Monday, October 11, 2010

Steve-o Goes Vegan

The New York Times had a story this Sunday about Steve-o of Jackass fame's new-found healthy lifestyle. A little hard to take from a guy who once shoved a hook through his check and threw himself into the ocean as shark bait.

Steve-o has not only forsworn drugs and alcohol, he's gone vegan. I can understand giving up substance abuse, but also forgoing all animal products, including eggs and cheese? Seems a little over the top, but I guess that's what Steve-o is all about. Maybe in Jackass III he'll consume a vegan feast and then try not to go to the bathroom for a week.

Seriously Steve-o, I hope you stay sober. But lighten up, dude, and have a slice of cheese. Plus, you'll need that steak for your eye after your latest stunt.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hang' em High

This summer, I discovered hanger steak. My butcher pointed to sinewy, marbled slabs that looked like they'd been hacked off the carcass with wild swings of a dull machete. Fantastic, he said.

I was skeptical, but decided to give it try. Boy, was he right. Two turns on a very hot grill transforms ugly duckling cut into a swan of steak: succulent, tender and tasty.

I improvised a rub that works beautifully: salt, pepper, minced garlic and chopped basil. Paint the cuts with olive oil and rub into the meat. No need to marinate. You can apply right before grilling.

FYI, the cuts tend to be thin so they cook quickly, about three minutes a side for rare, about a minute longer for medium rare. As always, use your judgment. Rest 5 minutes, 10 if possible, before serving (I wrap in tin foil to keep it warm).

We had what was probably our last hanger steak grill of the year last night. Superb.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

LaChoy Makes Chinese Food . . . .

My family recently visited the newly opened Museum of Chinese in America in New York City. It's excellent, chronicling the history of the Chinese in America from the California Gold Rush through the exclusion era and into today.

One of the more interesting sections was on Chinese food in America. For most of American history, Chinese couldn't own land and were formally or informally excluded from many businesses and professions. Restaurants, along with laundries, were one of the few businesses open to them.

Of course, the food they served often had only tenuous connections to China. Chop Suey, for example, was invented in the United States. Chinese restaurants inevitably catered to the western preconceptions of the "exotic" and "mysterious" East: women in silk dresses embroidered with dragons, pagoda lanterns, smiling, obsequious wait staffs.

And then there was Chinese cooking at home, pioneered by companies like LaChoy, founded in the 1920s by a white man and a Korean, but hey, is America. Their products included gut-wrenching chow mein in a can and frozen egg rolls.

The museum had a particularly frightening chop suey recipe from the 1950s or 1960s like the one pictured above calling for sauteing hamburger and vegetables in butter and then adding noodles. It's as if someone irradiated Chinese food to produce grotesque mutations, the culinary equivalent of a cow with three heads and one eye.

Let's not forget the marketing. I'm old enough to remember this LaChoy "Swing American!" commercial from the late 1960s. Watching it, I can't decide whether to heave and cringe. Which is worse, the food or the stereotyping, borderline racism? Artifacts like these show how far we've come in the last 40 years.

As with so much, the 1970s were the turning point for Chinese Americans and Chinese cuisine in America. As barriers fell and stereotypes waned, people, at least on the coasts, became open to more authentic Chinese food. The days of "ancient Chinese secret" are, thank God, gone (I remember this commercial too).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What the Heck is This?

That's what my family and I said.

Last Sunday, we took a spontaneous trip to Chinatown in New York. It was a beautiful day and we hadn't been to the city in ages, so we just decided to up and go.

Chinatown's sidewalk produce stands, little more than plywood on sawhorses, are always interesting and fun. You see all sorts of Asian fruit and vegies -- bitter melon, Asian pears, lychees -- that never make it into the local supermarket. We kept passing stands selling the exotic fruit pictured above, which we'd never seen before. It looked like something from an original Star Trek episode. The fruit is erotically enticing, but Kirk and the crew discover its deadly properties when an expendable eats one and keels over.

This thing looked so interesting that we had to buy it. The woman who sold it to me said it was a Dragon fruit grown in Florida. They used to come from Vietnam, she said. There is a market in Florida because Haitians also eat them. Tastes like kiwi, she said.

That's pretty much in line with what I read online. I even found a site devoted entirely to this otherworldly oval.

A few nights ago, my wife, daughter and I decided to give it a try. The vendor told me to peel the fruit like a banana, but the website I link to above advised cutting it half and scooping out the contents. I opted to split it down the middle with my chef's knife. It looked amazing:

But looks can be deceiving. The flesh had almost no taste. It was like eating a flavorless kiwi. As wife observed, how can something that promises so much deliver so little? Final verdict: The dragon fruit is a drag. We wouldn't try it again.

The next night, we watched the final episode of Top Chef on demand and one of the contestants used dragon fruit rinds as bowls. That's probably the best use of these fruit. It looks so cool, but tastes so bland.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Corn Sugar?

It's not high fructose corn syrup. It's corn sugar.

That's what the corn lobby wants you to say from now on. Of course, changing the name wipes away any and all concerns about the product. I mean, it's just sugar dude. What's the big deal? Have another bowl of Corn Pops.

As with everything in America today, it's all about marketing and manipulation. With enough money and a smart ad campaign, you can get people to eat plastic. Look no further than Glenn Beck who has convinced a large chunk of America that Jesus hated the poor, the president is a Nazi and Martin Luther King was all about tax cuts for the rich.

Truth be told, the jury's still out on whether high fructose corn syrup is bad for you. But it is a fact that the spread of high fructose corn syrup into the American diet correlates with the obesity epidemic. The more high fructose corn syrup we consume, the fatter we get.

Even if the substance itself is benign, its cheapness encourages overuse as part of food makers' quest to make their products sweeter and saltier so you will eat more -- making you fatter. And why is this stuff so cheap? Because you and I subsidize it in the form of federal incentives to grow too much corn. Who does that help? No one . . . except giant corporations like ADM and Cargill. In today's America, their interests trump all others.

