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.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Food, Inc.

PBS will air the documentary "Food, Inc." tomorrow night. Here is an article about the movie and a trailer. If you care about food, check it out.

Caution: Don't eat while watching.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Follow the Farm

I was at the New Haven farmer's market today and bought potatoes for dinner tomorrow night from Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton. In season, they have great peppers, corn and other vegies. They also raise chickens and beef. I still haven't tried one of their birds (pricey), but will eventually.

The guy manning the booth mentioned that the farm now has a Facebook page and plans to post pictures throughout the growing season documenting the progress of its crops. It's pretty cool. A great way to meet your food and the people who produce it.

Stone Gardens is a CSA farm. No, not the Confederate States of America. They don't shovel manure about the Confederacy being about "freedom" and "state's rights" while leaving out that pesky little old slavery thing (Virginia and Mississippi governors please take note).

CSA is "community supported agriculture." Consumers buy shares in a farm and receive a weekly supply of produce. They get local, seasaonal food, and the farmer gets a guaranteed cash flow. The drawbacks: You share in the risk as well as the reward. If it's a bad year, you're not going to get as much. And you have to be prepared to eat seasonally. That means lots of greens early in the season and at other times perhaps more of certain things than you like or can eat.

But of course this is the way food used to be, even as recently as my childhood. Asparagus, for example, used to be in the stores a week or two instead of year round. A few things, like cherries, are still like that. The upside is that you are eating foods at the peak of their nutritional value and flavor. To really get full value, you probably need to learn to pickle and perhaps even can, which of course used to be common. My Iowa grandmother was constantly canning.

The Hartford Courant did a great piece last week about the explosion of CSAs in Connecticut.

Could everyone eat like this? Probably not. But the more they do the better. The benefits are huge, everything from a better diet to preserving agricultural land to making non-industrial, local farming profitable to reconnecting people with the process of producing food.

That said, it is a commitment and I haven't taken the plunge yet. Maybe next year.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Limeade to the Rescue

I was out of lemonade this morning. Lately, I've been breaking down and buying a Diet Coke for lunch when I run out of homemade lemonade or oolong tea (I know, Eleanor, I know).

Then I recalled that I had three limes left over from the Ruth Reichl Asian stir fry I made last weekend. Why not make limeade?

Unfortunately, two of my three limes were hard as stones and produced little juice. I still managed to coax out a quarter cup. I added about a quarter cup of syrup and a cup of water. The result was tart and refreshing.

Take that Coca-Cola.

Fight the Power, Cook at Home: On a different subject, here is a link to a great article by chef and food critic Micheal Ruhlman. His message: Cooking with crappy products, like powdered whatchamacallit, is better than not cooking at all.

I especially like his point about giant food companies discouraging people from cooking. It's too hard. You have no time. Untrue, he rightly says.

Want to hit back at corporate America? Cook your own meals. There's nothing that Big Food fears more.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ja to Lefsa

My wife and daughter took a trip to eastern Connecticut this week (school vacation) and stopped at the Scandinavian store in Mystic where she bought one of her favorite foods: Lefsa (also spelled "Lefse").

It's simple stuff, basically a Norwegian potato and flour flat bread. She prefers the hard tack variety pictured above that you reconstitute by dampening and wrapping in a towel until it softens. You then add a filling -- butter, sugar, Cinnamon, jam, maple syrup are all good -- roll it up, cut it into rounds and it's time to eat.

I never ate -- let alone heard of -- lefsa until I met my wife. It's delicious, a simple snack or desert. My daughter also likes it.

For some, lefsa is more than just a food. It's a way of life. Below is a book, "The Last Word on Lefse," that mother-in-law lent me.

It includes recipes, pictures of specialized lefse-making equipment such as beveled rolling pins, the story of the world's largest lefse and other lefse lore. It even has songs with titles like "Oh Ya You Betcha." Sarah Palin ought to love that one. Sung to the melody of "Deep in the Heart of Texas," here's the lyrics:

The lefse's round with spots of brown
Oh yah you betcha, uff da
The lutefisk is such a risk
Oh yah you betcha, uff da
The pickled herring is so daring
Oh yah you betcha, uff da
My belly hurts from all those burps
Oh yah you betcha, uff da

How can you not love something that inspires lyrics like that?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

McItalys, McArabias and Shrimp Burgers

I ran across this January Mark Bittman post on the McItaly, McDonald's lame attempt to tailor a sandwich to the Italian palate. What makes it Italian? Why the artichoke spread and Asigao cheese.

