Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bagels 2.0

I tried bagels again last weekend, this time using malt syrup (pictured above), which my recipe says is vital to successful homemade. The result: marginally better, but still disappointing, although my wife said she tasted no difference.

It's making me question my recipe. I did a little surfing and found recipes here, here and here that are far less involved than the one I've been using. They require only a short rise and no overnight retardation (I hope Sarah Palin doesn't read this blog).

Given the bagel's humble origins, one would expect making them to be relatively quick and simple. If you're a baker in the shtetl, you're going to want your everyday stuff to be cheap and fast.

I'm going to have to experiment.

Monday, March 29, 2010

SoNo So Good

Every week at the Wooster Square farmer's market in New Haven, SoNo Baking Company and Cafe sells the most amazing pastries and breads. The Norwalk bakery makes the only French bread in the area that actually tastes like the stuff in France. And I LOVE the chocolate bundles -- croissants with chuncks of bitter sweet chocolate in the middle. My daughter always demands an apple pizza -- puffed pastry with glazed apple slices on top.

Amazing stuff. And now you can try to make it yourself. The Hartford Courant ran a great piece last week about SoNo founder and owner John Barricelli's just published book, "The SoNo Baking Company Cookbook."

I immediately recognized John from the photographs. He's in Wooster Square every Sunday, a friendly bundle of energy trying to keep up with the steady stream of customers.

He had mentioned Martha Stewart to me once during one of our brief conversations, but I didn't know he'd actually worked with her. I also had no idea he labored under the slave master herself, the legendary Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsly. I'm guessing that working for Leona was Ranger School for cooks. If you made it through, you could survive anything.

I have not looked at John's book, but I will have to now. No matter what, if you are in Norwalk or in Wooster Square on a Saturday morning, check out SoNo. Truly some of the best bread and pastry I've ever eaten.

And John, PLEASE, open a bakery in New Haven.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

No We Can't

I have mixed feelings about Jamie Oliver. There is something deeply annoying about his elf-like enthusiasm. I thought his "Naked Chef" show was bizarre. The husky, off-camera, Hal 2000-like female voice asking Jamie questions was positively pornographic: "Jamie, tell us what you're going to do now with that cucumber."

On the other hand, he really can cook. I've tried some of his recipes, and they are very good.

So it was with some skepticism that my wife and I watched the first two episodes of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" in which he sets out to tackle obesity and bad eating habits in America's fattest town, Huntington, West Virginia.

I have to say, it was compelling TV. Jamie gets powerful push back from just about everyone, the local radio host, who says they're not going to sit around eating lettuce, the school cooks, the skeptical bureaucrat in charge of school lunches.

Speaking of bureaucracy, I was horrified by the rigid, nonsensical rules that constrained the content of school lunches threatening to tie down Jamie like Gulliver in "Gulliver's Travels." I mean really, two starches with every meal? Who eats like that? Who came up with that?

What struck me more than anything was not just the resistance to change when it was clearly and desperately needed, but the outright, aggressive hostility to it. Everyone knows that Huntington has a serious problem, but most reacted with barely contained fury when Jamie tried to do something about it.

In a sentence: No we can't.

And that seems to be the attitude of a large slice of America about just about everything. We have become the can't-do nation. We can't change our eating habits. We can't solve our health care problem. We can't switch to alternative energy. And on and on and on.

What I found particularly ironic was the mind-numbing bureaucracy that the people of Huntington accept, indeed vigorously defend, in their school lunch program. Excuse me for making assumptions, but I think it's fair to assume that Huntington has more than its fair share of teapartyers who decry government bureaucracy.

And I thought charity begins at home.

I will be interested to see how Jamie fairs in the coming weeks, but I'm not optimistic.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kelly's Salad Dressing

Read the contents of a store-bought dressing, and you want to run screaming from the room. A dozen or more ingredients, many of which you need a science degree to decode.

So I've been trying to make my own dressings, but with little success. They always seem to come out too oily or too vinegary.

Friends came to dinner last Saturday night and during our pre-meal conversation I mentioned to my friend Kelly my failure to make a decent salad dressing. I apologized that I would have to serve store bought.

Kelly, who is an excellent cook (I still remember killer meatballs she made my wife and I years ago), insisted that we could do a simple dressing in a flash. Sure, I said.

I put about a quarter to a third of a cup of olive oil in a large measuring cup. Kelly then gave the balsamic vinegar three or four good shakes, yielding about four to five table spoons. We added salt, pepper and fresh thyme and tasted. A little oily. Kelly suggested adding a teaspoon or so of Dijon mustard. That was the finishing touch. In about three or four minutes, we'd made a tangy, tasty dressing, sparing ourselves the science-lab-in-the-bottle that is processed dressing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


That was the state of my knives.

