HAERTS – yeah, I’m not big on the deliberately-misspelled band names trend either – put out a strong EP late last year as a teaser for their full-length debut; “All the Days” made my top 100 songs of 2013, “Wings” would have made my top songs of 2012 had I heard it when it was released, and I liked their overall sound and lead singer Nini Fabi’s powerful, slightly smoky voice. Their self-titled debut album came out last Tuesday, including three of the four songs from last year’s EP along with six new tracks that follow the same general aesthetic – indie-pop, a little new wavish but never retro, all buttressed by Fabi’s tremendous vocals.

Produced by Jean-Philip Grobler, who records his own music under the moniker St. Lucia, Haerts isn’t as bright as his own work but features the same kind of lush, layered sounds that made his album When the Night (which made my top albums of 2013 list) so compelling. Haerts’ songs work best when Fabi is at the front, as on lead single “Giving Up,” where she begins singing just over a repeating keyboard line, after which her vocals are doubled before we get the remainder of the band involved. Like “Wings” and “All the Days,” there’s a relentlessness in the backing key and guitar lines, like a haertbeat beneath the voice that gives the album’s best songs their energy.

That’s lacking when the pace slows, as on “Call My Name,” the intro to which is way too similar to Chris Deburgh’s “The Lady in Red” (good luck unhearing that now); Fabi gets to belt it out during the chorus, but by that point I’d lost some interest, and the formula doesn’t work any better on “Lights Out,” which sounds a bit like a mediocre ’80s ballad and doesn’t let Fabi show off at all. Haerts sound best when they hit the gas from the first measure and leave the cruise control on for the whole four minutes – even deep tracks like “Be the One” (with the perhaps unintentional double entendre “can you show it/when you go down?” in the bridge) and opener “Heart” cast a spell with solid hooks and Fabi’s performance. I understand the desire to vary their sound and tempo across the 40 minutes of a full album, but their style doesn’t work as well at ballad speed.

Those songs from last year’s Hemiplegia EP are the strongest, though – the two I mentioned above plus the title track – with mesmerizing vocals and richly textured synth-bass-drum combinations that grow as each track progresses. “Hemiplegia” might be the unlikeliest title for a pure pop song, but it’s a remarkably crafted track that recalls the best moments from When the Night as it adds layers (like the guitar riff at 2:20) to increase its complexity without losing its hookiness. “Wings” is the only track on the album that feels driven by percussion, but the strength of the beat contrasts beautifully with the flow of Fabi’s vocals, but when everything drops out behind her at the halfway point, she hits this series of notes that mark the highest point of the entire album. There’s enough consistency on this album to make it well worth the purchase, as long as you didn’t buy the EP last year; it’s among the year’s best albums, on the strength of those three songs and one of the best new voices in alternative music.

American Gods.

She smiled at him, looking suddenly, and for the first time, vulnerable. She patted him on the arm. “You’re fucked up, Mister. But you’re cool.”
“I believe that’s what they call the human condition,” said Shadow. “Thanks for the company.”

Author Lev Grossman (The Magicians) also serves as arts critic for TIME magazine, helping assemble their list of the top 100 novels from 1923 with Richard Lacayo. In early 2011, Grossman also put together a list of the ten best novels from the first ten years of the century, of which I hadn’t read two, Lush Life (which I read in 2012 and loved) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. This was my first encounter with Gaiman, whose reputation as a fantasy writer seriously undersells both his erudition and his ability as a crafter of plots.

Shadow is just about to get out of jail after serving three years of a sentence for nearly beating two men, who cheated him out of his share of a robbery, to death. He finds out that his wife has been killed in a car crash, and on a much-delayed flight home for the funeral, encounters a strange man who calls himself Wednesday (a nod to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) and knows more about Shadow than any stranger should.

Wednesday is no ordinary stranger, though; he’s a small-g god, a modern incarnation of Odin, the Norse god and “all-father” who ruled Asgard. It turns out that immigrants who came to the United States and brought their pagan beliefs and superstitions with them brought their gods with them as well – and those gods are about to go to war with the new gods of America, gods of television and computers and other things we worship today. And Wednesday wants Shadow’s help in preparing for the battle, a story that turns out to be as tangled and complex as any culture’s mythology and that involves gods from numerous pantheons, a dead woman who can’t quite stay dead, a lakeside town in Wisconsin, a tree in Virginia, and Rock City in Tennessee.

