Thursday, February 26, 2009

Baconnaise and Doing the Hard Things

Jon Stewart last night introduced America to a truly horrific food product: Baconnaise. Yes, you read that right. A spreadable product that combines bacon and mayonnaise. No, this is not a joke. Check out the website.

These guys talk with with pride about eating until they can't get off the sofa. In their nutritional information, they claim Baconnaise isn't "a heart attack in a bottle" because it has a smidgen less fat per serving than mayonnaise, one of the most fat-filled calorific substances known to man. One photo in their flicker set shows a guy in a bacon suit drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. He looks like Artie Lange in bacon. For those of who who don't know him, here he is:

But at least Artie's a joke. This is no joke.

Man, this is twisted. If Al Queda tried to introduce this into America, we'd consider it an act of war. And get this: it's kosher. How can that can possibly be? Saying this is kosher is like saying a bacon cheese burger is kosher.

Stewart used this act of culinary terrorism to make an excellent point. President Obama said in his speech the other night that Americans eschew the easy way out. As Stewart rightly pointed out, really? Does a nation that consumes Baconnaise eschew the easy way out?

Not kosher if you ask me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whine About Wine

I recently tried the sauteed steak and wine recipe in the January Food & Wine magazine. I used an inexpensive Bordeaux that my wife and I like; it tasted sublime, one of the best new recipes I've tried in a long time.

Last week, I set out to make the dish again. I tend to use whatever wine I have open when I cook. Instead of a dry Bordeaux, I had a Sauvignon Blanc with a fruity front and a dry finish. It'll be fine, I thought. Wine's wine.

Wrong-o. I executed the dish as I did the first time (I slivered two instead of four garlic gloves, but otherwise followed the directions) and at the end poured my two-thirds of a cup of wine into the pan. The result -- while still pretty good -- was not nearly as tasty as the first trial. The resulting sauce -- incredibly flavorful the first time I made it -- had an almost sour aftertaste.

I'll have to try this recipe to confirm it was the wine, but I'm nearly certain. It was the only difference. The lesson: whine about your cooking wine. What you use does matter. You're not being a wine snob if you eschew the Turning Leaf someone brought to a party for a higher quality, slightly more expensive French vintage.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Hobbit House

The latest episode of Tony Bourdain's "No Reservations" found him in The Philippines where, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, he clearly found the food uninspiring. Having visited the archipelago (can it possibly be?) 20-plus years ago, I have to agree.

Which isn't to run down the place. The Philippines was one of the most beautiful places I visited in my years of traveling and its people neck and neck with the Irish for the friendliest. Unfortunately, it was also the poorest.

How poor? The taxi driver on the road from the airport (you could barely see your bags the lighting was so poor at Manila International) bought a single cigarette, not a pack, from a street vendor at a stoplight. After my traveling companion and I got to our ramshackle hotel in Irmita, Manila's entertainment-red light district (Asian cities don't make the distinction), we ventured out for dinner. Every restaurant had guards at the door casually leaning on their holstered revolvers. The streets were filled with urchins who would stare at you through the window as you ate your meal. Dickensian to say the least.

The one Filipino dining experience I vividly recall was dinner at the Hobbit House, a place known to my fellow traveler and others on the backpack circuit. Its entire staff was made up of dwarfs. They were waiters and bartenders, as wells as floor walkers pushing Hobbit House T-shirts and other merchandise as you ate. I don't know if they cooked the food, but I doubt it. Somehow I suspect the owner was a typical-sized person (trying to be PC here) who figured out a way to make a buck.

Exploitative? Maybe. But in a place as poor as the Philippines, there are precious few opportunities and services for little people who face far greater social, physical and health challenges than most of us. My guess is that dwarfs who work there have a better lives than most of their compatriots.

I searched the Internet and found the Hobbit House is still going strong strong. It has opened a second branch on Boracay, the island paradise -- and I mean paradise -- where I spent most of my time in the Philippines.

When I went there, Boracay was literally huts on the beach. Not so any more.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Test Kitchen

This is a new feature. I rarely make up my own recipes. To be blunt, I don't have the confidence. Cooks who can create, like my friend Claudia or the Iron Chefs on Food Network, blow me away. You need real talent and/or years of experience to turn a set of ingredients into something original and appetizing.

I think I'm like most cooks who find a recipe, try it and, if they like the result, adapt it to their particular taste or needs. So I'm constantly looking for new recipes, especially ones that can be done in 45 minutes or less. In this feature, I will rank recipes on four criteria: Overall; Difficulty; Expense and Time.

For my maiden run, I tried Chicken in Tomato Sauce with Kalamata Olives and Feta, a recipe on For the Love of Cooking, a blog I recently linked to with many recipes that fit my family's taste.

