Thursday, January 31, 2008

Just in Time for Valentine's Day

There was a time when finding artisanal chocolates meant traveling across the pond to Europe. But chocolatiers are showing off their skills on this side of the Atlantic too.

This article by Andrea Pyenson at profiles several artisanal chocolate shops in the U.S.

The Other Kind of Beefsteak

This is one kind. But it's not the kind of "beefsteak" that the NY Times wrote about in Wednesday's Food section:

It was Friday evening at V.F.W. Post 4591 in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., and the scene was a vegetarian’s nightmare.

About 350 men, seated shoulder to shoulder at long tables, were devouring slices of beef tenderloin and washing them down with pitchers of beer. As waiters brought trays of meat, the guests reached over and harvested the pink slices with their bare hands, popping them down the hatch.

. . . Each slice was perched on a round of Italian bread, but most of the men ate only the meat and stacked the bread slices in front of them, tallying their gluttony like poker players amassing chips. Laughter and uproarious conversation were in abundance; subtlety was not.

As anyone in northern New Jersey could tell you, this was a beefsteak. The term refers not to a cut of meat but to a raucous all-you-can-eat-and-drink banquet with a rich history in Bergen and Passaic Counties.

The events, which typically attract crowds of 150 or more, with a ticket price of about $40, are popular as political meet-and-greets, annual dinners for businesses and civic groups, and charity fundraisers. Caterers said they put on about 1,000 of them in the region last year.

. . . the beefsteak came into being in the mid-1800s, became popular as a political fund-raiser and vote-buyer, and began a slow decline when women started taking part after being granted suffrage in 1920.
Starting with Eve, women have been blamed for just about everything.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Can a Sandwich Be Slandered?

That's the question posed by a headline in Tuesday's business section of the NY Times.

The article explains that Quiznos, a sandwich chain, sponsored a contest in which the public was invited to submit homemade commercials that took aim at sandwich rival Subway. According to the NYT:
The contest rules made it clear that the videos should depict Quiznos sandwiches as “superior” to Subway’s.

Subway promptly sued Quiznos and iFilm, the Web site owned by Viacom that ran the contest, saying that many of the homemade videos made false claims and depicted its brand in a derogatory way.

Subway is also objecting to ads that Quiznos itself created, showing people on the street choosing Quiznos over Subway.

. . . the Subway lawsuit, which seeks financial and punitive damages, seems to open a Pandora’s box.

“Let’s just hope that as collateral damage it doesn’t kill the entire genre of competitive advertising,” said Brad Brinegar, chief executive of McKinney, an ad agency in Durham, N.C., that does not work with Subway or Quiznos.

. . . Among the videos that can still be seen on YouTube, one shows a wife arriving home with a Quiznos sandwich for her husband and a Subway sandwich for her dog. In another, a young man runs through town to find a sandwich, passing by seven Subway stores before he reaches a Quiznos and goes in. In a third, two men punt sandwiches across a parking lot; the Subway one soars high but the Quiznos one is so heavy that the man falls over when he kicks it.
I hope the courts require Subway to meet an appropriately high legal standard to win its case.

Frankly, I don't understand anyone who's a fan of either Quiznos or Subway sandwiches. Maybe if you're in a hurry and one of 'em is located right near your office, but I can't imagine buying a sandwich from either Quiznos or Subway that would be half as enjoyable as the pastrami sandwich I had at Ben's Kosher Deli last week.

Call It Mussolini's Revenge

Last night, I was thumbing through a collection of Truman Capote's letters (Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke) when I read a 1949 letter that was penned by Capote to his friend, Andrew Lyndon, after Capote had been living in Italy for several months.

In the letter, Capote writes that his stomach "has finally revolted against Italian food."

Is this possible? I think I could eat Italian for a whole year straight without annoying either my stomach or my taste buds. Osso bucco. Risotto. Tiramisu. Spaghetti bolognese. Brunello di Montalcino. Panna cotta. Prosciutto with melon. Don't those words qualify as verbal foreplay?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I Traded Beer for Vino

Okay, so I know Wisconsin is supposed to be a place where you cuddle up with a nice microbrew, but, instead, I built my meal around wine tonight at Eno Vino Wine Bar in Madison.

I ordered a quartino of a Super Tuscan, and I ate two appetizers: crab spring rolls and a shrimp tempura. It's not hard to see why Eno Vino was voted "best new restaurant" in 2005 by readers of Madison magazine.

Is It Quality Control or the "Sushi Police"?

