Category Archives: food & drink

The Great Pumpkin Beer Tasting of 2015

Each autumn, my friend Carl notes and ranks the pumpkin beer he drinks. He invited me to join him this year and so it was that an otherwise quiet Saturday night was spent ingesting an alarming amount of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and alcohol.

Eleven different beers comprised the rogues gallery, and each was carefully graded from 0 to 5 on appearance, nose, tastiness, finish, and what we called “Platonic Pumpkin.” To infuse the proceedings a whiff of scientific method, my wife agreed to pour these drinks in another room and prevent names, reputations and label art from biasing our ratings.

pumpkins

Given the high degree of subjectivity and sheer quantity of beer, our marks revealed a surprising amount of consistency with three distinct groups emerging.

The Bad
Clear worst of the bunch was the Sam Adams Pumpkin Batch, an odious concoction with soapy overtones and a cumulative score of 11 from a possible 50. The Blue Point Pumpkin Ale (18), Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat (18), and surprisingly the Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (19) rounded out the losers.

The Middling
The divisive Southern Tier Pumpkin (23) was denounced by me but championed by Carl, ending up in limbo.  The only non-ale tasted was the Redhook Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter (24), a disappointing effort with trace amounts of pumpkin flavor.  Neither the New Belgium Pumpkick (25), Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale (26), or Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale (27) made much of an impression.

The Quaffable
Two beers stood out from the rest: Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale (31) and our winner, Alewerks Pumpkin Ale with 35 out of 50. These finely balanced beers struck the best balance between expression and restraint, offering full pumpkin flavor but remaining drinkable.

I thank Carl for including me in this exercise, but I have vowed never to drink a pumpkin beer again. The cloying aromatics and dreadful puns are simply too much for one sitting, and the time has come to cut the gourd.

 

My Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

This hearty, not-too-sweet cookie evolved to meet the needs of my growing family. Reducing the butter, replacing eggs with flax seed, and adding nuts are anathema to the older generations. However, times, tastes, and metabolisms change, making this a proper cookie for the 21st century.

Ingredients
1 stick salted butter
2 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp ground flax seeds
6 tbsp water
2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3 cups flour (approx)
2 cups chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts)
12 oz semisweet chocolate chip

Preparation
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, mix the flax seed and water with a fork, letting stand for 10 minutes. Soften the butter, using the wrapping paper to grease your cookie sheet. Mix the flax seed mixture, butter, vanilla, sugar and brown sugar together in a medium bowl.

Mix the salt, baking soda and about a cup of flour together, then gradually add it to the wet ingredients. Keep adding flour a little bit (about 1/4 cup) at a time until the mixture is stiff so that the peaks in the dough don’t fall, but still moist and not crumbly.

Add the chocolate chips and nuts, mixing thoroughly. Spoon out 12 lumps about the size of ping pong balls onto your cookie sheet. Put into the oven for 7 minutes for chewy, slightly underdone cookies, or 8 minutes for crispier cookies.

IndiGo Bistro – Indian Restaurant in Manchester CT

I’ve previously written about UTSAV, an excellent Indian restaurant in Vernon, CT. As one of the first people to visit, I was floored by the gastronomic delights on offer and wasted no time in recommending the food to friends, acquaintances and strangers. But even more impressive than the delectable dishes was the sincere attention paid by the proprietor, Sheen, and the rest of the staff to each diner’s experience.

Now, that team has opened up a new restaurant, IndiGo Bistro, located in the Shop Rite Plaza on Spencer Street in Manchester, CT. The personal touch is there in abundance and the food is spectacular. From the sizzling and tender tandoori chicken that comes with each buffet to the frequent inclusion of complimentary appetizers and desserts, the folks at Indigo Bistro work hard to make each visit as memorable and enjoyable as possible. As far as Indian restaurants in Connecticut go, I doubt you could find anywhere better, and it’s my humble belief that IndiGo is the best restaurant east of the Connecticut River. I’m not alone, either, and the string of rave reviews seems to indicate that it will be a mecca for lovers of good food for years to come.

