Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Vegan Dessert

Our friend Kerri, who is a vegan, came to dinner last night. Main course was easy: homemade marinara and spaghetti, salad and garlic bread painted with olive oil instead of smeared with butter. I browned ground beef in a separate pan and added to ours.

The challenge was dessert. Our kitchen is bursting with Christmas cookies and confections, all containing dairy products that Kerri does not eat. What to make that would be tasty, quick and animal free?

The solution: sorbet. I'd never made sorbet before, but I'd long wanted to try. Plus I still have two giant bags of raspberries in the freezer from our berry-picking expedition last fall.

Obviously, the berries -- especially raspberries -- would need a lot of sugar. I consulted several cookbooks and concluded that I needed to make a syrup. How many times have we heard that on Top Chef or Chopped? The chef needs to throw together something sweet and he or she says, "I decided to make a simple syrup."

I can report it really is that simple. I put two cups of sugar and one of water into a pot, brought to a boil and stirred. After about a minute, I had clear, sweet, somewhat viscous syrup that tasted wonderful.

How easy. I couldn't help think this is one of those basic, simple recipes that has been lost over time. Who needs processed drinks and pre-sweeted foods when it's so easy to make your own all-purpose sweetener?

I pureed two cups of raspberries and pushed the dense red liquid through a sieve. I then added a tablespoon of lemon juice and put the mixture in the fridge to cool. After about an hour, I took it out and added about half a cup of syrup. It tasted perfect, sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, with a powerful raspberry flavor.

I put the mixture in my ice cream maker and in about 20 minutes had about 1 1/2 cups of soft, dark red sorbet.

It was a huge hit. Kerri, my daughter and I all had some, scarfing it down in record time.

A wonderful, relatively quick and easy dessert. And I can't wait to make some lemonade with the remaining syrup.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Food Decade

I'm hard pressed to think of much good that happened in the last 10 years. I'm not proud of much except for the election of a black president and the firefighters who ran into the Twin Towers on 9/11.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman best summed up this mercifully dying decade in a column last Sunday entitled The Big Zero.

But I can think of one thing that America got right, that actually got better, between 2000 and 2010: Food.

Yea, obesity hit new heights and junk food reigned supreme. But those severe and growing problems, unlike so many in our society, actually sparked action, actually caused at least some to start asking tough questions and demanding change. Where does that chicken actually come from? Why do my tomatoes taste like cardboard? Is eating mountains of processed food and oceans of sugar really such a good idea? How do you make a pie crust from scratch? Where is my mother's meatloaf recipe?

Where all this will lead is unknown. What is clear, as the decade closes, is that American attitudes toward food, agriculture and eating are undergoing big changes, mostly good ones.

I don't think this is an accident. Food is one of the things that we can always control and in an era where most of us felt out of control, it's no surprise we paid more attention to it. I can't stop George Bush from destroying the country, but I can begin buying organic vegetables and cooking dinner at home. I can't stop Wall Street greed, but I can support local agriculture by buying more regionally produced food.

When I was a kid and young man, all I ever heard was that Americans can do anything. Imagine it and it can happen. We settled the West, won World War II and conquered the atom. We went to the moon when I was 7, less than a decade after JFK set that goal.

But around 1990, we began losing our mojo. By the time Bush II got in, all we heard was what we can't do. We can't develop alternative sources of energy. We can't have environmental protection and economic growth. We can't have expanded, affordable health care. We can't have civil liberties and fight terrorism. We can't have prosperity and government services.

It seems to me that food is one of the last bastions of the can-do spirit that we lost in the last decade. Read food blogs, watch food television programs, open foodie books and anything becomes possible. Innovation, creativity and pushing limits are in. Conventional and safe are out. There are no boundaries or limits. The line cook at a Friendly's can win Hell's Kitchen and become a top chef. We can demand food produced humanely and with fewer chemicals and get it. Everyone can learn and should learn to cook.

Hopefully, we'll get back our groove in the next decade, and it won't be just in food that we see endless opportunities for improvement and innovation. Let's hope so.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mid-Winter Toasted Marshmallows

My daughter has a thing for marshmallows. Always has. Plain, toasted, in smoores, you name it, she scarfs them down.

One winter day, she decided that she wanted toasted mini-marshmallows. Her idea was to toast them in the toaster oven. I was dubious. I feared they would explode into gross globs of goo. But you have to let kids experiment, so I agreed to let her try.

She proceeded to cover the toaster oven pan with tin foil, lay down marshmallows and put it in the toaster oven for about three minutes. To my amazement, they came out perfectly. Brown on top and gooey on the inside.

With a snowstorm bearing down on us last night, my daughter made them again for her dessert. The photo above is of the result. A taste of summer in the depths of winter.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Adam, Adam, Adam

The above spoken in the same intonation as Felix Unger saying, "Oscar, Oscar, Oscar."

I was stoked when I read that Adam Richman was coming to Connecticut to film an episode of Man vs. Food. I love the show, in spite of its celebration of gluttony and cuisine with enough cholesterol to kill a platoon of marines. And since the Hartford Courant story said that Adam was a Yale School of Drama graduate, I figured he'd scoped out Connecticut's and especially New Haven's great eats.

Alas, it was not to be. Adam's Connecticut episode aired last night, and to my and my wife's amazement it focused on . . . Hartford? I'm not saying the Capitol city is devoid of good food. The Franklin Street neighborhood has some great and venerable Italian eateries and downtown has its fair share decent places to eat. But no one would consider Hartford a culinary Mecca.

Even stranger was Adam's pronouncement that Hartford was known for . . . hot dogs? I've lived here most of my life and worked in Hartford for more than decade. Not once have I heard anyone say that the city, or anywhere in Connecticut, is famous for hot dogs.

Adam managed to find two hot dog joints, one of which was in Newington on the Berlin Turnpike, the closest thing the Nutmeg State has to a red light district, neither of which I have ever heard of.

But Adam did get one thing right: Steamed cheeseburgers. They are unique to the small patch of central Connecticut (Meriden-Middletown) where I grew up. Drive 10 miles in any direction and they disappear. His segment at a steamed cheeseburger joint in Meriden was spot on.

