Sunday, February 28, 2010

Better Butter II

An update on my Better Butter? post.

I bought butter at Liuzzi's again yesterday and bothered to pay attention to the price: just $3.29 a pound! That's only 30 cents more a pound than the cheapest generic Stop & Shop butter. It's much less than the generic organic and a fancy non-organic Maine butter from happy small farm cows (or so the label with the smiling baby claimed).

Liuzzi's manager happened by and I asked about their milk. Not organic, but no hormones, he said. They primarily make cheeses, mouzarella, ricotta, etc., and use byproducts for butter, he said.

A no brainer and half. Liuzzi's butter from now on.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Juicer Reviews

My daughter and I have fallen in love with freshly made lemonade. I make a big pitcher at the beginning of the week, and it's gone by Wednesday.

The only downside: it's a lot of work. I have a small, very effective, egg-shaped reamer (don't laugh) consisting of a lid, a strainer and a cup to catch the juice. It works well, but it's time consuming and tiring when you have to juice seven or eight lemons. And to extract all the juice, you have to ream the lemon half (stop sniggering), cut it in half and ream those pieces a second time. Time consuming and tiring. It takes a half hour or more to make lemonade.

So I'm thinking about buying a juicer. I did a little research on the Internet and soon realized there are many types of juicers: citrus, centrifugal, wheatgrass (blech!). I decided to see what was on Youtube and found this hilarious video review of the Jack Lalanne Juicer pictured above. Warning: salty language.

I then found this rather frighting video. The speaker gives a harrowing account of his health problems complete with pictures (I always wondered what a kidney stone looked like) to explain why he created a website to review juicers.

But don't let it put you off. His website is excellent with reviews of dozens of juicers of all types and models. Very useful.

No decisions yet, but I at least have an idea what's out there and what I need.

Friday, February 26, 2010


No, not the classic Police song (who can forget Eddie Murphy singing the lyrics while listening to his Walkman at the beginning of "48 Hours"?)

I'm talking about Cargill's Roxanne.

Cargill, which you probably never heard of because it's privately held, is one of the largest companies in the world, a huge purchaser of bulk grains and cereals. It also produces many of the ingredients used in processed foods and is a leader in the "flavor" industry. You almost certainly have products containing Cargill products in your pantry.

And who is Cargill's Roxanne? She is a "flavor mixing" robot in a commercial I saw the other night. Roxanne, we are told, works at Cargill's flavor factory in Grasse, France. A man on a quest for flavor searches the picturesque streets of an ancient French town for the elusive "Roxanne." Everyone knows her, only heightening his anticipation to meet and woo this maven of taste.

Finally, the man, bouquet of flowers in hand, arrives at the flavor center only to discover that Roxanne is a bucket of bolts. But it's all right. The man overcomes his disappointment and gives the flowers to a fetching food scientist in a lab coat (nothing says romance like a starched lab coat). The message: Isn't Cargill great for using cutting edge technology and science to flavor your food?

Think about this for a moment. A company that removes flavor by processing food not only admitting it does so, but brags about its scientific and technical prowess in artificially restoring that flavor.

The French setting adds another layer of bizarreness. We may not like the French, but we sure know they are good at food, so this flavor place must be the cat's meow. Cargill goes all the way to France to make tasteless pulp appetizing. They really do love us.

It's enough to make your head spin.

What I don't understand is why Cargill would ever want consumers to know what it is doing. I mean, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to grasp the strange and disturbing message of this commercial. We've so leeched flavor from our food products that putting it back requires a space age robot, a huge lab with hundreds of test rubes and dozens of guys in white coats.

I'll stick to the Police's Roxanne.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Better Butter?

I've been considering whether to buy better butter. You can buy pound of Stop & Shop for about $3. The organic gets you up to about $5. A stall at the New Haven farmer's market last week had fresh in a one-pound tub for about $7.

I decided to compromise and buy butter at Liuzzi's, my favorite Italian deli. They make butter as well as superb cheeses. It comes in random blocks instead of perfect columns like more processed butter. And the cost is about the same as organic.

I am not a huge butter eater, although my wife and daughter are. That said, I used some for garlic bread this week, and it really did taste better. Much butterier.

But here's the irony. My daughter, who has only eaten the Stop & Shop stuff, didn't much like it on her morning mashed potato (her usual breakfast). It was "too milky," she said. I had to get her a stick of the Stop & Shop.

A sad commentary on how processed food affects the taste buds.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Bash at Bagels

The other day, I perused the ingredients on my bag of frozen Stop & Shop bagels and stopped short. A lot of frightening stuff in there.

So in line with my attempt to eat less processed food, I decided to take a bash at bagels.

I've long wanted to give homemade bagels shot, but been put off by the long process, which includes letting the dough sit overnight in the fridge and cooking them in water before they go into the oven. But I figured if I made a dozen or so and froze them, it would be worth the work.

