Sunday, January 31, 2010

Corporate Corn

I've started reading "Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan and it's brilliant. It's like Fast Food Nation, only deeper and more disturbing, if that's possible. His baring of the facts of the factory food chain is deeply unsettling.

I found his chapters about corn cultivation and how corn became the dominant foodstuff in our diets especially eye-opening. He visits an Iowa farm not far from where my mother grew up and describes how in the last 50 years some of the most fertile land on earth has gone from supporting all manner of crops and animals (put out to pasture and fed on grass) to growing only two commodities: feed corn and soybeans. He explains how government policies changed in the early to mid-1970s to favor agribusiness over farmers and to encourage permanent overproduction of corn. Indeed, corn now sells for less than it costs to grow with the government making up the difference in the form of subsidies to farmers.

Who does this help? Big business, which now has a reliable, ever-growing supply of cheap corn that is raw material for everything from cattle (they are fed it) to processed foods to the sweetener in your soda, even to the waxy sheen on your fruit.

And the farmer? He's left barely able to make a living, his very abundance having turned him into a corporate serf.

And the consumer? He or she is bombarded with slick marketing to gin up sales of unhealthy products contributing to an explosion of obesity and illness. In the process, corporations have revolutionized how beef is produced. Instead of eating grass as nature intended, beef cattle are herded into giant feed lots and fed a witch's brew consisting primarily of corn, which makes them sick. It fattens them up quicker, but if they stayed on the diet indefinitely, most would die. All this has happened only in the last 30 or 40 years, a disturbing metamorphosis very few Americans are aware of.

At one point, Pollan suggests that part of the reason industry wanted this new system was to break the economic independence and hence the political clout of farmers, who since the Populist Movement (regularly and unfairly derided by our journalistic elite) of the 1890s had confounded money power.

Whether this was done on purpose is largely beside the point. That was the practical result, especially as it led to depopulation of the farm belt.

It made me think of other groups that once challenged corporate power, but no longer can. Small retailers? Far, far fewer, especially in small town, rural America where Wal-Mart decimated Main Street. Doctors and hospitals? Eclipsed by insurers, HMOs and drug companies. Small and medium-sized manufacturers? Driven out of business by foreign competition cheered on by Wal-Mart, allowing it to become one of the biggest, most profitable companies on earth.

Indeed, I'm struck that lawyers are one of the few professions independent of corporate America, one of the few businesses left where an individual with gumption, guts and talent can make it big on their own. You may think that's good or bad, and I'm not saying lawyers who sometimes overreach are heroes, but it is instructive that one of corporate America's biggest priorities is to rein in lawsuits, which would hobble one of the few groups able to effectively check their power and hold them accountable.

The corporate food chain epitomizes the transformation of America in the last three decades from a society built on individual endeavor, initiative and independence into one in which most of us are at the mercy of corporate interests and marketing.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Pain Was Ludricous . . . Surface Of The Sun

Two reporters at The Day of New London made a video of themselves taking on the Cinco Chilis Burritos at Sol Toro in the Mohegan Sun Casino. The dish is the hottest to be had in southeastern Connecticut. So hot, they brought along on a doctor to monitor their blood pressure and heart rates and "sign their death certificates" if need be.

Very amusing. Check it out.

Adam Richman, eat your heart out.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rosemary Roast Potatoes

I love rosemary, especially with potatoes. Here's a simple, tasty recipe for rosemary roast potatoes:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Oil a nonstick roasting pan.

Slice four medium potatoes (Russet or waxy variety) into quarter inch rounds using a food processor or knife. Put slices in mixing bowl with 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh, coarsely chopped rosemary and salt and pepper to taste (I use about 2 teaspoons salts and three shake s of pepper). Pour in about 3 tablespoons canola or olive oi.