But then Adam committed the ultimate Connecticut sin. He dissed our pizza. I hate to break the news Adam, but our fair state does not obsess over hot dogs. It obsesses over crust, cheese and sauce. You can't throw a stone in Connecticut without hitting a pizza joint. Drive down any main drag in the state and you will see as many as two or three a block. And they all stay in business. I've never seen any data, but I suspect we eat more pizza per capita than other state.

So does Adam go to the epicenter of Connecticut pizza, Wooster Street in New Haven's Italian section? No. He goes to Wooster Street Pizza in a Hartford suburb. And he mispronounces "Wooster." ("wooh" as "who" instead "whu" as "whuff".) Now, I've had Wooster Street Pizza pizza and it's not bad. But it's nothing like the New Haven places.

I get emails from the show's publicist and this time she included a personal note reminding to watch since I live in Connecticut. I wrote back saying I was disappointed and she suggested Adam might come back and do a New Haven show.

Adam, please, please do. Here's a suggested itinerary:

Sally's and Pepe's Apizza on Wooster Street in New Haven: Two legendary brick oven joints that always have lines out front. Both in business since the 1930s. New Haven area residents go to one or the other. And the Apizza thing? It means "tomato pie" in the Italian dialects that immigrants from the Amalfi region near Naples brought with them. Great pizza, great stories, great history. Pepe's is also the birthplace of the white clam pie.

Libby's on Wooster Street in New Haven: An Italian pastry place in business for more than 70 years. The canolis and cookies are fantastic, but the best is the Italian ice. Classic New Haven deserts.

Louis' Lunch in New Haven: The place that literally invented the hamburger in 1900, and it's been going strong every since. A no nonsense joint where the burgers are served on bread instead of buns.

Lenny's in Branford or Chick's in West Haven, both just outside New Haven: Great places for two Connecticut classics, fried strip clams and lobster. Classic New England seafood at its best.

Liuzzi's in North Haven: The best Italian deli in the New Haven area, which is saying something. They make their own cheeses. A line every lunchtime for their sandwiches and prepared foods, all of which are superb.

Polish National Home in Hartford: I can't forgot Connecticut's strong Polish heritage. A classic old world joint that serves up Polish classics and sells Polish beer in European style half liter bottles, cylinders that taper to old-fashioned round openings with lips around the edges. Speciality of the house is the Polish Plate: kielbasa, sauerkraut and perogies. Great, great stuff.

Of course Adam needs a food challenge. I suggest the annual paczki (pronounced poonch-key) eating contest every Fat Tuesday at Edy's Bakery in Ansonia outside New Haven. A paczki is basically a Polish jelly doughnut made for Lent.

So there you have it, Adam. C'mom back and eat the real Connecticut.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thyme Chicken Salad

I had a ton of leftover thyme from a recipe I made this weekend. Always on the lookout for new, low cholesterol lunches, I finely chopped about half a teaspoon and added it to my standard lunch, pre-poached, shredded chicken breast. Salt and pepper to taste and teaspoon of olive oil completed the dish.

Excellent. The thyme flavor came through beautifully and the olive oil made the chicken rich and warm. A find.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Keller Cod

Thomas Keller's cookbook "Ad Hoc at Home" was due at the library this weekend, and I couldn't return it without trying a dinner recipe. I'd already sampled a red wine vinegar and Dijon mustard salad dressing. Very tasty and surprisingly simple and easy.

A cod dish caught my eye. Cod was once so abundant in New England that it was considered poverty food, something poor people ate when they couldn't afford meat. Alas, those days are long gone. So severely fished out are George's Banks off Massachusetts that cod has become something of an expensive delicacy.

I haven't eaten a lot of cod in my life and, to be honest, often been disappointed. This is a fish, I've found, that has to be fresh. I recommend passing on the deep-fried slabs at roadside clam shakes (stick with the strip clams).

My fish monger had really good cod on Saturday, so I bought a piece and forged forward. The recipe was simple: Dijon mustard, fresh bread crumbs and finely chopped parsley. I don't want to be too specific to respect the copyright, but it was basically a fast sear followed by a surprisingly short finish in a not especially hot oven. I was doubtful that the fish would cook as fast as the recipe said, but it did.

As I made the dish, I found myself being unusually meticulous and methodical. There was something about making a Keller recipe that made me slow down and perform each step with extra care and focus. It's sort of like listening to Sinatra. You hang on every word, every breath, every nuance.

The end result was superb, by far the best cod I ever tasted. The fish came out flaky, but moist with a rich, milky flavor that melded beautifully with the bread crumbs and mustard. For the first time in my life, I understood how people could rave about cod.

I might been too hard on this cookbook. This is truly a great recipe.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Peppermint Chocolate Chip Cookies

A friend of ours used to send us cookies at Christmas. They were so mouthwateringly delicious that we often urged her to start her own business. Unfortunately, she became a vegan and stopped baking them (Come back, Kerri, come back!)

So sans Kerri's Kookies, my daughter decided to try to recreate one of our favorites, peppermint chocolate chip. She took four or five peppermint candy cames and smashed them with a meat mallet. The family then had a long debate about how much to put into our chocolate chip cookie dough (standard-sized batch with two sticks of butter making about 48 cookies. We stirred in the crushed candy canes with the chocolate chips) . I said two or three tablespoons. My daughter insisted on all the candy cane she had crushed, about a quarter cup. My wife came down in the middle.

We tried three tablespoons and tasted. Not enough. We settled on about five tablespoons and baked. I thought it was just right,but my daughter said we should have put in more.

Later, my wife called Kerri who informed us she put in 1/3rd of a cup of crushed candy cane. That said, I still prefer the five or six tablespoons. I'd like to taste the chocolate chips as well as peppermint.

No matter how much, a superb cookie, one of the best I've had.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Surely You Geste

What is more romantic or infamous than the French Foreign Legion? The desperate, the heart- broken, the criminal, all seeking a new start in the fabled fighting force, mercenaries for La France. When I think of the legion, I think of lines of marching soldiers in kepis with bleached white clothes shielding their necks, mud forts in the desert, German World War II veterans battling the Viet Minh and, of course, chocolate.

Chocolate? Well, maybe not back in the Beau Geste days, but this is the 21st century. Marketing is everything and even a venerable institution like the Foreign Legion has to keep up with the times.

The legion, like everyone, has a web site that includes a shop at which you can buy a variety of products, including wine made at a vineyard run by retired legionnaires and, yes, chocolate. It's a Whitman sampler for the military buff who has everything. The boxes have the legion's insignia superimposed with a white kepi on the inside of the box and come in three sizes.

