Saturday five, 10/25/14.

No new ESPN content this week other than Klawchat; I’ve been working on my top 50 free agents ranking, which goes up some time after the World Series ends, and there’s a 2015 draft ranking in the editing queue up in Bristol.

Lots of links this week…

Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook.

My weekly Klawchat transcript is up. I have filed a 2015 draft top 30 ranking, but it’s not up yet.

Harold Dieterle is probably familiar to most of you as the winner of the first season of Top Chef back in 2005, when he was just 28 years old. (I suddenly feel lazy and underachieving.) He’s also a rabid baseball fan, and a fellow Long Islander, so we have followed each other on Twitter for some time and talked both sports and food. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his first cookbook, Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook, which just came out earlier this month.

The volume is really two books in one: a standard cookbook of recipes, most of which are on the intermediate to expert level, due to techniques or harder-to-obtain ingredients (I’d love to try goat neck, but I’m not even sure where to start to ask for it); and a reference work that really does look like a chef’s “notebook,” which thoughts on how to pick out or use various ingredients from the common to the exotic (I don’t think I’ve ever seen another cookbook discuss huckleberries), and brief sketches of dishes involving each one. Given the size of my collection and the number of recipes here that involve shellfish – to which my wife is allergic – I’ve found the notebook part much more valuable and interesting than the recipes.

I did try a few recipes as I do for any cookbook I review, with mixed results. The pancetta-wrapped pork tenderloin was a hit – how could it not be? – as was the side salad of shaved Asian pear and endive with a simple lemon juice/EVOO vinaigrette. My daughter, no fan of salads in general or bitter vegetables in particular, loved it, and has since consumed an Asian pear a day (not a cheap habit, but at least it’s a healthful snack). Getting the pancetta thin enough to wrap the pork was difficult, and I needed more than the 2 ounces of pancetta per tenderloin to get good coverage. The recipe’s rutabaga puree didn’t work out well for me; I had no problem cooking the root vegetable, but needed half to three-quarters of the dairy called for to get the right texture. Some of that is on me for not thinking about adding a little liquid at a time, and some is on the book for measuring everything in volume but not weight. (I’m an absolute stickler on this subject now; I have two scales in my kitchen and I am damn sure going to use them.)

His asparagus gnudi (a hand-shaped pasta made with ricotta in the dough) were outstanding, although anything that dairy-heavy is tricky for my lactose-hating metabolic system … but he also includes a recipe for making your own ricotta, which might allow me to make a form less antagonistic to my stomach, or even to make something fun like goat’s milk ricotta. The recipe called for rolling out the gnudi to 1 1/2 inches thick, but I believe that’s a typo and should be 3/4” instead. The best part of the gnudi recipe was the Parmiggiano-Reggiano broth, made with rinds you can save from the cheese you use or you can buy (for too much money, really) at any decent supermarket or cheese chop); I strained out what was left and had it the next day as a starter soup with some grilled bread. His lemon gnocchi, a side recipe to be served with swordfish confit, worked well as long as I cooked the potato a lot longer than the time the recipe called for – it has you roasting it in the skin, but I might cube and steam it instead to get there faster, even though that preserves more moisture.

I have yet to tackle the dessert section – I need company for that kind of undertaking – but there’s a warm flourless chocolate and peanut butter soufflé cake with coffee crème Anglaise in here, and five varieties of scratch doughnuts, including vanilla, nutella, and foie gras mousse-filled versions.

The notebook pages live throughout the book, next to a recipe that calls for a particular ingredient or technique, at which point Dieterle goes on what reads like a length digression about, say, huckleberries, farro, saffron, goat cheese, sausage (with recipes for five different kinds), or duck fat. It’s like downloading from a chef’s brain – as if you sent in a query that said “tell me what I can do with watermelon” and you get back five recipes, some obvious, some less so (watermelon and jícama chimichurri). He tells you how to make that Parmiggiano broth and four things to do with it. He tells you how to candy, brandy, or pickle cherries. Sunchokes, a vegetable I love and yet never think of cooking, get an entry that describes them and gives four suggestions. He even follows the S’mores recipe with instructions for making your own marshmallows (although it calls for “liquid glucose,” so I’m on the prowl for that too).

The recipes do require a higher skill level than most other cookbooks aimed at the mass market, and you’ve got to be near a major city or a great set of farmers to find all of the ingredients. If you have some experience in the kitchen, however, there’s nothing in here that I found out of reach, and coming up with substitutions or just doing part of one recipe and part of another isn’t hard. It’s an invaluable resource as a reference and idea generator, the way I feel about The Flavor Bible (a book without recipes, listing what ingredients pair well with what other ingredients), another book I turn to repeatedly when I want inspiration more than I want instruction. So if you need me, I’ll be at Whole Foods looking for sunchokes.

Top Chef, S12E02.

Mei says her win in episode one proves to the other competitors that she’s a “force to be reckoned with.” Every challenge winner on every reality show gives one of two speeches – this one or the “this shows that I deserve to be here” speech. Come up with some new material, people. Your competitors are busy trying to win challenges and not get eliminated, not thinking about whether you belong on the show.

* Katsuji is embarrassed. I feel like Embarrassed Katsuji has a lot of meme potential.

* Aaron says molecular gastronomy is “the evolution of food.” This is the equivalent of baseball “true SABR” arguments. If MG doesn’t make the food better, then don’t use it. I want Aaron to say this in front of Blais next week.

* Don’t let the outside shots fool you. Boston weather looks like that maybe twenty days a year.

* James has a Patrick Swayze tattoo and I can’t even snark this. That said, in a house of virtual strangers of both genders, I’m probably not coming down to the kitchen wearing only my boxer-briefs.

* Guest judge: Todd English. He used to be among the best chefs in boston, but his flagship restaurant, Olives, really went downhill when he expanded with more restaurants and TV/book projects. It is the first place where I ever tried molten chocolate cake, and both that and their vanilla bean souffle (which I saw him make on a TV show with Martha Stewart, which taught me how to combine the two parts of the souffle batter, and also featured him saying that the eggs from her chicken coop were too fresh to work with) are among my favorite desserts to cook for a small group. I think both recipes are in the out-of-print The Olives Dessert Table. More important, however, is that his face no longer moves when he talks, which I find disturbing.

* Quickfire: Make the ultimate surf and turf dish. There are two lanterns, and two displays of food. When just one lantern goes on, chefs get to pick a “land” ingredient; two lanterns means they get to pick a sea ingredient. Each display is first-come, first-serve, which sucks because suddenly it’s a brawl to get to the ingredients and your size and agility matter. Winner gets $5000 and no immunity, but no one seems to mind that tradeoff.

* Land first. How does no one get killed in these scrums?

* Katsuji grabs sweetbreads, which are one of the few proteins I’ve tried (notably at Animal in LA) and not really liked.

