it with the meal, separated from the meatballs and sausages.

So... at our house, when I'm cooking, it's "compromise braciole," which is about 98% Sandra's (and her mother's) recipe, and about 2% my "improvements" (garlic, and other minor changes). See how a happy marriage works?

Bon appetit!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Flawed Execution

Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the greatest. From the simplest bit of inspiration can come an idea whose time has come, especially with the advent of smart phones.

This past Wednesday evening, I was a LaLacheur Park, the home of the Lowell Spinners, a minor league affiliate for the Boston Red Sox. (They proudly announce that Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, Kevin Youklis, and others got their start at this park, and rightly so!). My wife and kids were also there, and we had some nice seats in right field.

On my way to my seats, there was a table set up that had people handing out flyers announcing a new smartphone app, that lets you check in, and then play some games, with prizes given away. Having an iPhone, I went to the App Store and downloaded Bozuko. The idea of being able to kill time waiting for the game to start playing a few games appealed to me, as did the idea that I might win a prize of some sort. Alas, the game requires you to have a Facebook login in order to check in. Why? Damned if I know. Since I do not have a Facebook account, and don't want one either, for what it's worth, the app had very little appeal to me. I could not use it, so it got promptly deleted. Nice try, but FAIL.

Once we were seated, I was tasked to get some pizzas for the family.

On my way to the concession stand, I noticed there was a bit of a line (not too long, since the park just opened). Still, there was a QR code on a sign saying that I could order my food from my seat. Geek that I am, I decided to try it. The QR code led me to a web site called It asked for my venue (perhaps they should use Location Services to figure this out for themselves), and then asked for my credit card information. I am usually leery about entering financial data over the web, and since I was using the built-in web browser within the QR app, I couldn't really verify that I was using a secure (https) session. Since I had very little money on a particular debit card, I decided to enter the information for that card. The app sent me a verification SMS, and there was a bit of a hassle of reading the SMS, going back to the QR app, and where it was supposed to be waiting for a verification code, it simply asked me for my order. I figured they needed to work out the kinks in their system; a dedicated iPhone app using Location Services, a secure connection, etc. would be much better. But I decided to press on.

I ordered my pizzas, a chicken sandwich for myself, and was surprised to see they offered beer as well (since all the concessions at LaLacheur Park require positive ID before purchasing alcohol). I placed my order and went back to my seat.

"Where's the food?" my wife asked.

"It should arrive soon." (Indeed, I was sent another verification SMS that said my food would arrive "soon."

I'm not sure about your definition of the word "soon," but after AN HOUR of waiting with nothing delivered (nor did I see anybody wearing any kind of outfit indicating "Munchly" in the park), I sent an email with the subject line "Where's the food?" to only address that I could find on the Munchly site.

If you wander the site, you will notice there is NO feedback system. No way to query the status of your order. No way to find out if there was a question (did you enter your seat number correctly?) on their end. No way to find out if they decided to empty your credit card account and laugh hysterically for idiots that relied on them to actually do what they said they would do.

Irritated no end, I went back to the concession stand, and waited on a line that was now twice as long as it was earlier. I finally made it to the end, and ordered my pizzas, and was told that there was a wait for pizzas. Since my wife and kids were starving at this time, and I was given no alternative to the pizzas, I decided to wait. TWENTY MINUTES LATER, I managed to get my four pizzas. My family waited over an hour and a half for their food.

I have to say that this experience has left me feeling angry at They promised a service, and did not deliver. I got an email from Greg Pelly (apparently the "Greg" at, that asked if my food arrived. Hello? If this is YOUR company, wouldn't you know if you delivered an order? Further, the email stated:

If not we will get in touch with the Spinners and find out what went wrong. I'm very sorry to hear that you were having problems. We will straighten this out for you.

That was the last I heard from them. In my response, I said that if I saw a charge on my card, I would dispute it because they never even attempted to deliver anything. To date, I haven't seen the charge, but I'm still watching it daily. I have no warm-fuzzy feeling that these people are on the level.