I posted in January about knife sharpening. I had decided to do it myself using a steel. I did some research on the Internet and, gosh, it looked so easy. Gordon Ramsey said so! Just get a steel, run your knife back to to front, back to front and viola! A knife that Toshiro Mifune could use to slice open a bad guy in a Kurosawa movie.

Per Ramsey's advice, I began steeling my knives before every use. At first, they were sharper. Then, they got duller. And duller. And duller. By the beginning of this week, it was like trying to cut with a butter knife. The edge was all but gone. Closer inspection showed that the edge had rolled out instead of in. Obviously, I'd done used the steel incorrectly.

Doing a little more research, I realized that the Ramsey video I'd relied on is at best misleading at worst dead wrong. A steel does NOT sharpen a knife, as Ramsey so convincingly claims. It only works out nicks and burrs in the blade. To sharpen a knife, you need a wet stone.

In short, Ramsey is full of doggy do on this one and he surely knows it.

This morning, I took my two knives to the local kitchen store and had them sharpened. Unfortunately, the woman who sharpened them said she couldn't get a really good edge no my kitchen knife, which is ages old. She suggested having it refurbished, which I will look into.

The woman was very nice and showed me how to properly steel knife. You need to angle it close to the steel and run it the length of the pole. She suggested bracing the poll vertically on the counter top and running the blade SLOWLY downwards. Forgot those fast strokes a la Ramsey and others.

The woman also showed me different types of sharpeners. I have a sharpener, but it's very old and primitive. I'll consider my options.

FYI, another option for sharpening knives may be your butcher. I mentioned my problem to my butcher today and he offered to run my knives through his sharpener.

So forget my earlier post. If you want to steel your knife, talk to someone who knows what they're doing first. I'd even advise bringing your knife into a store and asking an expert to watch to make sure you're doing it right. Otherwise you'll end up feeling pretty dull like me when your knives lose their edge.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Juicer Decision

I loved this Beville citrius juicer. Its sleek design reminded me a little of the Bird in Flight sculpture. And sooo smooth and high tech. Just place the citrus half on the reamer, press down and the machine does all the work. An esthetically pleasing, eminently practical design. Very cool.

A little problem. It retails for $219. I scoured the Internet and managed to find it on sale for $77. Still a pretty penny.

So it was time for Plan B. KitchenAid, it turns out, makes a juicer attachment for its standup mixer (a must for any serious or half serious baker). And it's only about $30.

I'm amazed at the variety of attachments for KitchenAid mixers. You can even get one to grind grain. I'm trying to eat less processed food, but that really seems a little over the top. Next, I'll be growing my own clothes and eating tree bark.

I checked out a video showing the attachment working well. That plus the high quality and outstanding design of KitchenAid products convinced me to buy it. I've used it several times now and it works brilliantly. It has just four parts: a sleeve, a reamer, a post that's inserted into the mixer's drive shaft and a strainer. Assembly takes 30 seconds. Easy and quick.

I was skeptical about the strainer. The holes appeared too big, and I thought it would fail to catch seeds and pulp. But it actually works extremely well. See below:

If you have a KitchenAid mixer and want a juicer, I strongly recommend going this route. It cut the time to make lemonade in half and its great fun to use.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Models, Wine, the Coliseum and a Big Fish

People in New Haven take their food, especially their Italian food, very seriously. Maybe that explains this ad for Leon's, one of New Haven's oldest and most storied Italian restaurants.

This gets my vote for most pretentious restaurant commercial ever. I love how the music builds to a crescendo as the chef starts carving a side of tuna. About as over the top as it gets.

I've been to Leon's. Very good, but I prefer Consiglio's, another venerable New Haven Italian eatery.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Cove vs. Food, Inc.

The Cove won the academy award for best documentary earlier this week. It's about the controversial annual dolphin hunt in Taigi, Japan. The mamamals are driven into cove where they are killed in brutal fashion. The meat is sold for consumption, some ending up in local school lunches in spite of containing dangerous levels of mercury.

Certainly the practices exposed by The Cove are brutal and backward. Tradition seems a poor excuse to carry on such cruelty.

But that said, what does this film really accomplish? There is no epidemic of herding dolphins into coves and slaughtering them with knives. This is an isolated, atavistic cultural practice that has somehow survived into the modern world. I doubt it has any significant impact on dolphin populations.

Contrast that with Food, Inc., one of the documentaries that lost to The Cove. The film exposes factory farming practices and Big Food marketing that have drastically degraded the American diet and led to systemic animal cruelty. The health, environmental and moral impact of these practices is enormous and universal, affecting every American in fundamental ways from obesity to heart disease to just plain bad food.

Indeed, I suspect that so-called "dead zones" created by the flow of chemical fertilizers into the ocean is a far greater threat to dolphins than an annual hunt in a single Japanese cove.