They may try to call it corn sugar, but it will always be high fructose corny syrup to me.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

No Toilet Paper Man

My wife and I watched the "No Impact Man" documentary a week or so ago on the Green Channel. You remember this guy, the one who made his poor wife live without toilet paper for a year. Steven Colbert had him on and zapped him by running an empty microwave.

To sum up, this guy decided to try to live for a year without any impact on the environment or causing any greenhouse gases to be emitted. He went so far as to shut off the electricity in his Manhattan apartment, eschew the elevator and force his wife to give up toilet paper. They never say what she did about tampons and female sanitary supplies. I suspect that she put her foot down on that one and, really, who can blame her? You only want to live like great grandma so much.

Here's a link to the New York Times story that made him famous. I remember reading it and wanting to park an idling Hummer outside his building.

Which is not to say that I am anti-green. Exactly the opposite. I am frustrated and maddened by the wholesale waste of energy in this country, the cavalier consumption of resources that Americans view as their birthright. To consume without regard for waste or overkill is to be an American, or so it seems.

But to me, No Impact Man hinders instead of helps. He was so extreme, so over the top, that he plays right into the right wing caricature of the tree-hugging hippie who wants everyone to live on sprouts and dive peddle cars to work. Serious Limbaugh bait, the kind of person Rush lives to make fun of, undermining any serious consideration of the inevitable big changes we must make. He' s just a nut. Let's go to the mall in our SUV.

This is a food blog and I'm getting to it. I found No Impact Man's food choices particularly extreme and ludicrous. To stop using olive oil because it wasn't local was absurd given that this nectar has been a trade good for more than 3,000 years, since the time of Homer and beyond. He is in effect suggesting we should back-peddle into prehistory.

His attempt at using African pots to create a primitive fridge is equally absurd. Refrigeration is one of man's greatest inventions, and no one is ever going to give it up. If he wanted to make a point, he could have used an old-fashioned ice box and hauled ice up the stairs of his apartment every week. He didn't even bother to do that, resorting to taking ice from a neighbor for a cooler to keep his daughter's milk cool. And the point was . . . ?

The key moment in the movie for me came when he is talking to a community gardener who let him help cultivate his plot in Manhattan. The rotund ex-hippie notes that No Impact Man's wife makes her living working for Businessweek, a magazine dedicated to glorifying "American corporate capitalism," the very thing that has created the excess he is rebelling against. No Impact Man is rendered speechless. What could he say? The former flower child had all but undermined his entire project in a single sentence.

The movie confirmed my initial reaction: No Impact Man's stunt was about self-aggrandizement, thirst for fame, selling book and making a movie. What he did had no impact beyond making him a celebrity and earning him some cash. So in the end, it wasn't really about the environment or saving the earth or making a point. It was about him.

How much more mainstream American can you get?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Tasmanian Tuna Pasta

Every now and then, I tune in to The Cooking Channel. Overall, I like what I see. It's a wonkier version of its sister Food Channel, with less emphasis on personality, more on food and travel. The food tends to outshine the hosts, the opposite of Food Channel.

Which is as it should be, although I do generally like Food Channel. I've thought more than once that The Cooking Channel's sophistication, mellowness and elevation of cuisine over personality may doom it, at least for American audiences.

A few weeks ago, I watched an affable, low key Australian named Bill Granger do a show on cooking in Tasmania. I never got to "Tasie" as the Australians call it during my trip Down Under more than 20 years ago, but I always heard wonderful things about it. The place looked stunning, enjoying some of the cleanest air and water in the world, Bill informed us. He ate albacore, which I've never had, and apples, which he said are especially plentiful in Tasmania with many local varieties.

One dish looked especially good, quick and easy, Tuna with cherry tomatoes and penne pasta. I decided last week to give it a try.

The final verdict. Not bad, but it needs some work. He calls for a hot pan, leading me to crank the burner all the way up. I thought it was a little too hot and would put it at 8 instead of 10 next time. I would also consider mincing instead of slivering the garlic. It would better distribute the flavor and spar the diner biting into a large piece of garlic.

As usual, I cut the garlic in half, using one instead of two cloves. Obviously, this depends on your taste. I also used a quarter instead of a half cup of olive oil. I thought a half cup would make the dish too oily, although it did turn out a little dry. Next time, I'd add a little more.

The recipe does not mention seasoning the tuna. I would do that next time. The fish turned out well, but it really needed a little salt and pepper. I'd also consider adding a fifth or sixth anchovy. There was surprising little anchovy flavor in the final product.

I'd rate it a 6 or 7 out of 10. It definitely needed something. A little experimentation and this could be an excellent dish.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fat Bastard

"The Full Monty" was on TV the other night. My wife and I love the movie. It's just as funny and sensitive and entertaining as it was the first time we saw it in 1997 in the theater.

A major storyline is Dave's deep anxiety about this weight. It provides one of the best lines in the movie. One of the lads peers at Gerald's wife's anti-wrinkle cream and muses whether it would work on men as well, prompting Dave to caustically observe that there's no such thing as "anti-fat bastard cream."

What is striking 13 years on is that by today's standards Dave really isn't that fat. He's got a moderate food baby barely protruding over his belt, far from the Buddha bellys so common today. When he sheds his shirt, he doesn't even have the line - the visible border between the belly and the rest of the torso. He wouldn't even be considered that overweight these days. Just a little husky.

It's disturbing to see how the definition of "fat" has been dumbed down - or up - in just over a dozen years.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tasty Seafood Cliche

You know the place. You see them on any American coastline from the Alaska panhandle to the northern tip of Maine. The classic, almost cliched seafood restaurant.

All have the same basic decor: dark wood paneling, model ships, nautical and fishing paraphernalia from ship tubes to nets strewn about the dining room or hung on walls and ceilings. The only way you know where are you are local touches like lobster traps in Maine, oyster tongs in New Orleans and South Carolina or something salmon-related in the Pacific northwest.

The food? Too big portions with too much butter, breading and sour cream. The taste typically ranges from decent to mediocre to awful.

