Monday, December 31, 2007

Some Sage Advice

An article in a recent issue of Fine Cooking magazine offers some suggestions for cooking with sage, which happens to be one of my favorite herbs. One of the cooking suggestions sounds quite tasty, yet nutritionally sound:

Simmer canellini beans with lots of chopped fresh sage, garlic, and pepper. Dress the cooked beans while still hot with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red-wine vinegar, chopped fresh sage, and garlic.

Considering the way I've been eating since Thanksgiving, I'll probably be eating stuff like this a lot over the next few weeks.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Land of Diners

New Jersey is the land of diners. It seems impossible to drive 10 miles in any direction without seeing at least one of 'em.

No wonder ex-Gov. Jim McGreevey writes in his recently published autobiography, The Confession, that the most important political decisions in New Jersey are made inside diners.

Traveling through central N.J., heading east to visit friends in metro New York, I stopped and ate at The Spinning Wheel Diner a few nights ago. It is located on Route 22 in Hunterdon County. The hot pastrami sandwich was excellent; the onion rings were not.

Yesterday for lunch, it was the Riverview Diner in Weehawken, N.J. It is aptly named, as it may have the best view of any diner in the Garden State, only 40 feet from the western bank of the Hudson River with the sleek skyscrapers of Manhattan looming in the distance, spread out like a line of dominoes.

As we left the Riverview Diner, I overheard a customer speaking to a waitress in a Tony Sopranoesque voice. "I don't wanna be no trouble," he said, "but could I get a few meatbells wid my ravioli?"

The waitress nodded, barely making eye contact.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Don't Light a Match Near Emeril's Egg Nog

On Christmas day, my sister-in-law had an enterprising idea, to which I gave my wholehearted support. She wanted to prepare a batch of homemade egg nog for all of us to enjoy. So she surfed on the Food Network's website and came across this recipe by Emeril Lagasse.

The amount of alcohol (2 cups of bourbon and 1 cup of brandy) seemed a little high, but my sister-in-law understandably placed herself in Emeril's experienced hands.

The result? Egg nog that was so heavily laden with booze that it could have doubled as lighter fluid.

A question for Mr. Lagasse: Are you participating in a particular 12-step program at the moment? Your undrinkable egg nog recipe makes me wonder.

Right Apples for the Right Pie

I baked two pies for Christmas dinner this evening: one cherry and one apple. I adore apples in every form -- baked, caramelized, in dumplings or pies, or just eaten out of hand.

I know from experience and from my reading that MacIntosh apples are wonderful for making applesauce, but disasterous for baking in a pie. MacIntoshes don't hold their shape well and turn bland and mushy in a pie.

Tonight, unfortunately, another relative baked a pie with MacIntosh apples. It did not come out well. My pie was tasty (based on voluntary praise from a houseful of eaters). I wish I could attribute this to my culinary skills, but it really boils down to the variety of apples I used -- a combination of Granny Smith and Fuji apples.

All of you apple-pie bakers out there, heed this warning. Buy MacIntoshes for homemade applesauce, but don't dare use them for pie.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Apple-Sweet Potato Casserole

We're having two of our best friends over for a pre-Christmas dinner this evening -- something we do with these friends every year. A pork loin roast is headlining the menu, and I have just taken the apple-sweet potato casserole out of the oven. It smells heavenly.

The recipe? It's quite simple.

4 medium to large-sized sweet potatoes
5 tablespoons of butter
1-1/4 cup of unsweetened applesauce
1 tablespoon of nutmeg, freshly grated
2 tablespoons of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of allspice
granulated sugar (to your taste)
1 tablespoon of apple-jack brandy or calvados
2 eggs
Optional: chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel the sweet potatoes, cut them into chunks and then bring them to boil in a pot of water. Reduce to a simmer and continue until the potatoes are cooked through.

Drain the sweet potatoes and set aside. Place the butter, cut up into a few pieces, in the bottom of a stainless steel bowl. Pour the sweet potatoes on top and begin mixing with a hand beater (a large mixer can also be used) until the butter is incorporated into the sweet potatoes.

Now add the applesauce and continue beating until the apple-sweet potato mixture is smooth. Add the nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, beating the mixture to incorporate the spices. Add the sugar, starting with a 1/2 cup and then tasting before adding more until you get it right. (Why don't I specify an amount of granulated sugar to add? Because sweet potatoes and applesauce can vary widely in their sweetness.)

Now add the apple brandy and mix it into the apple-sweet potato mixture. Then beat two eggs into the same mixture until well incorporated -- at least one full minute. Pour the apple-sweet potato mixture into an ungreased casserole dish and bake for 30 minutes.