Stir and dump potatoes into the roasting pan. Try to distribute evenly, but potatoes need not be in a single layer. Put the pan in the oven and set timer for 10 minutes. After the timer dings, remove and with a spatula turn the slices. Return to the oven and set timer for another 10 minutes. Repeat until golden, about 50 minutes

The finished product is wonderful, flavorful and aromatic with textures ranging from crispy to firm. Some slices turn into dark potato chips, tasting like the slightly burnt Wise Potato chips of my youth, only better. Goes with pretty much anything, meat, fish, fowl.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mis En Place

A French phrase meaning, "putting in place." Ideally, you are supposed to have mis en place, everything laid out and in place, before you start cooking, or so the experts say.

I have been watching Worst Cooks in America (very good, I highly recommend it) in which two chefs try to turn truly gut-wrenching culinary train wrecks into line cooks good enough to fool top food critics. My favorite was a shaved-headed macho man who served the chefs a boiled chicken and laid slices of Swiss cheese on it. Shiver.

To return to the subject of this post, as the chefs have tried to train these cooking catastrophes, they have repeatedly emphasized the importance of mis en place.

I'd like to think that I'm at least a decent cook, but I admit I've never hewed that closely to mis en place. I tend to be a run-to-the-pantry-as-needed kind of guy. It's partly growing up in the 1970s (all organization is creativity-crushing fascism; be free little flower, be free!) and my natural inclination to eschew instructions and try to do it my own way. Plus, I've used as an excuse my desire to get dinner on the table quickly after I get home.

Over the years, I've slowly learned (I can be a little thick) that this is often -- indeed usually -- not the best way to go about things. In my early stir fry days, for example, I would actually try to measure out ingredients as I cooked. You can guess how that worked out.

So I decided in the last week or so to try to do a real mis en place before cooking: get all the ingredients out of the pantry and fridge and lay them out in an organized fashion.

Guess what. It really works. Cooking suddenly becomes much less harried and more methodical allowing greater focus and care.

Mis En Place: It's not just for pros any more.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Decorating Adventures

My daughter decided last weekend that she wanted to bake a cake and decorate it. Actually, decorating was what she was really interested in. And she doesn't much like cake.

We compromised and made a half batch of cupcakes. We bought a pastry bag and some tips (cost about $6). Ambitious as always, my daughter really wanted to make a rose.

She didn't succeed, but I thought her results (see above) were pretty impressive for a first try. It was her idea to use food coloring in the pantry for the different colors.

We used a simple cake recipe with egg whites and a whipped cream frosting, cutting both in half. The cupcakes were delicious, very light, almost ethereal. Yet another example of even the simplest food made at home being better than what you buy at the supermarket.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tucci on Tucci

Stanley Tucci is one of my favorite actors and the maker of, in my opinion, the greatest food movie ever, Big Night. The motto of this blog -- To eat food is to be close to God -- is a line from the film about two Italian brothers struggling to save their restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. No, it's not a mob movie. Indeed, it's one of the few films about Italian-Americans without gangsters.

I loved the movie so much that I have made Timpano (see above, not mine), the kettledrum of pasta, cheese, sauce and other goodies that played a starring role in the film. Years ago, the New York Times published a recipe that I immediately fell upon. I used to make it every Christmas for our holiday party. And it is really, really good, at least the version I made.

Tucci was equally superb in last summer's Julie & Julia, another mouthwatering delight. As brilliant as Meryl Streep was, I thought her performance really hinged on Tucci's nuanced, understated and brilliantly acted supporting role.

This month's Bon Appetite has a Q&A with Tucci. Short, but delightful. He's right up my ally: goat cheese and olives. He's got a wood-burning oven in his house, my personal culinary White Whale.

He's also a great fan of branzino, a Mediterranean white fish that I had for the first time about a year ago at a great New Haven restaurant called L'Orcio. I couldn't agree more. Fantastic fish. I've bought it and made it myself. One caution: expensive. The fish store charged me close to $30 for enough to feed the three of us.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Taco Hell

Yes, there was a Bell in Taco Bell. I didn't know that until I read that Taco Bell founder Glenn W. Bell, Jr. died this week.

His New York Times obituary all but credits him with the invention of the stiff taco shell, that wonder of processed food that tastes like corn-flavored cardboard, but holds up to chicken, vegies, cheese and salsa. According to the story, Bell decided to pre-fry his tortillas into crispy shells because the traditional soft version was too messy. The rest is history.

