Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rice Pilaf Unplugged

I love rice pilaf, but when you look at the price of the boxed stuff, it's outrageous: about $1.50 for a mix like this one containing three, at most four portions. Considering I just bought three pounds-plus of rice for $3.75, it's a rip off.

So this weekend I set out to make rice pilaf from scratch. I laid down a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in my big frying pan and sauteed a small onion and a clove of garlic, being careful not to brown them. Once the onion was soft, I added a cup long grain rice (I like the Carolina brand), plus salt and pepper and cooked the mixture for a couple of minutes. I then poured in two cups of chicken stock, brought it to a boil, covered, set on low and let simmer.

Problem one: as I've found in the past, for some reason you need more liquid when cooking rice in a pan than in a pot. I'd like to know the scientific explanation. It's puzzling and frustrating.

After about 10 to15 minutes, most of the liquid was gone. I tasted and it was like putting pebbles in my mouth. I added another cup of water and cooked some more. After another 10 minutes, I tasted again and it was done.

The result: not terrible, but also not a lot of taste. My daughter corrected concluded that it needed a salt, which did improve it. That said, not a disaster, entirely edible, but uninspired and borderline bland.

It's just so easy to rip open a box and pour that hydroginated goodness and polysaturated mystery chemical into the pan.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Down and Out

I've been reading George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London," which includes harrowing, stomach-turning accounts of his experiences behind the scenes at a fancy French restaurant: oppressive working conditions, food dropped in filth, picked up, dusted off and served, exorbitant mark ups, systemic pilferage of food and drink.

At times the book uncannily echoes Tony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," which makes one realize restaurant culture hasn't changed all that much since the 1930s.

Here is an especially off-putting passage:

In the kitchen, the dirt was the worst. It is not a figure of speech, it is more a mere statement of fact to say that a French cook will spit in the soup -- that is if he is not going to drink it himself. He is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment. When a steak, for instance, is brought up for the head cook's inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up in his fingers and slaps it down, runs his thumb around the disk and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it around again and licks again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist judging a picture, then presses it lovingly into place with this fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning. When he is satisfied, he takes a cloth and wipes his fingerprints from the dish, and hands it to the waiter. And the waiter, of course, dips his fingers into the gravy -- his nasty, greasy fingers which he is forever running through his brilliantined hair. Whenever one pays more than, say, 10 francs for a dish of meat in Paris, one may be certain it has been fingered in this manner.
I'm feeling a little sick after writing that.

But the book is about far more than the disgusting realities of French bistros of the era. Based on Orwell's experiences as a tramp in Paris and London, it is a chronicle of poverty and hunger unlike anyone has experienced in the West since the Depression. Orwell's protagonist literally almost starves to death, reduced to pawning the very clothes off his back to buy a bag of potatoes or a loaf of bread and milk to survive.

As tough as things are now, the book is a useful reminder that conditions don't even remotely compare to what the poor experienced 75 years ago. Let's hope it stays that way.

Overall, the book is excellent although Orwell's idealistic socialism -- such as when he essentially argues that fancy restaurants should be shut down because they oppress lower rung workers -- renders it somewhat dated. Then again, maybe not, given recent events, Not of course that I would ever suggest shuttering the French Laundry or Le Cirque.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ambiance is Everything

My wife and I love "Food Detectives" on the Food Network. The program puts food myths to the scientific test and applies science to food in innovative and interesting ways. Recent shows have debunked the myth that MSG causes headaches and listlessness and demonstrated how to make frozen cocktails with liquid nitrogen.

This week the program conducted a particularly fascinating experiment. To what degree does presentation of food -- what you call it and how you serve it -- influence one's taste buds?

The show fed two groups of diners the same food, garden variety fish, creamed potatoes, green beans, chocolate cake and red wine. The food fed the first group had plain, boring names (chocolate cake) and was served with plastic plates, utensils and glasses, and paper table clothes and napkins in a spartan dining room.

The second group ate exactly the same food, but this time it had fancy names (double dutch chocolate cake) and a little garnish (an herb tied around the green beans). They consumed their meals with silver on china with linens in a dining room with a pleasing ambiance.

The results were stark: The first group rated the food mediocre to poor, while the second raved about it.

Fascinating. It makes you wonder, do we really taste our food? No wonder all those celebrity chefs place such a huge emphasis on presentation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Perfect Bread

I've been doing this nearly three months and still have not blogged about one of my favorite food activities: baking bread.