* The land light goes on again. Mei gets the ramps and says she is “amped as fuck,” which is pretty amped. She’s making a compound butter with the ramp tops. I’d like to see more about that – did she blanch and purée them or just include them raw?

* James gets wild boar bacon. He had me at “bacon,” really.

* Katie plows into Katsuji and he spills his chili sauce all over the place. That’s Katsuji’s version, at least. Maybe he was too busy adding ingredients to see her there?

* The “sea” ingredients become available with under 15 minutes left. Adam misses the cattle call … I mean, the lanterns, and ends up with “dried crab snack.” I don’t even know what that is. I tend to avoid anything “crab-flavored” that isn’t actually, you know, crab.

* Land ingredients become available one more time. Why is velveeta one of the options? That’s not even food. What chef is ever going to use that in a high-end kitchen? And are viewers really interested in what a highly trained or accomplished chef is going to do with a combination of whey, seaweed extract, and preservatives? I’m not. That stuff is disgusting.

* We see some of the dishes, as is par for the course this early in the season. Adam made a shoyu-marinated flank with pretzel dashi (what?) and crab snack. Mos Chef made grilled lamb chops with aromatic soy and bluefoot mushroom salad. Padma says it was salty. Melissa did a fritto misto with pollock and razor clams, which seems a little mundane. Joy made a marinated buffalo strip steak on a veal cutlet with warm slaw and sea salt garnish. That sounds like a lot of meat, and not in a good Ron Swanson sort of way.

* Stacy made a pork shop with skate cheeks, black radishes, and arugula but overcooked the pork. That’s bad. James made sautéed mussels with a boar bacon broth and sautéed fiddlehead ferns. Aaron did a smoked bacon shiro miso dashi with pork meatballs, fish cakes, and nori, along with black garlic and gochujang. I was pretty sure Mei would be in the top three with her pan seared haddock, ramp tomato nage (like a court bouillon), wasabi tobiko, and shaved fennel salad. Katsuji made poached sweetbreads, quail egg, uni, caviar, hot pepper jelly. He’s praised for his “restraint,” which is more like a warning not to try to use every ingredient in the kitchen.

* Least favorites: Joy, because it was odd to have bison and veal together (obvious, no?). Stacy, because her pork chop was underseasoned and overcooked. Favorites: Katsuji, for the beautiful pepper jelly sauce and great uni. James for handling a potent ingredient like wild boar bacon handled so well and cooking the mussels perfectly. James is the winner. Giving someone the prize for including uni seems like cheating anyway. Some ingredients just get overexposed on this show. We don’t need foie gras on everything, and if you’re that good a chef, you shouldn’t need it to make a great dish.

* Elimination challenge: The guests are the Boston police and fire commissioners, Bill Evans and John Hassan. There’s no shopping: Each team (four of three chefs each and one of two chefs) will get to pick a basket of ingredients available in the kitchen at Il Casale in Belmont, then have two hours to prep and cook. Mei gets Katie and Katsuji and is not happy to have both of the bottom chefs from previous elimination challenge on her team. She seems really strong, but probably a bit quick on the judgment draw here. That’s my job. Meanwhile, Aaron and Keriann, who were squabbling in the stew room after the previous challenge, are on the same team, which had to make the producers happy.

* Evans’ only condition for the chefs: “No gourmet donuts. We have enough donut jokes.” That’s fair. Then again, this is a town that treats Dunkin Donuts as haute cuisine when all they really serve are stale donuts and acqua sporca as coffee.

* Adam, who came off horribly in week one, has a real moment of humanity when he talks about September 11th. His mom worked on floor 78 of tower two, and when that building went down, he was “100% certain she was dead.” He didn’t hear from her until two o’clock on the morning of the 12th; she had been stepping off the E train when the plane hit.

* Mei says to no one in particular that “it doesn’t need to be a forty ingredient dish,” which seems a little passive-aggressive with Katsuji on her team. She’s taking charge, though, showing some of Michael Voltaggio’s influence on her personality.

* Then we get Aaron, who is either a straight-up misogynist or just a lunatic, essentially picking a fight with Keriann for refusing to gameplan around ingredients they don’t have – specifically if it’s a basket of dessert options, since their team will pick last. Saying to her “you seem pretty fucking confident” and “I’m not being an asshole right now, trust me, you’ll know when i’m an asshole” makes me wonder how much worse he looks when he thinks he’s being an asshole. Also, he said they should discuss “hypothetics,” which is more proof that you shouldn’t use two-dollar words when you don’t have two neurons to rub together.

* Il Casale is right on Leonard Street in Belmont, a stone’s throw from where I used to live, and a street down which I’ve walked dozens of times. So, yeah, that was a bit nostalgic for me. Of course, they didn’t show what that street looks like in mid-January when dirty snow is piled two feet high on the sidewalks.

* Team 1 is Mei, Katsuji, and Katie, and they get first pick. The baskets all have amazing produce, something I appreciated a lot more about living near Boston when I moved to Arizona and couldn’t get anything close to this quality. Locals would complain about the cost of Wilson Farms in Lexington, but produce of that caliber should cost more.

* Katsuji and Mei squabbling over the sauce. It’s like the chefs never watched the show before applying: One, you don’t parcel out tasks before making the whole to-do list. Two, if you fight on camera, it will go on air. Always. So try to work it out.

* Team 2 (Rebecca, Adam, Mos Chef) takes a surf and turf box, with some insanely large chanterelles, filet (yawn), and scallops. Mos Chef already plans to make a leek vinaigrette.

* Team 3 is the two-man operation of James and Doug. They choose a basket with pork chops and a lot of produce. There’s a lot of stereotyping in the discussions of what to make for cops and firefighters, as if they’re all blue-collar meat-and-potatoes white men, but of all the baskets I saw on camera, this was the one that jumped out at me because of the fruits and vegetables in it.

* Team 4 (Joy, Melissa, and Ron) chooses a basket with veal, salmon, and kale. This leads to a discussion of how the veal has to be cooked, and Joy’s concern about their thickness, which is something that we refer to around here as “foreshadowing.” She wants to take them off the bone, but Ron and Melissa crush that idea and rightly so – you expect chops served in a restaurant to come on the bone. Ron suggests a “hint of vanilla” in the sauce or the root purée they’re making, which is basically the worst idea ever, because there is no such thing as a “hint” of vanilla. It does not play nice with savory ingredients. This is like saying someone is wearing a “hint” of Drakkar. Putting vanilla in the sauce for your pork chops is like halving a vanilla bean and sticking the two pieces in each diner’s nostrils.