I used a recipe from Peter Reinhardt's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice," which is the best bread book I've found so far. I will not go into specifics to respect the copyright, but while it took some time and effort, it wasn't ridiculous. Plus, because the dough needs to retard anywhere from overnight to two days, you can make the dough one evening and bake the bagels the next.

I made a couple of rookie errors. The bagels developed a nice oval shape in the fridge, but after I took the first few out of the water, I put the tops down first, ruining the look. I also made them a little big. Next time, I would make more smaller ones.

I tried to top some with sesame seeds, but, as with my crackers, they just don't want to adhere. My wife suggested an egg white wash, which is an excellent idea.

And the taste? Kind of disappointing. The bagels look great, but they have surprisingly little flavor. I thought they tasted a little like English muffins, but my wife pronounced them just plain bland. I don't want to overstate. They are perfectly fine, but lack that distinct bagel taste and texture.

I suspect part of the problem was my lack of malt syrup or powder. My recipe warned that this ingredient is key to the classic bagel. It suggested honey as a substitute and I used a robust, flavorful buckwheat honey I bought last week at the New Haven farmer's market. Alas, it fell short.

Not sure whether I'll try bagels again or start going to a proper bakery.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vegas Baby!

We spent last week in Las Vegas (hence my radio silence) so my wife could research her next tattoo shop mystery (her latest book, Pretty in Ink, is out early next month).

I have mixed feelings about Las Vegas. Having worked 26 years ago as a blackjack dealer in Reno, I know very well that casinos can be both a lot of fun and a sucker's trap. Unfortunately, the sucker's trap has become ever more prevalent.

Blackjack is an example. Multi-deck shoes and even more horrifying, machines that constantly constantly re-shuffle cards, have all but destroyed the fun and excitement of the game, as well as stacked the odds overwhelmingly in favor of the house. You can still find a single or double deck game (there was only single deck when I dealt in the early 1980s), but you have to look and you usually have to get off The Strip.

This change is especially true of food. I worked in a casino at the tail end of entrepreneur--gangster era when good, cheap food was key to luring in customers. Every casino had a buffet, a coffee shop, one or two higher end restaurants and snack bars. The prices at all were comparable to or lower than what you paid outside the casinos and the quality excellent.

No more. When corporations took over, they came to view food as a profit center. They also realized that they had a captive audience. Most people will pay double even triple to avoid going off site. So now instead of cheap, food is outrageously expensive and its quality uneven. Steaks costing $50 or more are common. Of menus I checked, Craftsteak at the MGM held the record: $240 for 8 ounces of Kobe beef. That's $30 an ounce. For a steak.

I think casinos get away with this in part because gambling is no longer taboo in America. "Gaming" is mainstream and corporate, just another form of entertainment supported by both political parties and rarely if ever criticized on moral or religious grounds. As a result, casinos no longer need cheap food and rooms to help people overcome their inhibitions.

So now that I've rambled, what did we eat in Las Vegas? We learned lessons from our last trip about 18 months ago. We found some bargains, tried to go for value and quality and got off the strip occasionally. Breakfast was in the room: coffee and bagels bought at a stand in the casino (New York, New York). We avoided the buffets (overpriced) and food courts (just as pricey as sit down meals).

Our big splurge was dinner at Thomas Keller's Bouchon. It was truly out of this world and not nearly as expensive as many places on the Strip. As high end as the place is, they do not look down their nose at you. We walked into an upscale place at Mandalay Bay only to have the waitress claim that the place was booked even though virtually table was empty.

By contrast, we wandered into Bouchon on your last trip 18 months ago sans reservation and not especially well dressed and were seated in about 20 minutes.

Back to the meal: My wife and I had roast chicken. I know this breaks Tony Bourdain's rule that anyone who orders chicken in a restaurant doesn't know what they want, but Keller's chicken is legendary. It did not disappoint. Among the best chickens I ever ate. It was served on a superb slaw of savoy cabbage.

My daughter started with these olives, which were amazing.

Then, carnivore that she is, she moved on to beef bourguignon. It's a cliche, but yes it really did melt in your mouth (my daughter gave me a taste).

It was my daughter's birthday, and the restaurant comped her desert (another very nice touch). Check it out. Brownie with coffee and mint chocolate chip ice cream and cherry sorbet. To die for.

It was a contrast with the poor meal we had at Il Fornaio in New York, New York our last night. The service was poor, my daughter's $10-plus Caesar salad came without proper Caesar dressing and consisted mostly of hard, thick lower romaine ribs and my wife's salad with tomatoes had two cherry tomatoes and an overly vinegary, amateurish dressing. The waitress pushed a $9 glass of wine and when I ordered something different, I am virtually sure I got the special she was pushing.