Optional: sprinkle chopped walnuts or pecans on top. Allow it to cool a little, then serve.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Memories of Christmas Cookies

I enjoyed this recent article in the N.Y. Times. Perhaps you will too. The article drew me in from the very start:

The daughter of an interfaith marriage, I chose Judaism, but Christmas cookies chose me.

. . . This year I reconsidered the cookies of my youth, baked each Christmas by my grandmother. I had neglected those recipes in recent years . . .

Many recipes were titanic and laborious. The royal fans required washing the butter, a throwback to the days when most butter was salted, and carefully pinching the dough to shape the creases, each painstakingly painted a different color.

. . . Even though I fashion my gingerbread into dreidels and menorahs, as I bake from her recipes I feel close to her arms, crepe-thin and marked with pronounced veins, working the dough.

These days my grandmother is suffering from severe dementia and lives in a nursing home. I called the other day to discuss white bark balls, but she kept speaking about the beach. I don’t know where this beach of her mind exists, but I’ll bet they wash butter there.

At one point, the author refers to "chocolate ginger snaps." Those could either be really good or really disappointing. I love ginger snaps so much I'd almost be too afraid to mess with a good thing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mighty Appetites

Last night, I went out with a friend to eat Italian. The food was tasty, but I overindulged. It didn't help that complimentary bruschetta was brought to the table, as was a plate of fried zucchini. The entree portions were huge.

The experience reminded me of a meal described in The Physiology of Taste, a book written in 1825 by the Frenchman Brillat-Savarin.

In a section of his book entitled "Mighty Appetites," Brillat-Savarin recalls:
Some forty years ago I paid a visit to the vicar of Bregnier, a man of great stature, whose appetite was renowned throughout the district.

Although it was hardly noon, I found him already eating. The soup and boiled beef had been served, and after these two traditional dishes came a leg of mutton a la royale, a handsome capon, and a generous salad.

. . . alone and without help from me, he easily got rid of the whole course, which is to say, the mutton down to its bone, the capon down to its several bones, and the salad down to the bottom of the bowl.

Next came a good-sized white cheese, from which he cut a wedge-shaped piece of precisely ninety degrees; and he washed down the whole with a bottle of wine and a carafe of water . . .

. . . during this entire operation which lasted about three quarters of an hour, the good priest seemed completely at his ease.
Wait a minute. I thought gluttony was one of the seven deadly sins.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

On a Cold Night, Sweet Potatoes Hit the Spot

It's cold outside, and the weather forecast is calling for freezing rain and snow this weekend. On a blustery December night like this one, there is something wonderful about a dish of sweet potatoes.

So I peeled two large sweet potatoes, boiled them until they were cooked through, mashed them with about 4 tablespoons of butter, 3 tablespoons of molasses, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon-sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg (freshly ground), and 1/4 teaspoon of ground coriander.

High in protein and quite yummy.

According to this website, sweet potatoes were among the new foods that Columbus "discovered" and brought back with him to Spain.
The Spanish relished [sweet potatoes] and began cultivating them immediately. Soon they were profitably exporting them to England where they were included in spice pies to be devoured at the court of Henry VIII.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Aptly Named "Fruit Perfect"

I just received the latest catalogue from American Spoon Foods, a company based in northern Michigan that specializes in fruit baskets, fruit preserves, fruit butters and similar products. I am definitely going to put in an order.

Everything I've tasted from ASF is wonderful -- especially the items they call "fruit perfect," which ASF describes as "the closest thing to fresh fruit ever captured in a jar." It's great over waffles, pancakes or ice cream.

ASF's preserves are far superior to the bland, overly sweetened mush that appears in jars labeled Smucker's.

Anyway, if you love fruit and you haven't heard of ASF, they are definitely worth checking out. Here is ASF's website.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Another OpenTable Offender

I have stumbled on yet another offender -- Il Mulino.
The much-ballyhooed N.Y. Italian restauranteurs Fernando and Gino Masci recently opened an outpost here in Washington, D.C. I tried to make a reservation on only to find that Il Mulino seems to restrict its OpenTable bookings so that you can't book a table for dinner at any time after 6:00 or earlier than 9:30.

Who the hell eats dinner at 6 p.m. in Washington, D.C. unless you've got theater tickets that evening?

I posted on this topic a few months ago; it really annoys me when restaurants try to have it both ways. They think it's cool for their image to have "an online presence" so they decide to participate in OpenTable, but only in the most minimal and meaningless sense.