* Team DISRE5PECT is Keriann, Stacy, and Aaron. They choose the chicken and short rib basket, but say there isn’t enough time to cook the short ribs. Ninety minutes in a pressure cooker wouldn’t be enough? Granted, I never cook short ribs that way, but if you can braise them in two to three hours, an hour-plus under pressure should do it. Meanwhile, after Keriann asked him not to force his molecular gastronomy obsession into the dish, Aaron insists on making a chorizo/onion jam with agar agar, then tries to order Keriann not to put onion in her corn salsa because he’s doing onion jam. She wasn’t blameless here, but Aaron seemed much more stubborn than Keriann. Meanwhile, did Stacy really not step in and try to get these two knuckleheads to work together? Not that they would have listened, given how much they hounded her over her preparation of the chicken.

* Mei tastes Katsuji’s sauce and says it’s “really fucking good,” which means it was probably really fucking good. Give her credit for de facto admitting she was wrong about Katsuji.

* Team 1, the red team, serves a pea and coconut purée (Katie) with sautéed halibut (Mei), pickled rhubarb, and a cherry and grilled rhubarb sauce (Katsuji). Everything here was great, especially the sauce. Tom said “everything made sense.” These writeups are easier when chefs screw up, by the way.

* Team 2, the blue team, does a grilled filet (Adam’s – and with the meat’s huge grill marks the pieces look like large slices of chocolate layer cake) with a parsnip purée (Rebecca), pan seared scallops (Mos Chef), and a leek marcona vinaigrette (Mos Chef). All proteins were perfectly cooked and Tom loved the vinaigrette, especially because Gregory didn’t let the leeks brown. Two for two.

* Team 3, the grey team, did a grilled pork chop and grilled stonefruit salad with morel mushrooms and walnuts. The pork chop was seasoned and cooked well and Gail loved the grilled apricots. She always loves some element that no one else mentions. I think that’s a good thing. It’s worth pointing out that we never saw these two chefs (James and Doug) bicker over anything – and I believe the editors would gladly have shown us even the slightest disagreement between them. Three for three, but it’s downhill from here.

* Team 4, the yellow team, was a mess, sending out veal chops that Melissa can see aren’t cooked. They served maple and vanilla wood-roasted chops (Joy) with a citrus kale slaw, vanilla-scented celery root purée, and pickled radishes. There’s way too much vanilla in this dish for me; it had to taste like drinking a bottle of perfume. The diners can’t even cut the meat because it’s raw in the center. Tom says we are all “conditioned to want sweet” when we taste vanilla. It’s a fucking dessert ingredient. This is not complicated.

* A policewoman at the judges’ table, Shana Cottone, tells of being at the finish line at the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, and one of the two survivors she helped ended up having her attend his (I believe she said “his”) wedding. Seems like the producers made a great choice with the guests for this challenge.

* Team 5, the green team, is still arguing in the kitchen before service, with Keriann and Aaron both haranguing Stacy about her chicken and then sniping about her (within earshot) when she declines help she doesn’t need. Yes, it’s coming to the plates at the last second, but doesn’t it have to be? You want it hot but not sitting to carry over past 160 degrees, when it’ll begin to dry out. Meanwhile, Aaron is so busy yelling at his teammates that he doesn’t notice that his “marmalade” (no, douche, a marmalade usually has citrus peel and definitely doesn’t need agar) is watery until right before plating, and tries to warm it up and thicken it further with yet more agar agar. Like pectin, another polysaccharide, agar agar has a funny texture when it’s kind of on its own – you want its gelling properties but not its specific mouthfeel. I make a lot of jam and preserves and never add pectin for that very reason; I use recipes that give me enough pectin from fruit (e.g., a grated green apple) to make the finished product set. In conclusion, I don’t like Aaron.

* The green team serves pan-roasted chicken breast (Stacy) with a bourbon onion jam (Aaron) and a fresh corn salad with serrano (Keriann). The judges universally say that Stacy’s chicken is best thing on the plate. Padma doesn’t like the corn or the raw onion in the salad. Tom hates the jam and says Stacy should be pissed off: “You cooked a perfect chicken and the garnishes on that plate were terrible.” He kills Aaron’s relish for sliding across the plate. When Keriann lies about lack of teamwork and implies everything was fine, Aaron says, “Keriann was pretty erratic, made some bad moves, made some bad decisions.” Wow. Keriann finally stands up for herself after he throws her under the bus a second time.

* Back in the stew room, Aaron tells Stacy that Keriann is “such a bitch, dude. Like, such a bitch.” Sorry, but even if she was unpleasant to work with, there is no place for that – and a woman who stands up for herself is not a female dog. Later she calls him a “lying sack of shit.” Accepting that editing can skew our perceptions of the chefs, Aaron’s behavior in the parts we did see was reprehensible, beyond any justification. The preview of next week shows him similarly dismissive toward a male chef, so I’m not sure it’s just woman-hating – more like misanthropy.

* Judges’ table: The red and blue teams were the favorites. The judges loved the avocado in Katsuji’s sauce, Mei’s halibut was great, and Katie showed a “lot of refined technique.” The blue team’s surf and turf was perfectly seasoned and cooked, and Tom loved Mos Chef’s vinaigrette. Blue team wins – Tom says that every bit of that dish was “precise” – but we don’t get an individual winner, which robs of us some bitter commentary in the confessionals.

* The yellow and green teams (4 and 5) are on the bottom. The yellow team had problems “with conception and cookery.” Oh, is that all? Meanwhile, Tom points out that the green team was “doomed to fail,” that you “can’t talk past each other,” and “need to check (your) egos at the door.” This is advice for life, not just Top Chef team challenges.

* Aaron’s jam wasn’t jam at all, as the agar didn’t work. Tom is incredulous: “That’s what you did in two hours?” You can thicken jam in under an hour of cooking; using agar is just forcing a technique, and Aaron couldn’t even make the technique work. Onions do contain pectin, and adding a little bit of a base (like baking soda) extracts even more of it. Don’t use molecular gastronomy unless you first pass chemistry. Meanwhile, Keriann says she knew the corn was starchy but left it raw anyway. That’s usually the type of answer that makes Tom’s head turn into an overripe tomato.

* Gail says the yellow team’s vanilla completely overwhelmed the dish, and on top of that, the veal was raw in center. Joy accepts responsibility for the veal, but nobody on the team bothered to taste the entire dish. (That’s another one: Have you ever watched this show? Chefs who don’t taste their own food go home. Like, every other episode.) Absolutely nothing about this plate appealed to me. “Some raw veal covered in flowery perfume, sir?” “Thanks, I’m stuffed.”

* Padma says Aaron and Keriann should really thank Stacy because her chicken saved them from being the bottom team. That means the yellow team is on bottom, and Joy is eliminated. She blames herself for not speaking up more, which I assume is a reference to her agreement not to debone the veal. But if you can’t cook that piece of meat, one, don’t volunteer to do it for the team, and two, how are you here?

* Time to start ranking these cats … Top three: Mei, Mos Chef, and Adam; James gets an honorable mention. Bottom three: Ron, Keriann, and, because I kind of expect him to overreach again, Katsuji.