I'll let you decide. Here's the wire story that ran on Tuesday:

Japan launched a campaign Tuesday to certify authentic Japanese food overseas, but insisted it was only promoting its cuisine rather than setting up a "sushi police."

. . . The campaign when first announced was mocked by some Western media as a futile effort at a time when Japanese food is growing in popularity across the world.

To qualify for certification, applicants are required to use Japanese rice and seasoning along with traditional ingredients. Restaurants must also show knowledge of Japanese recipes and proper hygiene. Restaurants must also clear at least two of five criteria such as originality, dish arrangement and customer service.

. . . The organisation will hold a conference on March 27 and 28 in Tokyo to explain the system, inviting restaurant owners and others from around the world.

Japanese officials and tourists have voiced growing alarm at what they see as vile imitations of their cuisine overseas, fearing that Japanese food will go the way of Chinese cuisine in North America and Europe.
This is a strange analogy, given that my friends who have traveled to China say they have been very disappointed in the quality of "Chinese" restaurants over there. Anyway, the story continues:
The ubiquitous California roll is a case in point. The vegetarian sushi dish, which replaces sushi with avocado or cucumbers and may include cream cheese, is unrecognisable to most Japanese.
I'm sorry if Japanese visitors to the states are confused by what we call a "California roll" and I see nothing wrong with allowing some restaurants to be certified as authentically Japanese. But I'm worried that this may be the culinary version of France's Académie Francaise. A nation that eats sea urchin and nattō is in no position to instruct the rest of the world how we should eat our sushi.

Dreaming of Pizza

I'm off to Wisconsin this morning for a work-related trip. I'm dreaming of the wonderful thin-crust pizza at Frank's, which is located on the main drag in Appleton. But I seriously doubt I'll make it up there during this trip. (Sigh)

Monday, January 28, 2008

It’s the Only Reason I Drink It

Okay, so I lied. But, even so, it's always good to learn from an article in Wine Spectator of yet another excuse for drinking red wine. In the current issue of WS, Jacob Gaffney writes:

Red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Shiraz make for potent bacteria killers, according to recent research. … (And these red wines) did not destroy useful probiotic bacteria such as those that aid in digestion.
The research was conducted by a University of Missouri microbiologist who tested 11 different red wines on several strains of harmful bacteria, including E-coli and salmonella.

Are You a Burger Sissy?

If you're passionate about hamburgers, check out this post from James Oliver Cury at Epi-Log.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Port and Chocolate

Last night, we had a few friends over for dinner, and the finishing touch was port and chocolates. It's a classic combo. A while ago, Maria Ross at IntoWine wrote this article about pairing chocolate with dessert wines.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dinner at Station 9

I had an uneasy feeling last night as our appetizers arrived at Station 9, a restaurant which opened last fall in Washington, D.C.'s U Street district.

Why? We already had been told by our server that the kitchen was out of one starter and one entree. Normally, that wouldn't be a big deal, but this was a small menu — there were only about eight starters and eight entrees. Our server had also informed our table that they were out of three bottles of red wine. (That left nine bottles of red to choose from, and none of them was all that exciting so I ordered another cocktail instead.)

So, for these reasons, I was expecting our food to reflect a similar level of disorganization. As it turned out, however, our food was quite good.

My pulled pork and frisee starter was excellent. For my entree, the peanut chicken was a tasty breast, well seasoned and moist. My friends had strip steaks, and they were good, although one of them was overcooked a little — medium-rare turned out to be medium-well.

But, all in all, we had a pleasant dinner. I would definitely be willing to check this place out again. The cuisine is down-home South with Latin twists.

The space, a former post office, has super-high ceilings and is decorated in a glam-meets-postmodern style. The hip, upstairs lounge is also a cool place for late-night drinks, although the separate, velvet rope-line entrance to the lounge seems so New York and soooo not Washington. If Station 9 can work out some of the kinks, it could turn out to be a regular destination of mine.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Thinking of Burgoo

One of these days, I am going to try my hand at making a burgoo. It's sort of the chowder without the seafood that smalltown residents of the Ohio Valley have enjoyed for many years.

I tasted burgoo for the first time several years ago at a Kentucky Derby party. It was excellent.

The people of Owensboro, Kentucky, take their burgoo very seriously, as this web page attests.

It's Conran's Turn

A few days ago, I wrote this post about how the famed New York chef Daniel Boulud responded when asked what he would choose to eat for his last meal on earth.