I'm trying to imagine the individual candies: Algerian Mutiny Munch; Dien Bien Phu Delight; Nazi Nougat.

I understand that image is everything, but a military formation composed of scoundrels, criminals and mercenaries notorious for brutality and mutiny selling chocolate? I guess instead of "March or Die," it's "Market Yourself or Die."

What's next? Gambino crime family canolis? (We'll leave the gun. You take the canolis).

C'est bizarre.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dumping Diet Coke

My friend Eleanor has been trying to convince me to stop drinking diet soda. Very bad for you, she says, worse than the hi-test. I know I should listen (she's a nutritionist), but I look forward every lunchtime to my fizzy Diet Coke replete with its caramel, chemical goodness and kick of caffeine. I've tried other drinks midday, but found them wanting.

Last weekend, one of the doctors I attended the Giants game with seconded Eleanor. Stuff's really bad for you, he said. He's also a Republican, which really made me stop and think. If even a GOPer thinks a foodstuff is bad for you, it must be really unhealthy.

So what are the replacement possibilities? I asked myself. Has to have caffeine. Has to taste good. The answer came quickly: cold oolong tea.

I quaffed oceans of the stuff when I lived in Japan 20-plus years ago. Tokyo summers are miserable, hot and humid (in terms of longitude and latitude, the city is equivalent to Atlanta). Hydration is a must. Especially so because I studied the Japanese martial art Kendo, Japanese fencing. Being Japan and having to be tough and macho, of course you wore the same heavy knit cotton gi in summer as in winter. After a hard July practice, you could literally wring it out.

After nearly falling victim to dehydration several times, I took to drinking a liter of cold oolong before practice. It worked like a charm. And I really grew to love the stuff.

So this morning I took several bags of oolong (I had purchased a box from a local Chinese grocery), made two cups of hot tea, let them cool and poured them into a water bottle with some ice cubes. By lunchtime, the ice was melted and the tea was a little warm, but very tasty. And I still got my caffeine fix.

My wife thought I was crazy to boil water and make cups of tea. Connoisseur of sun tea that she is, she put some oolong in a big bottle and is attempting that method to make me a larger batch.

We'll see how long I stay on the wagon, but I'm optimistic this will work.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Game Day Flank Steak

I attended my annual New York Giants game yesterday at Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Gardens just off the scenic New Jersey Turnpike. My college roommate Dave has season tickets and invites me to a game every year, usually with his med school friends Jock and Andy.

Of course, tailgating is de rigour. Some fans go to great lengths, bringing home-made smokers and full-sized Weber grills. Others drive RVs with full kitchens into the parking lot, raise Giant and American flags and lay out lavish spreads. One parked RV had a flat bed trailer with a hot tube run by a gasoline generator. After the game (Giants won 31-24), two guys were in it drinking beer and making mayhem.

The guys next to us were culinary students who grilled skirt steak, opened up shellfish in a big steel pot on a charcoal grill and finished it off by melting butter in the same pot and drizzling it on Italian bread for garlic bread.

I usually make hamburgers for the crew, but this year I decided to do flank steak, potato salad and green salad. The flank, cooked over a charcoal fire on a rickety, but effective grill, was a big hit. Here's the recipe:

1 to 1/2 lb flank steak
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 large or 2 to 3 small minced garlic gloves, depending on taste
2 to 3 teaspoons kosher salt, depending on taste
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pepper, depending on taste
3 to 4 tablepoons extra virgin olive oil

(You can use just about any herb or spice, although I find the rosemary and garlic are musts)

Preheat a grill or broiler. Mix the garlic, salt, pepper and herbs in a small bowl. Put the steak between sheets of wax paper and pound to about 1/2 inch thickness. Paint on olive oil and rub mixture onto meat. Turn over and repeat. Place on grill or under broiler (if it doesn't sizzle, you're grill's not hot enough), about 4 to 5 minutes a side for medium rare.

Put meat on cutting board with gutters to catch the blood. Let meat rest at least 5 to 10 minutes (We covered it because of hte cold) and then carve against the grain into strips. Serve with potato salad and green salad. Corn on the cob is also an excellent accompaniment, if in season.

To sum up, great company, great food and a great game. Life doesn't get much better.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Holiday Inn

One of our family Christmas traditions is watching the Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movie "Holiday Inn," which we did last night. Bing Crosby claims he's broke, but lives in a cavernous Connecticut farmhouse with a servant and just happens to have in his barn everything from a full professional stage, to satin hearts the size of monster truck tires to a riverboat prop complete with an hologram of Lincoln in the paddle wheel (the centerpiece of a cringe-inducing blackface number that the TV version usually edits out). All of this allows him to stage improbably lavish shows each holiday, the only days his inn is open.

The movie introduced the Irving Berlin song "White Christmas" and also served as the inspiration for motel chain by the same name. Here's a clip.

Yes, this is a food blog, and I'm getting to that. There are some great culinary scenes in the movie. My favorite is the New Year's Eve bit in which Bing and his winsome love interest (rivalry over whom with Astaire is the core of the story) sing as they assembly plates for guests. I especially love the ridiculously huge wooden salad bowl that looks like it was carved from a giant Sequoia. Just had it laying around somewhere.

And then there's Bing's Thanksgiving dinner just before he gets up his gumption and heads to Hollywood to reclaim his girl. It looks so good you're dying for him to eat it, but not a morsel passes between his lips.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

$1,000 For This?

My wife and I just watched an outrageous show on the Travel Channel on the world's most extravgant meals. One was a $1,000 pizza. That's right -- one thousand smackeroos for bread and cheese cooked in an oven.

What makes this pizza, made at Nino's Bellissima in Manhattan, supposedly worth $1,000? It's got caviar and lobster on it. But it's still tiny, about the size of a dinner plate. Even with the most expensive caviar in the world, $1,000 is absurd. And lobster? You can buy a two pounder for $20 wholesale. The dough literally cost about a nickel. The cheese? A buck or two.

And I'm not even talking about the sin of putting caviar and lobster on dough and shoving them into an 800 degree oven. Sacreligous. A sin against both those beautiful ingredients, as well as pizza.

It's a pizza for crying out loud. Anyone who buys this rip off round of dough is both a sucker and really, really needs to pay more taxes.

