The Devil You Should Know

It should be said, I love brandy: specifically cognac, a brandy from the Cognac region of France. I have had a fairly long love affair with it. It was the first alcohol I purchased when I turned 21. Yes, the first booze I bought was a bottle of Hennessy V.S.O.P.

In my defense, I needed it to make tiramisu. The tiramisu was one part 'birthday treat' and one part 'spite' for the regulatory geniuses that prevented me from cooking with booze until my senior year of college. (You may have noticed, I like to use alcohol in recipes.) From that point on, I was hooked. I’ve drunk it out of flasks and in tasting flights. I enjoy it straight and even more so with dessert. I love to soak prunes in it, naturally. It’s just special. And apparently, I am not the only one who thinks so.

Cognac is aged in Limousin oak casks; a little cognac evaporates from the casks as the spirit matures, this portion is known as the “angels’ share.” I love that. This past winter, I had the luxury to go to a bar in New York City called Angel’s Share; except, in true form, I thought it was called “Angel’s Chair.”

To my credit, Angel's Share is a speakeasy-type bar that you have to enter through an unmarked door at the back of a Japanese restaurant. Also, I am a little hard of hearing and, let’s be honest, I had a few cocktails in me by the time we made it to “Angel’s Chair.” Regardless, I am very fond of cognac; it’s straightforward, slightly romantic, and comforting: even angels like it.

Now, if angels like cognac then the devil must fancy a Brandy Alexander, a cocktail with quite a reputation. A Brandy Alexander tastes like a boozy custard; it’s decadent. Drinking it is like sleeping in silk pajamas. It feels luxurious. It makes you question why you don’t do “this sort of thing” all the time, whatever “this sort of thing” might be at that moment. It’s downright corruptive. In Days of Wine and Roses, Jack Lemmon’s character, Joe Clay, orders a Brandy Alexander for his teetotaling date and the rest is history. They eventually get married, ride off into the sunset … and both become raging alcoholics. Oh, but the Brandy Alexander’s debasive nature doesn’t end there. Singer/songwriter, Feist, also sings about such things in her hauntingly sexy song, “Brandy Alexander”:

He’s my Brandy Alexander. Always gets me into trouble. But that’s another matter. Brandy Alexander … It goes down easy.

It sure does go down easy. And while I don’t recommend drinking it regularly—as it contains heavy cream and regular consumption may eventually require you to purchase a new, more spacious pair of silk pajamas—I do recommend drinking it on an occasional Wednesday or ordering it for dessert after a nice meal. Life is too short not to.

Brandy Alexander

2 ounces cognac or other brandy

1 ounce dark crème de cacao

1 ounce heavy cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

Shake in a cocktail strainer. Serve up.

Serves one brandy lover.


You really don’t need to use cognac in Brandy Alexanders; some may even argue it’s superfluous. But, once again, I think life is too short not to keep cognac around. My favorite is Pierre Ferrand.

As for the cream, I like Butterworks Farm from Vermont. Whole Foods carries it.

I’ve also made this with regular crème de cacao and it was just fine. The nutmeg is essential, don’t omit it.

If you are looking for a great Brandy Alexander in Boston, I highly recommend Barbara Lynch’s bar, Drink. Last time I had it, the bartender put coffee beans into her cocktail shaker and it added a new twist to the classic.


I Smell a Radish. Did I Say Radish? I Meant Rat.

I live in an old, charming Boston neighborhood filled with flowerboxes, brick sidewalks and gas burning lanterns. Beacon Hill is rich with cultural history, once a setting for John Hancock’s country estate and later a home for wealthy Boston Brahmins in the 1800s; Louisa May Alcott even lived here. Apparently, it’s also nice lodging for rats. I have the hole burrowed under my fence to prove it.

Now, I wish I could say I was horrified when I found out I had a rat gallivanting around at night. Truth be told, as long as he stayed outside and didn’t bother me, I was content to go on pretending he didn’t exist. But then he had to go ahead and eat my radish greens.