Gaiman’s assembly of all of these gods and myths into one coherent story by distilling them each into single human characters is brilliant and imaginative, to the point where the novel felt like nothing I’d read before. It’s not magical realism because it’s almost too realistic for it, aside from the whole gods walking around thing; Gaiman plays it all so straight that it’s easy to accept them as regular people, even when they shapeshift or defy the laws of physics. It’s an ensemble cast, with Shadow at its center but not the central character, as his personality matches his name; the plot revolves around him, but he’s never the most interesting man in the room.

As the plot develops, both sides are fighting for Shadow’s allegiance, which allows Gaiman to move Shadow into various orbits and introduce a widening array of his god-characters without creating multiple plot strands. American Gods is mostly linear, which helped make it a quick read, as did Gaiman’s fluid prose and frequent use of dark humor (especially from the mouth of Wednesday, who turns out to be a bit of a cad).

The denouement is just as imaginative as the rest of the book, defying convention and expectations while deftly tying up the various threads of the novel, without short-changing the novel’s themes of mortality, clashes of culture, and the importance of myth. Gaiman’s prose, imagination, and embrace of these big ideas reminded me in parts of Fforde, Vonnegut, Dick, and García Márquez. Grossman’s list turned out to be a tremendous collection of modern fiction; even the titles I didn’t love were worthwhile reads, and the best books on the list rank among my all-time favorites.

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s IX.

I wrote about the Giants and Royals hitting on high draft picks for Insider, as well as a look at the top 30 prospects for the 2015 draft (with Chris Crawford). This week’s Klawchat will have to tide you over for two weeks, since I’m heading off on vacation on Wednesday.

My October playlist is up on Spotify now, featuring tracks from Ben Howard, Sleater-Kinney, Soundgarden, Ásgeir;, HAERTS, Belle & Sebastian, To Kill a King, and Wytches.

There’s also a new CHVRCHES track out, but it’s not on Spotify yet.

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead have one of my favorite band names ever, but despite my occasional references to them, I don’t have a lot of history with their music. I thought Source Tags & Codes, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last twenty years, was much less memorable than the glowing reviews indicated. It was a landmark album of the “emo” subgenre of alternative rock, a point where their earlier noise-rock inclinations found balance with more ambitious song structures and lyrics. Pitchfork even gave it a perfect 10/10 rating, which means some editor there fell down on the job by allowing such a score to be applied to a record that’s this accessible. But because I didn’t come to their subsequent work from the perspective that Source Tags was their magnum opus, I never held the view that they were a band in decline that seems to have affected views of their next four albums.

Coming to their latest release, simply titled IX, rather fresh probably helped me get into the album as quickly as I did – or maybe it’s just one of their more hook-laden records, with five or six tracks that boast strong melodies on top of their usual walls of distorted guitars. What sets this album apart in particular is the tremendous percussion work by Jason Reece and Jamie Miller; the drums drive nearly all of the album’s best tracks through tempo shifts and time signature changes, and they’re mixed towards the front the way John Bonham’s drums were on vintage Zeppelin albums. It’s a new dimension for the band as they continue to evolve within their particular niche of alternative rock.

The new emphasis on heavy, layered percussion work starts up with the first track, “The Doomsday Book,” where the rich drums and cymbal crashes set the tone for the guitars rather than the converse; it feels like a race where no one else can let up for a second because of the pace set by the drums. The track bleeds directly into “Jaded Apostles,” which I think is the album’s best shot at a successful single, starting with a hypnotic, rotating guitar line that subtly changes shape when the drums arrive with a tropical-accented rhythm that pulses through nearly the whole song. (It must be exhausting to play the drums for for these guys.) “Lie Without a Liar” is the first appearance of truly guitar-driven music, with a jangly lead line contrasting with the quicker rhythm section until the wave crashes in the chorus; it’s their best use of textural shifts anywhere on the album, moving from quiet to loud, slow to quick, appearing to peter out after the second chorus before the solo and wall of noise return before the final verse.