Courtesy of the website Waitrose, this is how British restauranteur Terence Conran answered the same question:
Tomato salad, langoustine with mayonnaise, a roast grouse and some Scottish raspberries.
I wasn't all that impressed with his choices. But, hey, our taste buds don't all dance to the same music.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Sangria Ban

Right now, any bar or restaurant owner in Virginia who serves sangria is violating a state law. Sound preposterous? Read this article from today's Wash Post.

The law at issue is 75 years old. The threat of legal action has prompted Jaleo, a Spanish tapas eatery in Arlington, Va., to change its recipe for sangria that is served at its suburban Virginia locations.
"It disturbs us," [a general manager at Jaleo] said. "We can't offer real sangria."

It's not just sangria. Other popular drinks are also
off-limits, including kir royals, which are made with sparkling wine, and boilermakers, which include beer and a shot of liquor. Also prohibited are a host of newly fashionable beer cocktails . . .

"It was something that caught us off guard. It is not something that has been on the radar for us," said Barrett Hardiman, director of government relations for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents about 1,100 restaurants in the state. "A lot of people are surprised. . . . It seems archaic to us."
It is archaic.

Bravo to Bistro Lepic

Either upstairs (the younger, hipper feel of its "wine bar") or downstairs (white tablecloth dining), Bistro Lepic in upper Georgetown/Glover Park is a winner.

Last night was my first visit to Bistro Lepic in over six months. Once again, I had a solid meal. It began with a smoked salmon-spinach terrine with a caviar sauce with frisee salad. It sounds heavy, but it was light and flavorful. Next course was grilled trout with lemon-butter. Beautifully fileted and melt-in-your-mouth tender. Two glasses of an Alsatian Pinot Blanc accompanied these courses.

I was too full for an entire dessert so I decided to take my dessert in a glass: a Monbazillac. It was a sublime conclusion.

Bistro Lepic has an excellent selection of wines by the glass, and they are reasonably priced.

Winter Nights, Winter Squash

Whether it's acorn, butternut, Hubbard or other types of winter squash, I love 'em all. This web page from Whole Foods explains how to cook each of them.

Speaking of winter squash, I also stumbled on this food blog, Janet Is Hungry, which shared this interesting recipe for spaghetti squash fritters. It might be worth a try this weekend. Her blog is worth checking out too.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

'Tis the Season

Buying and cooking the right fruits and vegetables is largely about buying and cooking what's in season. This web page from Bon Appetit magazine gives us a roundup of what rocks in wintertime.

A Pinot Primer

Pinot Noir is one of my favorite wine grapes. So this recent article in the Los Angeles Times caught my eye.

Nebbiolo is a notoriously fussy grape. The Barolo region of northern Italy is just about the only region of the world in which Nebbiolo seems to ripen well and produce consistently good wine. Pinot Noir, according to the LA Times article, can be pretty finicky too:
Pinot gets expensive because much of the winemaking required to tweak its distinctive features is risky and high-flying.

"We have to do some pretty nutty things," (DeLoach winemaker Greg) La Follette says, reciting a long list of interventions, including long, cold soaks; stem additions; wild, indigenous yeast fermentations; and impossibly gentle handling. "You have to roll up your sleeves. You need a smart, nimble crew."
The article also quotes an Oregon winemaker who says, "Single vineyard wines can be really good, but just because you only make 300 cases, it doesn't mean you should charge $75 a bottle. So many come right out of the gate with prices that are not reflective of cost — they're reflective of ego, or what the market can bear, or of what their neighbors are charging."

Amen to that.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

New Menu Rules in NYC

Earlier today the New York City Board of Health voted unanimously to require all chain restaurants that operate within the city to post calorie data on their menus.

According to CNN:

Chain restaurants already must make the calorie counts of their menu items publicly available, but beginning March 31 they will have to put the numbers on menu boards and menus. The change will affect restaurants with 15 or more outlets — roughly 10 percent of all city restaurants, according to a news release from the city's health department.

The Department of Health argued in October that "calorie information provided at the time of food selection would enable New Yorkers to make more informed, healthier choices."

According to the article, the most recent data available show that 54 percent of adults who live in NYC are overweight or obese.