Boothbay Harbor in Maine where my family went on vacation earlier this month had more than its share of such venerable establishments. We decided to try a typical exemplar called Brown's Wharf.

To be honest, our expectations were pretty low. We were tired and very hungry, still trying to shake a bad food experience in Portland a few nights before (let's just say that we violated most of Tony Boudain's rules and paid the price).

We were pleasantly surprised. The dishes were particularly well done versions of the classic seafood restaurant fare with some surprises. I especially loved this arugula salad with a blueberry vinaigrette. I'd never had Maine blueberries before, and they really are a world apart: intense flavor, sweet and fresh. They were in season. I ate very leaf.

Then it was on to the entree, which my wife also had: haddock with risotto. I feared the risotto would be too heavy, but the chef had a light touch. Delicious, but way too much food.

My daughter loved it as well. We indulged her with a kids favorite, a classic shrimp cocktail with tangy cocktail sauce.

We liked the place so much that we returned a second night. This time, they had an interesting variation, a lobster salad in a popover. Again excellent. It worked very well. The salad was tasty without too much mayonnaise and the popover was fresh and light.

So if you are in Boothbay Harbor and have a hankering for the kind seafood your grandparents loved, check out Brown's Wharf.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kneading Local Grain

Here is a great piece in yesterday's New York Times food section about the rebirth of local grain growing in Maine and other parts of New England. Apparently, the Skowhegan area of central Maine (home to "The Beans of Egypt Maine," for those of you who remember the 1980s novel) used to be major grain-producing region. Today, it's making a comeback thanks to growing demand for locally produced and organic food.

Being an ardent bread baker, I'm intrigued. I wonder if locally grown grain really does taste different, actually does produce a superior loaf.

The story talks about the need to produce more food locally as the current centralized system of huge industrial farms is unsustainable. I'd like to believe that's so, but I'm not so sure. Of course, prices would be higher if we were produce most of our grain in New England instead of import it from the west and midwest.

But that raises another question. Would we be better off all around - health-wise, environmentally, taste and pleasure (so French, I know) - to eat more locally and pay more? Probably. Will Americans go for that? Unlikely.

As my mother, a mid-westerner who loves France and spent years in Europe, likes to say, the French live to eat, but the Americans eat to live.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tony's Dolce Vita

Tony Bourdain last week aired one of his best "No Reservations" episodes yet. The traveling chef visited Rome for the first time in his life. Explaining to the camera that he forever viewed the Eternal City through the lenses of 1960s Italian cinema, the entire episode, with the exception of some food shots, was shot in black and white.

The result was striking, some of the most visually interesting and beautiful TV I've ever seen. Tony was decked out in Italian chic, casual, stylish slacks and shirt open at the collar, his salt and pepper hair wild, yet controlled, somewhat like a Ferrari rounding a corner at 90 miles an hour. All he needed was a pair of classic black 1960s Ray-Bans and he would have been a latter day Marcello Mastroianni sampling the delights of La Dolce Vita.

And of course there was the food. It looked stupendous, everything from handmade pastas to shrimp barbecued on the beach. I wanted to get in a plane the minute the episode ended.

Tony's show keeps getting better and better. His episode earlier this season looking back 10 years to when Kitchen Confidential first came out was superb. It's a book that inspired me to get more serious about food and eating and whose dining-out rules I have found to be spot on predictors of quality and taste.

It was fascinating to watch Tony go from giddy with his new found fame and fortune to ambivalent to the point of wanting out. In those days, it looked like his future outside the kitchen, if he had one, was in writing. It turned out, somewhat unexpectedly, to be TV. Through it all, he appeared to be pretty much the same guy we saw in 2000 footage slinging steaks and ordering his kitchen brigade into battle.

It occurs to me that Tony is one of the few recent celebrities who has, at least so far, earned his fame and success, steadily improved what he does and kept his integrity intact. In a world where "The Situation" can earn $5 million a year and Kate Gosselin gets rich exploiting her children, that's no small feat.

Of course, it could all be a front. Tomorrow, we could find out that Tony has sold his soul to ADM to hype the goodness of high fructose corn syrup. Let's hope not. Media personalities who actually strive to do more than just make money, who seek to enlighten their audiences instead of pander to their prejudices and preconceived notions are as rare as gold today.

Keep up the good work Tony. I hope you're around for a long time.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bad Seafood Restaurant Names

File this under "What Not to Name Your Seafood Restaurant." We just got back from a week in Maine where there's a seafood and/or lobster shack every 100 yards. Driving through Brunswick, Maine, I actually saw a joint called "Something's Fishy." How unappetizing. Why not just call it, "This Place Stinks of Rotting Fish"?

Ironically, the place actually gets pretty good reviews. Counter-marketing anyone?

I wish I'd grabbed a photo, but alas I was driving, and the place was in my field of vision for but a few seconds.

That wasn't the only poorly named seafood emporium we saw. How does "The Muddy Rudder" strike you? Believe it or not, it's a fine dining establishment also near Bath. It looks from its website like a fine establishment, but, really, what an odd name.

Much more on Maine eats to come.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Heaven in a Bowl

This is one of my daughter's favorites (she took the picture above), perfect for a hot summer evening. It's relatively quick and easy, and you can use sub-par strawberries, you know, the ones from Florida and California that you can all but bounce off the floor.

The credit: April 2008 edition of Bon Appetite Magazine. Here goes: Shell a pound of strawberries and cut in halves to quarters, depending on size. Put in a bowl with a teaspoon of cinnamon and a quarter to a half cup of sugar depending on taste (we go more toward a half, although the recipe calls for a quarter). Mix.

Heat a large, heavy pan on high and add two tablespoons of olive oil. When hot, add strawberries and saute for about two minutes or until the juices start thickening. Add a teaspoon of orange extract or zest. Return the strawberries to the bowl in which they were mixed (be sure to use Pyrex) and put in freezer for 10 minutes. Remove and serve over vanilla ice cream and/or strawberry sorbet.

FYI, the 10 minutes is on the money. Too long and the sauce isn't hot enough to just start melting the ice cream and the sorbet. Too short and it melts them too fast.