Friday, December 4, 2009

More Food, Much More Food

Jon Stewart interviewed Michael Specter last night about his book "Denialism," which the New York Times reviews today. Specter takes both the right and the left to task for denying scientific fact. The problem, he said, has gotten so severe that it's starting to hinder scientific progress.

Specter gave as an example genetic manipulation of foodstuffs, which he defended as not only safe, but necessary. In the coming years, we will need to increase food production 70 percent to keep up with population growth, and we cannot do that without genetically modified foods, he said.

That number stopped me in my tracks. I can't verify the figure but it has the ring of truth given the world's dramatically increasing population. I couldn't help but think what that means for the organic/local/slow food movement (Specter has a chapter on that). Sure I love my locally grown beef and greens, but is it really practical to expect a large scale return to such an inefficient and expensive way of raising food?

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an organic farmer at New Haven farmer's market, and he commented about what a challenge it is to get decent yields. He just can't grow as much without chemicals and pesticides. Organic farming may produce a superior product, but it's not going to feed the world. The Third World's hundreds of millions need a supply of sustenance that traditional farming techniques can never provide.

So as much as I cheer on locally grown, organic fruits, meats and vegetables, their use is unlikely to grow beyond foodies and the upscale. Say it ain't so, but I'm afraid it probably it is.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Food Porn

I was at the library yesterday looking for a book to read when I stumbled across Thomas Keller's new slate tile-sized, $50 cookbook, "Ad Hoc at Home." I'd already browsed a copy at a book store. Beautifully illustrated and laid out, almost erotic its photography, but way, way too expensive. And knowing Keller, probably containing recipes requiring candied pomegranate and saffron from an obscure region of the Canary Islands.

But check it out of the library, I'm there!

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size and heft of the book. It's got to weigh four pounds and is bigger than a large serving platter. Cracking it, it has the wingspan of an old fashioned newspaper, the kind that required readers to fully extend both arms to read.

I read the introduction and the cooking tips and advice, and was impressed. Yes, he's one of the greatest chefs in America, famous for turning out impossibly refined and delicious food, but his suggestions for the home cook (this book is supposed to be for the home cook) are surprisingly down to earth and basic. Cook dishes you like repeatedly so that you master them and learn to apply what you learn to variations and other recipes. Always be organized. Don't be measuring out liquids in the middle of a stir fry. Experiment, but try only one new recipe or technique at a time. All good common sense stuff.

Some recipes were involved and time consuming, but others were surprising simple. His burger and barbecue recipes are quick and easy. A cod with breadcrumbs and mustard also looks simple and tasty.

One drawback. The amount of butter and eggs is often mind-boggling. His ice cream recipes, for example, call for 10, that's right, 10 egg yokes. The dumplings for his chicken dumpling soup require 4 tablespoons of butter for just 2/3rds of a cup of flour. A brownie recipe has 3 sticks of butter and three eggs. My arteries are hardening just writing this.

All in all, a serious food porn. Great fun to read, but many recipes are not so much impractical as far too rich for the every day.

Picture of the Day

Saturday, 9:24 p.m.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pumpkin Pie Extraordinaire

I never ate pumpkin pie growing up. My parents were never big on it, so it didn't appear on our Thanksgiving table.

My wife's family, however, enjoys a good pumpkin pie, so after I got married I finally tasted it. I liked it and have had a piece at Thanksgiving ever since.

All the pumpkin pies I've eaten have been store bought, perfectly round discs with orange filling. So when my wife's friend Cheryl gave her a recipe, we took up the challenge.

I started with my mother's pie crust, which is deceptively simple. For a 9 inch pie crust, freeze a stick of butter for about an hour. This is vital because key to a good crust is keeping the little bits of butter intact within the dough. If you don't freeze the butter, it gets mushy as you cut it and you end up with butter smears into of pieces.

Cut the frozen butter into small pieces (as small as you can get) and work into a cup and a half of flour with 1/4 teaspoon baking power and a pinch of salt. I use an up-and-down motion with a whisk with a bulb on the end. Add six to seven tablespoons of cold water and mix with a spoon and then by hand into a ball. The trick is to use as little moisture as possible to form the ball. The less moisture, the flakier the crust.

Flour the counter and roll out the crust. Shape into a greased a 9 inch pie plate and build up the sides. I was somewhat flummoxed by this. My wife took over. Instead of pressing the crust onto the edges as with an apple pie, you literally build a straight, up and down parapet around the circumference. You want it about an inch high from the bottom of the pie plate. Don't be surprised if you have extra dough.

As I made the crust, my wife made the filling. She slightly beat 2 eggs and then beat in 1 can of pumpkin filling (about two cups), 1/4 cup each of white and brown sugar and maple syrup, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon cloves and 1 2/3 cup evaporated milk. For extra bite, you can add 1/4 teaspoon of all spice. We did not.

The filling was very thin, nearly as thin as water. Fear not. All is right with the world.

Put your pie plate with the crust on a tin foil-lined cookie sheet in a pre-heated 450 degree F oven. Transfer the filling (it's about four cups) into a measuring cup or other spouted vessel and pour into the shell.

After 15 minutes, lower the temperature to 350 and bake about another 45 minutes. The pie is done when a thin knife in the center comes out clean.

The recipe worked like a dream. The pie was perfectly set after the full baking time, rather amazing considering how soupy the original filling was.

The result: the best pumpkin pie I've ever tasted. Everyone loved it at Thanksgiving.

A huge success. Thank you Cheryl!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cheese Ball vs. Apple Pie

The New York Times had a fascinating article yesterday on what recipe website traffic reveals about regional Thanksgiving tastes. Much of data was unsurprising. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, New Englanders typically seek advice on apple pies (we grow tons of apples up here), while southerners are checking out the sweet potato pie recipes.

But corn casserole? What the heck is that? Whatever it is, it's huge on Mid-Western turkey day menus.

And cheese balls are big in a swath of the country's midsection running from Nevada to Ohio. I associate those odd boccie balls of whey, curds and nuts with the 1970s, like fondue pots, wide ties and disco. I had no idea anyone still ate them except as a joke.

Where did this tradition of cheese balls come from? Did they hitch a ride west on covered wagons, leaving a trail of cheese ball culture? The cheese ball trail perhaps?