A number of years ago, my wife gave me a Kitchaide mixer and I was off to the races. I have experimented with many bread recipes and bake most of our bread. I bake two loaves at a time, cut them in half (unless they are whole wheat or rye which keep better so a whole loaf stays fresher longer) and freeze them. They unthaw quickly, about three to four hours, and lose virtually none of their taste.

By far the best bread book I have found is the Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhardt. I bought this book years ago at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia (a very cool place, but that's another story) and have still only baked about a third to half the recipes.

Unlike most cookbooks, every one of Reinhardt's recipes comes out perfectly. His secret is pre-ferments, relatively small portions of dough that you mix the night before, allow to rise for several hours and then keep overnight or longer in the fridge. Reinhardt is a food scientist and his book has long, highly technical discussions on the chemical reactions that result from this process, but the bottom line is fantastic tasting bread.

This weekend I made what my wife loves calls "the perfect bread": Reinhardt's potato rosemary bread. The key is the leftover mashed potatoes which give the bread a unique smoothness that perfectly compliments the cool of the rosemary and the airiness of the loaf.

Here is the recipe:

The night before mix together 2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour, half a teaspoon of instant yeast and 3/4 to 1 cup of warm water. Form into a ball and knead for four to six minutes. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise two to four hours until doubled in size. Remove and knead to de-gas. Return to bowl, cover with plastic wrap and put in fridge overnight. It will keep several days.

About an hour before making bread, remove the dough from the fridge and use a pastry cutter to cut it into 10 pieces. Cover with a towel and let sit about an hour.

Put pieces in the bottom of a stand up mixer bowl with a cup of leftover mashed potatoes and a tablespoon of olive oil. In a separate bowl, mix 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons bread flour, two tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast. Mix and add to mixing bowl along with 3/4 a cup plus 2 tablespoons water.

Mix with a mixing hook until it forms a ball. Turn out onto floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes. Put in bread bowl and cover with plastic wrap. After two hours, dough should have about doubled. Remove and cut into two pieces. Flattened out each piece, roll into loaves and put in oiled loaf pans. Cover and let rise for about an hour.

Place in 400 degree oven and bake for about 20 minutes, turn and bake another 15 to 20 minutes until loaves should hollow when thumped on bottoms. Put on rack to cool.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bravo Michelle!

This is fantastic news! I am so pleased that the Obamas will have a White House garden as part of Michelle's campaign to get people to eat more local and organically grown food. Once again, the Obamas are absolutely spot on.

So what's Rush's reaction going to be? The Obamas are attacking a pillar of this nation, poor, downtrodden agribusiness! And arugula! Socialism, I tell you, Socialism!

Ironic since Rush sure could use a salad or two.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chicken Thighs with Tomatoes in a Crock Pot

Overall rating: ***1/2

Taste: ***

Convenience: ****

Cost: ****

Best is *****; worst is * to no stars.

Continuing my crock pot journey of discovery, last night I tried a chicken thigh recipe that my friend Eleanor sent me. As I usually do, I tinkered here and there with the recipe. Here it is:

I skinned six thighs and seasoned them with salt and pepper. Next I seared the thighs on a medium high heat (about three to four minutes a side. You want a nice caramel color) and put them in the crock pot. I then sauteed a minced garlic clove (about a teaspoon) in about a tablespoon of olive oil, added a quarter cup of wine, boiled for about a minute and dumped into the crock pot.

Next, I added a 15 ounce can of chopped tomatoes. The original recipe called for two to three teaspoons of red pepper flakes, which seemed excessive. I put in about a teaspoon, which was still too much unless you want the dish to have an especially strong bite. I recommend anywhere from a pinch to a quarter teaspoon to a teaspoon, depending on your taste.

I then put on the cover, stuck the crock pot in the fridge and asked my wife to put it in the slow cooker at about 2:30 p.m. and set to high. The recipe said cook for four hours, but I added a half an hour since the pot was going into the cooker cold.

The result was tasty, although not spectacular. The thighs literally fell off the bone. I thought it needed a little salt, but my wife disagreed. The sauce was excellent over rice, if a little soupy. Next time, I would flour the thighs before searing to give the sauce a little more body.