There’s some bloat on the disc, especially in the midsection, with two songs crossing the six-minute mark (and becoming tedious strictly due to their length) as well a pair of instrumentals that suffer from the lack of lyrics, which would have forced a more elaborate structure on to each song. The second one, “Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears,” starts out as a piano-and-strings song before the guitars kick in about halfway through, but it’s only effective as a prelude for the album’s closer, “Sound of the Silk,” which has the complexity of a ten-minute track in half that length. “Sound” starts with a two-minute mini-song that, by Trail of Dead standards, is practically a pop tune, although with an unconventional time signature, but then it ends abruptly with a drum breakdown (with a lot of bongos and Caribbean drumming patterns), which itself seems to peter out before we get a spoken-word passage over a guitar fill that crescendoes through the entire poem until reaching its apex in the last thirty seconds with a final chorus that alludes to the earliest part of the track without repeating it. That’s all in 5:13, by the way, and it’s masterful, even if it’s about as uncommercial as any track on the album.

I’m not qualified to say if IX, which is already out in Europe and comes out here on November 11th, is a “comeback” album for …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, because I’m just not familiar enough with their catalog and don’t line enough with the consensus on their earliest work. IX is better than mere “emo” – a term I always thought was pejorative anyway – with art-rock leanings, complex structures, and among the band’s best hooks ever.

Top Chef, S12E03.

My latest column for Insiders is on the Giants and Royals using the draft well, especially in the first round. I also had my weekly Klawchat.

This week’s safe word is “hammered.”

* So we start in the stew room with Aaron and Keriann still sniping at each other and Ron telling them, “don’t act like fucking children,” which, of course, makes them act more like fucking children.

* Meanwhile, we get some bio info on Aaron, saying he grew up in a broken home with no discipline, no father figure, and apparently not a very active mother since he says his sister helped raise him. That could certainly build empathy for him if he wasn’t treating half his colleagues like peons. He says, “People view me as the cocky little asshole who likes to talk shit,” without any apparent irony or self-awareness. Maybe they view you that way because that’s what you are and what you do?

* Quickfire: Ming Tsai (of Wellesley restaurant Blue Ginger) is here for another sudden death QF. It’s a tea challenge, since we’re in Boston, but Tsai reports the myth that Americans drink coffee because tea culture died after the Tea Party and the association of tea with the Brits. (It’s more likely that we became a coffee-drinking country because importing coffee from Brazil was cheaper than importing tea from China.) The challenge is to make a dish highlighting tea, where each chef is randomly assigned a type of tea, some of which turn out to be incredibly awful.

* Adam is complaining that he got monkfish cheeks because Adam snagged the yellowtail. I thought cheeks were a desirable cut of any meat or fish; shouldn’t a chef on this show be thrilled to get them?

* Rebecca tells the camera that she’s a real double threat because she can do savory dishes and pastry. That sort of bragging always ends well on this show.

* Varieties of tea include lemongrass pomegranate rooibos (a tisane, not true tea because it isn’t from the Camellia sinensis plant), white tea with strawberry, chocolate salt tea, and toasted nut oolong, alongside more traditional varieties like gen mai cha, a Japanese blend of green tea and toasted rice that is actually amazing even though it sounds so strange.

* We see some of the dishes, but not all. Melissa’s seared duck breast with tea-infused jasmine rice gets very high marks. Katsuji did a gen mai cha broth with brown rice crusted tuna. Katie made a golden honey black tea panna cotta with poached asian pear in tea and lemon, certainly among the most visually appealing dishes and easiest to understand around the use of the tea. Mos Chef does a tuna crudo with strawberry white tea and young coconut; Ming says he normally hates fruit and fish combinations, but loves this one. Ron does a tea-crusted duck breast with polenta and a chocolate-salt tea mole. Padma hates that tea (so do I – chocolate teas are gross) but likes the use in the dish. Aaron seared the monkfish … and Padma says that the fish is “hammered,” overcooked nearly to the point of inedibility. James made a crispy skin trout with quinoa cooked in tea plus a prosecco and tea buerre blanc. Rebecca made a tea-infused cake with strawberries and fresh apple; Ming says she needed more liquid to drench cake and he doesn’t taste the tea enough.