The main of pasta was better, but there is no way the meal was worth anywhere near the approximately $100 we paid.

A final observation: the sheer monotony of the more conventional food offerings was numbing. Burgers, tacos, enchiladas, rubber chicken sandwiches, fries, onion rings, no matter where you went. That's all well and good, but the lack of innovation and diversity was striking.

So in conclusion, if you go to Vegas, be prepared to spend a fortune on food. Expect sticker shock. Those $4.99 buffets your dad talks about from his trip to Vegas with the boys in 1978 are long gone. My advice is, be as discerning as possible; look for bargains and when you spend some coin (you will have no choice), try to make it worthwhile.

Hey, it's Vegas baby!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Going Crackers

Crackers are not cheap. A box of Triscuits can run $2.50 or more. It's a simple business strategy: take a simple, cheap product (grain), process it and quadruple or more the price. Starbucks is an extreme example. For the same price as double mocca latte, you can buy a whole can of coffee that will produce several dozen cups.

Another downside: most processed food has too much sweetener and salt, not to mention all sorts of bizarre additives.

So why not try to make crackers? Saves money and it's better for you.

I reviewed several recipes and settled on the following: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. One cup flour, one teaspoon salt and two tablespoons canola oil. I mixed with about a quarter cup water, just enough to turn the dough into a ball. I then rolled out the dough on a lightly floured counter to about 1/4 inch.

My dough was not very symmetrical, but I can work on that. I transferred the dough sheet to a floured cookie sheet, sprinkled with sesame seeds, cut rectangles with a sharp knife so I could break the crackers into a pieces after baking and put in the oven. The main recipe I used advised 10 minutes, but that wasn't nearly enough. It took about 15 minutes and even that wasn't sufficient. Only about half the crackers were browned and I found that they tasted best. Unfortunately, the sesame seeds failed to gain purchase: They rained off the crackers as I took them from sheet. I should have pressed them into the dough.

Also, the crackers puffed up a bit. I now understand why crackers have pinpricks.

The taste was good. As with other unprocessed foods like lemonade, I found the flavor less intense, but more complex and satisfying. A lot of that comes, I think, from using less sugar and salt, which tend to mask and overwhelm other flavors.

Quick and easy. Costs pennies, if even that. I will experiment further.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Organic or Not Organic

I'm about half way through "Omnivore's Dilemma," well into the part about the organic food industry. Yes, it's an industry. That bucolic valley and small farmer in grimy overalls grinning on the front of the package? Doesn't really exist, at least when it comes to what you buy at the supermarket. The organic produce at Whole Foods and Stop & Shop usually comes from giant corporations whose land management practices, while better than the standard industrial farm, are still problematic. Mr. Green Jeans this ain't

And those "outdoor" hens that you pay twice as much for because they are organic? The full sum of their "outdoors" is a strip of grass outside their huge industrial hen house that few if any of them ever venture onto.

Is organic better? I'm not done with the section yet, but the answer seems to be, yes, but not nearly as much as one would think.

What is clear is that organic will never truly change our food system for a number of reasons: it's too expensive, it's impractical (supermarkets need one big distributor, not 100 small farmers) and it has been corrupted by Big Food and the FDA, which allowed "organic" processed food, a seeming oxymoron.

Plus, organic is not always better. Take organic milk. Virtually all of it comes from giant industrial dairies controlled by one or two companies. Sure they feed the cows organic feed, but these animals live in massive feed barns just like their industrialized cousins. Horizon Dairy's Old Boss is not out grazing in a verdant field. And the milk is outrageously expensive, as much as $4 a half gallon compared to about $1.60 for the conventional stuff, which is to be expected because it's being shipped across the country.

Then there's The Farmer's Cow, a cooperative of Connecticut dairy farms. Its milk is not organic, but it does not use hormones. And it's local. And it only costs about $2.60 a half gallon.

Sure it's not organic, but it seems like a no brainer. You preserve open space in your community, support local agriculture and get a superior product at a reasonable price. So what if it doesn't meet some arcane definition of organic?

I don't mean to dis organic. It's always better to ingest fewer chemicals, to raise food more humanely with less damage to the environment. But it's not a panacea, and its reach will always be limited.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Obesity Fix?

Michelle Obama yesterday announced a comprehensive plan to fight childhood obesity. This is, of course, a good thing. But will it work? I am skeptical.

Why? Because like so many problems in our society, her solution only only nips at the weeds instead of uprooting them. They're just going to grow right back up again.

Yes, reconstituting school lunches, encouraging more exercise and discouraging soda consumption are all laudable. But they will only go so far because the root causes of childhood obesity are government subsidies that encourage overproduction of corn and soybeans, aggressive, irresponsible marketing to kids by Big Food and Americans' loss of the ability and knowledge to cook and bake (constantly encouraged by Big Food marketing).