I say “he” because I assumed, naively, that this was only one rat. I imagined him to be like Splinter, from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; a sage rat, perhaps even skilled in martial arts, with a propensity for radishes. So you can imagine my horror when I set out nine bromethalin baits in my tiny outdoor patio space and eight were gone the next day. Completely gone. I am fabulous with denial. One rat, ha!

I thought long and hard about whether I should even mention any of this. Using a neurotoxin-based rat poison is not something I am proud of. It makes me feel like I am one small step away from hiding used batteries in birds’ nests and throwing gasoline-filled water balloons at small children. I tried to go the natural route, I really did. Word on the street is you can spray fox urine to deter rats, but such a product was nowhere to be found at my local hardware shop. (Also, I am pretty sure Beacon Hill city rats have evolved past being afraid of foxes.) The rats here also seem to have become immune to the rat poison, warfarin—an anticoagulant known as coumadin when given to humans—as it was, also, nowhere to be found in Beacon Hill.

Now, I first thought it odd the bromethalin baits touted that they were "ideal" for fighting “warfarin-resistant” rats. How could a creature become immune to something that—under normal circumstances—should cause it to bleed to death? After ruminating the issue, it made total sense why the rats were after my greens. Greens are very rich in vitamin K, which aids in the clotting of blood; hence, eating greens out of my garden was a natural way to combat the warfarin. Dang you rats.

I realize I’ve spent a good few paragraphs talking about rats, which I am pretty sure is a no-no when writing about food. But this is a blog about life, not just food. And, sometimes, in real life you have rats. Hopefully, you can learn from my lax rat-titude (couldn’t resist) and prevent any major destruction in your garden. I promptly started over and grew a new batch of radishes in an old wine crate, which finally leads me to the food part of this post.

This past weekend I needed to thin some radish, arugula and mustard green seedlings I had growing. This is another act that makes me feel heartless. Plucking healthy plants from the earth is not something I relish in, but, alas, it is necessary for the development of healthy plants. Still, I hate the idea of wasting anything edible, so I figured I’d just eat the thinnings. It turns out thinnings have a fancy cousin in the culinary world: microgreens. [Mi.cro.green: noun, shoot of a standard salad plant (such as mustard or arugula).] National Public Radio even reported on “microgreens” as a food trend in 2008. (Where have I been?) Well, the poor man’s microgreen is delicious. And makes an amazing pesto. Ah, life is all about turning overgrown radish greens into pesto, no?

The kicker: I put this pesto on some homemade ravioli I had in the freezer and I had dinner in fewer than 15 minutes (hence, the picture).

Spring Green Pesto

2 cups microgreens (or other greens such as arugula, pea shoots, or mixed herbs)

¼ cup parmigiano-reggiano

¼ -1/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted (walnuts would also work really well)

2-4 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients in a food processor. You may have to adjust the quantities slightly to get the consistency you want. This pesto freezes beautifully for future use.

Makes about ¾ cup. (This was based on the amount of “microgreens” I had available, you could certainly increase the proportions.)


Be sure to use good quality ingredients, as there are only a few ingredients in the recipe. You may not be able to pluck anything edible straight from your backyard, but if you have a farmers’ market nearby, I highly recommend getting some fresh, local spring greens. You might even get lucky and find some microgreens. Pea shoots and arugula would also be wonderful substitutes, as would most other green herbs, such as parsley or mint. As luck would have it, the farmers’ markets in Boston are just opening for the season this week and next.

If you don’t have a market nearby, you may be able to find these items at a local grocery store. Or you could even try growing some greens yourself. If you have a sunny windowsill or fire escape most herbs and salad greens will happily grow, making fresh pesto only a few snips away.

I still like to keep a few potted herbs on my windowsill; most of them have journeyed with me from Allston to Fenway, and most recently to Beacon Hill. It’s been four years and they haven’t forsaken me yet. Fresh pesto and resiliency: I take comfort in that.