* Top three were Melissa, for the tea-infused rice; Mos Chef, for the balance of the tea and fish; and Ron, for the use of the tea in the mole. The winner is Mos Chef, thanks to the precise use of the strawberry flavors in the tea.

* The least favorites: James’s dish had too much sauce, Aaron’s fish was way overcooked, Rebecca’s didn’t have enough tea flavor. Aaron is named the worst and the crowd goes wild … or they just smirk and nod and hope this is the end of Mr. Congeniality. He picks Katie for the elimination one-on-one and proceeds to insult her in front of everyone by saying “it’s an easy choice.” Keriann points out that his bluster about cooking her “under the table” wasn’t enough for him to choose her for this battle. The challenge is to cook without any heat other than the pots of boiling water on the stove.

* Katie says Aaron is young and immature (true) and that it would be “ridiculous” to lose to him (don’t say that).

* Aaron play on a spring roll, cooking shrimp wrapper in a ziploc in the water. Katie says he’s young and immature, would be “ridiculous” to lose to him. Making pasta, cooking veg in a bag to make sauce.

* Mos Chef says “everyone is secretly rooting for Katie,” and that Aaron is kind of a loudmouth. It doesn’t seem like he wants to come out and slam the guy, which speaks well of him … but I admit I’m enjoying watching everyone turn on Aaron for being such an ass.

* Aaron makes a spring roll using pureed shrimp that he boiled in a ziploc bag as the wrapper, filled with cucumber, carrot, mint, and raw peanuts. Katie made hand-cut saffron pappardelle, smoked mozzarella, tomato sauce, and fresh cherry tomatoes. Hers needed more sauce and salt, but I think Aaron using the gimmick of the shrimp as wrapper is why he won. We knew this anyway from last week’s previews, which showed him fighting with Katsuji in the stew room.

* Elimination challenge: Cooking at Fenway Park. The chefs must choose a classic ballpark snack – peanuts, pretzels, popcorn, fried dough – as inspiration for a fine dining dish. They have three hours to prep that day and an hour to finish the next day at the park.

* The guest diners will be … Dennis Eckersley and CHB. So, a guy not particularly known for his Red Sox tenure, and a writer known for atavistic, retrogressive viewpoints that run completely counter to the entire ethic of the show. Good choices, guys. How do you not go get Pedro Martinez for this? I’d listen to Pedro comment on anything. He could be a guest judge on Project Runway and it would be entertaining.

* Baseball is dying, but it seems like half of these chefs profess to be serious baseball fans. Ron takes his son a couple of times a year. Keriann’s a fan, Stacy’s a fan, Katie’s dad (who died last year of cancer) “loved slash hated” the Twins.

* James grabbed pretzels because everyone else was grabbing peanuts. He says he doesn’t like this challenge because he doesn’t eat much junk food; his restaurant uses ingredients from farmers and foragers.

* Watching Mos Chef use the mandolin terrifies me. I own two different kinds, and I use them, but there’s no question I’m going to slice off a finger at some point with one of them. You could probably shave with that blade.

* Katie is making thick free-form creme brulee and doesn’t know if it’s set. This also appears to be … foreshadowing. Meanwhile, Doug points out in the confessional that Keriann is nuts to try to cook short ribs in under three hours. Does nobody like to use the pressure cooker any more? If I were going on Top Chef, I’d make damn sure I knew how to use a pressure cooker to make all kinds of things. You’re facing timed challenges and it’s the best time-saver in the kitchen.

* Mos Chef is doing either yoga or tai chi in the morning; he says that earlier in his career, he was using drugs and partying too much, which cost him jobs and burned a lot of bridges. When he decided to get sober, he made a plan for the person he wanted to be and made “a lot of amends” with people he’d hurt or let down in the past. I don’t mean to compare drug addiction to anxiety, but his discussion of taking control of his recovery and of his initiative in rebuilding damaged relationships certainly reminded me of my own experiences.