Heaven in a bowl.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Wild Raspberries

It's wild raspberry season in Connecticut. We have a bunch of bushes in the wood at the edge of our property. This year, two plants took root next to the house I decided to let them grow at least until they bear. See one below.

The raspberries are small and little seedy and tart, but delicious nonetheless. My daughter especially loves them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

More Bagel Pics

I downloaded more bagel photos and thought them post worthy. Above is the finished product. Below is the rope with the tapered ends I described in my previous post followed by well-shaped exemplar.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Salt Bomb

About a year ago, I found in TJ Maxx of all places one of the best cookbooks I've ever used, "500 Chinese Recipes." As the name implies, it contains 500 recipes, although not just Chinese. Many are Thai, Filipino and other Asian food.

I have tried numerous recipes and most are excellent. Even the non-excellent are at least decent.

I had a hankering for shrimp, plus the green beans in my garden were coming in, so I decided to try a new recipe called "Long Beans with Prawns." It looked luscious: shrimp, ginger, garlic, lemon grass, lime, etc.

I followed the recipe, marinating the shrimp, stir frying them in ginger, garlic etc. The final step called for 1/2 a cup of soy sauce dumped into the mixture and cooked for about two minutes. It hit me that it might be a little salty, but I forged forward. I should have thought again.

The end result was tasty (looks great in the picture above, doesn't it?) , but the saltiness of the soy blew out all the other flavors and left the whole family panting like parched dogs on a broiling day in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Our tongues were all but hanging out the rest of the night as we quaffed glass after glass of water.

Would I make this again? Absolutely. But next time, I'd simmer the shrimp shells for about 15 or 20 minutes to make a stock and dump that with a tablespoon or two of soy sauce into the pan for final cook. I'll have to try it, but my guess is you'd get a superb dish.

Here's the recipe with my variation:

Shell and devein a pound to a pound and a half of medium shrimp, reserving the shells. Marinate an hour or two in 2 tablespoons fish sauce, the juice of two limes, two crush garlic cloves and lemon grass stick finely sliced. Put shells in a pot, barely cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer about 15 to 2o minutes.

If you like softer green beans, steam four to five minutes.

When the shrimp is ready, heat about two tablespoons of oil in a very hot pan and add one minced garlic clove and about a half inch of finely sliced fresh ginger. When it begins to color, add shrimp and cook until just done, about a minute to two minutes. Remove the shrimp.

Add another two table spoons of oil and half a thinly sliced onion. When the onion has begun to caramelize, add green beans, half a cup of the reserved shrimp stock and one to two tablespoons of soy sauce. Cook for about two minutes, add shrimp, toss and serve.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bagel Lessons

I've been making bagels every week for more than a month, experimenting with variations of my basic recipe. I've hit on a cinnamon raisin variety that is especially good. More on that later.

A few findings:
  • Vegetable oil or other fat is unnecessary in the dough. Many recipes call for a tablespoon or so, but I think it's perfectly fine without it. You want nice lean dough.
  • Proofing overnight -- another staple of many bagel recipes -- makes the insides airy, which I personally don't like. To me, a good bagel is chewy and dense. If you lighter bagels, good ahead and proof, but if not, you can boil and bake them after a 40-minute rise (20 minutes as dough balls, another 20 after forming into bagels).
  • Peter Reinhart in his "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" insists that barley malt is key to a good bagel. He recommends putting it in the dough instead of sugar. I've tried sugar and the barley malt and personally think that the sugar is a little better. Where the barley malt does make a difference is in the boil. A tablespoon to a tablespoon and half in the water gives the bagel outsides a nice glaze and slightly sweet, malty taste. So use the barley malt, but put it in your boiling water.
  • Tapering the ends of the dough is key to shaping a bagel that's even all the way around. Equally important is a vigorous rub and back and fourth on the counter to seal the ends. Otherwise, they can separate during boiling. The bagel still tastes good, but looks awful funny. And don't worry about one end of the bagels looking flat. They regain their shape during proofing and boiling.
So here's the recipe for cinnamon raisin bagels :

Mix four cups flour, two teaspoons yeast, one and half teaspoons salt, one and half teaspoons cinnamon, one tablespoon sugar, and about quarter to a half cup of raisins. Add a cup and half to three quarters of warm water and stir into a ball. Knead for about 10 minutes until smooth, but not sticky. Cut into eight pieces, shape into balls and cover and proof for 15 to 20 minutes.

After proofing, roll the dough balls into ropes about two hand lengths long and tapered at the end. Wrap around three fingers and press the ends into the counter, briefly, but vigorously rocking back and fourth. Place on oiled baking tins (I put down tin foil). Cover and proof 15 to 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Put a tablespoon to a tablespoon and half of barley malt into a pot filled with water and bring to a boil. Once the bagels have proofed, boil a minute on each side, return to tins and bake about 20 minutes.

I personally freeze them (they freeze very well) and take one out each morning for breakfast. Enjoy!

Reader's Note

Until now, I have been religious about listing only recipes found in the Internet. I've concluded that this is too limiting. It keeps me from blogging about too much of my cooking and baking.

I have therefore decided to begin listing recipes not on the Internet, while being scrupulous about naming their source. This seems fair to me.

Hopefully, this make 5 Snacks After 10 a better and more interesting blog.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Joe Camel Foods

Remember Joe Camel? He was the ubiquitous, too-cool-for-school cartoon character that Camel used to market cigarettes to children. It was hugely successful. Studies showed that Joe Camel was one of the most recognized images among kids. Brilliant marketing, in an evil scientist kind of way.

Thankfully, the tobacco settlement of the 1990s banned cigarette marketing to kids (you'd think that corporations would consider such a thing immoral. Ha!) and sent Joe Camel back to the desert.

Libertarians and conservatives who attack the tobacco agreement truly puzzle me. I can respect their commitment to free speech and freedom in general, but using cartoon characters to hook kids on a product known to cause cancer and other deadly illnesses? You think that's okay? To me, it's like Rand Paul opposing the Civil Rights Act because he believes in the personal right to discriminate. I can understand it on a theoretical level, but practically speaking it's plum loco -- and unspeakably cruel.

