A Meal Fit for a Doctor: Alton Brown’s Fish Sticks and Custard

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Under ordinary circumstances, I would keep my distance from this particular dish, given that I’m about as far from pescatarian as is humanly possible. But Alton Brown‘s recipe for Fish Sticks and Custard, from his recently released (and beautifully photographed) cookbook, EveryDayCook, combines my abiding appreciation for Alton Brown’s approach to food with my undying love of all things Doctor Who.

Fish Sticks and Custard from Alton Brown's EveryDayCook

To explain briefly, just understand that the Eleventh Doctor manifested a craving for this particular dish upon his regeneration, a telling and touching scene involving the young Amy Pond, and Alton Brown, as a card-carrying Whovian, saw fit to include this version in his cookbook:

My version is different in that it’s actually tasty…even if you don’t have two hearts and live in a blue box.

Note, too, that the dish is photographed upon the Fourth Doctor’s scarf. A nice homage to Doctor Who indeed.

It’s interesting to note that, up to the current point in the Doctor Who Project (Season Seven, Episode Two, “Doctor Who and the Silurians,”), food has played a very minor role in the series. There’s been the odd poisoned coffee and more than a few cuppas, but as yet, no stories with much gustatory focus. Indeed, thus far in the re-watch, I’m not sure if we’ve even seen the Doctor eat anything besides a very hard candy. And, as the events of “The Gunfighters” bear out, that wasn’t good eats at all…

(Image from Alton Brown’s EveryDayCook.)

Dutch Treats: Rijsttafel

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Say what you will about a buffet, there’s no denying the glee that stems from having an assortment of dishes from which to fill up a plate. A little of this, a dab of that, a heaping spoon of the third. And when the buffet sits right upon your table, precariously balanced in small containers perched atop warming trays, well, that’s an experience worth seeking out.

Purnama rijsttafel at Indrapura

On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I finally had the opportunity to sample the legendary Indonesian Rijstafel, the “rice table” so beloved by the Dutch and Indonesians alike. Our search for a casual yet high quality purveyor of this meal led us to Indrapura, right off Rembrandtplein and mere blocks from our accommodations. Arriving early on a Friday, we had the place to ourselves to begin, and the waiter provided nice attention, offering an Indonesian Bintang beer to accompany the “Purnama” rijsttafel.

After an appetizer of minced lamb in a fried pastry wrapper, the table began in earnest, with the waiter depositing a good score of small containers arrayed with some flair and a brief description. I could hardly keep track of what he was placing before us, but it all looked brilliant. The dominant tastes were of peanut sauce, coconut milk, and very mild spice, carried by a variety of pork, chicken, beef, and vegetables. Two bowls of rice, one plain white and one fried, accompanied the meal.

Purnama rijsttafel at Indrapura

I must confess to being underwhelmed by the spice levels. I had hoped for, and indeed expected, for heat to suffuse the meal, but on the whole, the tastes were subtle and the heat nearly nonexistent. I’ve had this problem in the Netherlands before, where theoretically spicy dishes came out with a “tourist” level of spice. Perhaps I should have let the waiter know that our spice tolerance sits on the high side of the scale.

Still, the total experience left us happy to have sampled such a wide variety of Indonesian dishes in a welcoming environment. A pleasant way to begin a Friday night, indeed, and a quintessential Indo-Dutch treat.

Beer Notebook: A Dutch Trio

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A recent trip to the Netherlands allowed me the opportunity to, well, buy Brooklyn Brewery products on the shelf of a local Amsterdam grocery store. But I didn’t do that. Whenever possible on trips, I try to quaff the local suds, three of which, all India Pale Ales, are presented here.

Jopen's Mooie Nel IPA

Jopen’s Mooie Nel IPA, sitting at an agreeable 6.5% ABV, surprised me with a decent level of hops bitterness (70 IBU) and a very long, and pleasant, finish on the palate. There were hints of floral and citrus flavor, but only hints, and that was just fine.