* Look, Fenway just isn’t that nice. It’s not. It’s cramped and old and dirty. I get the nostalgia angle, and the current ownership group has made it way better than it used to be … but it’s still a really uncomfortable place to watch a ballgame.

* The concession stand kitchen is tiny. This shouldn’t be a shock. They should see the visitor’s clubhouse; I’ve seen studio apartments bigger than that.

* Katie has soup rather than brulée, and has to call an audible, whisking it into whipped cream to make a sort of soft mousse. Aaron, meanwhile, says that, “Miss Culinary Instructor bit off more than she can chew.” As Russell from Fat Albert would say, that guy is NCAA: No class at all.

* CHB starts bloviating the moment he sits down. “It’s like a church to (Sox fans). We’re sitting in church.” No, it’s not. It’s a baseball stadium. You’re sitting on a lawn, in a baseball stadium. Maybe I went to the wrong church growing up, but I don’t remember parishioners getting hammered, grieving widows telling the priest he sucked, and fights breaking out in the pews.

* Someone says “Oh Katie” – maybe she said it herself. She’s an emotional wreck at this point.

* First group serves: Aaron made a pretzel-wrapped rillette and spring pea tendril salad. Blais loves the presentation, Tom likes the sauces and sides, but Ming said the meat was too soft and mushy. Ron made a popcorn soup (which looks thicker than day-old grits) and a breaded fish croquette, with dill pickled celery and sun gold tomatoes. Ming likes the popcorn flavor in the soup, but the consensus is that the croquette, which was supposed to symbolize the baseball itself, was too big. Katie apologies before even saying what the dish is, which is usually the worst possible strategy. Don’t ever apologize before anyone’s even had to chance to tell you your dish isn’t good. You’re just showing weakness. And as it turns out, everyone loves the dish – popcorn mousse with blue cornmeal salted shortbread and a beer molasses pomegranate something something sorghum honeycomb something. Really, I have no idea what was in that.

* Good news – Hugh is there! Him, Blais, Tom, and Padma is the Murderers’ Row of Top Chef judges’ tables.

* Eck mentions giving up Kirk Gibson’s homer as his worst moment as a player, that “no one would look at” him as he walked off the field. Padma says he “should have played for the Yankees.” Like you didn’t already have enough trouble in Boston, Padma.

* Next group: Doug did a seared scallop with grilled corn, sweet corn sauce and popcorn, and piment d’espellette. Keriann’s beer-braised short rib with horseradish parsnip puree, crispy pretzel shallot, and fondue was, in fact, undercooked, and underseasoned. I’m still flabbergasted that Blais didn’t get up and drop a pressure cooker on her head right there. Katsuji did a savory bread pudding (using the fried dough) with mushroom, bacon, and braised-then-deep fried pork belly. Blais loves the repurposing. Hugh says belly is tough and “desiccated.” Maybe Katsuji shouldn’t have put those little “DO NOT EAT” packets in the braising liquid. I don’t think Katsuji is very long for this show, which is too bad, because I love his accent.

* Melissa made a corn and ramp soup with pickled ramps, fried calamari, truffle butter, and bacon popcorn. It’s a big hit – Ming loves the corn flavor, Tom loves the pickled ramps, everyone likes the surprise of the bacon popcorn. Mei made a seared pork loin with braised peanuts, peanut sauce, herb salad, and peanut brittle, but (shockingly for her) the pork is a little overcooked. Stacy did a seared scallop (is this Top Escallop?), pickled peanuts, and a peanut and sunchoke puree/emulsion. Hugh loves it, loves the pickled peanuts, loves the Thai flavors. Blais says maybe she’ll get to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at Fenway, after which Tom warns her that you “can’t bounce” a first pitch – and my respect for Tom just tripled with that comment. (Stacy had the perfect response: “I can throw a ball.” Like, don’t throws-like-a-girl me, bro.)

* If this set of contestants had to form a baseball team, Aaron and Adam agree Katsuji would be the catcher. Adam says the mask will get him to shut up for a minute. I just thought Katsuji was the one guy who was built like a catcher – short and stocky. Although Buster Posey doesn’t look anything like the stereotypical catcher and he seems to be doing okay.