There is a word for this practice: obnoxious. I voted with my feet by choosing another restaurant. Il Mulino joins La Chaumiere as being among a select few, backward Washington restaurants that are unwilling to give diners the convenience of booking tables at any available time. They are now both off my dining list. is culpable too. It should not allow restaurants to play this restricted-hours game. OpenTable should require all of its participating restaurants to allow bookings at all hours that the restaurant is open.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Glass of Wine in an Unlikely Place

After enduring a long flight delay on Sunday, missing my connection and then having my gate changed to a different terminal at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I happened to notice a wine bar in the D-Gates terminal called La Bodega Winery.

As it turns out, La Bodega is a Texas winery and much of the wines served at the wine bar are also produced in Texas. The wine bar at DFW also offers wines from California, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa. Wines are sold by "the taste" (roughly 4 ounces), by the glass (6 ounces) and by the bottle.

I drank a red zin produced by California's Hullabaloo. It wasn't dazzling, but it was pleasant enough to serve as a welcome diversion from the evening's hassles. Other than La Bodega, DFW Airport is basically a food wasteland -- much like O'Hare.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

RIP: The Entree

In today's NY Times, staff writer Kim Severson makes this shocking pronouncement:
The entree, long the undisputed centerpiece of an American restaurant meal, is dead.

O.K., so maybe it’s not quite time to write the entree’s obituary. But in many major dining cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, the main course is under attack.

Although the entree’s ills were first diagnosed in the late 1990s, when the rise of small plates kicked off the tapafication of American menus, the attacks have become more serious lately.
I'd like to hear officials at the Scripps National Spelling Bee ask a 14-year-old to spell "tapafication." The entire article is here.

Teasers Can Be Tricky

For example, take the teaser that is on the front page of today's Food section in the Washington Post. It reads:
Westend Bistro
How does Eric Ripert's D.C. spot compare with his Le Bernardin in New York? It doesn't.
"How catty," was my first thought — the Post is dissing Ripert's newly opened Washington restaurant. I almost skipped past the article written by the Post's Tom Sietsema, assuming I already had the gist of it. As it turns out, however, the Post was not taking a shot at Ripert's Westend Bistro.

I doubt that I was the only reader who assumed that the Post was giving Westend Bistro the thumbs-down. That's bad news for Westend if those readers never get around to reading the actual article.

This same story appears in the Post's online version, but there is no teaser — only the headline, which is hard to misinterpret. The headline reads: It's Not Le Bernardin, and That's the Point.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

When France Was a Food Purgatory

This is Paul Bocuse, one of the chefs who helped establish France as the culinary heaven that it is today. But there was a time when the food that adorned the dinner table in France was utterly forgettable mush. In his newly published book, The Discovery of France, Graham Robb writes about the quality of French food in the 19th Century:
The standard [food] was usually too dull to be mentioned, unless it was spectacularly bad, which is why, in early nineteenth century novels, great meals are usually on par with outstanding orgies, with which they often coincide.

Few people would have guessed that France would one day be the goal of gastro-tourists. Beyond the homes of the rich and a few restaurants, recipes were unusual. The word "recette" (meaning "recipe" in French) referred primarily to the preparation of pharmaceutical remedies.
But, surely, I thought, the baguette — the long loaves of soft, chewy dough with a crispy, golden brown crust — had their origin in 1800's France. On the contrary, according to Robb, French bread during the 19th century was nothing to dream about. Bread in the typical village was baked only a few times each year, and the resulting supply was meant to last the locals for several months. For this reason, writes Robb:

For tourists who ventured beyond Paris, the true taste of France was stale bread. ... This was bread that had lived through the year with the people who baked it, as hard as stone, immune to the weather and able to travel great distances. The tougher varieties out of storage [were] fossilized crisps that had to be smashed with a hammer, boiled five times with a few potatoes and perhaps flavoured with milk.

Most travellers quailed at the thought of eating local bread and took their own supply of biscuits.
And, in the province of Anjou, in western France, ordinary people ate

... some salted lard on Sunday to change the taste of the bread.
This makes me want to rush to the bakery in order to buy a baguette, bite into it and just reassure myself that the images that Robb's book created are truly an unfortunate relic of the past.

Would You Pay $330,000 . . .

. . . . for something that looks like this? In case you haven't guessed, it's a truffle.

In this case, the truffle weighed 3.3 pounds. In a European charity auction, Bloomberg News reported this weekend that the winning bidder for this large truffle actually paid $330,000.

It may seem hard to believe that something that looks like this could actually taste so extraordinary, but, as someone who has tasted scrambled eggs with black truffles, I must confirm that truffles add an amazing flavor to foods. You will not, however, hear of the Food Dude paying $330,000 for a truffle. (My pockets aren't that deep.)

This British website provides the ABCs of everything you could want to know about truffles.