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.