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.

Friday, October 16, 2009

When Good Bakers Go Bad

Check out this blog, Cakewrecks, that my friend Eleanor found. To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger from Raw Deal, one of the best bad movies ever made, you should not drink and bake.

Scroll down to the clowns. Somehow I don't think this was the effect the baker intended.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Punchy Puttanesca

Anchovies rock. I love them as does my daughter. My wife, not so much, unless they are in a good caesar salad.

I especially like the tanginess and punch anchovies give a good puttanesca. With my wife away for a few days at a writing conference, I decided to try to make a puttanesca at home. I consulted a couple of recipes and forged ahead.

To my surprise, especially given what restaurants charge for a puttanesca, it was easy and quick, about 30 to 35 minutes start to finish. The result was outstanding: powerful, over-the-top taste and remarkably filling. My daughter, usually a bottomless pit in spite of her small size, rejected desert she was so full.

Here's the recipe:

Saute a cup of finely chopped onions (not minced) and one minced garlic clove (more depending on your taste) in a quarter cup of olive oil on a medium low heat until translucent, but not brown. How long it takes depends no the heat of your stove. My electric range needed about seven minutes.

Add a quarter cup dry white wine and bring to a boil. Add finely chopped anchovies (I used six, again, depends on your taste) and cook until they disintegrate and dissolve. Add four cups canned hand-crushed Italian tomatoes, two tablespoons rinsed capers, a cup of chopped olives (you can use oil cured, but I used regular black olives out of a can and they were fine) and a shake of red pepper flakes (optional, gives it a little bite). Adjust seasoning (I found it needed pepper and just a little salt), then bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add six to 10 torn basil leaves, depending on size of leaves and taste (I like a lot of basil) and a shake of ground oregano.

Serve with spaghetti and viola! A quick, tasty meal that knocks your socks off.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Home Fries

I love French fries. Who doesn't? I'm especially partial to the fries at Le Petit Cafe, an unpretentious French bistro that I consider one of the best restaurants in the New Haven area. They are golden, crisp and not at all greasy, with a wonderful fried potato flavor.

I've eschewed making French fries at home, fearing the fuss and mess. I have also, rightly or wrongly, perceived making them to be dangerous because of a story I did years ago about a couple who burnt down the house while making French fries. Admittedly, they both appeared to be elderly alcoholics, but walking through the charred remains of their home with that horrible burnt-house smell in my nostrils as the husband described flames shooting from the oil put the fear of God in me.

That said, I have increasingly taken to heart Julia Child's sage advice: Don't be afraid. So a few weeks ago when I was trying to settle on what to make with mussels, I decided to give French fries a try. Nothing goes with mussels like fries. My wife, daughter and I have wonderful memories of digging into a heaping pot of mussels cooked in garlic and wine during our trips to Quebec. Accompanying those mussels was always a pile of perfectly cooked fries.

I pulled out my trusty "How to Cook Everything" by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and found French fries. I will not recount the recipe as I've decided to be more respectful of copyrights, but it was relatively quick and easy, and yielded some of the best French fires I've ever tasted. The key appears to be frying them twice. Get the book. It's the best cookbook I've ever used.

I've made fries twice since and each time they've come out perfectly. French fries: They' re not just for restaurants any more.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gourmet as Roarshack

Reactions to Gourmet's demise are so varied, it's almost become a kind of Roarshack test. An odd oped in the New York Times somehow transforms the magazine's closure into a indictment of "amateurs" without formal training, whatever their discipline. Especially strange was the writer's drafting of Julia Child, a largely self-taught cook who quickly recognized the limits of her formal training at the Cordon Bleu, to buttress his point. It's hard not to conclude this is yet another mainstream writer looking to take a crowbar to bloggers who have broken their monoply.

One of the best pieces so far is this one in Salon (an online publication no less!) that rightly refutes the meme that Gourmet was stodgy and stuck up. Yes, they did some quirky things, but it was more like the charming eccentric aunt who has money but doesn't care about it than the stuck up matron who buys pate just to impress the girls at the club.

Personally, I still don't understand how a magazine with 1 million subscribers goes under. It speaks to fundamental changes in the economics of publishing. For whatever reasons, not enough advertisers felt it worth their while to buy ads. Or Conde Nast wasn't satisfied with modest profits. It was go big or go home and they decided to go home.

Update: My friend Eleanor has an especially good post on her blog about Gourmet's death. I would add that she is the farthest thing from stuck up or pretentious.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Good Bye Gourmet

I'm devastated. I love this magazine. A few weeks ago, I made a panko chicken recipe from the magazine that was out of this world.

What amazes and puzzles me is that Gourmet had nearly 1 million subscribers. How can a magazine that 1 million people are willing to pay for go out of business?

It's all advertising, the stories say. The publication was heavily dependent on upscale advertisers who have been shellacked by the recession. I suppose there's some justice in makers of ridiculously overpriced, 12-ring gas ranges for McMansions hurting, but I never considered their pain would take down one of my favorite publications.

I've received Gourmet for years ever since my sister-in-law gave me a subscription for my birthday. Ever since, it's been my birthday or Christmas present. I've loved the recipes, many of which are favorites of my family. The emphasis on the quirky and out of the way coupled with the eschewing for the most part of overly complicated food and hard-to-get ingredients was, for me at least, a perfect balance.

I will miss Gourmet immensely.

Oh well, nothing is eternal except Roosevelt, as they said in The Palm Beach Story.

5 Snacks Relaunch

It's been five months since I last blogged (I sound like I'm in the confessional or at an AA meeting) during which I completed my New Haven mafia project.

It's time for a relaunch. To paraphrase the Six Million Dollar Man, we can rebuild it . . . better. . . stronger . . . more interesting.

Where this is going and how long it will last, I have no idea. What I am sure is that my interest and passion in cooking, food and food-related subject matter have only grown during the time I took off from this blog.

As Jackie Gleason used to say: And away we go.