I used canned black olives instead of Kalamatas and three instead of four breasts, each trimmed of their tenders. I sliced the breasts into two pieces each with the thicker part a little smaller. I love garlic, but don't like too much, so I chopped one clove instead of three to four. Knowing how strong fennel seeds taste, I reduced to one teaspoon.

I followed the directions. As I expected it took a little longer to brown the chicken than the recipe says, about four to five minutes extra. One advantage of cutting the breasts in half was it allowed you to see their centers and monitor doneness.

I made the sauce using homemade broth. Once the chicken was done, I poured the sauce into the Dutch oven to reduce. After the requisite 10 minutes, it was still very soupy. It smelled wonderful, but the soupiness would clearly detract as well as make an unappetizing mess on the plate. I continued reducing about another 15 or so minutes until the tomatoes were pulpy with just a little liquid at the edges. I removed the smaller pieces with about five minutes to go so they wouldn't overcook.

I put the chicken in a serving dish, poured the sauce over it and put the feta on the side. Served over rice, it was outstanding. The sauce had a rich, tangy flavor. Every now and then a fennel seed exploded in your mouth, a perfect companion to the chicken and tomato sauce. The feta was the icing on the cake. The sharpness of the cheese really kicked the flavor to the next level.

My daughter had seconds, a rarity for chicken breasts (she much prefers thighs and legs).

Rankings based on one to five stars

Overall: ****

A wonderful dish, hearty and flavorful.

Difficulty: ***

A significant number of steps that require close attention. Not especially tough to execute, but demands attention to detail and adjustments.

Expense: ***

Chicken breasts are relatively cheap, as are canned tomatoes. If you have no fennel seeds, that's a one time expense.

Time: **

This recipe took significantly longer than the instructions said, about an hour. As much as I like it, it takes too long to add to my weekday menu.

Comment: Dusting the breasts in flour might improve this by holding in moisture, creating a pleasing crustiness and thickening the sauce faster.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stuffed Shells and Marinara

Yesterday, my in-laws, my wife's sister, her husband and their kids came to Sunday dinner. That made nine mouths to feed, many more than I'm used to.

What to make? I've had my share of cooking-for-the-masses missteps over the years. I've learned the hard way to keep it simple and quick. Don't try that fancy dish requiring 10 ingredients, seven steps and constant attention. Cooking large portions magnifies difficulty, while making the necessary attention to detail tougher. You always end up rushed and the food never comes out as good as a smaller portion. Plus, you get stuck in the kitchen while everyone else is talking and having fun.

So when guests come, I stick to tried and true dishes that you can prep beforehand and just throw into the oven.

I thought about this wonderful dish, pancetta chicken, that I blogged about before, but then settled on stuffed shells. None of us are Italian, but because most of us grew up in Connecticut with its large Italian-American community, we love Italian (or to be more exact, Italian-American) food.

Without a family marinara sauce, I experimented for years with different recipes, many of them requiring multiple ingredients including carrots, sugar, chicken broth, etc. Often they required hours of simmering, turning the making of simple sauce into a culinary Bataan Death March. I didn't even venture the Big Kahuna of marinaras, the Sunday Gravy, in which a beef roast simmers in the sauce literally all day.

Then I tried the recipe in the Rao's Cookbook, the simplest I'd yet seen. It was brilliant, and I've used it ever since. Rao's is a legendary Italian restaurant in East Harlem that you can't get into unless you know someone. For you Sopranos fans, Rao's owner Frank Pelligrino played FBI agent Frank Cubitosi.

I made the marinara the day before. Here's the recipe with some minor adjustments from me:

Six tablespoons minced onions
Two to three cloves minced garlic
Half a cup of extra virgin olive oil
Four 28 oz cans of plum tomatoes, best quality available
Two teaspoons dried basil or a dozen to two dozen torn basil leaves, depending on taste
Two to three shakes of ground oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

Mince garlic and onions. Pour tomatoes into a large bowl and hand crush them, removing any hard parts.

Pour olive oil into a large, heavy pot (I use a Creuset Dutch oven) and set to low medium. Saute onions until translucent, about seven minutes. Do not brown. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds, again being careful not to brown.

Add tomatoes and salt and stir until olive oil is incorporated into the tomatoes. Bring a boil and then simmer for an hour to 90 minutes or more, depending on preferred thickness.

Add basil and oregano and simmer for five minutes.

When you hit it just right, this sauce is fluffy, flavorful and light. My daughter loves it so much she sometimes spoons into her mouth without pasta.

This recipe yields about seven to eight cups. Use what you need and freeze the rest.