Of course, bloody footage of Flipper being knived to death makes for a far more dramatic movie. And The Cove may just be a better film (I have seen neither documentary). But I still find it interesting that liberal Hollywood honored a documentary exposing an admittedly horrific but isolated practice while snubbing one that tackled one of the most fundamental, consequential and underreported problems of our time. Bestowing an Oscar on a movie that takes on on a small, relatively powerless and friendless community in rural Japan took no real courage. Giving one to to a film that confronts and exposes some of the biggest, most powerful corporations in America would have.

I'm not condemning The Cove or the activists who made it. I agree that Taiji should stop hacking dolphins to death. I wish them well in their crusade. But they are not saving the world. If they wanted to do that, they would do something truly hard, like take on big banks and giant food conglomerates.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Back to Basics

Back in the 1990s, everyone, it seemed, was using the New Basics Cookbook and its Silver Palate sisters. The recipes fit the decade: innovative, but borderline pretentious and overdone. Many took old favorites like meatloaf and tried to make them gourmet with a zillion spices, herbs and ingredients. A lot were excellent, and it was my cookbook of choice for years.

Since about 2000, I moved toward simpler recipes. Mark Bittman, the self-proclaimed Minimalist, became my guru and his "How to Cook Everything" my new bible. It's been years since I made a New Basics recipe.

About two weeks ago, I had a fantastic dinner at a friend's house: a casserole of polenta, tomato sauce, chicken Italian sausage and cheese. Very tasty and deeply satisfying. My host informed it was a New Basics recipe.

It made me open my battered copy for the first time in years. Browsing made realize why I'd stopped using the book. Take "Chicken with Vegetables and Couscous," a recipe I used to make. It's got 20 ingredients, included cinnamon stick and prunes. I mean, when will I use cinnamon stick again? I'm not planning on making warm mull wine any time soon. And prunes? The less said the better.

But there were a lot of interesting recipes I had never tried, such as salads and dressings, as well as potato and rice dishes. And of course the wonderful casserole that I'd had at my friend's house.

Last night, I gave it a try. The polenta came out a touch underdone (I'd never made it before), and I mistakenly made the entire package after misreading the poorly translated directions. But it was still excellent, the kind of dish that makes you feeling all warm and sated, but not overly full.

I've concluded that I've been too harsh. It's time to get back to Basics.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Chicken Soup

Both my wife and my daughter were under the weather this week. My wife decided they needed the old standby, chicken soup.

She un-thawed all my chicken stock, about four cups. We didn't have any noodles, so she had me make rice and added some to the broth. Next, she put in carrots, celery and poached chicken. Warm it up and viola, chicken soup. Much tastier than the canned variety and without extra salt and space age food additives (Xanthan gum? What the hell is that?).

Later in the week, my wife made a second batch with canned broth (we were out of homemade). Not ideal, but still better than the industrial.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

To Whit

I stumbled across this fascinating documentary about the past, present and future of Connecticut agriculture. I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the farmers interviewed was John "Whit" Davis of Stonington.

I got to know Whit in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I worked for a tiny weekly in Mystic. He is a living link to the past, an 11th generation farmer whose family has worked 300 acres at the mouth of the Pawcatuck River on the border with Rhode Island since the mid-16th century. He is passionate about farming and preserving the agricultural way of life, over the years refusing repeated offers to sell his land that would have made a very rich man. Instead, he chose to keep raising animals and vegetables and continue long lost agricultural practices that were once common like salt marsh haying.

Whit is the archetypal "Swamp Yankee." I grew up in Connecticut , but never heard the expression until I moved to the southeastern part of the state bordering Rhode Island. Swamp Yankees are descendents of the state's original settlers who have largely disappeared from the most of the state, having dying out or been absorbed by waves of Italian, Polish, Jewish and other immigrants. They survive at the state's peripheries, driven into the "swamps," if you will.

Swamp Yankees are known as no nonsense, practical to a fault, fiecrely independent and a bit cranky. Whit fits all those characteristics to a "T." He's also very smart. And very funny. I'll never forgot a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting at which he warned in his old Yankee accent (neither Rhode Island nor Massachusetts, probably the way Connecticut natives talked 100 year ago) that he feared the town was becoming SSRS: The Soviet Socialist Republic of Stonington. He brought the house down. The audience, I would add, was laughing with him, not at him.

Here's a link to an article last year about Whit's 85th birthday.

The video rightly points out that Connecticut agriculture is at a crossroads with some seeing it on the verge of dying out, while others believe a revival is imminent. Whit's old ways are indisputably a path into the future: a farm that raises both produce and animals for sale to locals and respects the land and its traditions.

I wish Whit many more healthy years. He is a shining path back to a better food system, better food and a way of life based on independence and doing what one loves instead of money.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pretty in Ink

Yes, this is a food blog, but I'm going off topic today. My wife's latest tattoo mystery, Pretty in Ink, is out this week.

Here's a link to a great story about her by Channel 8 in New Haven.

Great read. I recommend highly.