In a Pickle, I Learned to Love That Dirty Water

I’m gonna tell you a story. I’m gonna tell you about my town. I’m gonna tell you a big, bad story, baby. Aw, it’s all about my town …

A few weeks ago, Boston found itself in a bit of a pickle—and so did I. A water pipe responsible for delivering Boston’s water supply burst, making the safety of Boston’s finest questionable. Bottled water flew off supermarket shelves and Starbucks was unable to sell lattes. The city was on edge. I wasn’t worried about bottled water or espresso. I could boil my water and use it to make coffee at home, but the busted pipe added a new twist to my plan to spend the day baking bread and pickling. (Oh dear, I know how that must sound.)

Aside from the obvious problem of thinking that this was a delightful way to spend an afternoon, I had another issue: I was in a clean dish deficit; I had to figure out a way to safely wash the necessary dishes, if I was to avoid the liver failure and vomiting threatening the Boston area. The department of public health was recommending to submerge washed dishes in a bleach solution, however eyedroppering an 1/8 of a teaspoon of bleach into a gallon of water seemed like a bad idea. What—apparently—seemed like a GOOD idea was to—instead—boil my washed dishes. And so I did not turn back; I went fearlessly, full speed ahead with my previously devised plan to bake pan integral and pickle.

So there I was, in unusually hot 87-degree weather, with my 475-degree oven and pots of boiling water bubbling away on the stovetop. Things got a little dicey when boiling water splashed on the fresh blisters I earned gardening the day before: blisters, I might add, that were made even more raw with repeated application of hand sanitizer (also recommended by the health department). Suffice to say that these are not problems an individual living in the 21st century typically faces on a Sunday: the irony of the situation was not lost on me.

Pickling, when done centuries ago, was a way to preserve food, as the high acidity helped to keep bacterial growth at bay. Now, if I was slightly more delusional (and slightly less of a hypochondriac), I might have reasoned that my present-day pickling would kill any nefarious Boston-based bacteria, but I knew better, and so I cut the vinegar brine with white wine instead of water. Sure, I suppose substituting booze for non-potable water is old news to any swashbuckling pirates or beer-swilling serfs out there, but I was quite tickled with the substitution and, in the end, I think it was an improvement. Dare I say that we might all stand to benefit a bit from small disasters every now and then; for me, the water ban was a way to get creative and problem solve. Also, it made me very thankful for clean water.

So next time you find yourself in a bit of a pickle, perhaps try this pickling recipe. The addition of cloves and grapes may sound unusual, but it’s actually my favorite component. I had the idea to add the grapes after being offered pickled grapes at a new bar in Boston called
Woodward (instead of the traditional mixed nuts often served at such establishments). This modern saloon—I kid you not—describes itself as “Ben Franklin meets a supermodel.” If plucky Ben Franklin isn’t the apotheosis for creative invention, then I don’t know what is. Lucky for you, if you have clean water, the recipe is quite simple and shouldn’t use up too much of your ingenious brainpower. Oh Boston, you’re my home.

Pickled Carrots, Grapes and Cucumbers with Cloves and Juniper

2-2¼ cups apple cider vinegar
¾ cup white wine (or water)
¾-1 cup sugar
8-10 cloves
8-10 juniper berries
1 tbsp brown mustard seeds
1 tsp pink peppercorns
1 tsp black peppercorns
1½ tbsp salt
¾ pound red grapes, with the stem ends cut off so that flesh is exposed
3 carrots, peeled and cut into thin strips
1 cucumber, sliced
¼ habanero pepper, seeded
Few sprigs of dill

Combine vinegar, wine, sugar, spices (not including dill) and salt and bring to a boil on the stovetop, then simmer for about 10 minutes. Put the grapes, carrots and cucumbers in glass jars (or any other container you wish to store them in) and pour the hot mixture over them, top with additional vinegar, if needed, until they are completely covered with brine. Add the dill and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until ready to eat.

Makes about 6 cups with brine.