Overall, a good, mid-week, inexpensive, no fuss meal.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Antibiotic Insanity

Nicholas Kristof follows up today on his superb column about MRSA in pigs. A key paragraph:

Yet the central problem here isn’t pigs, it’s humans. Unlike Europe and even South Korea, the United States still bows to agribusiness interests by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. That’s unconscionable.
Hopefully, Congress and the Obama administration will do the right thing and finally ban this insane practice whose only purpose is to make rich corporations richer as it imperils us all.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Un-Ramsey

After reading the New York Times review, I was eager to watch the new NBC cooking reality show "The Chopping Block" -- a clear knock off of the BBC program "Last Restaurant Standing." Unfortunately, I tried a new recipe Wednesday evening that took far longer than I expected (details for another post), and we ate too late to see the program.

I just watched it on Hulu and loved it. Marco Pierre White is the un-Gordon Ramsey. In contrast to Ramsey's proclivity for humiliation and cruelty, White delivers his criticisms with subtlety and understatement. Yet, they just as cutting, perhaps even more so. His glowering presence makes him something of a combination of God and grim reaper.

As much as I enjoy Ramsey, his shows are a guilty pleasure. I often feel dirty after watching him dress down yet another hapless cook or restaurant owner like the drill Sergent in "Full Metal Jacket." Seeing such a different management style is both a relief and a pleasure. Indeed, the two men illustrate opposite ends of the spectrum in leadership styles: The vicious bully and the God-like seer. Both can get results. I'd sure as hell prefer to work for the God-like seer. Indeed, I was impressed, even though I don't doubt that he said so at last partly for effect, when White said that he had a "moral duty" to choose the right person for elimination. Ramsey doesn't give a rat's ass about moral duty. You could argue either way, but the contrast is as stark as it gets.

What makes this even more interesting is that Ramsey is White's protege and the two had a falling out and no longer speak. Now, they have dueling TV programs. Yet more grist for the mill.

I can't wait for the next episode.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In a Pig's Eye

Nicholas Kristof's column in today's New York Times raises a vitally important issue: What price factory farming? His piece documents the shockingly high prevalence of antibiotic resistant MRSA infections in a small Indiana town ringed with mega-pork farms.

This story makes me think of the Talking Heads: Oh My God! What Have I Done! We already know many of the consequences of highly mass mechanized farming. A dumbed-down food supply that produces oodles of corn, so much it is directed into ethanol, which is neither efficient nor environmentally friendly, and high fructose corn syrup, nightmarish animal feed lots the size of Rhode Island and rural poverty and despair resulting from concentration of farm land in too few hands. And that's not even mentioning the devastating loss of diversity as giant marketers force growers to produce food not based on taste, but on whether it travels or keeps well. Entire varieties of fruits and vegetables, as well as animals, have all but disappeared.

But, as Kristof's column foretells, this may be the tip of the iceberg. The overuse of antibiotics and the herding of animals into unsanitary mass feed lots threatens to create a super virus that could kill millions.

Our food industry is a shining example of the fallacy of conservatism, which preaches efficiency ueberalles. Certainly that makes sense for many, probably most industries. Delivering items as fast as possible, for example, is the whole point of the parcel package industry. Brutal, ruthless efficiency is the name of the game.

But should we apply that rubric to everything, as conservatives say we should? In the case of food, it's degraded the quality of our cuisine, while contributing to environmental decline and rural dislocation. Of course we want a system that produces abundant reasonably priced food, but if we paid a little more, I suspect the quality and variety would increase significantly.

Obviously our president has bigger fish to fry at this point, but healthy food and eating is clearly important to the Obamas, as documented by the New York Times this week. My friend Eleanor posted on her blog about the proposal for Obama to name a White House farmer.

An even more intriguing proposal is to rename the Agricultural Department, the Department of Food and expand its mission to include encouraging healthy eating and better quality, more diverse meats, vegetables, fruits, etc. Obviously not at the top of the president's to do list, but I really, really hope he gets to it eventually.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Asian Experiment

Always on the quest for a new recipe, I have been browsing an Asian cookbook I received as a gift come years ago. It's one of those glossy paperbacks with a generic title that you see on remainder tables. It contains literally a 100 or more recipes, but I've only tried a handful and found only one that I really like.

Going through the book again, I came across a recipe that met my criteria for a weekday meal: Tasty and quick. It called for marinating cubed chicken breast in sesame seed oil, freshly grated ginger, soy sauce and honey, skewering the cubes and broiling for about 10 minutes. All flavors that my family loves and it can be put together the morning before for quick cooking. Sounded ideal.

In the morning, I followed the directions, a teaspoon of freshly grated ginger, two tablespoons each of honey and soy sauce and one tablespoon of sesame seed oil whisked together, and added the chicken. That evening I skewered and broiled.

The result looked appetizing with a pleasing caramel color and aroma. Success!