War and Peace.

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace appears on most lists or rankings of the greatest novels ever written; Daniel Burt had it second in his all-time rankings in The Novel 100, and it appears on the Bloomsbury top 100 Classic Novels list as well. Ernest Hemingway considered its passages on war the archetype of writing about combat, and Tolstoy’s contemporaries – Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, Levsky – all heaped praise on the novel. Its girth (well over 500,000 words) put me off for years, especially because I found Anna Karenina overlong due to Tolstoy’s lengthy philosophical diversions, but War and Peace sticks to the plot far more faithfully, reserving the Big Thinking stuff for the book’s tiresome Second Epilogue instead.

The war in question is the Napoleonic war, with most of the book’s action taking place in the early 1810s, with Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia taking up much of the second half of the novel. Tolstoy presents us with four families – the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, and the Kuragins – and puts them through the wringers of war while running them through the usual who’s-marrying-whom plot lines that drove almost every major novel written before the late 1800s. What appears to begin as a trite story of an unexpected inheritance and women chasing the suddenly eligible bachelor becomes a densely woven story of families coping with losses both personal and financial while dealing with upheaval in their aristocratic world. One of the central male characters becomes a tragic hero in the great romantic tradition, while another undergoes multiple spiritual transformations that foreshadow the rise of the Bildungsroman in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Russian, German, and British literature. While Tolstoy’s female characters aren’t as well-developed as the male characters, they’re a little more than just props waiting around for their men to come back from the war or battling to win the affections of the latest heir apparent.

The apparently happy endings of the book’s First Epilogue seem illusory, as the old way of life for the upper classes of Russia is winding down, with Tsar Alexander I moving away from the liberal policies of his early rule to a postbellum period of decreasing political freedoms, presaging the disastrous reign of his younger brother, Tsar Nicholas I. This contrast may also have been Tolstoy’s way of emphasizing the importance of personal and spiritual satisfaction, especially that of the family, rather than the pursuit of power or of material gain, goals he depicts as empty throughout the novel. It’s an awkward conclusion to a grim novel, however, one that relies heavily on historical records – it’s among the earliest historical novels to attempt to accurately capture events of the time period covered, with Napoleon, Alexander I, and many of their leading military commanders appearing in the book as characters, even interacting with Tolstoy’s fictional ones.

Reading a book of this length, even one as plot-driven as War and Peace is (as opposed to the tangent-laden Les Miserables), is a significant commitment of time and attention; it took me 22 days to get through, reading pretty consistently every day, including most of the footnotes and occasional references to other resources so I could keep all the characters straight. (Really, Leo, you had to name two of the characters Nikolai?) I was blown away by Tolstoy’s ability to draft a novel with such a broad scope without letting the story spiral beyond a reader’s ability to follow it. A lot happens to the dozen or so key characters, but nothing so improbable that I felt cheated by the story; if anything, Tolstoy’s adherence to realistic depictions of the battles seemed slow given my experience as a modern reader, where I’m still recovering from an education in books where every chapter ends in a cliffhanger and stuff explodes every few pages. I never found myself forced to continue reading through a tedious section until the second epilogue (a waste of time, largely), but also never got lost in the story or found myself pulling for particular characters. I doubt I’ll ever tell anyone they just have to read War and Peace, but I’d never discourage anyone from trying it.

That completes my run through the Bloomsbury 100 Must-Read Classic Novels, a list of 99 novels all published before 1950, plus the short stories of Chekhov. I could quibble with many titles on the list – the omission of The Master and Margarita and the inclusion of News from Nowhere stands out – but as a primer of great works of western literature, particularly British (42 titles), it’s solid and informative, pushing me to read a number of books I might not have otherwise tackled, and introducing me to some less-known works and authors. War and Peace was also the 89th book I’ve read from the Novel 100, although I don’t plan to finish that list, with the Finnegan’s Wake, the Molloy trilogy, and The Man Without Qualities all among the remaining eleven titles.

Next up: Something a little more recent, Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods, named by author and critic Lev Grossman as one of the ten best novels of the first decade of the 2000s.

Saturday five, 10/18/14.

My second Arizona Fall League scouting post went up earlier this week, and I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

My review of this year’s Spiel des Jahres winner, the boardgame Camel Up, is up at Paste magazine. I’ll have three more reviews up for them over the next month or so, and my annual boardgame rankings post will go up here on the dish in mid-November.

Now, for the links – and there are a lot this week:

Top Chef, S12E01.

Sorry this post is a day late, but playoffs plus podcast plus Klawchat made for a busy 24 hours.

This season of Top Chef moves to my old hometown of Boston, a great food town with many celebrity chefs and a broad spectrum of ethnic cuisines. But will the contestants have to cook their pasta in dirty water?

* Hey, it’s Richard Blais! I’m a fan of his work, and had the pleasure of meeting him in San Diego this spring at Juniper & Ivy. He’s looking very studious with glasses; if he were a pitcher, we’d say he was cerebral. And he’ll be judging quite a bit, apparently. That’s a good thing, but I just hope we don’t lose any Hugh Acheson as a result.

* We meet some of the chefs, at least some of the contestantswith interesting backgrounds. Katsuji, a Mexican-Japanese chef, runs a kosher taco place in Beverly Hills. Mei Lin is the sous-chef at ink, the LA restaurant run by Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio. Adam was previously at Jean-Georges’ (Vongerichten, but he doesn’t say that because, you know, first-name basis and all) upcoming vegan restaurant, ABC Home, which doesn’t seem to be open yet. Keriann introduces herself in front of anyone by saying she won some world’s greatest young chef award in 2008, which, while true, isn’t quite how you should greet your new housemates. George’s partner is Mike Isabella, former Top Chef All-Stars runner-up. Joy is head chef at a farm-to-table restaurant in Fredericksburg, Virginia, called Foode, not too far from where the Potomac Nats play.

* The big new twist this season: Some Quickfires will be sudden death quickfires. If you lose, you “face” immediate elimination – although that phrasing was deliberate. Anyway, shit just got real.

* Quickfire: A mise en place relay. Four tasks for each of four teams of four. Prep three lobsters, 20 oysters, eight mackerels, and 21 littleneck clams – one chef per task. Each ingredient should take the same amount of time to prep, according to Padma, although given the chefs’ reactions I don’t think they concur. The slowest chef on the slowest team will be “up for elimination.”

* Adam bullies Keriann straight off, trying to claim the right to break down the lobsters. There’s a clear male talking down to female thing here, and Keriann backs down, as I think most women would when confronted with an aggressive and much taller man. However … this is Top Chef, so this may be what we refer to around here as “foreshadowing.”

* I wish we saw more close-ups on the chefs breaking down the lobsters, just for my own education. Mei Lin is just ripping through the big pink cockroaches and finishes first. Meanwhile Adam is struggling to get through his lobsters – who saw that coming?