I'm not sure whether his invention is good or bad. I'm not a big Mexican food fan (as opposed to my wife who lives south-of-the border cuisine), so I'm not an expert. But I definitely prefer the soft tacos, as does my wife. Much more flavorful, and I hate the way the crispy ones shatter with the first bite.

It struck me how similar Bell's story is similar to those of other fast food pioneers. A veteran and a man of humble origins, he started out in the early 1950s in southern California just down the street from two brothers named McDonald's. He worked like a slave, eventually building a successful business and then sold out to a large corporation. He reminded me of Carl's Jr. founder Carl Karcher who is profiled in "Fast Food Nation," Dave Thomas of Wendy's and Colonel Sanders. Their stories are all very similar.

I'm guessing that in the beginning, Taco Bell was pretty good, as were most fast food places at their inception. Simple food done well.

I remember a Kentucky Fried Chicken opening near my house in the late 1960s. It was just a stand like a Dairy Queen: no indoor seating, just a kitchen and counter. I still remember the line snaking the length of the parking lot. I remember trying it for the first time. It was delicious. Then over the years after it was sold to a big company, the food got worse and worse until the Colonel himself proclaimed that the mashed potato and gravy tasted like wallpaper paste.

Whether Taco Bell followed the same pattern I don't know. I avoid Taco Hell like the plague. Even when I ate fast food, I couldn't stand it.

Bell's legacy? Hard taco shells and crappy food. At least he got rich.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Steeling A Knife

My wife and daughter gave me a new knife for Christmas, a mid-sized blade with scoops just above the edge to prevent buildup as you chop. It's very sharp and fantastic for cutting vegetables. The only downside is that it has to be sharpened with a steel. Normally, I use a knife sharpener, that while not perfect, does a serviceable job.

I've always been somewhat intimidated by a steel. My parents have one that I've used with poor results. I carve and carve and carve and the knife is just as dull as when I started.

But forging ahead is the key to life. So with my new knife beginning to dull, I ventured to the kitchen store in search of a steel. I settled on a 9-inch, mid-priced Wuesthof, $19.95.

For help, I turned to Youtube and found this Gordon Ramsey video. Pretty good. My daughter and I watched and tried. As I did so, I imagined Ramsey screaming at me (No, you stupid idiot! Not good enough! GET OUT!)

This video I liked even better. The chef answers one question I've always had: at what angle should you hold the knife? He says that the shorter the angle, the sharper the edge. So if the knife is dull, start at a wide angle and close it as you work. He also describes how the steel smooths out nicks and gouges in the blade. Very good video.

I started slowly and actually managed to sharpen my new vegetable knife and big kitchen knife. My daughter got an even sharper edge on the paring knives.

Ramsey and the guy in the other video said to sharpen your knives before every use. I will do so from now on. It can't be that hard if I keep at it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


My wife is at a writer's event until Sunday, so I asked my daughter what she wanted for dinner tonight. When my wife is away, we have a semi-tradition of making mussels and pasta (she's loved mussels since she was 5 or 6), which is what I expected her to request. But instead she wanted pizza, a do over, if you will, of my pizza pileup last weekend.

Easy enough. I had leftover dough in the freezer that I unthawed. My daughter made her putanesca topping again. This time we generously dusted the peel with corn meal.

It worked perfectly. The pies slid effortlessly off the peel onto the stone. We ate our pizzas while watching "Follow the Fleet."

As Johnny Drama in "Entourage" would say, "Victory!"

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hawaiian Punch This Ain't

I unthawed more raspberries earlier this week intending to make sorbet, but never got around to it. Instead, I ate a small bowl with my bagel for breakfast.

With just about a cup left today, I decided to try making raspberry lemonade, a variation of the lemonade that I made last week. I made a syrup (boil two cups sugar and two cups water for about 30 seconds until clear), squeezed 5-plus lemons to yield about a cup of lemon juice and pushed the raspberries through a sieve to remove the seeds. I mixed the raspberries and lemon juice with 3 cups water and about 3/4 of a cup of syrup.