IndiGo Bistro

Address: 232 Spencer Street, Manchester, CT, 06040
Telephone: (860)646-8600
Website: http://www.indigo-bistro.com

The Best Sandwich You’ve Ever Tasted

For some folks, the more expensive a meal or beverage, the better it tastes. How else to explain caviar named after diamonds or a $1,000 mint julep? I frequently thank my lucky stars that I haven’t been saddled with such a proclivity, but perhaps I should be thanking my forebears instead.

During a recent trip to Ohio to visit the maternal, Slovene-Hungarian side of my family, I had an opportunity to visit more with my grandmother than I had on any previous occasion. At a dignified 4’8″, she is usually to be found ambling around the kitchen with her irratable Sun Conure, Sunny, perched on her shoulder or huddled inside her cardigan.

She makes magical things in that kitchen.

There’s a semi-conscious competition between my brother and me where the only way to get the upper hand is to have had Grandma’s salmon chowder more recently. Each Cheez-It dropped into the bowl is instantly transformed into a biscuit both subtly compelling and radiating with flavor. Toasted pumpkin seeds in her granola-based cookies dance salty-sweet on the taste buds. Knobs of chocolate make rare appearances, and even then are model team members contributing to the harmonious collective rather than prima donnas trying to steal the show. Said cookies are just as visually palatable, always square so as to be accommodated, tightly-packed, in her straight-edged tupperware. This visit, I discovered another string to her bow.

Sitting in her kitchen, admiring the WWII-era bomb that now forms the base of a table lamp, my father and I wondered what to eat. My grandmother asked if we wanted a grilled cheese. We said yes.

Dish water occupied one front burner, heated on the stove to save fuel costs. She placed a griddle on the other front burner and made two sandwiches for my dad and two for me. My mother suspects that the griddle is some three generations old. I like to think that it can recognize the flavors it touches every day, happily toasting the butter onto a side of bread or gazing wistfully at a pancake as it’s whisked over to the table and drenched in blueberry syrup.

Setting the sandwiches on the table, I raised just one eyebrow at the unusual inclusion of bologna. Beside my plate, she set a jar of dill pickles, the marker-scrawled label more antique and inviting than any Olde Brand for sale on store shelves. Like so much in that kitchen, she had clearly made those pickles with her own hands, which are as beautifully gnarled and knotted as roots of The Giving Tree.

I took a bite of sandwich, and it was good. Still chewing, I bit into a pickle.

It was the best thing I’d ever eaten.

My grandmother’s husband, my grandfather, is remarkable in many ways. He got a football scholarship to Ohio State when he was young, served in the Navy, became a cop and was hit by a truck blowing through an intersection while on a police motorcycle. He was bedridden for two years, and the local funeral home would transport him from home to high school in a hearse, where he would watch my father’s his alma mater‘s football games out the back door. He has had well over 80 surgeries and worn through a series of knees, hips and shoulders. He is a bionic man.

He is also the most positive person I have ever met and am likely to meet. He speaks often of his enormous luck at being treated so kindly by life. When he laughs, everyone laughs.

He is also fond of declaring his latest meal, “the best I’ve ever had” or the most recent flower “the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.” My mother told me that this used to bother her, as she thought him not discerning enough. In time, she came to realize that he genuinely believed these statements each time he made them. They were always true.

It’s an amazing way to live when each bite is better than the last and each flower more perfect than any that has come before, and I like to think that I have inherited this constant feeling of joy. Thus, I present to you the recipe for the Best Sandwich You’ve Ever Tasted.

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Start with wheat bread. I chose this sodium-free version for no particular reason. Perhaps the blue color appealed to me. Quite probably other types of bread will work just fine. Experimenting is both fun and delicious.

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The choice of cheese is rather more strict, since the sharpness of the cheddar must conjure images of samurai swords, black keys on a piano and that really smart kid in math class who had the answer before you finished reading the problem. Sharp.

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I don’t think turkey bologna was in the sandwich grandma made, but again, it’s more than adequate. It’s also probably healthier and rules in any no-red-meat types who would otherwise be ruled out of enjoying this lovely sandwich.