* Doug, who is short, starts talking about how he needs to be Napoleon in the kitchen. Starting to think Doug might have failed 19th century French history.

* Ron zipping through mackerels. Lot of blood in that fish. Blue still in lead. Yellow jumps to second.

* Katsuji is the closer for the blue team (Mei Lin’s), but it turns out that he has no idea how to open clams and starts banging the end of the knife’s handle on the table. Are they not allowed to tell him how to do this?

* Adam refers to Keriann as his team’s “beautiful blonde thoroughbred.” So, he’s defining her by her looks, and then referring to her as an animal. Maybe I was wrong to expect better from a guy raised by a single mom. That said, she jumps into the lead when tearing through the clams and they win the challenge, so maybe he’ll stop pushing her around.

* Gregory hacks up the mackerel, and then George, who wanted the mackerel, can’t shuck the clams. They barely finish behind the blue team, and George took the longest to complete his task, so he’s … facing elimination.

* So now we find out what that means: He gets to pick any chef in the room to face in a sudden death cookoff – if he wins, they both stay; if he loses, he goes home. He picks Gregory, because he wanted the mackerel, but Gregory took it and struggled with it. They get twenty minutes to cook, using any of the mise en place ingredients.

* I’m not sure how I feel about this. Getting whacked for a quickfire seems harsh, and I can’t think of any point where I felt like I wanted the show’s format to change. But also, what’s Gregory’s motivation? He’s playing for pride, but George is cooking for his life. Gregory says “if you come for me, you better come correct,” and suddenly I feel like I’m watching Mos Chef.

* This challenge happens so fast and is so heavily edited that we don’t see much of the cooking. I actually do watch to see people cook, you know. I might learn something.

* George does a pan-seared mackerel with fennel salad. Gregory makes a chilled trio of mackerel, oyster, and lobster. Adam refers to this move as a statement of, “Hi I’m Greg and this is how big my dick is.” Adam appears to use his dick to supply his mouth with all of its thoughts.

* Gregory’s actual dishes: Oysters with yuzu ginger minionette, mirin marinated mackerel with bonito, lobster with chilled coconut and spiced tomato sauce. That is a hell of a lot to do in 20 minutes, isn’t it? The oyster/yuzu combo is pretty cliche, but the other two dishes seemed really clever.

* Blais says George’s dish was more elegant, but needed more heat. Gregory’s was bright and refreshing, although Blais cautions that “when you do 3 dishes instead of 1 you give yourself two more opportunities to fail.” He would know, since he was always churning out duos and trios. Gregory wins, George goes home. We hardly knew ye.

* Elinination challenge: The first-ever Top Chef food festival, featuring all the remaining contestants plus some of Boston’s best chefs and restaurateurs: Todd English, Barbara Lynch, Ken Oringer, Jamie Bissonnette, Ming Tsai, Lydia Shire, Jasper White, Kristen Kish. They didn’t miss with that invite list. Except they didn’t invite me to come eat. I need to discuss this with my agent.

* The actual challenge: Prepare an updated version of the first dish you remember cooking, with three hours to prepare that day. It’s being held at the Museum of Science, which I think is the best museum in the city.

* We see too much talking by the chefs and not enough cooking.

* Michael is making sriracha pearls to put in his chili corn soup. He clearly likes using molecular gastronomy tricks, but it seems like they’re just tricks for him, or gimmicks, not ways to elevate the food.

* Mei Lin is making congee with stewed pork. Her grandfather made congee (a thick porridge of heavily cooked rice), and she says all the men in her family cooked – as it should be.

* Katsuji is making some bizarre sauce based around cheese and squid ink. What. Blais and Tom look totally perplexed. Tom says “I’ll let you get back to work” but means to say “because I have no idea what the hell you’re doing.”

* Keriann says “Bend over and grab your ankles, honey. It’s about to happen.” Really? Anal rape jokes? When did that shit become funny? I didn’t think it was funny when Dr. Dre used it to mock Eazy-E in the “Dre Day” video, and that was 22 years ago.

* To the dishes… Joy made creamy yellow grits with sauteed greens and crispy chicken skin. She says she went for a simple approach vs “fine fine cooking.” I’d order this.

* Rebecca made a citrus tart with ginger cherries and chantilly cream. Blais and Padma say they’re not getting ginger flavor in the cherries. It seems a little too simple, maybe?

* Adam does fish (cod) and chips with a tri-color salad and mustard mayo with nori aleppo pepper and cumin seed. Lose the nose ring dude. You’re in a fucking kitchen. I don’t want your rhinogerms in my food.

* Stacy made a pulled chicken salad with sweet pea green coddess dressing and cranberry mostarda on thick-cut potato chips. I thought this might end up near the top, given the complexity and presentation.

* Ron does an odd twist on a shrimp cocktail, adding strawberries, shaved fennel, curry, and pickled jalapeños. Padma thinks it’s “over the top” spicy – so clearly instant feedback is a new feature of this season, which the chefs are not expecting.

* Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is in the house. For once, I wish Menino was still mayor, just for the unintentional comedy value of it.

* Doug (“call me Dougie” – no, thanks, Doug) made fried chicken with pickled jalapeños and watermelon. Tom likes the sweet and sour combination, and it sounds like he did the best job of keeping the chicken hot and crispy.

* Katsuji made … I’ll give this a shot: “petroleum shrimp” with a cheese sauce that includes orange peel, chipotles, white wine, and squid ink, along with saffron couscous and serrano aioli, served on a tortilla. Padma says eating it was complex. Wasn’t this what sank Kenny a few years ago – he executed well but everything had twenty ingredients?

* Keriann made a sweet corn soup with bacon jam, truffle crumble, and olive oil snow. Blais hates the snow. It’s fascinating to see Blais come down on chefs who use techniques we might associate with his cooking – but it’s evident that he feels there’s a right time or place for those tricks, and that overusing them earns you demerits.

* James made a crispy harissa chicken thigh with creamed corn, bbq spice, and watermelon. Apparently I missed out, growing up in the northeast, becuase fried chicken, some kind of corn dish, and watermelon (plain or pickled) is a popular combo here. I won’t complain about my mom’s cooking, but damn, that seems like a good thing to grow up eating.

* Melissa does a spicy ma-po tofu with pork over spiced rice, szechuan peanuts, and pickled cukes. We don’t hear much feedback but the description caused my palate to spontaneously ignite.

* Mei made a congee with caramelized pork, fish sauce caramel, and black garlic puree. Gail likes mix of raw herbs and scallions with dark caramel. It’s pretty stunning to look at. I can’t quite wrap my head around fish sauce caramel, though.

* Katie made a broccoli salad, with tamarind aioli, cured black olives, bacon powder. Blais said it was more of a side dish than appropriate for the event and that the bacon powder doesn’t serve any purpose. Also, it looks like a mess.