The result was superb, sweet with a hint of tartness. The lemon comes through initially chased by the raspberry. A very, very tasty drink.

The only downside: It looks like Hawaiian punch. Remember this?

Looking at my concoction, I had flashbacks to the funny guy with the straw hat punching out an old man in ads from my childhood. Maybe it was Barack Obama's grandfather. What was up with that anyway? Check out this vintage spot.

Any way, my daughter tried the raspberry lemondade and loved it. She took the picture up top. Pretty good, I think. Perhaps she's going to be a food stylist.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pizza Pileup

They say you learn more from failure than success. I'm not so sure about that. What I am sure of is that failure is often more interesting than success. And it is in that spirit that I will recount my massive pizza pileup last Sunday.

I've made pizza before and successfully. It's the only pizza my daughter will eat (she generally disdains anything bready), and she specifically asked that I whip up a few pies.

All went well at first. I made my dough that afternoon, six rounds that I put in the fridge until about an hour before baking time. With dinner time approaching (I was trying to time it to a Man vs. Food episode), I fired up the oven to 500 degrees, laying the pizza stone on the bottom rack which I set to the lowest rung just above the coil.

I shredded the mozzarella, grated the peccorino romano, sliced mushrooms and pepperoni and put freshly made marinara at hand. My daughter, meanwhile, cut olives and minced anchovies. Her idea was to use the sauce, olives, anchovies and capers to make a putanesca pizza. A great idea, I thought, and was curious to see how it turned out.

Everything was organized, laid out in bowls ready to go on pizzas with the efficiency of an assembly line. The oven was hot. The pizza peels were standing by.

I was kind of proud of myself as I started to roll out pizza dough. Silly me.

All went well with the first pizza, mushrooms, olives and cheese, which would be mine. It came out perfectly.

My daughter then carefully built her putanesca pizza (see the picture above just about to go into the oven). Little did I know, but I'd made a fatal mistake: I failed to put enough cornmeal on the peel. When I tried to slip it onto the stone, it stuck. I ended up with blob that looked like the bizarre formations inside the wrecked Chernobyl reactor. My daughter was devastated. She made a second pizza, and, yes, you guessed it, I did it again.

We were able to salvage some the putanesca pizza, enough to fill her up, but it was a real cluster you-know-what. By the fourth pizza, I'd learned my lesson, dumping corn meal on the peel like a sand truck spewing ice melt on a slippery road. It made a mess, but it worked. The pizza slid like a man on a banana peel.

So the lesson is, puts LOTS of corn meal on the your pizza peel. Overdoing it may make a mess, but it's better than pizzas that look like bad modern art.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oatmeal Crispies

My mother is a talented if unenthusiastic baker. Her pies are far and away the best I've ever tasted, so good that I never order pie at a restaurant because I'm always bitterly disappointed. She also bakes outstanding cookies and desserts like date nut squares. Not that she makes a big deal about it. Far from it. Mom has always been much more interested in art and art history (she is a retired art history professor) than the domestic arts.

The other day, mom gave us a new recipe, oatmeal crispies. They were outstanding. She emailed me the recipe and I tried them this weekend.

The recipe, which follows, was straightforward: cream shortening (gets a bad rap. Actually much less saturated fat than butter), sugars, eggs, etc. add flour, oatmeal and crushed walnuts, cool dough in fridge and bake.

A few tips. I made my dough log too thick, so the cookies, while tasty, came out the size of hockey pucks (see above). Too big. I should have cut the dough into two or three pieces and shaped each into a log. I also didn't keep the dough in the fridge long enough. As a result, it was too soft, making it hard to slice into rounds for baking.

Lastly, I had to crush the walnuts because my wife doesn't like certain kinds of nuts (only certain kinds, mind you, not all) unless they are in microscopic pieces. I achieved this by putting the nuts in a plastic bag and pulverizing them with a meat mallet.