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Dill pickles are the real magic dust here, and the presence of you or your relatives in the process of their creation is fundamental. I give you the recipe as it was given to me: written on an index card. I suggest you do the same. It’s better that way.

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Sitting on a plate next to a rattle of dill pickle spears, the majesty of the sandwich should have you near tears. If you’re like me, anyway.

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Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa.

UTSAV: Great Indian Food in Vernon, CT

There are a few places in the Greater Hartford area that can scratch the itch when it comes to Indian food. Until recently, the closest was about 20 minutes away. But now, there is UTSAV.

Alternatively translated by Indian friends as “festival” and “procession,” UTSAV heralds the arrival of great Indian food in Vernon, CT, mere minutes from where I live and even closer to my friend Dan. UTSAV only recently replaced a truly shocking Indian restaurant that occupied the same storefront. The bitter taste left in my mouth by this predecessor had me worried about UTSAV as well, but I needn’t have feared. Some good word-of-mouth buzz was enough for me to give it a chance, and I inhaled a generous portion of yummy chicken tikka masala, the dish by which all Indian restaurants in Connecticut and America are judged.

I’ve returned twice since then to sample the delights of the all-you-can-eat weekend buffet. Savory tureens of curry, rice and lentil dishes tempted me back for seconds, thirds and, against my better judgement, fourths. Among the highlights are the lamb and spinach curries, as well as a garlic-infused cauliflower dish described by local food critic Marta Raviele described as “the General Tsao of Indian food.”

Add friendly service and extra touches like a complementary, sizzling griddle of Tandoori chicken, and you’ve got everything you want in an Indian restaurant near Hartford, CT. I will surely be returning, hungry for more.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA

There’s a large package store near my apartment by the name of Manchester Wine & Liquors. You can usually find me there once every week or two, walking along the two huge walls that feature beer from most countries on the planet. Every time I visit, I nearly always try something new. One result is that I’ve narrowed down pretty well what I like, to the point where I’m quite discerning about the qualities of my favorite style: the IPA, or India Pale Ale. Another result is that I find it difficult to remember what I have and haven’t tried, and if I did try it, what I thought about it. Thus I avoided the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA out of faulty memory and prejudice (it’s not particularly rare). This weekend, I rectified my mistake.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA Label

While spending the weekend at one of the best Boston bed and breakfast places, I cooled the mixed six-pack of beer we’d brought by putting it out on the window sill. With the fireplace crackling, a classic Seinfeld episode on TV and a nice dinner out to prepare for, my mate and I decided to open up the Dogfish Head 90 Minute India Pale Ale. As mentioned before, we had seen it many times without it ever striking our fancy, so we weren’t expecting anything spectacular. But that’s exactly what we got. The dense hoppiness, the citrusy, floral taste, the warming __ opaqueness of it… it was truly a special beer.

It’s worth mentioning that we had previously tried and dismissed the 60-minute and 120-minute versions of the same brew (the minutes referring to the time spent hopping the beer). At 60 minutes, it lacked the requisite flavor and depth that we look for in an IPA, while at 120 minutes, it was altogether too overpowering. Like Goldilocks, we found the happy medium and a true legend in the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. Crack one open today and see for yourself.

My Top 5 For 2007

After seeing numerous end-of-year lists around the web, I thought it fitting to sum up my Top 5 in each category of The Cookblog. And so, without further ado, here they are:

The Cookblog's Best of 2007

Art

These are the best web sites and artists that I discovered during the past year.

  1. Edward Gorey – I’ve posted about him before, but the maestro of macabre was my #1 artistic discovery of the past year. Meticulous pen sketches combined with a wickedly dark sense of humor make him my favorite by a country mile.
  2. Rockwell Kent – Moby Dick is a terrific book (at least the first few chapters), and these illustrations are great. They capture the majesty of the ocean, the madness of Captain Ahab and the calm of an evening anchorage in attractive woodcut style.
  3. Chema Madoz – There’s something about black& white photography that is just cool. The pictures on these sites juxtapose and re-imagine common elements in interesting ways, like a match set against a plank so that the grain of the wood looks like smoke. Check it out.
  4. BibliOdyssey – A really fascinating site packed with high-res illustrations of esoteric old books. The quality of the images and care with which they’re chosen really sets the site apart.
  5. OldBookIllustrations – I love old books and I love the types of illustrations on this site. On top of that, most are in the public domain, so I definitely plan on returning if I need fodder for any graphic design projects.

