Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What the Heck is This?

That's what my family and I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Corn Sugar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

No Toilet Paper Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much more mainstream American can you get?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Tasmanian Tuna Pasta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fat Bastard

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

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

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

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