Next, I made the shells. Pretty simple. The rule is 1 lb ricotta per per half lb mozzarella, plus grated Peccorino Romano cheese to taste. Add an egg, mix and spoon into pre-cooked shells a little underdone so they are easier to work with and don't overcook in the oven. This yields about 24 shells.

Put down a bed of marinara in baking dishes, lay the shells on top and then drizzle sauce over the tops followed by more grated Peccorino Romano. Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes. Let sit five minutes before serving.

Unlike many shell dishes, which are often slathered in too much cheese, this one is light and airy. You don't feel like there's a car battery sitting in your stomach afterwards.

The shells were a huge hit. I made 48 expecting to have about ten left over. There were three by the time everyone had seconds and even thirds.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lincoln's Birthday Lunch

Don't ask me why, but Connecticut state workers have Lincoln's Birthday off in addition to President's Day. I could understand this special tribute to Lincoln if we were Illinois or Kentucky (where the 16th president was born). But Connecticut has no special connection to the Great Emancipator, so I have no idea why we get a vacation day.

My wife and I have taken to using this day as an excuse to have an early Valentine's Day lunch aux deux. The last few years, we have met in downtown New Haven, where she works part time for Yale, and gone to the Union League Cafe.

The Union League serves high end French food in a formal dining room with starched table clothes and equally starched waiters. It's located in an imposing brick building across the street from Yale's neo-Gothic campus on the site of Roger Sherman's home.

Sherman, the first mayor of New Haven, signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He fashioned the "Connecticut Compromise" which created the Senate and the House. That made the small states happy because they got two votes regardless of population and assured the big states of a chamber in which their large populations gave them greater heft. So it's Sherman's fault (depending on your politics) that the approximately 1.2 million people who live in Vermont and Wyoming have four senators while New York city's 8 million have just two that they must share with the rest of their state.

The Union League's food is generally outstanding, although a little fussy. It's also very expensive which is why we only go for lunch. I ordered a sea bass in a Syrah reduction with fennel and celery. I'm generally leery of sea bass: it has so little taste that the sauce is everything. But I knew the sauce would be excellent. The dish did not disappoint. The fish was flaky and sweet. The reduction had an almost balsamic bite that paired beautifully with the bass. The fennel was excellent. It did not taste licoricey at all, but I know from having braised fennel myself that a long slow cooking results in a rich, subtle flavor.

My wife went for the omelet with shrimp and mushrooms, which she pronounced equally excellent.

A wonderful weekday culinary lark. I'm already looking forward to next year's Lincoln's Birthday.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stocking Up

I came late to stock. I only started making my own about a year ago. I was somewhat skeptical. Would I really taste the difference? And it's just so easy to pop open a can of College chicken broth and dump the industrial goodness into whatever I'm cooking.

But after a couple of batches, I was converted. The difference is subtle, but significant. It's hard to quantify, but food cooked with homemade stock just tastes better. Maybe it's the natural MSG, which makes it fitting that I use it mostly in Asian stir fries.

At first, I experimented with several recipes, but I never seemed to get the tastiness I was seeking. Then, I added flat cut parsley and celery to the usual salt, pepper, onions, carrots, fresh thyme and chicken backs (I save them when I cut up a chicken, pop them in the freezer and make stock with I have two to three). It made a huge difference. The stock had an aromatic flavorfulness missing from my previous efforts.

Nearly out of stock, I set out to make more, this time using my newly acquired crock pot. I put the ingredients -- six cups of water, three carrots, two onions, two ribs of celery, all chopped into large pieces, a handful of parsley, fresh thyme and two chicken backs -- in the stock pot, set it on low and let it cook for eight hours.

I then drained the contents through a sieve (I use a simple, large sieve, not the fancy conical ones you see on cooking shows), pressing down to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. I then tasted and added a little salt. I find the seasoning of stock the trickiest part. You have to get it just right or it tastes too salty or too bland.

The result in this case was rich, deep brown, flavorful stock.

After letting the liquid cool, I covered the bowl with with wax paper and put it in the fridge for about 24 hours after which it looked like this:

Oooooo, how about that thick snow white crust of congealed chicken fat? As my friend Alice would say, it's so soooothing.

Using a slotted spoon and a potato masher (my daughter's suggestion; it worked well), I skimmed off the fat and threw it away (connoisseurs of Jewish cooking are crying right now at the waste of all that beautiful schmaltz).

Next, I ladled the stock into containers in two-, one-, half- and quarter-cup increments and put them in the freezer. I also filled an ice cube tray (just pop out a couple of cubes, microwave on "un-thaw" for three to four minutes and you have stock). This should last me at least six weeks, probably longer.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Go Adam Go!