Food & Drink

These rate as the best beers I’ve discovered during 2007.

  1. 840 IPA – An absolute classic, this well-balanced but beautifully-hopped India Pale Ale is the standard by which I now measure all others.
  2. Ten Penny Ale – The perfect counterpoint to the hoppiness of an IPA, the malty, smoky Ten Penny is made in East Hartford and finds its way into the refrigerator more than any other beer.
  3. Chocolate Stout – A great beer for a change of pace, this goes particularly well mixed with Saranac’s Carmel Lager or Guinness.
  4. Racer 5 IPA – A tasty brew offered on tap at The Library, a bar near my brother’s apartment in Los Angeles. Nice and floral.
  5. Southampton IPA – A random discovery at the local package store, this IPA with an orange label is thoroughly drinkable and always welcome.

Games

I’ve played a lot of games this year, but only a few stack up against my high standards. They are:

  1. Carcassonne – Board games don’t get more classic than this. Every game is different and the social aspect makes it perfect for beginners
  2. Tichu – A favorite at work and probably the best card game in the world, combining bluffing, anticipation and cooperation. It’s only $7. Get it.
  3. Caylus – The opposite of Carcassonne, involving almost zero luck and total diplomacy, Caylus would be the chess of board games if chess wasn’t a board game.
  4. Foosball – The only non-board game here, there have been some epic shots and games over the past few months with my work colleagues. The laws of physics bow down before our deft control and puma-like reflexes, but we’re still easily beaten by the slow roller.
  5. Ticket to Ride: Europe – The chosen game at home, it’s good for two players and conjures up images of actually riding a train from Edinburgh to Athena. Also, my girlfriend and I can usual overcome our rage at losing after only a few minutes.

Literature

I haven’t had a chance to read as much as I would have liked, but these are the books that I enjoyed at least part of this past year.

  1. Morbo – Phil Ball has a wonderful turn of phrase and the intensely interesting subject of Spanish soccer comes alive with his words.
  2. Selected Verses of Ogden Nash – Perfect for reading to that special someone, the quirk and wit of Ogden Nash never fails to bring a smile to my face.
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – That’s right, I’m a Harry Potter fan.
  4. The Stories of Paul Bowles – Imagine my delight when I found one of my favorite books at a library book sale for 1/4 cover price.
  5. The Devil Drives – A biography of Sir Richard Burton, it’s a gripping account of a man who lived in constant adventure, from India to Mecca to Ethiopia.

Music

There was some great music this year, and though I usually prefer individual tracks to full albums, these were great the whole way through.

  1. Radiohead – In Rainbows – One again, Radiohead has delivered a phenomenal album packed with electronic hooks and human feeling. By far the most played this year.
    Reckoner
  2. Feist – The Reminder – A great discovery, Feist has since come to prominence for her role in an iPod commercial, but the rest of the songs on her album are equally bouncy and catchy.
    I Feel It All
  3. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Vintage Spoon and no complaints from me. This is piano rock at its best.
    The Ghost of You Lingers
  4. The National – Boxer – One of the most genuine bands around today, The National’s “Fake Empire” is one of the songs of the year.
    Fake Empire
  5. Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block – According to the Wikipedia, this was a 2006 album, but Rolling Stone put it in their best of 2007 list, so I am, too.
    Up Against the Wall

Soccer

I like to think I have a talent for spotting quality when it comes to soccer players, not that it’s difficult to tell that these five footballers are several cuts above the rest.