The post led me to another page featuring dozens of other McDonald's country-specific products. There's the Asian ebi (shrimp) burger:

Malaysia's "Double Prosperity Burger":

and the Saudi Arabia's McArabia:

I have confess, this one doesn' t look so bad, although that meat looks awful slimy. One hundred lashes if you don't love it.

I confess a grudging admiration for McDonald's imagination and energy in subverting and dumbing down local food traditions. I'm Lov'n it!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Huff Post Goes Foodie

The Big Bang that is the Huffington Post (It never stops expanding) has launched a food page. I browsed it yesterday and came away impressed. There are posts about KFC's new demon "chicken-wich," the Double Down, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and an interview with "The Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan. An excellent start.

It's not surprising that the Huff Post would add food to its ever expanding subject pages. Food in America is more than just sustenance. What has happened to our diets, to our food supply is one of the most shining examples of all that's gone wrong with our country. Instead of eating what we really like, instead making our own choices, we are drowning in corporate marketing and industrialized food. As in so many things, change will only come to our food system when corporate power is tamed and individual choice and will are restored.

Enough preaching for one day.

Monday, April 12, 2010


I made a quasi-Thai stir fry last night from Ruth Reichl's recent memoir "Garlic and Sapphires." My wife read the book (I'm next) and suggested I make the recipe on page 70. It was excellent.

The recipe recommended adding a dash or more of Sriracha hot sauce at the end. Anyone who's been to a fair number of Asian restaurants has seen it on tables with salt, pepper and other condiments. It's the red stuff in the plastic squirt bottle with the roaster on the front, sort of an Asian hot ketchup.

I'd never tried it, although I love the bottle's design and melange of languages (Vietnamese, Chinese, English).

I'm not a huge chili head, but I decided to give it a try. It was outstanding, really bringing the somewhat vinegary dish together, a very nice balance of hot and sweet.

So if you like a little heat, the next time you see Sriracha on the table, put a squirt or two on your food. Really, really good.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Pictured above is the Double Down, KFC's new sandwich. It consists of two deep-fried chicken breasts, cheese, two bacon strips and sauce. That's right. A breadless sandwich.

I know this sounds like a joke (I honestly thought it was when Saturday Night Live mentioned it last night), but I swear to God, it's true. Here's an article in which a Kentucky Fried Chicken marketing executive touts this bunless wonder as "legendary."

So how do you get people to eat something that's so obviously bad for them? You make a commercial that tells you to "unthink." I'm not making this up. Check out the ad. The unspoken message is pretty clear. Yea, this thing is a coronary train wreck. You know it. I know it. But you need to "unthink."

Maybe for the next commercial they could have James Brown singing from the grave only change the lyrics to "Say it loud! I'm ignorant and I'm proud!"


But what to do with all those extra buns? Donate them to the homeless, according to the KFC press release. So next time you see a homeless person with matted hair and a 1970s snorkel coat chewing on a soft fast food bun, thank KFC. And thank you for choosing the Double Down.

Double down is the perfect name for this monstrosity. That's precisely what Kentucky Fried Chicken is doing, doubling down on obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Let them eat dreck.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Steve Irwin's Revenge

Looks horrible, doesn't it? But looks can be deceiving.

What is it? Skate. Every now and then, my fish monger has skate wings. Yes, they look pre-historic, but they also always look very fresh. They remind me of the Croc Hunter, Steve Irwin, even though I know it was a different devil-like underwater flyer that killed him.

"He's a beauty, eh?"

Several weeks ago, I put aside any concern about appearance and decided to give skate a try. Maybe I'd avenge Steve by eating the evolutionary cousin of the fish that sent him to the great croc hunt in the sky.