* Michael, who grew up in Russia (where soup cooks you!), made a chilled corn soup, with pickled cherries, salmon roe, and sriracha caviar. Tom doesn’t like fishy finish and doesn’t get much heat from sriracha. Michael’s response: “What went wrong with their palates?” Yeah, it’s their fault. I believe comments like that qualify as … foreshadowing.

* Mos Chef does a Haitian stewed chicken with fried bananas, spicy pikliz, and scotch bonnet chili relish. Padma making a face. “So strange and funky,” but she really likes it. She confesses to Blais after walking away that she nearly hated it – I guess you had to get every component together to appreciate it. It sounds like a ton of heat; I imagine I’d get blown out by it, having grown up eating virtually no chili pepper in anything.

* Aaron made a twist on bacon and eggs, serving pork belly braised in tamari, miso poached egg yolk, and birds-eye chili caramel. He didn’t set aside any of the better pieces for the judges, and ends up serving a very fatty piece to Padma, who almost immediately spat it out – right in front of him. She tells him, “clean up your act and your station.” It’s even worse that he dissembles when she points out (before tasting it) that her piece is nearly all fat.

* Their favorites: Gail cites Doug’s as her favorite fried chicken. Padma and Tom seem to like Gregory’s. Blais cites Mei’s congee. No huge surprises, based on the instant feedback.

* Their least favorites: They all killed Katie’s broccoli side dish. “That’s your showcase?” when it’s not appealing to look at. Michael’s corn soup was fishy due to the fish eggs – ” an unpleasant surprise.” Gail and Padma have a little moment, though: When Padma says that Aaron served her a piece of pork belly that was all fat, Gail kind of rolls her eyes and says that pork belly is mostly fat anyway. There was a trace of contempt in that whole exchange. Padma acts like it never happened, though, and just presses her complaint further, saying she almost never has had to spit any dish out in the history of the show. Katsuji’s dish gets bashed as too weird and sloppy.

* They call everyone in from the stew room. All praise and shaming will now be public, apparently.

* Tom says overall the effort was fair: They got a lot of rustic and homestyle dishes, but only some chefs pushed it farther than that. Blais is a little more positive, maybe because he knows what it’s like to be on the other side.

* Top three: Doug, Mei, and Gregory. No surprises there. Mei’s congee was spot-on. Mos Chef’s dish had a million things that could have gone “crazy bad” (Padma) and it was all crazy good. Blais spins this motorcycle chase analogy for Gregory’s stew, and shortly after the episode his monologue was optioned by TLC. Doug’s was bright and fresh and chicken so crispy and well seasoned. His was probably the easiest dish for me to understand, given my own limited experience with congee and with Caribbean cuisine.

* Winner: Mei. Blais says it was appropriate for a food festival and a fine-dining restaurant too. She jokes she has her job for another day.

* The bottom three: Katie, Michael, Katsuji. Aaron, who served Padma the big piece of pork fat, isn’t among them.

* Katie’s felt more like a salad, but she says she lost her focus with the bacon powder. I think she lost her focus at the conception: if you want to make broccoli salad your starting point, serve it with a protein where you get to show off. Michael’s soup had a great concept and base but all anyone tasted was the salmon roe. He says he tasted it, found it was “a little fishy,” didn’t think it was too bad … and Tom jumps on him. You can’t talk your way out of anything at judges’ table. Tom has absolutely no tolerance for bullshit. Katsuji’s dish had some solid elements but way too much going on.

* Michael is eliminated. Tom says it just didn’t work with sweet corn and fishy salmon roe.

* In the confessional, he says he tried to be original and out of the box, but it backfired. He should have stopped there, but then says, “Maybe Tom should be more open-minded… you’ve gotta grow with age or get left behind.” Dude, nobody liked your dish, not just Tom. Do they not realize the most incendiary things they say are guaranteed to make it to air? Have they never seen the show before? Before you go on Top Chef, you should read my recaps, because then, if nothing else, you’ll know just how ridiculous you’ll look when you say stuff like this.

Arizona eats, October 2014.

I spent six nights in Arizona last week to scout this year’s crop of prospects in the Arizona Fall League, and wrote two long posts on what I saw, one focusing primarily on pitchers and a longer one mostly on position players.

The best new restaurant of the trip was Little Miss BBQ, a tiny spot on University Ave in Tempe, just south of the airport, that specializes in central Texas Q – meaning primarily brisket and sausage, although they do pulled pork as well. The brisket was among the best I’ve ever had, certainly the best I’ve had anywhere west of Texas, rivaling Florida’s 4 Rivers for the best I’ve had outside of Texas itself. I asked for fatty (or moist) brisket rather than lean, my strong preference because you get that fat that just melts in your mouth and provides its own sauce for the meat – and the brisket didn’t need any other sauce than that. Little Miss smokes over pecan and oak, so you get a clear presence of smoke in the meat without the dominance of a wood like hickory (better for pork, IMO), and you get to taste the beef itself and the rub, salty and peppery but not so assertive that it took over each bite. The sausage was above-average but not as spicy as I expected or would have liked. For sides, they offer jalapeno cheese grits and baked beans, but I went with the lighter sides, potato salad and cole slaw, rather than add two heavy items to the copious quantity of cow on the plate. Both were excellent because they were clearly homemade and weren’t doused in mayo, so you could particularly taste the cabbage in the slaw. On a rainy morning at 11:30 am, the line was about 30 people deep and took me 20-25 minutes to get to the counter, although the guy doing the slicing (I think it was the pitmaster) handed out a few free bites of the brisket and sausage to keep everyone happy. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Angels’ stadium and not even ten minutes from the Cubs’ new place.

Chef Kelly Fletcher was among the most highly-regarded local chefs in the Valley while at Tempe’s House of Cards, but the high price point kept me from going there while I lived in the area and Fletcher ended up leaving earlier this year to start his own place. The Revival, also located in Tempe, has a more casual feel and I think a better mix of menu options at the high- and low-ends. The roasted pork belly with Asian caramel, mirin poached potatoes, and scallions starter ($7) was ridiculously good from all angles – literally, as the dish was a gorgeous panoply of colors and textures, and the pork belly itself had tremendous balance of textures (but not too tough, which I’ve had in some pork belly dishes when the meaty layers are overcooked) and sweet/sour/salty levels. The duck confit on roasted corn polenta main ($21) with house-made date-maple syrup, bitter greens, and candied fresnos was plus but not quite a home run; the duck meat didn’t pull right off the bone as it usually does when prepared this way, and the candied fresnos were way so fiery I had to avoid them. The polenta used a coarse grind of yellow corn, so even with the long cooking times required for the dish it had some tooth to it, while the roasted corn kernels amped up the sweetness (thanks to caramelization) while adding a smoky component. The date-maple syrup was a natural pairing with the duck as well, although I may be biased (!) as I could drink real maple syrup right out of the bottle.