The good people at the Travel Channel emailed after my post on Man vs. Food to offer me preview videos on upcoming episodes. This week, Adam will try to take down a 12-egg -- that's right, a full carton -- omelet.

This guy's reminds me of Earl, the "Building with Feet" who ate the entire left side of the menu in "Diner." Check it out at about the 1:30 mark.

I've watched a few more episodes rerun late at night, and this guy is a maniac. The childlike joy he takes in each artery-clogging discovery is both horrifying and contagious. Maybe I'm just jealous because the doctor tells me I can't eat a hamburger with cheese and bacon between two grill cheese sandwiches. This is true food porn.

Click here for the trailer for tonight's episode.

Creative Desserts

My 11--soon-to-be-12-year-old daughter loves to play around in the kitchen, especially with desserts. She is very creative, with an eye for detail and excellent knife skills. If I ever entered a cooking competition, she would be my plater.

Yesterday, she decided to throw together desserts for the two of us (my wife usually skips after-dinner sweets) using Ben & Jerry's Cinnamon Bun ice cream, strawberries and chocolate hazelnut filled wafer sticks. Here is mine:

And hers:

Amazing what you can do with a few basic things. And mine was delicious.

Friday, February 6, 2009

"It's Raw!"

He's baaaack! Hell's Kitchen, Gordon Ramsey's brutal reality show, has returned in all its full-throated, spittle-flying glory. Yes, I feel dirty after I watch the show but there's just something about it that's immensely pleasurable about in a porn kind of way. Maybe it's the schadenfreude of watching contestants with monstrously inflated, unjustified egos having their noses ground into their own incompetence. Haven't we all worked with someone who thought he was the cat's meow, but had no clue? Wouldn't you have just loved it if some super-accomplished expert had parachuted in, unmasked their ineptitude and in a profanity-laced tirade screamed to them, "Get out!"

Ah, if only life were so.

But the show isn't just histrionics, phony drama and outrageous stunts. Hell's Kitchen's underlying theme is excellence, excellence above ego, adversity, injury or any other conceivable obstacle. Ramsey's brutally unrelenting demand that his charges meet the absolute highest standards is truly admirable. And his equally forceful stripping away of the contesants' egos is refreshing in an America where everyone thinks they are a genius or immensely talented, but few really are.

The highlight of last night's episode, the second of the season, was hapless cooking school owner Colleen showing once again that she hasn't a clue about cooking. "You're robbing people!" Ramsey screamed. No kidding. Based on what she's shown so far, having this women teach you cooking is like having George Bush teach you to be president. Perhaps she will get better, but I predict an early departure.

The biggest disappointment was Ji's elimination because of injury. Ramsey loved her signature dish, a miso-infused sea bass with buckwheat noodles. She clearly had the talent and gumption, which she demonstrated last night by soldiering through a badly injured ankle, to win it all. I'm extremely disappointed to see her go.

I'm already counting the days until Ramsey's next tirade.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Thanks Duby

A big thank you to Duby McDowell for mentioning 5 Snacks After 10 on her blog, The Laurel. Check out Duby's blog for the latest on Connecticut's media, PR and political scene.

Dim Sum Sensation

My family ventured into New York City Sunday for the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown. My daughter being Chinese, we try to do something every lunar new year.

A must on this day: dim sum. I first tasted these sumptuous dumplings of joy my freshman year in college when a Chinese friend of mine took to a dim sum palace in Chinatown. It was like discovering a new world you had no idea existed: carts laden with towers of bamboo and steel steamers holding dumplings of different sizes , some translucent, others opaque, stuffed with shrimp, pork or vegetable. Point, wait for the waitress to plunk a steamer onto your table and dig in.

I was hooked the moment I put the first dumpling in my mouth. Ever since, I've eaten dim sum at every opportunity, everywhere from New York to Montreal to China.

After meeting a friend and stopping for boxes of throw fire crackers (you throw them to the ground and they pop), we literally pushed our way through the crowds trying to get the trendy Dim Sum Go Go on Confucian square. No dice. There were just too many people and we figured Dim Sum Go Go would be too jammed.

Fighting our way down Mott Street, I spotted "Dim Sum" in the window of the Mandarin Court restaurant. We muscled our way inside, waited about 20 minutes for a table and feasted. The food was superb: pork, vegetable and shrimp dumplings, sticky rice, fried rice and General Tsao's Chicken washed down with traditional Chinese tea (the leaves come out with the tea and settle to the bottom of the cup). A find. We will definitely go back.

From there, it was back out into the street to watch the parade of dragons and pop off a couple of blow tubes of confetti. At the end of the festivities, street sweepers came down the street to suck up the carpet of multi-hued carpet of confetti and I snapped the shot below. Art, I guess: