Friday, November 30, 2007

More Eatin' in New Orleans

I just returned from a brief trip to New Orleans. It goes without saying that this is a wonderful city in which to eat, and I have a few more recommendations to pass along.

I had a wonderful, comfort food-style lunch at Sammy's -- not the restaurant by that name in the French Quarter, but the Sammy's that is located at 3000 Elysian Field Avenue (in the city's 7th Ward). Excellent turnip greens and sausage.

If you happen to be in the Quarter and see Coops Place on Decatur Street, keep on walking and try someplace else. I'm sure Coops would be a perfectly fine place to stop for a drink, but the food is bland and poorly seasoned.

If you are tired of Cajun or Creole cooking, the sushi at newly opened Takumi is excellent. The fresh salmon rolls are superb. Takumi is located uptown at 2800 Magazine Street.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Brining Produced a Better Turkey

So now for a review of the dishes that adorned my Thanksgiving table.

Right before Thanksgiving, this NY Times article raised the question of whether a low-yielding crop of cranberries and increased demand would make Thanksgiving tables "berry-free" this year. This was not the case at our home. We had two dishes featuring cranberries, and both were supplied by guests.

One was a more traditional cranberry sauce, although it was the gelatinous, bland concoction that comes from a jar. It was homemade, and it included lots of plump cranberries and a handful of tart cherries. The recipe had just the right amount of sugar and a nice touch of ground cloves.

The second option for cranberries was a relish; it was fine, but not as tasty as the cranberry sauce.

The turkey was a huge hit with everyone -- more flavorful than any turkey I can recall. Why? I'd attribute it to two factors. First, we bought a fresh turkey (never frozen). Second, we brined the turkey. Although I have seen recipes for brining that included numerous ingredients, our recipe was very basic. Here it is:
* Insert a 12- to 15-lb. fresh turkey into a brining bag
* Pour 4 gallons of cool (not lukewarm) water into the bag
* Combine 2 cups of kosher salt and 1 cup of granulated sugar, stir briefly to incorporate the two
* Add the salt and sugar into the brining bag and seal the bag
* Turn the bag over a few times to help distribute the salt and sugar more evenly
* Let the turkey brine for at least 10-12 hours
Where do you keep a brining turkey? Most sinks are a little small -- not to mention the fact that few cooks want to keep their sink off-limits for 12 hours. We kept ours in a large ice chest, and we periodically added ice to the perimeter of the brining bag just to keep the turkey from reaching room temperature. Here is a good article on the basics of brining.

The stuffing was good, but not great. We made two versions of traditional bread stuffing -- one had chopped, dried dates, which added a hint of sweetness. I liked that version a little better.

We had three kinds of pie: pumpkin (of course), cherry and apple-raspberry.

Here are my grades for the side dishes: the orange sweet potatoes got an A-, the corn pudding deserved a B- (I should have used fresh corn), and the mashed potatoes got a B.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A New Twist on Pumpkin Pie

I frequently try to consider ways to tweak existing recipes, even those with which I have had good results. I guess it's just my desire to break out of the mold and try something a little different. For this reason, I was pleased to stumble upon this web page, on which a cook shares how she broke out of the standard recipe for pumpkin pie.

She used pumpkin cut from an actual sugar pumpkin (as opposed to "solid pack pumpkin" from a can). And then she searched for a substitute for the can of evaporated milk that is a regular item on the ingredient list. More on how it turned out right here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Eat Your Vegetables? The Pilgrims Didn't

I have been reading an excellent book called Everyday Life in Early America, whose author is David Freeman Hawke. Hawke writes that our country's earliest white settlers:
. . . brought from home an ingrained distaste for vegetables, "food more meet for hogs and savage beasts to feed upon than mankind," and a conviction that they were unhealthy when eaten raw.
Then comes my favorite piece of prose from Hawke:
They planted familiar root crops in the kitchen garden -- parsnips, turnips, carrots, and onions -- then cooked them lovingly into something close to a tasteless pulp.
Hawke goes on to explain that the earliest white settlers in America "were not adventuresome cooks. They sampled the sweet potato and rejected it."

As a fan of sweet potatoes, I am offended (although it makes sense if you consider that British culinary history is nothing to celebrate).

It's Green-Bean Casserole Time

In this article, the Washington Post profiles the dish that is oh so familiar to the dinner table at Thanks- giving:

MONTVALE, N.J. -- Here, in a gleaming stainless-steel test laboratory, six employees in hairnets and white coats are peering at our Thanksgiving destiny. It is a tray of French's French Fried Onions, or FFOs, those succulent morsels of oil and shame that must top the green bean casserole that must appear on 30 million groaning tables on Thursday.

They must taste like reliability itself, a polestar of Americana in an era of artisanal persimmon-infused oil glazing haricot verts.

... The ideal FFO is a nice round O, or at least a crunchy strip. That's what they're after, here in the lab, where they perfect the recipe that is mass-produced and lands, in 2.8- and 6-ounce containers, in supermarkets from coast to coast (with biggest sales in the Midwest, of course).

... To ask why we eat FFOs is an attempt to get at the root of Thanksgiving gluttony itself. There is no reason except that we are Americans and it is our God-given right.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is Thanksgiving About the Side Dishes?