Sometimes it seems like we're just becoming one giant homogenized mass. It's refreshing to see local food preferences and cultures existing, even thriving.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Home-made pies for today's feast. More on the pumpkin tomorrow.

Happy eating.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Turkey Day Prep

With Thanksgiving Day fast approaching, everyone is looking to get ahead of the game. I've already done so, baking dinner rolls this weekend and freezing them. Today or tomorrow, my wife will make her cranberry sauce (far, far superior to the gelatinous red stuff with the can ridges on the side).

In that spirit, Mark Bittman of the New York Times last week published 101 sides, soups, deserts, stuffings, etc. that can made ahead of time, everything from cranberry-orange sauce to pumpkin tofu pudding. As always, the recipes look yummy and sound easy. If you're looking for something new to cook ahead of time, check it out.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Vegan Jackpot

Yes, I know I wrote about vegans yesterday, but this one is just too good to pass up.

Connecticut is home to the two biggest casinos in the world, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, both operated by Indian tribes. In spite of offering the only legal slot machines and table games in New England, Foxwoods is in deep doo-doo. The recession combined with crushing debt are punishing the casino's revenues so severely it recently missed a bond payment.

The good folks at PETA have a solution: a vegan slot machine. The animal rights organization wants to pay for ads on Foxwoods slot machines that read, 'Don't Gamble on Your Health - Go Vegan!'

I know you would lose your money just as fast at a vegan slot machine as one advertising prime rib, but this just seems wrong, like alcohol-less beer or fat free mozzarella. Casinos are about indulging your inner vice, so an ad appealing for perceived virtue and clean living seems as out of place as a vegan at a pig roast.

I can't imagine PETA converting anyone. One-armed bandit fans seem unlikely to trade their bacon cheeseburgers for humus wrapped in kelp.

But stranger things have happened. Maybe Foxwoods will agree and instead of two cherries, a pair of kashis will pay off.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Abyss

An oped in today's New York Times makes three pieces in the paper in the last week plumbing the moral pros and cons of eating meat. The other two are here and here. All gave voice to the question of whether raising animals to slaughter and eat is morally defensible.

In today's piece Bucknell University Professor Gary Steiner, a longtime vegan, makes an extended and impassioned argument for veganism. Eating animals and using products derived from them is morally indefensible.

"Yes, there are animal welfare laws," he writes. "But those laws have been formulated by and are enforced by by people who proceed from the proposition that animals are fundamentally inferior to human beings."

They aren't? The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Bill of Rights and quantum mechanics are equivalent to a pig rooting in mud?

When people cite what they see as the immorality of using animal products, I think of two things: my parents and the Third World.

My mother grew up on a subsistence farm during The Depression. They had enough to eat, but only just. Without the chickens and the runt pig my grandmother got from a farmer and the occasional pheasant (what they ate for Thanksgiving), they would have starved.

Same goes for my father, who grew up in Germany during World War Two and experienced if not outright hunger, certainly something close to it. To this day, he tells how he and his brother would literally lick their plates after meals and how he loved the Air Force because he got three squares a day. He and my family fought for every scrap, every morsel and would have literally walked a mile for extra animal protein.

And then there were the bony, hollow-eyed street urchins I saw years ago on the streets of Manila. Put a platter of meat, fish and fowl before them, and they would have devoured it. Same for the Filipino family that on the same trip invited my friend and me to their home, a simple shack, the walls decorated with pictures from magazines, for a chicken dinner (the best-tasting chicken I ever ate). They were making it, but just barely. Should they have freed their chickens, which would have been quickly killed and consumed by predators, and tried to live on bananas and rice?

It seems to me that these arguments expose a fundamental and often problematic strain in the American psyche: Puritanism. All Americans, from the most macho, meat-eating Texan, to the most liberal vegan New Englander, are puritans. They share John Winthrop's vision of America as a City upon a Hill, a Zion that strives to be a beacon to the world. That vision was originally religious and still is for many. But Puritanism was along ago secularized and embedded in America's DNA. Non-religious visions of America as a Perfect Society can be just as militant, idealized and -- yes, unrealistic -- as religious ones.

This strain in the American psyche seems to be growing more powerful. Witness the Tea Partiers, as well as the growth of extreme diets and alternative spirituality of the type that recently killed two people in Arizona. Tough economic times, I suspect, cause people to go to ground, which in America often means a fervent, religious or semi-religious belief in "fundamental" truths that promise deliverance, but often blur reality and hinder practical solutions.

Even Professor Steiner acknowledges that taking veganism to its extreme (he says he recently discovered that the soothing aloe strip on razor blades contains animal products) can lead you to an abyss.

I see this particular abyss as man made. For our ancestors, as well as most of the world which either gets not or just enough food, it does not exist.

Certainly, I respect the choices people make regarding their diet. It's an intensely personal decision, as it should be. I will choose to pass the turkey.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Funeral for a Friend

A friend of mine died this week. David McClendon, with whom I worked for more than a decade at the New Haven Register, passed away suddenly from Sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that scars and damages the internal organs. He was 44.

Dave became very sick last March and spent 10 days in the hospital. After he got out, he started a blog about his struggle to manage and overcome his illness. Here is a link. I don't think you have to have known David to be moved by his posts. To the end, he was insightful, honest, optimistic and positive. No self pity here, no whining. I hope I could be half as brave.

Even though I knew David for more than a decade and he was my boss for several years, I learned things from his blog that I never knew, that he was a cartoonist, that he longed to write serious fiction and that he was once a serious martial artist.

Many memories have un-spooled in the last few days. In them, David is always smiling. It's how I will always remember him.

My deepest condolences to Dave's family and loved ones. May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Good Bye Gourmet Project: Flank Steak and Noodles

Recipe Two in the Good Bye Gourmet Project. It looked and sounded delicious: stir-fried flank steak with a Chinese noodle cake and snow peas. Only problem was, my daughter's not big on snow peas. So I substituted broccoli.

I started by steaming the broccoli about three minutes. My wife and daughter like their vegies soft, so if you prefer your crunchier, steam it less or not at all.

The rest of the prep was straightforward. As my noodles boiled, I sliced the flank steak, chopped the scallions, minced the ginger and measured out the oyster sauce, sugar, soy sauce, etc. I judged, as I often do with stir fries, that the wet ingredients were going to burn off too much, so I added a few tablespoons of chicken broth (I make my own and freeze it in ice cube trays so I can microwave a few squares at a time).