I like my beer hoppy, and any more citrus would have overwhelmed the beer. The head kept its shape for a while, and on the whole, I enjoyed this beer quite a bit, particularly with the fine Indian food we brought to the hotel room from our Amsterdam stand-by, Koh-i-Noor. Any future trips to the Netherlands will see this beer take a spot in the fridge.

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Beer Notebook: Flying Dog’s Easy IPA

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IPAs are tricky. It’s easy to overload an India Pale Ale with enough hops to sink a clipper bound for Calcutta, and many a microbrewer has inflicted a resinous, piney, viscous liquid on unsuspecting fans of the style. But too much restraint with the hops leaves a confirmed hops-head such as myself wanting more. So when a brewer manages to find that balance, I tend to go back to that IPA over and over.

Easy IPA

But, traditionally, the IPA tends towards the stronger side, and as the calendar turns to summer, a lighter, more sessionable quaff is demanded. Session IPAs have been around for awhile on the American brewing scene, and when my former session IPA standby, 21st Amendment’s Bitter American, ceased production in 2015, replaced by the fine-but-not-amazing Down to Earth, I figured it would just be a matter of time before I found a good replacement. Little did I know it would take about a year.

Finally, I found a very drinkable session IPA, Easy IPA, from a most unlikely source: Frederick, Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery. I say unlikely because I’ve always found Flying Dog’s beers to be inventive and interesting and usually good for one bottle as an experience. One look at their Dead Rise Summer Ale, with Old Bay seasoning, sort of proves the point. I’ve seldom gone back to a Flying Dog beer after the first bottle.

Easy IPA, on the other hand, does what it says on the tin (and also on the bottle, as it’s available in both formats)—just an easy drinking IPA, with a rush of hops on the palate that quickly fades while retaining an overall pleasant bitterness. Only a subtle floral aroma comes off the head, and it provides a more quenching taste than the usual IPA. The hops are pronounced but non-aggressive in character, clocking in at 50 IBU, making Easy IPA a welcome companion on a summer afternoon. And at 4.7% ABV, it’s a companion you can keep around for a bit. Certainly, Easy IPA stands as the best beer in Flying Dog’s stable.

I’d still choose Bitter American over Easy IPA, but since I can’t anymore, I find that Easy IPA is an, ah, easy choice for my standard session IPA.

Beer Notebook: Oskar Blues' Death by Coconut

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Oskar Blues' Death by CoconutI’m not a huge fan of concept beers, and far less a fan of “stunt” beers—lager with a chili pepper in it, I’m looking at you. Combining lots of ingredients with an eye towards producing a particular flavor usually falls flat with me. Indeed, I’m of the opinion that one of Germany’s greatest contributions to world civilization is the Rheinheitsgebot.

Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for chocolate beers, and Oskar Blues Brewery’s entry in the field, Death by Coconut, manages to draw out a strong yet subtle coconut flavor without overwhelming the palate. It tastes very much like a liquid Mounds bar, and that’s a fine result. The beer hews closely to the porter profile otherwise, with a slightly stronger alcohol content than normal (6.5% ABV) and a fine, lacy head. It drinks smoothly with very little bitterness in the aftertaste.

Sometimes chocolate beers can carry too much sweetness, but Death by Coconut avoids the “desert beer” category with a mellow sweetness and a light, thin mouthfeel. Still, one in a session feels like plenty, unlike, say a Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, which remains the pinnacle of session drinkable chocolate beers.

I secured a four-pack of Death by Coconut in late January, but it is apparently a seasonal beer, so if you see them on the shelf, pick one up before they’re gone. It’s worth seeking out, unlike most concept beers.

Beer Notebook: My First Growler

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Good beer, fresh from the tap, just sings. But short of a slightly expensive renovation job to install a keg stand and tap, getting that just-poured beer requires a trip out, and sometimes you want to sit at home and enjoy a pint. So how to get that fresh beer in a comfortable setting of your own choosing?