Which brings me to today's news that the Obama administration is considering revolutionary new regulations that would effectively prohibit the marketing of many junk foods to kids. Okay, I'll acknowledge the principled libertarian stand. But I mean really. Trying to get kids to eat the equivalent of candy bars for breakfast or snacks with enough fat to kill a platoon of Marines? I'm sorry, but a 5-year-old can't make an informed decision. End of story.

While I'm heartened by the Obama administration's bold attempt to fight insidious marketing of junk to America's kids, I'm pessimistic that it will ever become a reality. I hope I'm wrong.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Funny how food evokes certain memories or thoughts. When I see mayonnaise, I often can't help but think of Lou Gossett, Jr. in "Officer and a Gentleman" barking "Mayo-Nnaise" at the selfish Zack Mayo, Richard Gere's character.

I love how the word rolls off Gossett's tongue, especially the emphasis on the second part, conveying irritation and contempt with just the tiniest dash of affection. Great movie.

But seriously folks, what's in mayonnaise? I had only a vague idea until last weekend when a minor crisis forced my wife and I to find out. We were having family over for dinner and suddenly realized that the mayonnaise I'd bought for the potato salad contained soy, a no-no for one of our guests. I considered running to health food store to buy a non-soy variety when it hit my wife: why not try to make our own?

My wife had seen it done old school. The mother of an old friend would painstakingly drip oil into an egg and furiously whisk, ever so slowly creating the emulsion that is mayonnaise. Luckily, God created food processors, one of which we have.

We pulled out our trusty Mark Bittman "How to Cook Everything" and found a recipe. I will respect the copyright, but it's incredibly simply: an egg, oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and dry mustard. You put the egg in the food processor, turn it on and pour the oil in as thin a stream as possible.

We tried olive oil the first time, but the taste of the oil was overpowering, even a little bitter. We threw it out (heck, it's just an egg and some oil) and tried again with canola oil. This was fantastic: light, fluffy and tasty. It took all of 10 minutes, the best mayonnaise I've ever had. See below:

So kick Big Food in the butt and make your own mayonnaise. It's easy, easy, easy if you a have a food processor. Even more important, experiment. Find out what you like, not what the food industry trains you to like.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

First Tomato

Above is the first tomato from our garden. Summer is officially here.

We had a disappointing tomato crop last year as the garden store mislabeled the plants and I ended up with all cherries. They were good, but nothing like those luscious globes of goodness that are one of summer's greatest pleasures.

I may have overdone it this year to compensate. I have six Jet Star (a nice variety, easy to grow, good size, but not too big, delicious), one heirloom and one cherry. The cherry is already huge. The first tomato, pictured above, is an heirloom.

Can't wait for fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes! Soon, very soon.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Midge Day

New Haven's most infamous gangster, Salvatore "Midge Renault" Annunziato disappeared 31 years ago today. He got into a car with a fellow mobster and was never seen or heard from again.

Midge was the real deal, a made member of the Genovese crime family, a vicious thug with a heart of gold who kept his vow of silence to the end. He remains a legend in New Haven among those who knew him, which was just about everyone.

I was obsessed with Midge for years and tried unsuccessfully to sell a book about him and the history of the mob in New Haven. A year ago, Paul Bass at the New Haven Independent web newspaper was gracious enough to give me the opportunity to publish a five-part series about Midge and the Mafia in New Haven. You can read it here.

Yes, this a food blog so what about Midge and food? In accordance with the stereotype, he loved to eat. No surprise seeing that he stood 5'3", but weighed nearly 200 pounds. One cop who tailed him continuously in the late 1960s told me that he ate pizza every day. And he loved pickled egg plant, according to relatives.

He also almost certainly loved shrimp and clams, a Connecticut delicacy, as he once ran a place called "Bosmo's Shrimp and Clam Bar" in New Haven's Fair Haven section. Bosmo was an alias he used.

Bosmo's was in the ally between a restaurant owed by his brother and the next building. One person I spoke with worked there and recalled Midge and one of his brothers taking turns beating a man in the clam bar. Midge would smack him and then his brother would stand him up and smack him again and on and on. Midge was not a guy you crossed.

Rest in peace Midge, wherever you are.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

We rented this movie last night. It's been years since I've seen it, and I'd forgotten what a great movie it is. I would rank it, after "Big Night," as my favorite food movie of all time. You're famished after watching it.

The opening scenes of Old Chu preparing Sunday dinner are priceless. I especially love the part where he blows into the duck and hangs it in a slow cooker fashioned from a metal drum (although that may be later in the movie). The knife work is a thing of beauty. The part where he slices the vegetable with the precision of a computer-operated machine, lays it flat and then juliennes it is sublime. Anyone who has ever worked with a knife knows the skill and practice required. And then there's his pinching of the dumplings. Looks easy, but I've made Chinese dumplings and what those hands do so easily and effortlessly is extraordinarily difficult.

This movie, of course, is about much more than food. It uses cooking and eating to say important things about love, life, desire, marriage and family. As Old Chu observes in a drunken conversation with his old friend, "Eat, drink, man,woman, what else is there in life?" or words to that affect.

A delight from beginning to end. Now I'm hungry.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Making Coffee Cake Coffee Cake

That sticky, sweet brown crumble on top and inside is what makes coffee cake coffee cake.

So what exactly is it? I'd never even thought about that until last weekend when my daughter decided she wanted to try coffee cake muffins for breakfast. We made a batch using a Mark Bittman recipe (see picture above for the result). I'm going to respect the copyright, but based on flavor, the crumble contents are clearly standard: some combination of brown sugar, cinnamon and melted butter. You stir some into the batter and sprinkle the rest on top. Wow is it good.

My daughter, who generally does not like anything bready, decided she wasn't much on the muffins, but I thought they were delicious. I'm enjoying one each day this week for lunch.