I gave a range for some of the ingredients listed above so that you could tailor the brine to your personal tastes. I assure you the combination of spices is quite delicious, however feel free to use whatever you have around. With the addition of habanero, the recipe is admittedly not for the faint of heart, though I suppose no pickle (or problem) is for that matter. So have at it.

The pickled nibbles get better the longer they sit, so try to wait 3 or 4 days before tearing into them. I couldn’t find a consistent recommendation on how long refrigerator pickles will keep; the general consensus online was between 1-2 months in the refrigerator, though I doubt there will be anything left by then.

And oh yes, I almost forgot. After the pipe break was repaired, officials tested the water: it was safe the entire time.


The Litmus Soufflé

First off, a few things about life:

1) It is going to change. Best you keep a good friend, bottle of red wine, and/ or strong sedative handy.
2) Your mother was—and will likely continue to be—right about a lot of things (especially those horrible lime green plaid pants you wore in the seventh grade).
3) There will come a time when you are cooking when something will go terribly, terribly wrong. It is bound to happen. And there will be company involved.

Take the soufflé. It is a stately dish that never fails to impress—particularly, if it comes out of the oven as it is supposed to. You feel so many emotions when it rises properly: slight disbelief, awe at your good fortune, a fleeting sensation of feeling impervious, and the nagging notion (perhaps like the memory of your mother warning about the social perils of lime green pants), that this lovely thing you have put all your literal—and perhaps metaphorical—eggs into could deflate with one wrong move. A fallen soufflé is particularly offensive; not only because it instantly deflates your ego, but it manages to do so in front of an audience: and usually one you’ve deemed worth impressing.

All this self-imposed destruction is exhausting, so allow me to suggest a fresh point of view for the soufflé. Use the soufflé’s fragility to your advantage, as an eggy litmus test for the company you keep. If the soufflé rises, it will impress everyone, including the people in your life that may be equally impressed when you put your underwear on correctly. But if your soufflé does happen to fall and the only sound you hear is the polite clink of chattering forks against plates, you may want to reconsider having these people over again … or why they are in your life. After all, life isn’t about how we act when a perfect soufflé comes out, it’s about how we react when one falls.

I’m lucky to have people in my life willing to eat more than their fair share of fallen soufflés. I made this recipe for my mother and grandmother on mother’s day. And, no, I did not intend to use it as a character test; I intended to use them as recipe testers. I think it’s safe to say the mothers I have in my life passed the character test long ago. They are truly remarkable women.

Chive Soufflé
Adapted from Ina Garten

3 tbsp butter, plus extra for buttering the soufflé dish
¼ cup parmesan cheese (preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano), plus extra for dusting the soufflé dish
3 tbsp flour
¼ cup heavy cream
¾ cup milk
4 egg yolks (at room temperature)
4 ounces aged cheddar cheese
the zest of 1 lemon zest
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
½ cup chives
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp salt
10 grinds pepper mill
5 egg whites
1/8 tsp cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a soufflé dish and then coat with parmesan cheese. Melt the butter in a saucepan; add the flour and cook about 2 minutes. Take off the heat and stir in cream and milk; add egg yolks one at a time and then add in cheddar cheese, parmesan, lemon zest, mustard, chives, nutmeg, salt and pepper and stir until well combined. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar with a mixer for about 2-3 minutes, until firm, glossy peaks form. Whisk ¼ of the egg whites into the cheese sauce and then fold in the rest of the whites. Pour mixture in your buttered soufflé dish and draw a circle on top with a rubber spatula (this will help the soufflé rise properly). Place in the middle of your oven and turn the temperature down to 375 degrees. Bake 30-35 minutes. Don’t open the oven door during this time. Serve immediately.

Serves 3


The Name is Rhubarb, Raspberry Rhubarb

This weekend is forecast as the last weekend possible for frost to threaten the Boston area until autumn; breathe a sigh of relief: warmer weather is here to stay. With spring in full force, I begin to play favorites with my produce, buying mostly what is in season and grown locally whenever possible. I shell more fava beans and English peas than any sane person ever would, but one of my favorite—and fairly low maintenance—foods to cook in the springtime is rhubarb.