A great recipe. Here it is:

1 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar tightly packed
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 tsp cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3 cups oatmeal
1/2 cup chopped (in my case, crushed) walnuts

Cream the shortening, sugars and eggs. Add vanilla and mix well. Add flour, salt, baking soda, oats and nuts and mix well. Divide dough into two or three pieces, depending on preferred size of cookies, and shape into logs. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate at least two to three hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove dough, slice into quarter inch rounds and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake about 10 minutes and cool on wire racks.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Scenes from the Supermarket

What I saw at the supermarket yesterday: A morbidly obese woman in a motorized cart shopping with her equally overweight, but still mobile sister/friend/lover (unclear). They were in the dairy section near the bank of fridges holding the milk.

"You better get the bigger cream," the fat woman in the cart told her companion. "The smaller one won't be enough."

Not much more to say.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Don't Eat the Pink Milk

Don't eat anything that turns your milk pink. That's the basic advice food writer Michael Pollan gave this week on Jon Stewart. Kind of like, don't eat the yellow snow.

Let's be honest, whatever colors those hearts, moons, clovers, stars can't be good for you. And let's not even talk about Frankenberry or Count Chocula.

Check out the video of Pollan's interview with Stewart. Hilarious and informative at the same time.

Pollan was pushing his new book, "Food Rules." His number one rule: eat food, not food-like substances. It sounds so obvious. I haven't yet read Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilema," but it's on my list.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Simple Syrup Lemonade

After making raspberry sorbet last week, I still had about a cup and half of homemade syrup (two cups sugar, two cups water, bring to a boil and stir about 30 seconds to a minute). I figured I'd try to make some homemade lemonade.

We've all seen those lemonade stands at the fair, the ones with lemon-shaped stands where they put water and sugar in a plastic cup the height of the Empire State Building and shake it in front of you. Overpriced, but usually not bad, although the sugar tends to settle at the bottom. Indeed, I tried to make lemonade using sugar once a long time ago and had the same problem. The result was inconsistent, going from overly tart to cloyingly sweet as you drank. The syrup seemed the perfect solution, evenly distributing and infusing the sweetness throughout the beverage.

Guess what. It works. I squeezed five lemons to produce about a cup of lemon juice and mixed it with three cups of water and about half a cup simple syrup. For my taste, it was perfect, pleasingly tart with just enough sweetness to take the edge off (although my daughter thought it should be sweeter). The taste was consistent throughout and there was none of that annoying gritty sweetness at the end.

I was surprised at the relative expense. You don't think twice about buying a lemon or two at 50 cents a pop. But five or six, well that's not cheap, especially when it only produces about four cups of beverage. Unfortunately, the processed stuff is much cheaper.

Next I want to try adding pureed raspberries. I suspect that will make a killer drink.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pink Slime

That's what a former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist called "ground beef" produced by a company called Beef Products. This vile alleged food product is used in about half of all fast food burgers in the U.S. and in the nation's school lunch program.

The "ground beef" in question is in fact fatty trimmings that until about 2000 were considered unfit for human consumption and used for cat food. One of the reasons: the substance is far more prone to e coli and salmonella contamination.

Enter one Eldon N. Roth, an enterprising, self-taught chemist, who proposed dousing these inedible beef byproducts with ammonia to kill bacteria. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Argriculture (let's see, who was president in 2001? Let me think, let me think) gave him the green light. The government even decided the company didn't have to list ammonia as an ingredient, so not many people knew that fast food restaurants and schools were feeding people a powerful cleaning agent.

The advantage? It's cheaper, about 3 cents less a pound.

Oh, and by the way, it appears that the process doesn't work that well. The beef still gets contaminated with e coli and salmonella. To really work, the ammonia level apparently has to be so high that the "hamburger," which comes in frozen blocks, smells like a pool.

All this from a truly appalling New York Times story published several days ago. I dare you to read it and go to McDonald's or give your kid money for a school lunch.

My favorite is the quote from Mr. Roth: “Like any responsible member of the meat industry, we are not perfect.”

Responsible member of the meat industry? Not perfect? Dude, you're feeding potentially contaminated cat food to kids and adults after slathering it with a powerful chemical normally used to clean floors -- really dirty floors. And you've gotten rich off it.

Words fail.

Friday, January 1, 2010