After draining the noodles, I slide them into the pan. It took six or seven minutes a side and several teaspoons of vegetable oil and a heat closer to high to crisp up each side, hotter and about twice the time and oil in the recipe. After about 12 minutes, my cake resembled the one in the magazine.

I set the cake aside and completed the recipe, sauteeing the broccoli, the scallions and the steak and then adding the sauce, corn starch and sugar mixture.

As promised, about 40 minutes start to finish. The result was somewhere between good and very good. The meat and broccoli had excellent flavor, although the mixture was a little dry. Next time, I'd add a little more chicken broth. The noodle cake was tasty, crunchy on the outside, firm on the inside, although it was a little ungainly to eat.

All in all, a good solid dish. I'd make it again.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Save the Pie for Later

They're executing you at dawn. The warden enters your cell and asks what you want for your last meal. Steak? Lobster? Oysters? At least you don't have to worry it being bad for you. Hell, have a burger, cooked in lard with bacon and cheese between two grilled-cheese sandwiches, and a deep-fried Twinkie for dessert. It's not like it's going to kill you.

Slate has a fascinating article on last meals of the condemned prompted by last week's execution of D.C. sniper John Mohammad. Turns out he didn't want the world to know what he scarfed down before being strapped to the gurney.

But others didn't mind or the state in their day didn't give them the option of keeping it secret. John Wayne Gacey, fabled killer clown of Chicago, was a former prison cook who asked for shrimp, fried chicken, French fries, and a pound of strawberries. My personal favorite is brain-damaged Arkansas killer Ricky Ray Rector who shoveled down steak, fried chicken and cherry Kool Aide, but decided to save the pecon pie for "later." I give him an "A" for irony.

What Jeffrey Dahmer would have ordered? I think we can guess.

Believe it or not, there was even a website devoted to last meals, It sold merchandise, including a deadmaneating thong for the ladies. I'm not even going to think about going there.

For the record, my last meal would be lobster.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Home Run

My daughter acquired a taste for camembert cheese while we were in Paris this summer. Slices of camembert on French bread and she was in heaven.

She called this morning when I was shopping and asked for Camembert. No French bread, I warned. That's fine, she assured me. I'll eat it with crackers. You'll eat it all? I asked. It's not cheap. Yes, she promised.

Luckily, I was at Liuzzi's, the best Italian deli in the New Haven area and home to an incredible and delectable selection of cheeses. I love buying fancy cheeses at Liuzzi because it's not a fancy place. The guys who work there are regular Joes who happen to love cheese. A hat tip to New Haven's Italian heritage.

I asked the cheese guy for an inexpensive Camembert and he sent me to Hudson Valley Camembert from Old Chatham, N.Y. Reasonably price, local and superb, he assured me.

He wasn't kidding. I got it home and Julia immediately attacked. It's one of the best Camembert's I've ever had. It's creamy, but light bordering on fluffy. You get that wonderful cloud-like creaminess in the first bite followed subtle taste that blossoms as you chew. Wonderful. If you see this cheese buy it immediately.

My daughter Hoovered half of it for a breakfast.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Back of the Package

We've all seen them: Recipes beckoning from the back or side panel of packages. They promise Rice Krispie bars, tuna casserole and muesli muffins, all designed of course to get you to buy more Rice Krispies, egg noodles and muesli. How good can they be?

For a sampling, check out this blog devoted entirely to back-of-the-box cooking. Today's recipe of the day: quick dill dip featuring . . . wait for it . . . Miracle Whip. Or how about this one for chicken and mushroom gravy. The mother ingredient? You guessed it. Campbell's mushroom soup. Mmmm, they sound so sooooooothing, as my friend Alice would say.

But not all back-of-the package recipes harken back to Jello molds, Wonder Bread and Studebakers. I've found one I especially like, Nestle's chocolate chip cookie recipe. I make them all the time. It's quick, easy and decadently tasty. I have a preference for the milk chocolate variety. Here's the recipe. I recommend one change: Cut the sugars to half a cup each. I like my cookies a little less sweet.

Just goes to show you that a good recipe can come from anywhere.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cooking and Human Evolution

Last night, my wife, daughter and I watched the second installment of the superb PBS documentary "Becoming Human" about human evolution. It focused on Homo erectus, the first human ancestor that resembled modern man.

One key leap forward, according the program, was cooking food, especially meat. This allowed homo erectus to have a shorter digestive system so he could more easily take in the huge amount of calories he needed to function and survive. In discussing this development, the program suggests that sharing a meal around a campfire was key to development of one of humanity's defining characteristics, our intensely social nature. In essence, cooking helped make us human.

It's an interesting theory with the ring of truth. What is more social than a shared meal? The dinner table is where friendships, marriages, families are often born and certainly nurtured and strengthened. When a young man or woman is serious about a member of the opposite sex, they bring them home for dinner. Our most important holidays, Christmas Passover, Thanksgiving, center on shared meals.

An interesting aside: In searching for the "Becoming Human" website, I typed "Evolution" into Google. The first hit was the site for a multi-part PBS series done in 2001. The next five were articles or sites attacking the series and the science of evolution, including an interminably long article on World Net Daily, the lunatic website that claims the president was born in Kenya and commie Nazi aliens are threatening to eat Glenn Beck's brain (Wait, they already have).


No such hits appeared on the same page as PBS' "Becoming Human." I will venture cautious optimism and take this as a sign the anti-science lunacy of recent years is perhaps waning somewhat.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Good Bye Gourmet Project: Kale Soup Disaster

Last weekend, I set fourth on my Good Bye Gourmet Project by making the November issue's Portuguese kale soup recipe. Sure looks good in the picture above. But don't let appearances fool you. It was tasteless and greasy, borderline gross. It would have been truly disgusting if I had followed the directions to a "T."

I figured this would be a good one, a hearty soup for a bracing late autumn day. It would fortify me for leaf blowing that afternoon (I have enough oak leaves to wall paper a McMansion). In preparation, I bought a bag of organic kale and a stick of chorizo, a spicy Portuguese sausage.

I followed the directions, browning the chorizo in olive oil, removing it and then browning onions and and garlic in the rendered fat and oil. So far so good. The sausage smelled so delicious it got my daughter out of bed. Bacon, she thought. Poor deluded soul.