His "Final Meal" Is a Beverage

The current issue of Arrive magazine has an article about chef extraordinaire Daniel Boulud. Boulud was asked what he would choose to eat as his last meal on earth. His initial response was this:
"Eat? . . . I'd be more interested in drinking wine rather than eating."
Now that's my kind of chef.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Frigid Weekend in NYC

I just returned from a pleasant weekend in a bitterly cold New York City. Here are some food observations from my weekend:

Aix — This brasserie on the upper West Side serves a fusion of French-Moroccan-Mediterranean cuisine. For dinner, the osso bucco I had was a winner, and my dinner companion had an excellent burger with gruyere. The brie-and-lardon pissaladiere appetizer was superb. On the other hand, the bananas foster-walnut crepe was very disappointing. The texture resembled an empanada more than a crepe, and the bananas were not caramelized.

Ben's Kosher Delicatessen — This deli on 38th Street, between 8th and 7th Avenues, serves one hell of a hot pastrami sandwich. The matzo ball soup is very good too.

Osteria del Circo — The decor of this restaurant on 55th Street is colorful, filled with trapeze bars and other circus paraphernalia. It's one of two restaurants by this name that are operated by the sons of Sirio Maccioni (the other location is in Vegas). The seafood and beef carpaccio were excellent, and both of us had the duck ragu with housemade pasta, which was delightful. The wine list had a Vino Nobile by Avignonesi at $45, easily the best value on this list. The vanilla gelato was lovely, but the homemade pistachio and caffe latte gelati were bland.

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar — This restaurant on W. 23rd Street (@ 6th Ave.) was opened by someone whose proposal won a competition sponsored by NYU's business school. Diners can choose from various dumplings (steamed or fried) and then choose to eat those dumplings with or without an Asian-style soup or salad. My Thai peanut soup — pictured above — was very good. If you like your Asian food hot and spicy, you'll want to add seasonings. Prices are very reasonable.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Either This Tastes Really Good Or . . . .

. . . it tastes really bad. I'm referring to the last of the 10 "Savory Tastes" hailed by food writer John T. Edge in an article in USAirways in-flight magazine. According to Edge, No. 10 on this list of alluring restaurant/bakery finds is:

Soft-Serve Vanilla Ice Cream
With Olive Oil
With a downward pull of a lever, soft-serve ice cream uncoils from a refrigerated machine. . . . the drizzle of artisanal olive oil sets it apart. As does the sprinkle of sea salt. This is ice cream reimagined. Ice cream glorified.
Well, dominus vobiscum right back at ya, John.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Repeat Performance

Tonight, I had yet another excellent meal at Cochon, in New Orleans' warehouse district.

Friends and New Orleans residents tell me that Commander's Palace and Arnaud's have slipped a little, but Cochon — a gem on Tchoupitoulas Street — continues to impress me when I travel to the Crescent City.

My meal began with an appetizer of fried alligator with a pepper-garlic aioli. This was followed by an entree of catfish courtbouillion. I dined at the bar, and the woman who took my order described it accurately. It wasn't heavy, but it was spicy (although not "hot" spicy).

I decided to pass on dessert, but my meal wasn't over. Cochon has an excellent selection of wines and spirits. So I concluded my meal with a glass of Jefferson's 15-year-old bourbon (Bardstown, Ky.). It was smooth as silk.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

When Pomegranate Was the Rage

I'm beginning to wonder if 25 years from now, that's the phrase someone will use to describe the culinary zeitgeist of our time.

At virtually every swank restaurant in our major cities, you find pomegranate on the menu — its flavors tucked neatly into one or more dishes.

During my flight into Houston last night, I was reading the latest issue of Bon Appetit magazine. Within the space of a dozen pages were the following: a recipe for Pom-Ade (pomegranate juice with club soda and lemonade), a two-page ad from the Pomegranate Council of California, and a recipe for pomegranate panna cotta.

For God's sake, there's even a community non-profit organization in Washington State that has named itself after the pomegranate. I'm not sure what the pomegranate has to do with creating multi-purpose public spaces for a community, but, hey, whatever works.

Much of the fruit's appeal appears to be based on its nutritional qualities, and chefs rave about the color that pomegranate adds to a plate. But I am starting to suffer from pomegranate fatigue. The novelty is wearing off. Very quickly.

How is it possible that America has gone so batty over a fruit that is native to Ahmadinejad's Iran?

Not What I Was Expecting

NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote a review in yesterday's edition about an eatery near Columbus Circle whose fried chicken may well be "among the very best in town."

The restaurant? Would you believe it's a place called the Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill. Definitely sounds unconventional — here's his review.

Since I am heading up to the Big Apple this weekend, I'm half-inclined to try it out. We'll see.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Holy Hirohito, Batman!