Not so fast. The cubes, while tender, had surprisingly little taste. In a word, it was somewhat bland with none of the marinade flavors -- saltiness, sweetness, the ginger, that wonderfully nutty sesame taste -- coming through very strongly. Not to exaggerate, the meal was entirely edible and had some flavor, but on the whole it was a major disappointment.

More ginger might have improved it, as well as some Thai fish sauce. But I suspect this is a lost cause. I doubt I will make it again. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Funny Fish

The very idea of a MacDonald's Fillet O'Fish makes me gag. As I've written before, I confess to eating a lot of fast food in my life and enjoying it. But even when my fast food consumption was at its highest, I'd have never even considered putting a Fillet O'Fish in my mouth.

But I love this commercial. It's so goofy. And my wife does a killer imitation of the fish.

I can't get this song out of my head. The power of marketing.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My Darling Clementine

Clementine oranges are one of the pleasures of winter. Imported from Spain, they provide a bracing citrus jolt in darkest January. Biting into one conjures up warm weather and powdery Mediterranean beaches.

As good as clementines are, they do not compare with the oranges I ate visiting Spain as a student in the early 1980s. They had none of the fibrous chewiness and poor flavor that afflicts so many American oranges. These oranges were big bright globes of unbelievable flavor and juiciness. It was honestly like eating candy.

Clementine season is almost over. Yesterday, I bought probably the last box of the season. After I put them in a bowl, our cat Eloise immediately claimed the box (see above). Guess she's saying she'll miss them too.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Avoiding the Crock Pot Oil Slick

I've been experimenting with our crock pot and make some unpleasant, but important discoveries. Number one is that searing meat before it goes into the crock pot is vital. Without doing so, you end up with the meat in a soupy, greasy mess. Remove the roast and it looks like the Exxon Valdez just sailed through

Case in point: One of my family's favorite recipes is chuck roast braised in wine and onion. My daughter especially loves the fall-apart tender meat and the carmelized onions.

Seems like a perfect fit for the crock pot. Not so much, it turns out. I've made it twice and both times the results were so-so. The meat cooked well, but the greasy bath it endured definitely detracted. And there is no delicious sauce to spoon over noodles or mashed potatoes.

By contrast, a barbecued baby back rib recipe I've tried several times is wonderful. Flavorful and fall-off-the-bone good. The difference? The barbecue rib recipe calls for broiling the ribs for 15 minutes before putting them in the crock pot.

I've noticed other crock pot recipes call for searing or broiling the meat before putting in the crock pot. I suspect this is key. And it makes sense. Sear the meat to seal in the juices and moisture, forestalling an oil spill.

It's kind like Kramer's idea of a rubber bladder inside oil tankers, with the searing constituting the bladder. Of course, I recommend against testing this theory by tossing your roast out a four-story window.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Roast Chicken

Sounds so simple, but like many things in life, it is and it isn't.

I've been roasting chickens forever and have experimented with a dozen variations. I've tried slower, longer roasts and hotter, faster ones. I've drizzled lemon juice, smeared butter or painted on olive oil in search of crispy, tasty skin. I've concocted herb and mustard pastes and delicately worked them between skin and breast.

The challenges are: a bird done enough to kill anything that would send your diners galloping to the toilet, but not so done that the meat turns to cardboard. Second, infusing as much flavor as possible, especially challenging with the breast. Modern chickens don't have a ton of natural flavor, so forcing some culinary excitement into them is never ending quest.

After endless experimentation, I've settled on the following recipe:

One three to four lb chicken (too big gets too tough)
Bunch of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, tarragon, thyme, or whatever floats your boat)
One to two gloves of garlic (optional)
Two to three table spoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Kitchen string

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit

Wash chicken thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. Shove herbs and garlic into the chickens cavity. Don't be shy about the amount of herbs. You want your chicken to look like it's sprouting a plant. Dress the legs with the kitchen string, closing the cavity.

Paint the olive oil all over the chicken. Salt and pepper to taste. Place chicken on roasting rack inside roasting pan and put in oven. Roast for 40 to 45 minutes or until the skin is nicely brown. Lower the temperature to 400 degrees and roast another 25 to 35 minutes. Remove and stick thermometer into the thickest part of the breast. It's done at 180 degrees.

This recipes yields a juicy, flavorful, tender chicken every time. The herbs cook and steam inside the bird (it's a good idea to wet them to assist the steaming process), infusing the meat with flavor and the olive oil yields a tasty skin.

You can serve as a main course with leftovers or carve it cold for sandwiches.