I added water and potatoes and brought the soup to a simmer. My wife walked up and glanced in the pot.

"Are you going to keep all that grease in there?" she asked.

She was right. A film of grease globs nearly covered the surface. I checked the recipe and confirmed that I was not to drain or skim off the grease. Sorry, Charlie. This is way too greasy. I took up a spoon and began skimming. I soon had a quarter cup of grease in a bowl. How appetizing.

I finished up the dish, mashing some potatoes when they were done, adding kale and returning the chorizo to the pot. Amazing, the recipe calls for another tablespoon of olive oil. I love olive oil, but more of it on top of all of that sausage fat? I'm sorry, but the very idea is gross.

Still, what stared up at me from the pot looked pretty good. I ladled out soup for me and my daughter and we tasted. Bland, bland, bland. Salt helped a little, but not much. Even the chorizo, which tasted great right after I browned it, had lost much of its flavor.

You could try simmering longer before adding the potatoes, but to paraphrase the boys at Mythbusters, this one's busted. A deeply disappointing, borderline disastrous recipe. Interestingly enough, the recipe is not on Gourmet's website. I think someone figured out it sucks.

So the score is: Disaster: 1, Good Eats: 0. On to the next one.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Quick Raspberry Sauce

Earlier this fall, my mother-in-law suggested that my daughter and I go raspberry picking with her at a local farm. It was a smashing success. About two hours of pleasant work yielded us about five pounds of raspberries. The cost: about $25. Considering that you pay $3 or more for a small container of inferior berries at the store, a bargain.

We gorged ourselves for a day or so. I used some to make raspberry-peach pie, which was superb, a near perfect balance of sweet and tart. Using my mother-in-law's system, I froze the huge surplus on cookie trays without washing them and stored them in plastic bags. I've been having a bowl for breakfast every couple of days ever since.

This weekend, my daughter had the idea of making another raspberry-peach pie after I spotted some peaches in the store. I unthawed a cup, but when we returned to the store, the peaches were gone.

Left to her own devices, my daughter added some sugar and cinnamon to the raspberries and stirred. The peaches, already soft from having been frozen, quickly broke down. The result was a pleasingly tart, slightly cinnamony raspberry sauce. Excellent. We'll have it tonight on ice cream or perhaps with our cream puffs.

The recipe is simple. Take one cup of unthawed frozen raspberries (you can buy them in the frozen food section), add sugar and cinnamon to taste and stir.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Jamee

I love the Jameson Irish Whiskey commercial that seems to run continuously between segments of The Daily Show (guess they're trying to hook the younger crowd). It's a playful yarn that both satirizes and plays to classic Irish stereotypes (impulsiveness, love of stiff drink, foolish bravery in the face of danger, triumph against all odds). It's like an updated "The Quiet Man" with a dash of early 21st century irony.

My first Jameson was a memorable experience. I was 21, fresh out of college and hitchhiking through the west of Ireland, a beautiful and desolate place dotted with the ruins of stone cottages abandoned when much of the population fled the Potato Famine for America. My traveling companion, a Dublin native and not an especially heavy drinker, decided it was time for a mid-afternoon "Jamee."

We stopped at an Irish pub out of central casting and had a glass. It was wonderful, warm and smooth. I'd like to think that a peat fire was raging in the fireplace and someone was playing a harp and singing Irish folks songs, but I think that's in my imagination.

In spite of the pleasantness of the experience, I didn't acquire the habit. I'm not much on hard liquor with the exception of a once or twice yearly tequila shot or brandy. In fact, I don't think I've had a "Jamee" since.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Good Bye Gourmet Project

I've written before about my sadness at the death of Gourmet magazine, which I subscribed to for years. Leafing though my final edition, a magnificent, perfectly roasted turkey gracing its cover, I hit upon an idea. Why not cook every recipe in the final edition of Gourmet and write about? By my count, there are 56 recipes. None require obscure, outrageously expensive or hard-to-get ingredients or specialized equipment, belying the charge that the magazine failed because it was too phoufy and impractical for the home cook.

It might take a year, but why the heck not? Not only is this a fitting tribute to a much beloved friend, but also an opportunity to branch out and challenge myself as a cook. I've traditionally tried only a smattering of recipes in each issue, usually entrees and deserts. The last issue has soups, stocks and a plethora of vegetable dishes. I will have to cook them and hopefully learn something in the process.

Stayed tuned for the first post of The Good Bye Gourmet Project.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let the Battle Begin!

Iron Chef is doing a show highlighting the White House garden and spreading the gospel about fruits and vegies for the young. Once again, bravo Michelle Obama. I can't wait for the episode (It's one of my daughter's favorite shows).

Looking forward to the Beck rant on this one: Glenn will probably blow up pictures of the chefs picking produce from the garden and, using a pointer, solemnly direct viewers to the plethora of RED vegetables. And if you look closely at that cucumber, what do you see? Hitler's face. And isn't that arugula, tell me if I'm wrong, look closely, it's that arugula?

I mean, it's all perfectly clear, isn't it? (Glenn stops speaking. Tears well from his eyes. His voice lowers to a weepy whisper) We're not just losing our country. (Glenn pauses, fighting back tears). We're losing our diet. We have to stop them, my friends, I beg you, we have to stop them.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Food Story in Three Parts

Salt and Pepper Shakers, a piece of Halloween candy and a digital camera. Using those items, my daughter composed the following food story:

Salt and Pepper find a candy bar.

They fight.

Pepper Wins!

The End

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trash Talking

Kevin and Van from the most recent Hell's Kitchen have teamed up right here in Connecticut. Kevin hired the over-the-top Texan to work with him at the Farmington Country Club where Kevin is head chef. Van is, needless to say, suffering from culture shock after having relocated the land of rolling hills, steady habits and pizza.

Most interesting in this Hartford Courant interview is the trash Kevin talks about Ramsey. The terror of reality TV doesn't care a whit for contestants after the show is done, he says. No job offers, no nothing. Contestants are just entertainment to Ramsey, Kevin said.

Not really a surprise. I suspect the same is true for most reality TV contestants. Unfortunately, a dose of fame is for some like a shot of heroin. Witness Jon Gosselin and Balloon Boy's father.