I have never been a huge fan of fortune cookies. The cookies themselves are pretty bland, and the "fortunes" inside are often pedestrian proverbs that in no one attempt to predict what is to come.

But I found this article in today's NY Times interesting. A researcher has traced the history of the fortune cookie — the standard conclusion to every Chinese restaurant meal — to a different country: Japan.

After reading the article, I thought it was also telling that the vice president of the largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the world admitted to this NY Times writer, “The weakest part of the Chinese menu is dessert.” In other words, the weakest part of the Chinese menu is the fortune cookies that he makes his living selling to restaurants.

You have to respect his honesty.

BBQ in the Mountaineer State

The Blues BBQ restaurant in Charleston, West Virginia, is a little like the house that "doesn't show well." As I drove slowly past it last night, looking for a parking space, I had brief second thoughts. The storefront of the restaurant looked a little too much like a dive bar — and only a handful of customers were inside. Was I making a mistake?

I entered, and 45 minutes later I was very pleased I did. They served excellent pulled pork with four sauces (including a thai peanut sauce — a bit strange to this barbecue purist, but I tried it on some of my pork, and somehow it worked). Another oddity: one of the accompaniments was sauerkraut, perhaps a reflection of German heritage in this pocket of W.V.?

Anyway, barbecue is not the only thing on their menu. They also offer more than a dozen excellent beers and ales.

The owner, a Red Sox fan transplanted from Rhode Island, was charming and fussed appropriately over her customers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cholesterol Casserole

Last night, I was at the gym, exercising on a treadmill with my headphones plugged into the TV screen right above my machine. There was Paula Deen, telling viewers how to prepare her Chicken Florentine.

It was an appropriate juxtaposition — me, on a treadmill, watching Madame Cholesterol explain a recipe that would singlehandedly shatter any halfway reasonable diet.

Chicken Florentine has 2 cans of Campbell's condensed cream of mushroom soup, 1 cup of mayonnaise and 1 cup of sour cream (and neither of the latter ingredients is of the "light" variety). The recipe also calls for 2 cups of sharp cheddar cheese.

Paula said the original recipe had only 1 cup of cheese, but she quickly decided to double the amount of cheese. "There's no such thing as too much cheese," she quipped.

The topping for Chicken Florentine consists of breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese and liberal dots of butter. The mayonnaise alone has 192 grams of fat, and most of that fat is saturated fat. Altogether, the mayonnaise, sour cream, mushroom soup, butter and cheddar cheese add up to a staggering 386 grams of fat.

Considering that most nutritional experts recommend that an individual consume no more than 50-60 grams of fat in an entire day, eatin' Paula-style on a regular basis means that your most stable, long-term relationship is likely to be with Lipitor.

Basically, the only healthy ingredients in this dish are the chicken and the spinach. Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, this dish was part of a larger 4-course meal that concluded with Paula's "chocolate dippy doughnuts."

Hey, we're all human, and most everyone I know enjoys a naughty, decadent meal from time to time (my fave foods are an example). But anyone who regularly eats like Paula Deen cooks will be as big as a house in no time at all. And, as anyone who watches her TV show can attest, Chicken Florentine is very typical of the dishes that Paula Deen prepares.

It makes me wonder if the American Heart Association will be the next group to picket Madame Cholesterol.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Zuppa di Amore

Most Italian restaurants seem to have "Italian wedding soup" on their menus. But did this originate as a soup served at Italian weddings?

I wondered about this, and I recently stumbled on this website, which answers the question.

Egg Rolls and a Dose of World History

It felt weird the other day driving north, up Connecticut Avenue, in Washington and seeing the now-shuttered Yenching Palace restaurant. I had read the article in the newspaper last year announcing that it would be closing, but this was the first time I actually saw the restaurant closed (for good). As that article had noted:

Once the place to go for Peking duck and General Tso's chicken, Yenching has become a relic in a time when Asian restaurants are abundant, and high-end Asian-fusion cuisine is wildly popular. "It's a matter of taste," says current owner Larry Lung. "Chow mein, egg foo yong — older people like that, but the younger people, they don't."
The Chinese food at Yenching Palace was good, not great. But two things made the restaurant noteworthy — the wonderfully vintage neon sign across the front facade and something important that happened there roughly 45 years ago:

The most famous and oft-told story about Yenching Palace is how emissaries representing President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev met there (in October 1962) to negotiate during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and legend has it that they hammered out the final details, and avoided a war, in the second-to-last booth on the left.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

It May Look Good . . .