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Glazed pork belly starter from the Revival in Tempe AZ.

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Cuff is a rarity – a smart, high-end restaurant located in the west Valley, where chain restaurants abound. It’s in downtown Glendale, where it looks like there’s a quiet revitalization happening, great news if you head to Arizona to see any of the teams playing in the four stadiums on that side of town. (It’s about 15-20 minutes from Camelback Ranch because of all of the traffic lights you’ll have to pass.) Cuff just opened a few weeks ago and I was there on the fifth night since they began dinner service, so the strong execution across the board was very promising – you’d think they’d still be working some kinks out of their system. The menu is straightforward – a few salads and starters, a good cross-section of sandwich options to appeal to almost every eater, and a few mains that were quite generously priced.

The mixed greens salad ($7) was the ideal starter, especially since a few days of gorging on meat left me craving something plant-based. The mesclun mix (very fresh, nothing wilting or starting to spoil, a common problem in salads now) comes with crumbled fresh goat cheese, candied pecans, dried cranberries, and a delicate peach-shallot vinaigrette; that mix of leaves is slightly bitter, so three sweet elements, three tart ones, and two salty ones bring the balance the salad needs so that you don’t get that feeling that you’re chewing on lawn cuttings. The Amalfi-style lemon chicken, one of their main course options (at just $11!) was above-average but a little tricky to eat, served in a deep soup bowl with broth that made cutting the two pieces of chicken (an airline cut and a thigh) difficult. The lemon parmesan broth was fantastic, with a perfect balance of acidity, salt, and the umami of the cheese, providing flavor to the chicken itself (especially chicken breast, which has no flavor of its own no matter how it’s cooked) and to the baby broccoli in the bowl. The grilled ciabatta bread triangles are clearly there to spare you the indignity of tipping the bowl to your mouth to drink the broth, but I wouldn’t judge you if you did. Cuff also has a full bar including a variety of specialty cocktails.

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Amalfi-style lemon chicken at the brand-new Cuff in downtown Glendale.

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Sumo Maya is a new Scottsdale hot spot that has taken the trendy “Asian tacos” theme and applied it to the standard upscale drinking spot popular in that town. I liked the food, but hated the vibe. Their happy hour specials are a steal – four tacos for $7, practically enough for a whole meal and a good way to sample a bunch of the menu options. Of the four different ones I tried, including pork, chicken, fried fish, and vegetarian, the last one was the best, filled with small wild mushrooms and tossed with a sweet soy sauce and micro greens. The flavors on the chicken taco were outstanding, including avocado and a chile-guajillo salsa, but I think the chicken had been cooked earlier and was simply reheated for service. I also tried the kimchi fried rice, which was solid but not much different from fried rice you’d get at a very good Chinese restaurant. I just couldn’t see going back there to eat when so much of the crowd was there to drink and/or be seen.

One recommendation I didn’t get to was the new Arcadia restaurant Nook, only because it wasn’t that close to any of my destinations, but that’s on the to-do list for spring.

I never went to the Jamaican rum bar Breadfruit while living in Phoenix, but that was a pretty big mistake on my part given my affinity for the demon spirit. I adored their rum old fashioned, with Appleton Extra 12 year as its base, and liked their Hemingway’s Daiquiri, with Matusalem Platino (a triple-distilled, highly refined Dominican white rum) as its base, mixed with grapefruit and lime juices and demarara sugar, although the latter disguised the flavor of the rum too much. Nick Piecoro dragged me there – not that it required much convincing when I heard “rum bar” – after I’d dragged him to Citizen Public House for a postgame drink, only to discover they’re doing a late-night menu (after 11 pm) for “Porktoberfest,” including their bacon-fat popcorn and a twist on Chinese steamed pork buns (baozi) that paired well with their signature negroni and basically everything else we drank.

I went back to several favorites for breakfast – the Hillside Spot, Crepe Bar, Matt’s Big Breakfast, Giant Coffee, and Cartel Coffee Lab, all of which were just as I left them: good and busy. Crepe Bar has expanded its menu slightly, which might have been my only complaint about it before, and they’re still offering lots of little freebies along the way, like a tiny cup of their housemade granola, a dark chocolate and hazelnut amuse with your coffee (from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon), or a rose-water marshmallow and dark chocolate twist on s’mores after your meal. (Great idea, but the marshmallow left a perfume flavor in my mouth that I couldn’t get out for hours.) Saigon Kitchen in Surprise didn’t live up to my recollections, unfortunately, but Pig & Pickle in Scottsdale exceeded them, with a bigger menu that has more small plates and starters, including more vegetable-based options so your meal can have a better balance of pork and not-pork.

Saturday five, 10/11/14.

I’ve been in Arizona scouting the Fall League all week, so I’ve had very little time for any kind of writing. I did file one post on what I’ve seen, on Friday, and it’s now online, talking Glasnow, Appel, Zimmer, Taijuan, and more. I’ll have another wrap post up on Sunday or Monday.

I had a career highlight on Monday, as I appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered to discuss Dan Duquette’s “comeback” story. It was a particular thrill to hear Robert Siegel’s voice asking me questions on the phone; I know Carl Kasell has his devotees, but Siegel’s is the voice I most associate with NPR. By the way, if you don’t have the NPR One app, you should.

And now, this week’s links…

  • Arrested for stealing a backpack, a boy spent three years on Rikers Island without a trial. A gripping, horrifying look at a criminal justice system with no regards for the rights of a citizen. We shouldn’t be afraid of our government, but how can you read this and feel no fear?
  • From NPR, why pine nut lovers should care about pine forests. Well, I guess the “why” part is pretty obvious. My daughter is allergic to these seeds (also known as pinoli in Italy and pignolis among Italian-Americans), so we don’t keep them in the house. I use toasted pumpkin seeds (gram for gram) when making pesto at home.
  • From July, Vanity Fair asked why literary critics despaired over the success of The Goldfinch? I have yet to read Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but will do so within the next few months. I still found the debate herein fascinating, as it presents and balances one side’s claims of elitism and snobbery against the other’s attempts to uphold degenerating standards of art and excellence. The Kindle version is just $6.99.
  • Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino delivers an outstanding talk on the perils of being a celebrity chef – and the perils of just being in the public eye, period.
  • From The Verge, an argument to block more people on Twitter. I use the block and mute features early and often: Abusive users get blocked, trolls and pests get muted. If, however, you want me to unblock you, I’ll gladly do so. Just put a note in a comment anywhere here on the site, or on any of my other social media pages. And maybe don’t be abusive again.

Saturday five, 10/4/14.