  1. Kaka – The Brazilian is the Zidane of this generation. His seemingly-effortless skill has been winning match after match for AC Milan, including the World Club Cup and the Champions League trophy
  2. Lionel Messi – The only player that can rival Kaka, Messi has been carrying one of the biggest and proudest clubs in the world on his shoulders. That he’s already made Ronaldinho dispensable is an indication of his importance to Barcelona.
  3. Christiano Ronaldo – Like the two players above him, he has dragged his team to victory even when they haven’t deserved it. If he can deliver European success to Manchester United, he’ll move higher up the list.
  4. Didier Drogba – His questionable temperament doesn’t take away from his qualities as a player. Powerful and intelligent on the field, he takes his team into a different class when he plays and is worth far more to Chelsea than the rubles they paid for him.
  5. Daniel Alves – A marauding right fullback who has been the impetus behind Sevilla’s recent success, Alves will surely earn a move to a major club soon, where he should establish himself as the best wingback in the world.

Travel

I haven’t taken too many exotic trips this year, but these places have been welcome breaks from the usual routine at home.

  1. Boston – An awesome trip up to watch the Red Sox earn a spot in the World Series still rates as one of the best days this year.
  2. Los Angeles, CA – A great visit with the family for Thanksgiving was the perfect way to spend those vacation days.
  3. Onset – Having returned there for every year since I was born, it’s impossible to underestimate its importance in my life.
  4. Danbury – Always a relaxing and comfortable place to visit, you never know who or what you’ll find at the casa de Angela, Kathleen and Connor, but it’s always a good time.
  5. New York – A weekend in NYC with John, Georgia and Co. was a ton of fun. My only regret is that it was the only one.

Web

I’ve seen a lot of websites in my 25 years on this planet, but these deserve special mention.

  1. Slightly Shady SEO – The best blog about SEO in my opinion. Gives away secrets that are worth plenty, which makes me wonder how much more he knows.
  2. Asobrain Games – A great place to play Carcassonne with no frills, no fuss and no fees.
  3. Strange Maps – Since maps are something of a hobby for me, this site is always full of interesting things.
  4. Coudal Partners – I’m still not sure what they do there, but their features, including Photoshop Layer Tennis and the Museum of Online Museums are worth regularly checking out.
  5. Smashing Magazine – With their fingers firmly on the pulse of web design, this site displays great examples for study and inspiration.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my picks and I hope that 2008 has as much good material to see, read, hear and blog about. If you’ve got something to say about any of my choices, go for it!

Red Sox vs Indians ALCS Game 7

There’s a reason it’s taken me three days to lay down a record of my trip up to Boston last Sunday: it was a day packed so full of fun and memories that I hadn’t even recovered until now. So let’s begin at the beginning.

Trip to Boston

In my line of work, I am rarely but occasionally given the opportunity to purchase tickets for events at expensive-but-not-outrageous prices. Typically, I care nothing for the events featured, but the stars aligned this week and gave me the chance to get Red Sox bleacher seats for their theoretical Game 7 ALCS clash against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway. I managed to secure six seats in a row at $100 each, bringing the full price of my order to $5 more than I paid for my car. It would be me, Angelina, Marta, Dan, Paul and Steve basking in the glow of playoff baseball in Beantown. All that was left was for Boston to win Game 6. This they did with style, 12-2. The stage was set.

My aforementioned car happens to be a 1990 Chevrolet Celebrity Eurowagon, purchased from Craigslist. With comfortable seating for up to 7 people, it was just the vehicle to make the trip north and east. After filling it with some badly-needed power steering fluid, inflating some soft tires and gassing up, we picked up the rest of the crew and piled in, setting out around 1:30 PM on Sunday, October 24. The trip gave everyone a chance to enjoy the rustic appeal of my automobile. The upholstery on the ceiling sags. The front and back bumper both look like they’re riddled with bullet holes and about to fall off. I have to open the door at toll booths since my window won’t open. The front-side passenger needs to bench 120lbs in order to have the requisite strength to open their door. In short, it’s a perfect car for a road trip.

Marta admires the spaciousness of the back seat.