The store cleaned the fish for me, removing the cartilage and leaving four long fillets. Even though the fillets were relatively thin, they were firm. Instead of flakes, the flesh consisted of lines up and down the length of the wing.

Different. I decided on a simple saute. I melted about a tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon of olive oil over a medium heat. After salting and peppering the wings, I dusted them in flour and put them in the pre-heated pan.

The fillets cooked well, but curled at the edges. On my second cooking, I laid a pot lid on the top to force the flesh into the hot butter and oil. This worked well, although it took off a little of the flour.

After about five minutes, I flipped the fillets. After another five minutes, I checked and the meat was still underdone, the surface a little too soft. Concerned, they would fall apart, I carefully flipped them again, but they held together well. In a couple of minutes, the flour browned and I had a really nice crust. I turned a final time, seared a crust on the last side and served.

I've done this recipe twice and found that you really do need to turn the fillets twice. Don't worry. They stay together as long as you're careful.

The taste: outstanding. The flesh was firm, but tender with a unique taste. The first time I made them, I laid out lemon, but my wife and I quickly concluded it was unnecessary. Salt, pepper, flour, plus a little butter and olive oil was all the skate needed.

One caution. Be careful not to overcook. The second time I made the fillets, they came out slightly overcooked and a little stringy, although still delicious.

A final note. My fish guy gave me too much so I froze some. It froze beautifully, losing virtually none of its taste and texture after a week-plus the freezer.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Get Cracking

How many times has this happened to you? You have an egg. You crack it on the lip of the bowl, piercing the yoke and/or shell bits tumble into the bowl with the egg. What's more annoying than fishing tiny shards out of slippery egg white or having to throw out an egg you planned to separate because of a punctured yoke?

Anthony Bourdain has the solution. His "No Reservations" show this week was all about technique. He and his famous and not-so-famous guests demonstrated basic techniques for everything from roasted chicken to spaghetti to . . . cracking an egg.

How to avoid the egg-tastrophe that I described above? Easy, says Jacques Pepin. Crack the egg on a flat surface, the counter for example, not the bowl lip. You don't break the yoke. And because your egg is away from the bowl, shell fragments won't fall in.

I tried this last night while making bread pudding. It worked brilliantly. The shells came apart easily and there was no struggle to keep pieces out of the mixture.

Yes, there is a better way to crack an egg. Who knew?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Net Neturality in Danger

Like this blog and the idea that anyone can start one that everyone can view for free? Enjoy surfing the net without restriction? Love free and easy access for just $20 a month?

Get ready to kiss it all good bye -- if you don't act.

The Internet as we know it depends on "net neutrality," the FCC policy that requires Internet providers to treat all content equally. They can't, for example, compel YouTube to pay them fees, make you pay for different levels of access to content or slow or block sites they don't like or aren't paying them.

Big media corporations hate net neutrality and want to destroy it so they can make you pay a lot more for Internet and force you to look at just their sites or ones that pay them. Unfortunately, Comcast yesterday won a catastrophic ruling from a federal appeals court significantly curbing the FCC's authority to enforce net neutrality.

Passivity has become a core American characteristic in the last two decades. Americans just stood aside as the tax code was tilted toward the rich, regulations that protected them were gutted and they were, at the very least, misled into a disastrous war. Indeed, passivity is what Fox News, for all its Sturm and Drang, seeks to breed: all that stuff about the country going to hell, Iraq being a disaster, Bush letting New Orleans drown, the need for health care and other reform? It's all lies. So you don't have to do anything. Just be passive.

We can't be passive on this one. If we are, we'll lose one of the few things that still works for ordinary people in this country, that allows for free speech and expression, that is controlled and shaped by individuals instead of huge, rapacious corporations. So don't sit on your hands. Write your federal and state representatives and the White House, do everything you can to save net neutrality.

Otherwise this blog and millions of others will go dark, destroyed by the same greedheads who have done so much damage to our country in the last 20 years.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Counting Calories

One part of the recently passed health care bill that's getting a lot of attention is the requirement that chain restaurants prominently list their food's calorie content. This article quotes a representative of the ueber-conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute decrying the requirement as nanny state-ism run amok. People should take responsibility for themselves, he says.