I’m off to Arizona on Monday for my annual Fall League scouting trip, and will be at two games every day from the 7th through the 12th. I’ll tweet where I am each afternoon; there’s just one night game each day. Feel free to come say hi if you spot me at any games – and of course I’m taking any suggestions for new restaurants to try while I’m there, as long as they’re somewhere convenient to the various AFL ballparks.

My ALDS and NLDS predictions posts went up this week, along with my regular Klawchat. The previous week’s column was my annual list of players I got wrong, along with another Klawchat last Friday.

And now, the links…

  • A great/horrible Buzzfeed story about battered women jailed for failing to protect their children. The point is that these women are victims too, and their failure to get help for their abused kids can be a symptom of their victimhood, not complicity in the abuse. It’s probably more complicated than the case the piece lays out, but I found the emphasis on specific victims and the overlong sentences they received compelling.
  • Novel antibiotic class created. A research team led by scientists at MIT has developed a new approach to killing bad bacteria while saving good ones by using RNA-guided nucleases to target specific DNA sequences in the undesirable pathogens. The original paper, in Nature Biotechnology, is here if you have journal access.
  • On the other hand, GMO wheat was found on a Montana farm where it wasn’t supposed to be. One reason among many that I support labeling of GM foods, along the lines of this very one-sided rejoinder to a one-sided New Yorker piece against labeling.
  • The Cult of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. This whole story has been extremely disappointing; when fighting monsters, Tyson himself has become a monster. It’s not the most comprehensive look at his intellectual improprieties, but it puts them in context, and I agree with the author’s contention that personalities sometimes seem to be driving even secular philosophies rather than the other way around.
  • The Almost Forgotten Story Of The 1970s East Village Windmill. Much more than the story of a windmill, it’s a story of urban renewal in the face of government abandonment, and of a disadvantaged community treating a property differently because it was one of their own.
  • How Sugar Daddies Are Financing College Education, from the Atlantic. The issue the article dances around until the very end is that the website it discusses, Seeking Arrangement, is a de facto marketplace for prostitution. Yet some of the very significant issues facing sex workers, such as lack of freedom, surrendering part (or most) of their incomes to their procurers, and risk of abuse, are lessened or eliminated by such sites, which run background checks on customers (the “daddies,” which is an incredibly creepy way to describe them, even if they are actually creeps) and enable the women to control their own terms of employment. So despite the clickbait title, there are some legitimate issues of freedom and women’s rights involved here.
  • Via my colleague Buster Olney, a ridiculous story of the University of Alabama totally screwing over one of its athletes. The NCAA is a cartel and should be broken up. Where’s this millennium’s Teddy Roosevelt when we need him?

I’m reading War and Peace now, so aside from one book review I still have to write, there won’t be a lot of literature posts here in October. I do have a stack of seven or eight games to review, however, so between this site and Paste I should still have plenty to write about.

September 2014 music update.

September was a heavy month for new releases, but a light month for good new tracks. I reviewed the new alt-J album, the best release of the month, earlier and haven’t included them here. Here’s the newest Spotify playlist, which includes all of the tracks I listed here but two:

Superhumanoids – “Come Say Hello”/”Hey Big Bang.” I was remiss in omitting these tracks from the August playlist. Sarah Chernoff’s vocals are just incredible, a true soprano soaring over two memorable dream-pop backing tracks.

Snakehips ft. Sinead Harnett - “Days With You.” A soulful trip-hoppy track with unforgettable vocals from Harnett that I first mentioned back in June but that wasn’t released until the very end of August.

The Kooks – “Forgive & Forget.” Maybe the best track from their newest album, reviewed here.

Strand of Oaks – “For Me.” I found their new album to be wildly uneven, often far too low-key given their overall sound, but when Tim Showalter cranks up the tempo just a little bit he finds a sweet spot where the contrast between the guitars’ distortion and his lyrical laments is perfectly balanced.

Broods – “Mother & Father” Not quite as good as their first single, the amazing “Bridges,” but boasting a similar combination of a strong melody and Georgia Nott’s ethereal vocals. This is listed on Spotify but the song isn’t playing for me right now, so it may no longer be available.

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – “Cecilia And The Satellite.” Modern synth-pop, reminiscent of the Hooters (perhaps because that band had a minor hit called “Satellite” too) with earnest vocals at the front of the mix.

Tweedy – “Low Key.” Mostly included just so I can link to the video, directed by Nick Offerman and starring, among many others, John Hodgman and Michael Shannon.

Max Jury – “Black Metal.” A bit precious, perhaps, but I got a laugh out of the lyrics and video, and the chorus is rather catchy. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Iowa draws on folk and country influences in his better tracks, but at other times veers off towards faux-jazz territory, which I’d say is the wrong direction for him or anyone else who wants to maintain his self-respect.

Cold War Kids – “All This Could Be Yours.” I’ve always found their music to be a little histrionic, mostly the result of Nathan Willett’s vocal style but also found in their dramatic piano/drum riffs. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes less so, with this song, released in July as the first single off their forthcoming album, somewhere in between those two points.

Death from Above 1979 – “Trainwreck 1979.” It seems like a lot of music critics/writers are making of a big deal about this group’s reunion ten years after their apparently one-and-done debut album, of which I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever. For electro-rock, it’s not bad, but I’m a little confused by all the hype; it seems like there are a few dozen U.K. acts putting out similar music right now.

Ex Hex – “Beast.” A new trio led by Mary Timony, former lead singer of noise-rockers Helium and member of Wild Flag, Ex Hex just released their debut album yesterday and it’s full of tight, power-pop tracks that betray Timony’s post-punk roots but are among the most melodic things she’s ever put out.

Animals as Leaders – “Tooth and Claw.” I think I mentioned these guys a few months ago, and I recognize this is pretty out there even for me, but Animals as Leaders’ highly experimental, technically precise brand of instrumental metal is totally riveting for me as a longtime guitar player and occasional fan of melodic death metal – which this resembles, just without the growled or screamed vocals.

Opeth – “Eternal Rains Will Come.” I left this track and “Tooth and Claw” at the end since they’re so unlike everything else on the playlist, moving way into the progressive realm right down to the Hammond organs and psychedelic harmonies. If you only know Opeth from their death-metal past, give this track a listen with fresh ears.

Tracks not on Spotify:

Ty Segall – “Tall Man Skinny Lady.” Getting a ton of play on Sirius XM right now, this song is one of seventeen on Segall’s latest album, with a simple guitar riff over a two-step percussion line that repeats incessantly throughout the song. I don’t know why they ran Segall’s vocals through reverb, which makes it sound like he recorded them from out in the hallway, but otherwise it’s a strong slice of psychedelic rock with an anarchic guitar solo.

Telegram - “Regatta.” An obnoxiously British-sounding act, from the Libertines influences in the music to the lead singer’s almost indecipherable Welsh accent, so the result sounds like a bit like the Arctic Monkeys replaced Alex Turner with Gruff Rhys. The video features the band’s members wandering around Tokyo.