A wonderful flavor revealed. As with so many great tastes, it's surprising simple and easy to make.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hooray for the Blueberr-ay!

I love blueberries. They are one of my favorite foods. So of course I was excited when they were 2 pints for $4 this past weekend. A low price for produce almost always means tasty. Makes sense. It's simple economics: big, quality supply translates into low price.

The berries are indeed excellent, sweet, subtle and succulent. I love a bowl with breakfast.

But what to do with two pints? It's too many to eat plain, so I made this blueberry cake from Gourmet. I love this recipe. The cake comes out moist, airy and buttery, laced with ribbons of sweet berries. The recipe is somewhat counter-intuitive. The cake is really going to push through that layer of blueberry syrup? But it works brilliantly if you follow all the steps closely. One recommendation: Use good butter, either organic or locally produced. You will taste the difference.

I made the cake pictured above Saturday, and it was gone by last night. A great, great desert.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Earthen Oven Part Deux

I've been watching the Green Channel (also known as the Ed Begley Jr. Channel) every now and then, specifically Morgan Spurlock's "30 Days" in which he chronicles people's attempts to do everything from lose weight to live like a Muslim for -- you guessed it -- 30 days. The show is highly entertaining and a rare look into how Americans really live, all but nonexistent on more mainstream television.

One episode followed an out-of-shape dad in his early 30s who embarks on an "age reversal" regimen. The program called for exercise and better eating. Fine. But then he added steroids and human growth hormone administered by a ghoulish middle-aged doctor who looked like he smeared half a can of black shoe polish into his hair and mustache every morning. I won't spoil it, but things awry. What a surprise.

The other night, I watched another episode which to my surprise took place at The Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, site of the mud bread oven I wrote about in my previous post. A couple from the Bronx, Vito, a tattooed Italian bouncer and Johari, his black wife-girlfriend, who is a party planner (see picture above), live on the commune for 30 days.

Food is, of course, a major issue. Poor Vito, who has arms the size of tree trunks, has to live without meat on the vegetarian/vegan commune. He's reduced to shooting rabbits with a pellet gun. Later, he visits a farm that sells grass-fed beef which he tries to roast over a campfire. His fire is clearly not hot enough, and the result looks unappetizingly raw.

If this show were on Fox, there would be screaming matches and non-stop, over-the-top mutual contempt. Red vs. Blue, Real Common Sense Americans against Lilly-Livered Commie Pinko Nazis. But the show isn't like that all. Sure the couple get annoyed, but in the end, they have a positive experience and, in spite of their initial doubts, come away with some real lessons: use less energy, eat more locally produced food, take more public transportation.

The commune people, meanwhile, are far more tolerant and much less militant than their stereotype. They're not happy Vito's eating meat, but hey if that's what he wants to do, it's his thing.

TV that reflects reality, makes us think and shows people compromising and learning from each other instead of reinforcing prejudices and set narratives. What a concept.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Nutty Crunchy Bread Oven

An outdoor bread oven is my White Whale. I dream of it, I pursue it, but I'm unlikely to ever attain it. Too expensive.

The father of a friend of my daughter got around that by building one. The guy's a plumber and really knew what he was doing. He had a concrete pad laid and then did all the masonry work himself. He even built a form to hold the arced bricks inside the oven in place while the concrete dried. Very, very cool.

So build it yourself, you say. Not. I struggle to put a nail into a board straight. A handyman, I am not.

That said, this so-called "Cob oven" looks intriguing. According to the post, it cost all of $20 to build. Why? Because it's mostly made of mud, straw and empty beer bottles.

I'm tempted to give it a try, but I fear I'd end up like Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The people who built this are part of The Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, an eco-commune in Missouri. They build most everything out of straw bales and mud. A little nutty, crunchy for me.

But I'm being too harsh. Different strokes for different folks. It occurs to me that such communities are the 21st century equivalent of the Amish or other religious communities that earlier in our history chose to cut themselves off from the world and live purer, more spiritual, less materialistic lives. In that sense, they are part of a great American tradition and I salute them. I salute anyone who chooses even in modest ways to live on their own terms, valuing other things over money and material goods.

Plus, the bread and pizza looks fantastic.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Food Movie Pairings

The New York Times food section had a great article yesterday on pairing movies and drinks. I especially loved the Knob Creek bourbon with the film noir classic "Out of the Past," a movie so convoluted that you feel hammered by end whether you're drinking or not. Still a very good movie by the way, Robert Mitchum at his pouty, macho best, slouching his way to doom.

It made me think of pairing food with some of my favorite movies. Here's my cinematic menu:

The Godfather: Homemade marinara and spaghetti and homemade wine with cannolis for dessert. Leave the gun locked up. Enough said because you never ever let anyone outside the family know what you're thinking.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Skewered coconut-encrusted chicken and mead. A silly dish that recalls both the coconuts used to simulate horse hoofs and the African (or European) swallow paired with a medieval alcoholic beverage. For the starch, some type of potato that looks like the mud in honor of the scene where Michael Palin and Terry Jones are playing in the mud (I'm being oppressed! I'm being oppressed! Now you see the violence inherent in the system!).

Pulp Fiction: Sugar pops, milk shake with whiskey and a steak bloody as hell. Love Eric Stolz blithely eating the cereal as Vincent frantically calls for help with the ODing Uma Thurman. And who can forget Jackrabbit Slim's. Vincent is right. A $5 shake needs a shot of whiskey. Drink up Peggy Sue.

Shoot the Piano Player: Steak Frites, red wine, braised beets. A somewhat obscure French movie that I've always loved. A concert pianist haunted by his wife's suicide and his criminal siblings gives up his career to play in dive bars only to fall in love -- with tragic consequences. Like the food, straightforward, delicious and a little bloody.

The Tin Drum: Sardines, crackers and boiled potatoes. The great German novel of World War II and its aftermath, the story of Oskar the dwarf who refuses to grow up in order to escape complicity for the Nazi regime and its crimes. His mother dies from eating too much eel (hence the sardines). She is conceived in a potato field when her German mother hides in her skirts her Polish father who is fleeing the German police. You do the math. You might throw in some wurst and kraut, red or regular, as this is very, very German.