* Mos Chef’s duck breasts look amazing. The color is pristine across every single piece. I don’t think they’re that easy to cook, at least not at that level of precision, because the gap between “not browned enough” and “burned” is so narrow.

* Third group: Rebecca did a roasted salmon with mustard and honey glaze and toasted pretzel streusel, pickled shallots dill and watercress, and a mustard creme fraiche underneath. Blais calls it a “clean, classy little dish.” That sounds like Philip Marlowe describing a woman. James’ lobster cake with pretzel panzanella and avocado buttermilk mousse came out mushy, which means either it wasn’t cooked to a high enough temp or he had too much filling and not enough lobster meat. Adam’s watermelon curry with peanut oil poached halibut, jalapeno and fresno chili salad didn’t fare well because the fish was – wait for it – “hammered.” Tom says he let up a homer in the 9th inning, but maybe he was just pitching to the score, Tom. Mos Chef made those seared duck breasts with peanut nam prik pao, peanut brittle, crispy shallots, anchovies, and a fresh herb salad. Hugh loves the pears, the scallions, all the bright flavors. Blais called it “Moneyball” because it was “a smart dish right here.” He actually used the term correctly, which is why we love Blais. CHB would have used the term Moneyball to insult a dish that walked a lot and couldn’t field.

* Tom begins the judging with the awkward “Fenway Park is a great metaphor for today’s challenge” line. I don’t know if that’s worse from a baseball perspective or a literary one.

* Today’s theme was badly cooked proteins. Katsuji’s pork belly, Mei’s pork loin, Keriann’s short ribs, Adam’s fish, James’ lobster, Aaron’s pork rillette. Top two reasons chefs get sent home on this show: incorrectly cooked proteins and improper seasoning?

* Aaron making more friends in the stew room, saying “shut the fuck up for a moment” to Katsuji, who sort of interrupted/commented on Aaron’s self-loathing. “Bread pudding is what five year olds cook.” My daughter’s eight and she hasn’t mastered bread pudding yet. Should I give up on her?

* Katsuji tells him, “people are starting to hate you, you know what, embrace it!” I couldn’t be the one people hated. Just be nice. It’s so much easier to be nice. Being this much of a prick would require a lot of effort.

* Mos Chef, Melissa, and Katie are the top three. Padma tells Katie, “I think your dad would be so proud of you and I’m sure he is.” Tom was wowed by her recovering from her mistake. Melissa gets praise for the simplicity of the dish, surprise of the bacon popcorn. Says she wanted refined and complex but simple and that didn’t make a lot of sense but I guess it tasted good. Gregory wanted to incorporate all the ingredients, make it all round and work with each other. He’s so freaking calm. I just played in a little concert in front of fifty people and I was more nervous than he gets cooking for his life on this show.

* Winner is … Mos Chef! The man is on fire. New York/Delaware reprazent.

* Ron, Keriann, and Katsuji are the bottom three. There are lot of relieved faces in the group of chefs who didn’t get called out. Tom says it’s all basic mistakes, of cooking meat wrong, of portion problems. Keriann, why cook without a pressure cooker? I’m glad someone asked. Hugh says it was really tough and something about not being a sabertoothed tiger, which I assume was like saying he needed a chainsaw to get through it. He also says Katsuji “needs to be a better editor.” Ron’s dish seems to get the most criticism – the soup wasn’t soup-like, the croquette was too big, and what they don’t say is that it looked unappetizing.

* Tom says even the two remaining need to step up your game to remain in the competition. Ron is eliminated. Messy dish. Soup looked like porridge on screen. “I’m better than what I showed today.”

* Ron is eliminated. “All these little miniature entrees that these kids are doing … that’s not what I do.” Yeah, but that might be what wins. And I’ve eaten Blais’ food – those aren’t miniature in size or scope. I’ve eaten at one of Hugh’s places and the same applies. That’s a silly stereotype.

* Rankings: Mos Chef, Mei, Melissa, Adam. I think Aaron’s going to last longer than we’d like because he provides drama, but he’s struggled in three straight challenges now. Bottom three: Katsuji, Katie (despite the comeback), James.

Programming note: I’m going on vacation starting next Wednesday, so I’m not sure when next week’s recap will be up.