As the Nicole Kidman character observed in the much underrated movie To Die For, no one really exists unless they are on TV.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Evil Acorn

No, not the guys who help poor people vote while apparently giving tax evasion lessons to pimps planning on importing underage El Salvadoran hookers. I mean the real thing, which are so plentiful this year that walking in my backyard is like skating on ball bearings.

Apparently, you can make flour from acorns. A friend of mine tried it. Check out this link for the results.

If this floats your boat, here's a website with acorn recipes, including breads and something called "acorn hotdish" in which you boil the ground nuts and mash them with a potato masher.

I admire my friend's ambition, desire to use all of nature's gifts no matter how humble and willingness to try something new, but I think I'll leave my acorns to the squirrels.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Last Supper

The New York Times has a moving article about super chef Thomas Keller's relationship with his recently deceased father. He cooked his father's last meal.

My family went to Keller's Las Vegas restaurant, Bouchon, last year. It was a sublime experience. My 12-year-old daughter keeps going on about it. She pines to this day for the bread, even though she generally doesn't like bread.

Keller's restaurants aren't cheap, but also not as expensive as you might expect. Bouchon, while pricey, didn't cost us as much as other places we ate in Sin City. If you ever have the chance to eat his food, pull out the plastic. Not to be missed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beautiful Uglies

About this time last year, I bought some gnarled, frightening-looking apples from Waldingfield Farm's stand at the Wooster Square farmer's market. They looked disgusting. Patrick, the farmer manning the stand, implored me to see beyond the cosmetic. The apples looked that way because the farm is organic and uses no pesticides. I.e. this is what all apples used to look like. The perfect globe with unblemished skin is a product of science, not nature.

These apples, he added, were Baldwins, which used to be the number one cider apple in New England. But because they bear only once every two years, they fell out of favor. After a killing winter in the early 1920s, most farms didn't replant the trees, he explained.

Patrick said that Waldingfield, which is primarily a vegetable farm, still had some old, neglected trees planted in the late 1920s. The farm started taking care of them and voila, they began producing the fruit that lay before me in all its blemished glory.

How could I resist such a great story? I bought the apples. It took a little guts to bite into one. I felt a bit like the man who ate the first oyster. But Patrick was right. They were some of the best apples I've ever eaten. I made a pie with some, which turned out beautifully.

I've been waiting ever since for the Baldwins to reappear. Last Saturday, Patrick finally had them and I made my purchase. The last ones are in my lunch today.

Hooray for organic Baldwins! Buy 'em if you can!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

McDonald's Freeze Out

As a kid, I recall the sense of triumph that accompanied McDonald's penetrations of the Iron Curtain. A Golden Arches rising in Moscow or Peking (as we spelled it in those days) was a clear signal that we were winning the Cold War, that the allure of western culture and capitalism were simply too powerful and would one day crush communism.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I see McDonald's unquenchable appetite for foreign conquest much differently. Instead of a forerunner of freedom, McDonald's has become a rapacious culinary imperialist, crushing native cuisine under a juggernaut of Big Macs and Happy Meals.

So it's with great shadenfreude that I read McDonald's is leaving Iceland. The franchisee said he had no choice because McDonald's required him to buy all his burgers, buns, cheese, etc. from Germany. The weakness of the Icelandic currency, battered by the nation's economic crisis, made it just too expensive.

Is Iceland going backwards or forwards? Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards, and this seems to me one of those cases.

The owner has said that he will reopen his three restaurants under a new name and using local ingredients. I wonder what he'll call it. Olaf's? Viking Food Quest? Blond Cuisine? I can't wait for the fillet-o-arctic chars and double lamb burgers.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bovine Soylent Green

I always thought that "ground beef" I bought at the store was a piece of meat run through a meat grinder. Silly me.

A recent New York Times story about a woman crippled by an E-Coli infection from a frozen hamburger revealed the truth: The patty you buy at the supermarket is a vile witch's brew of highly processed Franken-meat and fat. Your humble hamburger contains the remains of as many as dozens of cows constituted and reconstituted into a bovine Soylent Green. The result: greatly increased risk of E-Coli -- basically shit -- in your meat.

What's even worse is that the formulas and processes used to produce this vile product are all secret. Not even the government knows what's going on behind the meat packing door. All this reminds me of The Jungle, the classic, literally gut-wrenching novel about the meat packing industry in Chicago in the early 20th century. How did we end up back in 1900? Oh well, yet another example of George Bush's largely successful effort to build a bridge to the 19th century.

How much does this save the mega-food companies? The article estimates that just grinding a piece of beef would cost about $1.40 a pound. The unholy process used t0 produce this killer beef: $1. As always, it's all about money. Once again, Big Food foists disgusting, dangerous crap on the American people in the name of the all mighty buck.

There are alternatives, first and foremost, a meat grinder. I have one that attaches to my Kitchen Aide Mixer. It's easy and quick. Second option: Find a place that grinds its own meat. Liuzzi's, my favorite Italian deli, grinds its own sirloin.

Just a piece of beef chopped up. Sounds so simple. Only American business could complicate something so basic out of existence in the name of 40 extra cents a pound while endangering America's health as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bad Barley

A few months ago, the family celebrated my in-laws' wedding anniversary at an Italian restaurant called L'Orcio in New Haven. The food was sublime. One dish I especially loved was a barley salad. It was nutty and infused with herbs and other good stuff, a wonderful appetizer.

Ever since, I have been trying to recreate the dish. The results have been consistent -- horrible. The gain either comes out crunchy or gummy. Oh, and did I mention that results tasted like pebbled cardboard?

It seems so simple. Just simmer barley in water or chicken stock. But it never comes out right.

My trusty Williams & Sonoma kitchen guide tells me that barley is one of the world's oldest grains, but is today used primarily in the making of Scotch whiskey. The entry says that is a shame because it lends itself to "delicious preparations."


Sunday night, I was making chicken with wine, garlic, rosemary and thyme and decided to give barley one more try. I chose a complicated recipe that called for toasting the barley in olive oil and butter, gradually adding water to cook it and finishing it with Peccorino Romano. Jam that flavor in. Sounded great in theory.

In practice, another disaster. The final product was sticky, half done and tasteless, even with the cheese. I had to bake a couple of potatoes in the microwave for a quick starch.

No wonder it's only used for Scotch these days. My hat's off to anyone who can make these little pearls of flavorlessness shine.