We powered down I-84 and the Mass Pike to the tune of Dan’s iPod, blasting an eclectic mixture of baseball songs and 1990 hillbilly Radiohead esoterica. To everyone’s relief, the car survived the first leg of the journey and we pulled into Riverside station on the outskirts of Boston to ride the “T” into the city.

Ange and I await our metal chariot.

We arrived at Fenway Station around 3 PM, five hours before the game was due to start. There was already a palpable buzz around the place, people looking to score tickets, others just hoping to soak up the atmosphere and some booze. The fact that we already had tickets placed us firmly in the latter camp, and we strolled over to the Boston Beer Works to wet our whistles. It was still early, so the crowds weren’t bad and we sidled into the largest booth I’ve ever seen.

The first side of the booth.

The second, more good-looking side of the booth.

For the next few hours, we ate all manner of nachos, burgers and fries, washing it all down with several pitchers of Boston Beer Works’ finest. Though we fell short of our stated desire to get a pitcher of everything on the beer menu, we made a valiant effort. The food, the drink, the conversation and the shoulders comprised the perfect pre-game program and we walked out well-satisfied around 6:30 PM. The gates to Fenway Park weren’t open yet, so we opted to pass some time playing foosball at the mafia-owned Jillians just down the road. I was able to drop some jaws and raise my social status with a series of powerful goals and miraculous saves en route to a thorough spanking of all opponents.

Marta and Paul fall to the irresistable force of Brian and Dan.

After that exercise, it was time to enter Fenway Park, the night’s theater of dreams. Arriving over an hour before the game gave us ample time to stock up on $8 Sam Adams Oktoberfest and find our seats in the bleachers. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would want to sit anywhere else. There’s no place in the stadium where the passion and rowdiness is so evident and so enjoyable. New England aloofness is discarded like so much junk mail, and people become friendly.

That early before the game, though, there were only a few people and they were lined up at the top of the wall waiting to catch balls from batting practice. We had to make do with watching the Indians warm up, which turned out fine when Grady Sizemore turned and tossed a ball up in our direction. I plucked it out of the air with my bare claw and gave it to Angelina, like any boyfriend who wants to stay out of the doghouse. She spent the rest of BP showing everyone how she grips her curveball and arguing with me about who Sizemore was trying to throw the ball to (we both grinned in his direction). Just to be safe, I told Grady that he was a bastard and that this girl was taken.

Sizemore prepares to throw like a jerk.

The game itself was a tense affair with the Red Sox scoring some runs, then being pegged back by the plucky Indians. After a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th-inning stretch, they opened up a 5-2 lead. But it was “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the 8th that really did the trick, with Dustin Pedroia doubling and Kevin Youkilis homering to send Fenway into a happy sort of chaos. We hung around after Papelbon closed the game out, watching the on-field celebrations, viewing the post-game interviews on the Jumbotron and taking pictures.

A deliriously happy Fenway celebrates.

We took a detour after the game to hit up the convenience store and avoid the crowds at a T station besides Fenway. Unfortunately, it began to look like the trains were no longer servicing other stations, and we hoofed it back, managing to catch the last train out to Riverside. Once again, we piled into the car and started pulling out of the lot when the “Tailgate Ajar” light came on. Despite my half-assed efforts, I couldn’t get the latch to catch, so we headed home with the gate rattling. It didn’t seem to stop anyone from sleeping and no one fell out the back (as far as I know). We even had time to stop on I-84 so that Angelina could enjoy the crisp fall air, the brilliant night sky and the scent of the grass. As I helmed my car Manchesterward, I saw two shooting stars, which effectively summed up the entire trip. Imagine a great thing, and then imagine it doubled.

We dropped off the rest of the crew in Vernon and walked in our door at 4AM on Monday morning. Mocking reason, I woke up three hours later and put in a good day’s work before finally catching up on some sleep. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mock my brother for opting to stay in California instead of flying East for one night. Shame on you, Aaron. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t thank Angelina, Dan, Marta, Paul and Steve for a great day out. You can find more pictures of the day here. Go Red Sox!

A great day out with friends.