I am not totally without sympathy for that argument. I take a very dim view, for example, of McDonald's-made-me-fat lawsuits.

But that attitude fails to recognize the monumental influence, power and sophistication of modern marketing. McDonald's advertising budget is bigger than the GDP of many small nations. What chance does the individual consumer have against that?

Personal freedom means making your own decisions. That requires information. But if all the information you have is spin and lies from food companies, can you really exercise free choice? You think you are making a personal choice, but actually you are being manipulated by giant corporations seeking to sell you crap.

When cutting edge advertising was putting a Burma Shave sign on every roadside barn in America, you could make the libertarian argument that everyone should be responsible for themselves. But that ad did not seek to manipulate, to twist reality, as modern advertising does. It just says "Burma Shave."America's eating habits, which are largely shaped by marketing and advertising, are catastrophic. The only way to improve them is to even the playing field by countering all the misinformation, and the only entity that can do that is government.

So, I support listing calories on menus. Doing so increases, not decreases, freedom by providing diners with the information they need to decide what they want to eat -- not what Big Food wants them to eat.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Paprika Chicken and Oven Rice

We had friends over for dinner this weekend, and I prepared two of our old standbys, recipes I've been making since 1998 when I first read them in the New York Times Magazine: paprika chicken and oven rice.

In those days, there was much less food writing in the Times. The recipe at the back of the magazine was the paper's culinary cat's meow.

Today, the magazine recipes are often impossibly eccentric, requiring unusual, esoteric equipment and ingredients (12 spice powder and a milk press? What the heck are those?). For practical cooking, the Wednesday food section is the star.

Back to the recipes. Both are easy and perfect for guests because the prep is done long before they arrive. so you can socialize while dinner cooks. In spite of the relatively large amount paprika ( a tablespoon), this dish is not spicy. I'm not sure why, but suspect that the sour cream absorbs much of the heat.

A couple of notes on the chicken rice. Olive oil works just as well as butter. And I find three cups of chicken stock overpowers the rice, as well as turning it an unappetizing nut brown. I use two cups of stock and a cup of water.

A wonderful dish, especially on a cold winter's night, that we never tire of. It also makes for great leftovers.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Crate Art

I recently discovered crate art, labels that growers affixed to produce boxes from the late 19th century until the 1960s. As distribution went nationwide, wholesalers and later the government needed to track the origin of fruits and vegetables. What started as a practical necessity turned into an art form, with intricate, colorful, eye-catching lithographs of perfect produce and perfectly fruited plains.

I love these labels because in contrast to most food marketing today, which almost always hawks highly processed products, they aim to make simple, unprocessed fruits and vegetables desirable, delectable, exotic, even sexy.

Crate labels all but disappeared in the 1960s as growers moved from crates to boxes and more practical if less aesthetically pleasing methods of tracking produce developed.

Here and here are websites that sell antique produce labels. Take a browse. They are fascinating. Some examples:

I have a weakness for labels from Redlands, California because my great grandparents lived there:

Inevitably, America's history of racism is reflected in label art, ranging from mildly politically incorrect . . .

to outright racist.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Year of Eating Dangerously

This blog is getting a lot of attention in the wake of Jamie Oliver's horrifying window into school lunches. This teacher is eating the lunches at her school for a year complete with gut-wrenching photos. Blech! If this doesn't make you demand some culinary perestroika , I don't what will.

I long ago gave up on school lunches. The food is horrifying. And disgustingly standardized. My part of Connecticut makes the best pizza in America, but the schools serve card board topped with ketchup probably baked six months before in Fargo, North Dakota, frozen and shipped nationwide.

I bake a batch of skinless chicken thighs every weekend, varying the recipes, and give my daughter one plus a salad and a container of pineapple rings. Here's a photo of this week's Asian-marinated chicken thighs:

Here's the recipe: Remove skins from five to six thighs. Whisk together one tablespoon each of soy sauce and Chinese cooking wine or sherry plus one teaspoon each of sugar and sesame oil. Marinate thighs for half an hour. Bake at 400 degrees F for 48 minutes (an odd time, but I've baked this many, many times and I find they come out perfectly).