Any ideas or suggestions? Please comment.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's Constant. It's Gorgeous. It's Beautiful.

That was Gemma Matsuyama's response to the New York Times when asked how often she thinks about food.

Gemma is profiled in today's Times. Daughter of a Japanese father and an Italian mother, she grew up here, in Japan and in Italy. Yes, she speaks all three languages. What with both Italians and Japanese being passionate eaters, it's no surprise that she's food-struck.

Gemma's great love: starch, be it bread, pasta or pastry. Right now, she's working as a baker in New York City.

Here's a link to the story. A wonderful piece about someone deeply committed to good food.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Freedom is not Free

Since my last post seems to have received a lot of attention, I'm going to expand a little.

Conservatives love to say "Freedom is not free." When they say that, they are usually referring to military action or service. And they are right. Freedom is not easy. It takes work.

Which brings me back to food. The same people who wax poetically about freedom not being free tend to be vigorous defenders of the worst processed food and most pernicious food marketing. Freedom of speech, enterprise and choice, they say.

But they never mention individual responsibility -- that pesky part about freedom not being free. Sure you have the right to eat whatever you want, but with that right comes the responsibility to make good choices. It's not easy. You have navigate the blizzard of Big Food propaganda. You need to learn to cook so you are not dependent on others for preparation and content of your meals. It's work, but work that brings you freedom.

So wouldn't you think that conservatives and libertarians, who extol the individual above all else, who make a cult of self improvement, would urge people to question, to think, to gather information so they can make informed decisions on what to eat?


In fact, media conservatives and libertarians tend to do the opposite. They urge people to shut down their brains when it comes to food. Trust Big Food. Just eat it.

If you really believe in freedom, you should expect, indeed demand, that people accept the responsibilities that come with it. That means questioning what's in McNuggets and whether they really are good for your children. Sure McDonald's has a right to sell you crap. But as a free individual, you have the responsibility to decide for yourself if you eat it.

I'd love to see Rush shove the Big Mac away from his face long enough to say that.

Monday, May 3, 2010


What is freedom? One of my college professors, after giving a long series of possible answers, concluded by saying that maybe freedom is just another word for noth'n left to lose. Sing it Janice.

I ask this because much of the debate over food and food policy centers on freedom. Conservatives-libertarians say it's "nanny state-ism" for the government to try to get people to eat better. As free individuals, we have the right to eat what we want.

The standard liberal response is that everyone pays the price of poor nutrition in the form of bigger outlays for Medicare and Medicaid and higher private insurance rates, so the government needs to act. They don't completely shy away from the nanny state argument, saying that government has a responsibility to assure the common good.

It seems to me that both these arguments miss that mark. Why? Because personal freedom when it comes to eating has telescoped drastically in the last 20 to 30 years.

You can't exercise freedom without choice and accurate information. The food industrial complex -- with a huge assist from the federal government -- has largely taken away both. Most of what we eat is pre-determined by marketing so slick and pervasive that we don't even perceive it.

Choice? Well how can you have choice when virtually every restaurant in America uses hamburger from the same handful of companies, all of it raised and processed on giant feed lots? It all tastes the same.

As my mother likes to say, you don't know what you like, you like what you know.

Libertarians need to concede that incredibly sophisticated marketing and over-concentration of the food industry undermine individual choice and freedom, problems the government helped create and only it can undo.

Liberals should stop sounding like they want to micromanage people's diets, decreeing what is good and bad, and instead frame their policies as using government to restore food freedom and choice to Americans.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Too Busy to Cook? Bulldust

Well, maybe not dust.

At a recent conference, Mark Ruhlman made an excellent point that he reiterated in a column on the Huffington Post. It's horse hockey (he used much stronger language) to say people "don't have time" to cook. As one of the panelists in the clip says, how much time do people spend a day watching TV? They can't forgo 30 or 45 minutes of boob tube time and devote it to preparing a simple, nutritious and tasty meal?

It's a matter of priorities, as the boring, but dependable husband says in "The Big Chill."

Right on Mark. You Ruhl man.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Brownies and Chocolate Sauce

I've been experimenting with homemade brownies. I tried a batch using olive oil (trying to reduce the saturated fat) and the result was disappointing. I then turned to the Bible, Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything," but his were too cakey. Here's his recipe on the Internet. The version I used had two ounces of semi-sweetened chocolate and about half a quarter cup of sugar.

The solution seemed simple. Cut the number of eggs from two to one (the fewer the eggs, the chewier). I tried that yesterday, and the batch turned out excellent, much better than out of a box.

Which brings me to a thought: It's all about your taste. What you like. When big food companies make mixes, they impose a particular taste on you. If you cook yourself, if you bake yourself, you can adjust, tweak, experiment and find just the right combination that sends your taste buds into overdrive. This is where family recipes come from. This is why cooking and baking on your own is about more than just health. It's about pleasure. And personal freedom. Find out what you really like, not what Duncan Hines wants you to like.

Back to the kitchen. My daughter decided she wanted chocolate sauce. So we melted over a very low heat two ounces semi sweet chocolate and with two tablespoons butter with sugar and a touch of salt. Unfortunately, we put in too much sugar (our recipe called for unsweetened chocolate and we used semi-sweet), so it was a little too sweet. Still outstanding over ice cream. A truly decadent dessert (see above).

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Louisiana Dream'n

After reading this article, I really want to go to New Orleans and eat. The Vietnamese food sounds especially mouth-watering.

The parts of the article about Emeril Lagasse are especially interesting since no one says New Orleans more than him (Ironic since he's from Fall River, Mass.). Yes, Emeril is so overexposed, he's verging on self-parody, but against all odds his original restaurants are still turning out fantastic food, the article says.

My only real encounter with Louisiana food was a weekend day nearly 20 years ago when my editor at the Norwich Bulletin sent me to cover a Cajun festival just over the border in Rhode Island. I'll never forget the music or the food. I had red beans and rice (so simple, but so good) and crayfish for the first time.