Rhubarb is a fruit with many contradictions: for starters, it’s actually a vegetable. It’s typically seen in sweet dishes; eaten by itself, it would make you pucker. It’s a feisty, hardy plant, but softens up pretty quickly in a pan with the aid of a little heat. It grows fairly well without a lot of sunlight, which many edible plants do not. And, oddly enough, the leaves attached to the edible stalks of the rhubarb plant are lethal. I don’t know why, but having toxic parts makes me quite fond of rhubarb as a vegetable. Probably for the same reason why I like the planet Venus: it has an inhospitable climate and rains sulfuric acid, and can still pull off being a sultry symbol of beauty. Anyway, rhubarb is a lovely rose-colored hue and also holds court as the James Bond of produce, being cool, complex: and badass. The balance between allure and imminent death gets me every time.

Growing up, I can remember my mom sending me out to her garden to pick rhubarb for raspberry rhubarb pie. We lived in an area surrounded by trees and had only dappled sunlight; the rhubarb thrived. She also planted tulips, another sign of spring, but they didn’t fair quite as well. It wasn’t actually the limited sun that got them: it was the woodchucks. At night, they would bite the heads off my mother’s flowering tulips. Things got particularly ugly one spring when my mom had quite enough of her decapitated tulips: and my dad got the shotgun. I don’t really know if any woodchucks were
actually killed (or that things ever really improved for my mother and her tulips). The woodchucks never did mess with the rhubarb though. They knew better.

While we humans can’t eat tulips, we can eat rhubarb, or at least the stalks. And so each spring I look forward to rhubarb. This year, I decided to really sex things up by adding some Grand Marnier and a hint of rose water. Don’t fret, roses are edible, though I suppose if you were trying to kill someone—James Bond style—you could always substitute tulips instead and throw in some rhubarb leaves for good measure.

Raspberry Rose Rhubarb Jam (After All, You Only Live Twice)

1 orange (preferably organic), juice and zest
1 to 1½ pounds rhubarb, divided
Pinch of salt
1¼ to 1½ cups sugar
1 vanilla bean pod
2/3 cup frozen raspberries, unsweetened
2 tbsp Grand Marnier, or other orange-flavored spirit
1-2 tbsp rose water*

*Whole Foods or a Middle Eastern grocer would carry this; you could also order it online from the spice company my sister works for in Chicago, they have truly amazing spices:
The Spice House. Or just omit it or try almond extract instead for a less floral flavor.

Zest your orange and reserve the zest; if you don’t have a microplane, you can remove the white pith from the orange peel with a knife, cut the peel into thin strips, and then mince the peel. Cut your rhubarb into ½ inch pieces and add ¾ of the rhubarb to a pan with the juice of the orange and cook on medium heat. Add a pinch of salt, the orange zest, and about 1 cup or so of your sugar. Cut open the vanilla bean, scrap out the seeds, and then add both the seeds and pod to the rhubarb. Let it cook down, this will take about 10-20 minutes or so. Add the rest of the rhubarb and raspberries and let cook about 5-10 minutes more, adding additional sugar to taste and additional water if it starts getting too thick. Add the Grand Marnier and rose water and cook for about 1-2 minutes more, until the flavors blend. Remove the vanilla bean pod.

Makes about 1½-2 cups.

I don’t bother with canning; I find freezing jam easier and less of a headache. If you are going to can this recipe, you may want to check on your sugar proportions. I freeze the jam in a glass jar with a metal lid, but any freezer safe container with a tight fitting top would work.

This jam is particularly indulgent with a little whole milk Greek yogurt for breakfast. Or, if you really want to be over the top, you could put the jam and a dollop of the yogurt (or freshly whipped cream, for that matter) on buckwheat pancakes. You’d be keeping it in the family: rhubarb and buckwheat are botanical cousins.