At War with Reality.

At the Gates’ first two albums, both released in the early 1990s, were generic black-metal releases, with the same silly lyrics and abortive stabs at classical influences as many other bands in the nascent genre. By their fourth album, however, the group’s sound changed into a tighter, cleaner, thrash-influenced form of melodic death metal that became a surprise hit in Europe, where death-metal acts have long found more commercial success than in the U.S. That disc, Slaughter of the Soul, turned out to be the band’s last before a nineteen-year hiatus, one which saw some of its members form The Haunted, a harsher, less melodic extreme-metal act. The same lineup from Slaughter of the Soul reunited a few years ago to tour, and their first album since 1995, At War with Reality, dropped on October 28th … and feels just like the band never broke up at all.

At the Gates’ style remains straightforward and, as death-metal goes, relatively accessible. Of the thirteen songs on At War With Reality, only one, the closer “Night Eternal,” goes past four and a half minutes. There’s no blast-beat drumming, no indecipherably fast riffing, and lead vocalist Tomas Lindberg scream-growls the words (as opposed to the Cookie Monster death grunt style) so that you can understand most of what he said. The real appeal of the music for me is that the riffs are so distinct, more reminiscent of the “death-and-roll” sound of Entombed than of other leading lights in the Gothenburg death-metal scene who rely more on machine-gun riffs and higher-gain distortion.

“Heroes and Tombs” begins with a decoy lick, a series of arpeggiated chords that seemed to nod to peak Slayer (Seasons in the Abyss or South of Heaven era) with round, muscular power chords through the verse before the drawn-out lead guitar line separates itself above the chorus – a technique At the Gates uses several times to introduce that melodic element to songs that would otherwise sound like early speed-metal with growled lyrics. Both “The Circular Ruins” and “Death and the Labyrinth” lean toward the same end of the metal spectrum; you’ll think Slayer and Testament but also Wolverine Blues-era Entombed and even hints of Carcass’ Heartwork. “Upon Pillars of Dust” has an opening riff that would make Rust in Peace adherents proud before shifting into the fastest tempo of anything on the disc for the verses – but one that downshifts for the chorus for some real contrast wrapped up in a song that clocks in under two minutes. There’s a similarly quick staccato opening riff to “Conspiracy of the Blind,” a counterpoint to the slow lead guitar line on top of it, although we lose that contrast in the verses because the drums never vary – but as a fan of fast-picked rhythm guitar this was my favorite riff on the album.

Even better death-metal albums tend to wear on the listener if they run too long, as there’s an inherent sameness in a dozen songs that all have the same tempo, the same vocal style, and the same detuned guitars. At the Gates probably could have kept At War with Reality even a little tighter than its 44 minutes, as the album becomes repetitive near the end. The main pedal-point riff in “Eater of Gods” sounded a little familiar, and the best bit of the song is the interlude at 2:30 where we get one undistorted guitar, allowing the second guitar to play the main riff more clearly than at any other point on the track. (Then the third line comes in, borrowing so heavily from Dream Theater’s “Pull Me Under” that I started singing “Thiiiiis world is/spinning around me” in the car.) I imagine the members of At the Gates generated a lot of material after a nineteen-year layoff from working together, so I’ll forgive them some overexuberance on what is still one of the best metal albums of 2014.

Ruhlman’s Egg.

Chris Crawford and I posted a (too-early) ranking of the top 30 prospects for the 2015 MLB draft, plus some honorable mentions. This isn’t a mock draft or projection, which I won’t do until May of next year. It’s just a ranking. And it’s too early to get all twitchy about it. But please read it anyway.

When Michael Ruhlman publishes a cookbook of any sort, I pay attention. My favorite food writer not only writes beautifully but approaches cooking methodically, thinking in ratios and master formulas, approaching food from standpoint of science. If, like me, you were reared in the kitchen on the shows of Alton Brown, you need to read the works of Michael Ruhlman as the next step in your culinary education.