Among the musicians performing that day was Dewey Balfa, who I later learned is one of the giants of Cajun music. I interviewed him, and he used an expression I'd never heard and I've never forgotten. He complained that the younger generation of musicians only cared about "bringing home George." The phrase stumped me. What does that mean, I asked. "Make money," as in dollar bills, i.e. George Washington, he explained.

He told me that the essence of Cajun music was sadness, specifically the sadness of the Cajun people being forcibly removed from Acadia in modern day Nova Scotia after New France fell to the British in 1763.

Here's a video of Balfa, who died about a year after I interviewed him. Here's another video with a little background about him. There's just something about this music that sends shivers up my spine. It lights up my soul the moment I hear it.

Given this article and the amazing Treme on HBO, Louisiana's on my mind.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It's the Goverment, Stupid

Jamie Oliver finished up his "Food Revolution" last week with a shining revelation: federal government policy is a major cause -- if not the major cause -- of obesity in America. He's absolutely spot on.

In the final show, Jamie returns to Huntington after learning that the schools will introduce "processed food" Fridays to eat away at the mountain of culinary crap in storage. Once there, he learns that the schools have already placed huge orders of chicken nuggets, frozen pizza and other garbage for next year. Why? It's cheap. And why is it cheap? The government subsidizes it.

You can't completely blame the long-suffering school food chief, who looks decidedly uncomfortable in this last episode. Like the rest of America, I'm sure Huntington is struggling to make ends meet. She has to do what she has to do. Cheap food is almost a necessity.

But of course, it's artificially cheap because of government subsidies (i.e., your tax dollars) that encourage massive overproduction of corn and other products while providing not a penny to vegetable and fruit growers. It's insane if you think about it.

In the end, Jamie's show provided a powerful insight: tackling obesity and bad eating habits requires far more than a few cooking lessons. Solving this problem means sweeping changes in government policy that will hurt a lot of very, very powerful economic interests, specifically huge agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill whose business models are built on feeding America crap. Think of it as the food equivalent of Goldman Sachs making a fortune by betting against America. In order for them to win, we have to lose.

Jamie did a great job. I can only hope that he doesn't give up and more shows follow.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


American Shad. It's the official state of Connecticut fish. Really. Here's proof.

It's also delicious. Imagine crossing arctic char with mackerel but removing the latter's powerful pungency. The fish thrives in the Connecticut river.

In the early 1990s, when I lived in Chester (pictured above is the ferry between Chester and Hadlyme) right on the river, the shad were so copious that they kicked up whitecaps. In recent years, runs have been much reduced.

Unfortunately, shad season is short, only a week or two. If you see it, you buy it because it's fresh and won't last. I bought three pieces last weekend and broiled them. Salt, pepper and some lemon after it's done. Superb.

Another way to cook shad is in a pan on the stove. You don't need olive oil or butter. As you cook, the fish releases its oil in which it then cooks. A couple of minutes on each side and finish in a hot oven.

If you're in Connecticut in the spring and shad is on the menu, order it. You won't regret it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Worst. Sandwich. Ever

Nate Silver, if you have not heard of him, is one of the nation's foremost pollsters, a man who can slice and dice numbers by the micron. He is a hipper, smarter, more thoughtful Internet incarnation of Gallup and other mainstream pollsters. For anyone interested in politics, his website (the total number of electoral votes) is a must read.

Last week, Silver directed his formidable analytical powers toward KFC's infamous Double Down. Silver's question was, just how bad for you is the Double Down? He crunched the nutritional numbers, focusing on fat, sodium and other bad stuff, and compared the Double Down to virtually every other fast food sandwich on the market. By one measure -- a bite-by-bite comparison -- the Double Down came out as the most unhealthy sandwich in fast food nation.

Check it out.

As long as I'm on the Double Down (who can put it down, it's just so delicious to criticize), I'd note that many critics, while decrying its unhealthiness, report that it tastes pretty good. Steven Colbert, for example, calls the sandwich "psychotic," but nonetheless pronounces it tasty. Check out the video.

I would point out this: Of course it tastes good. The flavoring industry could make a rubber tire taste good. They could turn rabbit droppings into a delectable treat that has consumers screaming for more. All the flavor is artificial, chemically restored after being leeched away by processing.

The Double Down isn't a triumph of cooking. It's a triumph of chemistry.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Jiffy Pop Potatoes

My aunt June visited from Iowa last weekend (first time we've seen her in years) and came for dinner. She does not eat garlic, which presents something of a challenge. I settled on a Gourmet recipe, pancetta chicken, leaving out the garlic.

And the starch? Jiffy Pop potatoes. I gave them that name because the tin foil they cook in puffs up just like in the old commercial. Remember this?

You can do them in the over or the grill. Here's the recipe:

Preheat grill or oven to 450 degrees (you can do as low as 400, but the potatoes will take longer) and place the oven rack as close as possible to the heat source (upper or lower coil works).

Cut five to six potatoes (any kind will do, peeling is optional) into bite-sized cubes. Mix with about a tablespoon of chopped rosemary (fresh is best, but dried will do), enough olive oil to coat, salt and pepper to taste.

Now, tear off four sheets of tin foil big enough to hold your potatoes. Put two sheets on the counter and dump your potatoes onto them. Cap with the two remaining sheets and pinch the edges tightly shut making a package. You need to double side the tin foil or its too fragile and will tear (I learned this the hard way).

Put the package on the grill or the oven rack right below or above the heat source. If grilling, cook about 10 minutes, turn and then cook another 10 minutes (about 20 minutes total). The oven takes longer, 15 to 20 minutes a side depending on the temperature. As they grill, the tin foil will puff up (hence the name Jiffy Pop Potatoes).

When you think they are done, puncture a small hole in the foil and taste. If the potatoes are still a little hard, cover the hole with a small piece of foil and return to the oven or grill.

When done, cut open foil, put in a large plate or shallow bowl and serve.