I'm not saying that Michele shouldn't be doing what she's doing, but she is plowing the ocean. Real progress will not occur without fundamental changes to government policy, especially abolition or radical restructuring of agricultural subsidies that enrich and empower agribusiness at the expense of farmers and encourage production of salty, sugary, fatty processed foods that make people obese.

I am a huge fan of Barack and Michelle. I ardently believed and still hope (remember hope?) that they will fundamentally change the course of America and usher in a better day. But in food as with so many things, the Obamas go for half measures, modest change around the edges, when the big dramatic measures are desperately need. Instead of saying that agricultural subsidies, especially for corn, should end because they waste taxpayer money, enrich a handful of huge corporations, encourage destructive land practices and make people fat, the Obamas want chicken nuggets with less sodium.

Disappointing. But I will keep hoping. I have no choice.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Homemade Granola Bars

Reading "Omnivore's Dilemma" has only heightened by determination to eat less processed food. Which brings me to one of my favorite processed foods, Nature Valley granola bars. I buy them in bulk from BJ's.

They don't have as much bad stuff as many processed foods, but the saturated fat level is a little on the high side as are the calories (like many food giants, General Mills plays games with the serving size, writing on the label that the nutritional information is for 1 bar without noting that the package contains 2 bars).

I decided this weekend to try to make my own granola bars. My cookbooks proved of little help, so I turned to the Internet and found this recipe from Alton Brown of Food Network.

I like Brown as host of Iron Chef, but I find him somewhat annoying on his own. I can't put my finger on why. I want to say he's pedantic, but that's not really the case. He's actually very down to earth and straightforward in the food he presents and his instructions for preparing it. Guess it's just one of those things.

That said, his granola bar recipe came out fantastically. The bars are a little less crunchy and a little more chewy than the industrial goodness of General Mills, but definitely more flavorful with greater complexity. You can taste the different ingredients, whereas the Nature Valley bars are pretty one note.

I made the following modifications to the recipe: I substituted two tablespoons of canola oil for the butter (less saturated fat), left out the sunflower seeds instead adding more rolled oats, and used chopped walnuts instead of slivered almonds (I had them in the pantry). I used dried cherries for the fruit. My glass pan was also a little smaller, more like 8" x 8".

Easy, relatively quick and much tastier than the industrial variety.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poached Perfection

Well, maybe not perfection.

I was out of fruit yesterday morning. I usually have a bagel and a clementine or banana or berries for breakfast, and without fruit I knew I'd get very hungry before lunch.

So I needed a little something extra. I looked in the fridge and saw we had one organic egg left. Why not poach an egg?

I'd never done it, but I've seen it done on Food Network. And I poach chicken breasts every week for my lunch so I'm familiar with the technique.

I put water in a large sauce pan and turned the burner to seven. In about five or six minutes, I had slow simmer, the bubbles just barely rising in the liquid. I cracked the egg and dropped it in the water. Luckily, the yoke didn't break.

I then did something stupid. I forgot to turn down the heat to a little under five, as I always do when poaching chicken. By the time I realized (I was reading the paper), the water was boiling furiously. I took the pan off the ring and lowered the heat. Luckily, only part of the white had separated from the yoke.

Eventually, I got the water back to a gentle simmer. In total, I poached the egg about three to four minutes before removing it with a skimmer.

It looked a little ragged, but it was basically intact. I cut into it and it was perfect, the white fluffy, the joke just a little runny.

I have to say, there was something about the egg that was deeply satisfying. I found myself thinking about it off and on all day.

It occurred to me as well that poaching is about the healthiest way to cook an egg. One egg has just 6 percent of the recommended daily saturated fat (according to the package) and obviously if you cook it water, you are not adding fat in the form of butter or oil.

A wonderful, simple dish. I highly recommend.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Just Whip It

I made chocolate chip cookies earlier this week. Instead of using the paddle attachment to cream the butter and sugars, and mix in the dry ingredients, I used the whisk. I was curious if it would make a difference.

It did (duh!). Forcing air into the batter made a fluffier cookie. Instead of pancaking, the cookies baked into airy little domes.

I liked them, but my wife thinks they are too cakey.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Feed Me Bubbe!

I love this woman. A nice Jewish boy from outside Boston loves his grandmother's cooking and decides she ought to be on the Internet. He creates a website and makes videos showing his "Bubbe," Yiddish for grandma, making Jewish classics like chicken soup and matzo balls. And of course every episode includes a Yiddish Word of the Day.

I'm reminded of that great scene in the movie "New York Stories" where Woody Allen all but makes love to a piece of chicken.

This is great, great stuff. Solid, classic home cooking, exactly the type of sustenance that too many of us have lost touch with.

A big hat tip to my friend Alice for sending me a link.

Check it out and Ess gezunterhait!