Dogfish Head Growler

Enter the growler, an old concept made new again with the rise of microbreweries and their associated brewpubs. At heart, a growler is just a glass jug with a tight-sealing cap, filled with your favorite brew at your friendly local tavern for consumption off-premises, and almost every microbrewery will fill them, in 32 and 64 ounce sizes. Most microbreweries sell their own glass growlers, with brand logo (and the all-important government warning) printed on the glass; further, as long as that warning is on the growler (and if the growler is clean), most will fill other breweries’ growlers as well.

Growlers, at least as shorthand for large containers for beer, have been around a long time. Joseph Mitchell, in his collection Up in the Old Hotel, recounts their use before Prohibition, quoting a butcher preparing for a massive beefsteak feast:

“In the old days they didn’t even use tables and chairs. They sat on beer crates and ate off the tops of beer barrels. You’d be surprised how much fun that was. Somehow it made old men feel young again. And they’d drink beer out of cans, or growlers. Those beefsteaks were run in halls or the cellars or back rooms of big saloons.”

The emphasis seems to be on excess, and yet the modern iteration of the growler centers on freshness and the ability to take that liquid ambrosia home.

I acquired my first growler on a recent trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home of the Dogfish Head Brewpub. In addition to sampling their brewpub-only offerings—Wet Hop After Dark, a fresh hop dark IPA that sadly managed to hide the fresh hop taste, and a very fine cask version of their 75 Minute IPA—I availed myself of their growler selection and went with a classic, the stellar 60 Minute IPA. I didn’t even mind that the waitress who brought me the growler called my 32 ounce version “a cute little baby growler,” as I had acquired what I came for: fresh beer the next day at home.

And it was fresh. The gasket-sealed cap kept the carbonation going, resulting in a near-tap pour with a generous and creamy head. I’m sure purists could taste the difference between my growler beer and beer right out of the tap, but it was more than close enough for me. I had one of my favorite beers, at the peak of freshness, in the comfort of my home.

So long live the growler! I’m lucky enough to live someplace with several microbreweries nearby that fill growlers, and I look forward to walking in there with my Dogfish Head jug asking for a fill.

Road Bites: Taco Bell's Crunchy Taco

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Life might not have been simpler in the 1970s, but the menu at Taco Bell certainly was. Perhaps six or seven items populated the Mexican-inspired fast food chain’s list of offerings then, and of those, very few can be found on the contemporary menu, stuffed as it is with Doritos-this and Extreme Baja-that, all festooned with “crunchy red strips” of uncertain provenance.

Back then, you ordered a taco. You got a taco. No need to specify “crunchy” or soft, no need to ask for it to be glued to another shell with refried beans or smothered in odd sauces. It was a taco: spiced beef mixture, lettuce, and cheddar cheese inside a hard corn tortilla shell. Perhaps not a taco in the sense anyone versed in Mexican cuisine would recognize, but the taco of my and many Americans’ youth.

Upon a recent visit to a Taco Bell in Frederick, Maryland, I ordered a meal composed of items you would have found way back when: crunchy taco, bean burrito, and pintos and cheese (frijoles, once upon a time).

Crunchy Taco and Pintos and Cheese from Taco Bell

For all the changes, the taco brought back memories of those originals from the ’70s. The timeless construction of spiced meat at the bottom, then shredded lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese at top, comforted me for some reason. Unlike my sandwich rule of proper ingredient distribution, a good fast-food taco needs variety—a bit of lettuce and cheese (with hot sauce added) this time, a bit of meat and lettuce next, with the cracking shell adding texture to each bite. Sure, the cheddar was industrially shredded three hundred miles (and who knows how many weeks) away, and the shell was hardly just-fried, but the experience was simple, filling, and just a bit nostalgic.

I tend to eat better (or at least more proper) tacos now, filled with al pastor and barbacoa, but you’re not always going to find a taco truck or taqueria on the road. My Taco Bell stop proved to be an inexpensive, interesting, and well-prepared meal, enough to get me back on the road to my destination, like a good road bite should.

And if Taco Bell would ever bring back the classic enchirito and tostado, well, I’d be stopping by quite a bit more often.