. . . but it isn't. I completely agree with Kiplog's observation about the cinnamon rolls produced by the chain Cinnabon. They are to pastries what Tang was to orange juice.

Last November, Kiplog bought a cinnamon roll from one of the company's outlets at O'Hare Airport, and then he wrote about it:
Believe it or not, this was my first one. I couldn’t get through half of it. I think I figured out the recipe: Take 30 cinnamon scented car fresheners, boil them into a paste, add all of the strongest sweeteners known to man, form (it) into a spiral, and cover with weapons grade high fructose corn syrup icing.
There is a Cinnabon at National Airport, which is where I generally travel in and out of. A couple of times, while hurrying to catch a flight, I bought a bag of their cinnamon sticks. Even these are barely edible. It is amazing what people in the wealthiest country in the world will put inside their mouths.

Bistro Bliss

I had an excellent dinner at Bistro D'Oc on 10th Street earlier tonight. I started my meal with a bowl of garbure, a wonderful peasant soup with cabbage, carrots and rabbit sausage. (For more on garbure, check out this food blog.)

For my entree, I had a roast duck cooked Peking style. My companion had the poulet roti with frites. Both main courses were excellent, and we drank a bottle of Worthy to accompany our meal.

There are swankier and better French restaurants in Washington, D.C. than Bistro D'Oc, but it's hard to find a French eatery that offers more bang for the buck. Citronelle and Gerard's Place are excellent, sometimes even superb. But you'll drop a lot more money dining at those restaurants than you will at Bistro D'Oc.

Bistro D'Oc serves French classics that are prepared with consistently high quality, has a pleasant decor, and offers a nice selection of wines without the sticker shock.

Bistro D'Oc is what Lavandou used to be before the latter suffered an identity crisis. Bistro du Coin in Dupont Circle is also excellent, and it offers a menu that is very similar to Bistro D'Oc. But dining in the former can be a bit noisy at times.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Most Overrated Herb?

It has to be parsley.

Through the years, I have prepared and tasted numerous dishes whose recipes call for "fresh parsley." I agree that in most cases, fresh herbs beat dried herbs. But, frankly, I have never understood all of the fuss some people make over parsley, dried or fresh.

It does not impress my tastebuds.

Yeah, I know, I can almost guess what many of you are thinking: "You just haven't tried (fill-in-the-blank dish) prepared with fresh parsley." I have tried a number of dishes with fresh parsley, and I think it is the most superfluous herb that has ever wormed its way into a cookbook.

If parsley were such a fragrant and taste-enhancing herb, why would so many chain restaurants that serve bland food be willing to toss a sprig of it on the side of every entree they prepare?

According to the website

The delicious and vibrant taste and wonderful healing properties of parsley are often ignored in its popular role as a table garnish.
Like I said.

The Gold-Medal Dinner Party

If it is true that having too many chefs can "spoil the broth," then what about too many meal planners?

In the NY Times, Patricia Marx writes, "I require perfection in a dinner party." When planning a dinner party years ago, Marx got plenty of advice from friends and family about how to achieve dinner-party bliss.

Friday, January 11, 2008

That Nook Is a Kitchen

One of the Christmas gifts I received last month was a copy of Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. It has several memoirs, essays and even poems about food.

I’ve only read a little of it, but, so far, the writing is brilliant. In “The Reporter’s Kitchen,” Jane Kramer writes:

The kitchen where I’m making dinner is a New York kitchen. Nice light, way too small, nowhere to put anything unless the stove goes. My stove is huge, but it will never go. My stove is where my head clears, my impressions settle, my reporter’s life gets folded into my life, and whatever I’ve just learned, or think I’ve learned — whatever it was, out there in the world, that had seemed so different and surprising — bubbles away in the very small pot of what I think I know and, if I’m lucky, produces something like perspective.

Another Nice Dinner at PS-7's

I recently had yet another good meal at PS-7's, a restaurant whose biggest challenge seems to be its location — on the northern edge of Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown/Penn Quarter district. Driving down Eye Street, you could blink and miss it.

Everything is very tasty, but the best part of the meal is the first: the bread basket, which is highlighted by an amazing bacon-and-apple biscuit.

This restaurant is definitely a no-Atkins zone.

Anyway, chef-owner Peter Smith is doing excellent work at PS-7's. If you live in or visit Washington, it's worth a try.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Soup on a (Cold) Winter Night

Okay, so it hasn't been very cold lately in Washington, D.C. But it was definitely winter last night. During this time of year, I enjoy making a pot of soup every few weeks or so.