Ruhlman’s Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient came out earlier this year, and it is devoted to that one indispensable ingredient, the one item in your fridge that really ties the whole room together. He approaches the egg from every angle, all the different ways you can prepare it on its own or use it as a building block in other recipes. That means you get instructions for all of the basic egg dishes – fried, poached, scrambled, hard- and soft-boiled, shirred, baked, and more. Ruhlman’s poaching technique is one I haven’t seen before, and it is easier to anything I’ve tried before, with better results.

The real value in the book, though, is the long list of techniques and recipes that use the egg as a building block. You’ve got the ones you’d expect – the hollaindaise (traditional and blender), the mayonnaise, the meringue, the custards – but also a huge series of dishes, especially cakes and desserts, that all rely on the egg for structure, emulsification, leavening, or cohesion. So while the book is about the egg, both how it works and how to use it, you’re getting a slew of useful recipes to put them to immediate use.

I’ve tried a handful of recipes already, with the typical high rate of success I’ve had from every Ruhlman cookbook I own. I posted a photo the other day of the corn-red pepper fritters I made from this book, a recipe that depends on the proteins in the egg to hold the batter together. Ruhlman’s a big fan of frying – responsibly, of course, working fast at a high temperature and getting the goods out before all the moisture is gone and they become sponges for oil. These fritters use a small amount of flour…

The dipping sauce is a chipotle-lime mayonnaise that you can make with store-bought mayo or with Ruhlman’s very simple homemade mayo recipe, which takes two minutes of whisking and will change everything you ever thought about mayonnaise. (I hate the stuff in the jar, but homemade is a sauce.) It’s also a great base for a long list of spreads or dips, many of which Ruhlman suggests.

The biggest hit in the house was the rum-soaked cherry and almond bread, even though I had a few small issues with the execution. You soak dried sour cherries in rum (!), then mix the dry ingredients except the baking powder with the wet and let it sit overnight. Then you add the baking powder and the cherries, drained and dusted with flour, and top the loaf with a streusel of sugar, butter, and a mix of flour and almond meal. The flavors are great, with cherry and almond a natural combination, but despite the flouring the cherries sank to the bottom of the loaf, and the streusel didn’t brown properly – in fact, some of the batter puffed up through it and pushed it out of the pan. We still loved the taste and the quick-bread texture with the crisp crust; next time I’ll try it without the overnight rest.

A close second: the potato-onion frittata, easily the best frittata I’ve ever made and probably the best I’ve ever eaten. The technique is simple, but Ruhlman’s instructions are precise, and the contrasting textures between the potato and egg made it something between a frittata and a Spanish tortilla. It’s a highly extensible recipe – swap out the vegetables, the cheese (his recipe called for cheddar, but I used gruyère), the herbs, whatever. If you have six eggs and a good skillet, you can figure the rest out.

Ruhlman also includes a duck hash recipe that calls for a poached duck egg, a delicacy I have not yet spotted at any farmer’s market here or at Whole Foods. The hash itself is glorious – chopped duck confit (or braised duck legs if you prefer) with potatoes and onions and some herbs to finish it. It’s also extensible; hashes are, by nature, a way to use what’s left over in the fridge.

What I have not yet gotten to try from Egg is the lengthy list of desserts, some rather decadent. You’ve got your profiteroles and your brownies, of course, but you’ve also got chocolate/mocha cake, coconut cream cake, mango-lime semifreddo, bourbon brioche bread pudding, île flottante, and chocolate espresso Kahlua souffle. There’s also yet another recipe for homemade marshmallows, this one using honey rather than liquid glucose, which I assume is to keep the sugar syrup from crystallizing while you cook it to the soft-crack stage. So, needless to say, I still have some work to do.

If you don’t have Ruhlman’s Twenty, I’d suggest you get that before you pick up Egg, but really you should own both and Ruhlman’s Ratio too.

As a side note, amazon (to whom I always link, as their affiliate program provides nearly all the income I earn from this site, because I don’t and won’t belong to any ad services) is in a lengthy dispute with Ruhlman’s publisher, Little Brown/Hachette, over ebook pricing. You can buy the Kindle edition for $15, but if you want an indie bookstore option, you can buy Egg through that link, which uses a pretty new independent bookstore affiliate program I’m trying out. I’m still pretty pro-amazon in general, but if you who want to go a different route for ethical reasons, here’s an option.

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.