The N.Y. Times' Melissa Clark seems to think so. In today's edition of the newspaper, she writes:
From an omnivore’s perspective, Thanksgiving should be a vegetarian’s feast. After all, aren’t the side dishes usually the best part of the meal?

But talk to vegetarians and the laments loom large. There’s bacon in the brussels sprouts . . .
How else would you get anyone to eat brussels sprouts? But I digress.
. . . gravy on the mashed potatoes, dressing stuffed into the bird and chicken stock in everything else. If they’re lucky, that leaves a dinner of sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce and maybe some green beans.

The worst thing, though, isn’t the food so much as the feeling of alienation from the rest of a shared meal.

“Everyone else loved it the year my cousin Laura discovered chorizo and added it to everything, but for me it was a low and lonely point,” said my friend Zoe Singer, a food writer and former vegetarian.
I think it's reasonable that vegetarians who sit down at a family meal have at least one or two side dishes that fit their diet. But I doubt that Zoe's cousin literally "added [chorizo] to everything" -- it may have seemed that way to a frustrated vegetarian.

A vegetarian who expects most of the side dishes on the Thanksgiving table to be completely meatless has unreasonable expectations.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chocolate Is Mighty Old

I came across this story online a few days ago:

Central Americans were drinking beverages made from the cacao plant before 1000 BC, 500 years earlier than previously thought, say archaeologists.

These early cacao beverages were probably alcoholic brews, or beers, made from the fermented pulp of the cacao fruit, rather than the frothy chocolate-flavoured drink made from the seed of the cacao tree that was such an important feature of later Mesoamerican culture.

... in brewing up this primitive beer, or chicha, the ancient Mesoamericans may have stumbled on the secret to making chocolate-flavoured drinks, report experts in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

"In the course of beer brewing, you discover that if you ferment the seeds of the plant you get this chocolate taste," said John Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and lead author of the paper. "It may be that the roots of the modern chocolate industry can be traced back to this primitive fermented drink."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dining in San Diego

I was in San Diego a few nights ago, and I had a pleasant dinner at Nine-Ten, a restaurant in La Jolla.

The lobster bisque was wonderful. The chef didn't take the easy route by over-relying on the cream and butter; the stock that served as the base for the bisque was very flavorful.

Nine-Ten also had several nice wines by the glass. I started with the Two Angels sauvignon blanc, which was excellent. Then I switched to a red to accompany my main course -- a syrah from Spain that was also quite good.

Monday, November 5, 2007

L-Glutamate and the Dimensions of Taste

How many tastes can a human being taste?

The answer used to be four -- until a French chef named Auguste Escoffier came along during the late 19th century. Soon, researchers decided there was a taste that didn't fall into the previous four categories of sweet, salty, bitter and sour. According to NPR:
. . . (Escoffier) created meals that tasted like no combination of salty, sour, sweet and bitter; they tasted new. Escoffier invented veal stock.

. . . halfway across the world, a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda was at the very same time enjoying a bowl of dashi, a classic Japanese soup made from seaweed. He too sensed that he was tasting something beyond category. Dashi has been used by Japanese cooks much the way Escoffier used stock, as a base for all kinds of foods. And it was, thought Ikeda, simply delicious.

But what was it? Being a chemist, Ikeda could find out. He knew what he was tasting was, as he wrote, "common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but … not one of the four well-known tastes."

Ikeda went into his lab and found the secret ingredient. He wrote in a journal for the Chemical Society of Tokyo that it was glutamic acid, but he decided to rename it. He called it "umami," which means "delicious" or "yummy" in Japanese.
You can hear the full audio of the story that aired this morning on NPR.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

One Reason He Makes It Look So Easy

Yesterday, I was watching Emeril Lagasse's TV show. He was showing his television and studio audience how to prepare a cassoulet.

It occurred to me how effortless it was for him to prepare this recipe. It's safe to say that anyone who becomes a chef has a certain knack for cooking. But it occurred to me that there are a few other reasons why it seemed so easy for him to prepare a complicated dish like cassoulet.

First, he does a whole lot of cooking and, as the adage goes, "practice makes perfect."

Second, you never see people like Emeril or Paula Deen slicing, chopping or dicing their own ingredients. Instead, when they need to add chopped celery, diced potatoes, or chopped fresh oregano, they simply reach a foot to their right and pick up a nice little bowl of it (already measured, of course) and pour it into the pot or skillet.

I will never cook as well as Emeril, but I would spend a lot more time in the kitchen if I had someone to cut, slice or chop my ingredients for me.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Fall Means Apple Cider Donuts

At least it does to me. I recently have enjoyed some wonderful apple-cider donuts. First, I enjoyed a crispier version at Marker-Miller Orchards, just west of Winchester, Va. They were very good (see above). Then I had apple-cider donuts at Terhune Orchards, which is located a few miles outside of Princeton, N.J. Terhune's were softer and more traditional. But both versions were delicious.

If you're ever near Princeton during the fall season, give Terhune a try. This is their website. Marker-Miller's website is here.

For those who have never tried apple-cider donuts, the apple cider flavor in these donuts is very subtle -- not overwhelming.