A quick sidebar: The term restaurant (from the French verb "restaurer") is believed to have been used first commercially by an 18th century Parisian soupmaker named A. Boulanger.

Anyway, earlier this week, I took a stab at preparing my mother's navy bean soup with chunks of ham. I had no recipe to copy from; instead, I had to develop one by perusing various food sites on the Web -- the Food Network, Epicurious, etc. This recipe from the Barefoot Contessa included a branch of fresh rosemary. I wasn't quite that rustic.

The soup I made turned out pretty well, or so my significant other told me. And that was only after the soup "sat" for one night. Soup like this always tastes better the second or third time around.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My Favorite Meal

Without a doubt, it's breakfast. More specifically, it's weekend breakfast. I sometimes eat "breakfast foods" for dinner. So this article by Kate Heddings at Food & Wine's website caught my eye:

Star chefs aren’t exactly famous for being early risers, because late-night dinners keep them in the kitchen long after most working people have called it a day. Recently, though, chefs on both coasts have begun heading back to their restaurants at dawn — to add a new meal to their repertoire.

In Manhattan, Daniel Boulud serves an elegantly simple French-style breakfast at his DB Bistro Moderne, and Jody Williams has expanded Morandi’s menu to include a luxe Italian-style breakfast. In Los Angeles, Hans Röckenwagner’s new 3 Square Café + Bakery offers an original German-inspired breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner (the other two squares).

Some of the most inventive morning dishes anywhere are being prepared by chef Neal Fraser at L.A.’s BLD (Breakfast Lunch Dinner) Restaurant. Breakfast is Fraser’s favorite meal, and it’s the only one he ever consistently cooks at home. He was determined to make it an integral part of BLD from the outset.

"I think there’s lots of potential for creativity at breakfast that hasn’t been tapped," he says.

And Fraser’s fans get a chance to see what a great chef can do with a meal that, at its core, is homey and welcoming.

Every day at 8 a.m., BLD starts serving a full-on breakfast that ranges from fresh takes on the classics — tender, moist ricotta pancakes; crisp-edged, fluffy French toast smothered in a sweet-tart fresh berry compote — to innovative choices like kouign amann (a sweet, layered Breton bread) and braised pork shanks with poached eggs (for the customers, Fraser says, "who really get it").
Yum. So when do we eat?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Her Beef With Mom

From today's "Ask Amy" column in the Washington Post:

Dear Amy:

My mother cooked every meal to death while I was growing up. Meats were well done, overcooked and terribly dry, and I didn't understand what the big deal was about having steak for dinner, much less a "juicy" steak.

This changed after college, when I met and married a wonderful man who cooks. I was finally able to appreciate a succulent pork chop or tender filet mignon.

Now, when we visit my parents, Mom insists on preparing good cuts of steak to serve us. I don't want her to waste money on the food because no one will enjoy it, but she insists.

... We appreciate her wanting to cook for us, and she loves to cook, but the meals are just really bad.

Should I just sit down, shut up, and eat whatever is on my plate? Or should I insist on taking the family out for dinner?

The advice from Amy strikes me as lame. On the one hand, Amy offers the option of "offer[ing] to 'host' your parents for a meal during your stay — doing all of the shopping, cooking and cleaning for one dinner." Not bad. But, other than that, Amy advises this woman to "suck it up" and continue to eat her Mom's food, which borders on being inedible.

This is silly. Why would it be so wrong for this adult woman to simply (but politely) inform her mother than she and her husband prefer their steaks cooked rare or medium-rare? Everyone has preferences, and these preferences can change as we get older. There's no reason why her mother should view this request as insulting.

This approach wouldn't solve the problem of an overcooked roast, but it would address the issue of individual steaks. And even a beef or pork roast has portions that are less cooked (usually the middle) than the rest of the meat.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Pigging Out in Paris

I meant to write a post a while ago about the excellent article by Jay Cheches in December’s Saveur magazine. Cheches writes about Au Pied de Cochon, which he calls “the best-known all-night restaurant in Paris.”
Though its beau monde heyday ended in the 1970s, when Les Halles was paved over to make way for an underground shopping mall, it has preserved its reputation as a night owls’ redoubt. A wee-hours visit to sample the restaurant’s namesake pig’s foot entrée or its famous onion soup remains obligatory for anyone who pines for bygone Paris.

My most recent meal at Au Pied de Cochon, last winter, began at a shamefully early hour: that is, well before midnight.