Here's some free advice: If you offer a service, you should make sure you deliver on that service. Don't look like a complete imbecile that doesn't know anything about the service, and don't give a vaguely worded message that you'll "get in touch with the Spinners" as if to palm off the responsibility to anybody else. Also, a vague suggestion that they will straighten things out (how? when? where?) without any details, and a lack of follow up (it's been two days now), doesn't seem to indicate that this Greg fellow, or anybody else at for that matter, understands the meaning of the word "service."

Broken promises are not a way to run a company. Making your customers feel like idiots because they trusted you to do what you said you would do does not make them happy that they used your so-called service.

Anyway, it's quite clear that these two attempts of using The New Media at LaLacheur Park show a lack of understanding of the basics of business. Let's hope this situation improves, because it's difficult to imagine how this could get any worse. A check-in site that doesn't allow you to login without a Facebook account (not everybody does/likes Facebook, what about Google+?), and a food delivery site that hasn't figured out how to deliver food isn't impressive to me at all.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Spaghetti and Meat Balls

Spaghetti and Meat BallsCan there be anything more American than the classic Spaghetti and Meatball dinner?

I know the style is actually Italian, but it seems so ubiquitous in American households that it appears that we've adopted it wholeheartedly.

When I was growing up, the pasta meal at our house was actually "American Chop Suey," which was some shaped pasta (my mother like seashell pasta) to which was added some tomato sauce and cooked, with meatballs as an afterthought. When my mother served actual spaghetti, she usually broke the pasta in half to have it fit better in the pot. It wasn't a gourmet meal by any stretch of the imagination.

My parents took in foster children, and a teenager named Pam introduced us (actually me) to "real" Italian cooking. I had my first good pasta and meat balls, and I watched carefully as she prepared it. After she left, I started making it on my own, refining my technique, and then another Italian teenager named Jackie gave me further insights on seasoning as well.

My wife, who had Italian ancestors, likes my sauce, but prefers her own style of meat balls. Until I had pasta at her house, I always cooked my meat balls by sauteing them in a frying pan before adding them to the sauce. Sandra's family, on the other hand, put the raw meat balls into the sauce and let the sauce cook them, and that's the way she likes them. So, for this one dish, Sandra and I share the duties; I cook the sauce while she makes the meat balls, and then we add them directly to the sauce. The only disadvantage I see to using the raw meat balls rather than cooked is that occasionally, the raw ones "disintegrate" into the sauce, making the resulting sauce meatier.

Sandra's family also turned me on to brachiole. This is a flank steak, pounded thin, to which spices, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs are added which is then rolled and fastened by toothpicks and plunged into the sauce. After cooking, the brachiole is sliced into pinwheels and served alongside the meat balls. Sandra is quite good at making this. I've had a version of this at a place in Reading, MA called Kitty's, and the big difference there is that Kitty's uses about five times as much garlic as Sandra does, resulting in a garlic flavor bomb that is out of this world. (I've tried adding more garlic to Sandra's brachiole, but she prefers the more mild-tempered version she's always made.) I've also had brachiole locally in Salem, NH at Polcari's and the Colosseum restaurants, but neither one was as good or memorable as Kitty's or Sandra's.

I make a variation of my sauce using ground beef where I saute the beef and add spices and tomato sauce--meat sauce. Sometimes, I vary that recipe using cubes of steak and occasionally add diced carrots and celery to make a faux-bolognese sauce. It's an easy and quick meal to make on workdays, and goes good with any kind of pasta, including Sandra's favorite, ravioli.

I don't measure ingredients when I make a tomato sauce. Instead, I just add judicious amounts of fried garlic, minced onions, salt, pepper, oregano, parsley, and (one of my favorite spices) basil. I then let the spices mingle into the sauce, and then taste it, correcting the seasonings as necessary to get the "right" taste. For tomatoes, I tend to use 28 oz cans of crushed tomatoes, some red wine and water, and a 6 oz can of tomato paste (one can of paste to one can of tomatoes). Occasionally, I will add a beef bouillon cube to the sauce for a "meatier" taste, especially when I'm making a meat sauce (bacon bits are also a nice touch, giving the resulting sauce a smokier taste).

Bon Appetit!