. . . for regulars, not the tourists who populate the place at the conventional lunch and dinner hours, food has never ranked high among the reasons for dining at Au Pied de Cochon.

Indeed, if you’ve been eating here for decades, the charm of the place is about much more than what comes out of the kitchen.

. . . That so little seems to have changed inside the original restaurant is a testament to its resilience and to Parisians’ potent sense of nostalgia.
The restaurant goes through an estimated 85,000 real pigs’ feet a year.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Who Was Marcus Porcius?

Yep, that's him. Not exactly the Brad Pitt of ancient Rome, but he was still a man of considerable stature. Most readers of Roman history know Marcus Porcius by a different name: Cato.

In his book Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky writes that the Romans used "a great deal of salt" in the hams and other pork products they consumed:

Originally, hams and sausages were brought to Rome from the conquered northern empire. According to Strabo, the well-traveled first-century-B.C. Greek historian, the most prized ham in Rome came from the forests of Burgundy.

. . . But the Romans were importing ham from numerous Celtic regions, including Westphalia, which were dried, salted, and then smoked with unique local woods — a recipe still followed today in Westphalia — were very popular with Romans.

Cato, like many Romans, was a ham enthusiast. In fact, at a time when Romans often took family names from agriculture, Cato was called Marcus Porcius.
Cato, it turns out, was quite a "foodie." He not only wrote a recipe in the 2nd Century B.C. for curing a ham, but he also developed a recipe for preserving olives.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Are Our Sommeliers Better?

Mike Steinberger seems to think so. At, he writes:

Many French sommeliers came to the job not by choice but by conscription, and the position has usually been a life sentence.

In France, the sommelier was often someone who entered the restaurant trade as a barely pubescent teen with dreams of becoming a chef (and no prospect of attending university). Then, deemed unworthy of a place at the stove, our man (and it was always a man) got shunted off to the wine cellar, where he was condemned to spend the rest of his working days in the shadow of the egomaniacal prick who beat him out in the kitchen. This was not a recipe for service with a smile.

. . . By contrast, professional wine service is a recent phenomenon in the United States (it only really started in the 1980s), and took root in very different fashion. The pioneering figures here — Kevin Zraly (Windows on the World), Daniel Johnnes (Montrachet), Larry Stone (Charlie Trotter's, Rubicon) — were all college-educated and came to wine out of passion, not because they were frog-marched into the bottle room. They saw their role as mainly pedagogical, an outlook perfectly tailored to a time when Americans were developing an interest in wine. They made wine service educational, and they made it fun. They also brought an entrepreneurial spirit to the work . . .

One of the [U.S.'s] brightest young sommeliers is Indian-born Rajat Parr, who oversees wine for San Francisco chef Michael Mina's restaurant conglomerate.

. . . Here, too, the contrast with France is vast. France may be a multicultural ountry, but wine service there is still a strictly Caucasian affair, and the few exceptions are made to feel their exceptionalness. Hideya Ishizuka, a Japanese sommelier who spent a decade working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bordeaux and who now owns a restaurant in Paris, recently told me that many French clients simply refused to accept the idea that he had wine advice worth heeding.

Parr says that trips to France early in his career taught him valuable lessons in how not to be a sommelier, but he thinks things are beginning to change there . . . They both say that younger French wine waiters, encouraged by the examples being set here, are showing clients greater respect and are trying to make the experience more convivial.

When I am dining at a restaurant that retains a sommelier, I sometimes ask for the sommelier's advice, although I don't always take it. When I seek their input, it is usually to see if there is a wine I haven't tried before that might worth drinking. Like any advice I get, I take it with a grain of salt.

My experience tells me that sommeliers are a lot like interior decorators — they may say they want to suggest something that reflects your taste, but the result is usually something more reflective of theirs.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Heat Is On

Writing earlier this week in the NY Times, Harold McGee calls heat the "invisible ingredient" that can make or break a meal. Too many cooks, he writes, misuse heat.

We waste huge amounts of gas or electricity, not to mention money and time, trying to get heat to do things it can’t do. Aiming to cook a roast or steak until it’s pink at the center, we routinely overcook the rest of it. Instead of a gentle simmer, we boil our stews and braises until they are tough and dry. Even if we do everything else right, we can undermine our best cooking if we let food cool on the way to the table — all because most of us don’t understand heat.

. . . We’re often aiming a fire hose of heat at targets that can only absorb a slow trickle, and that will be ruined if they absorb a drop too much.
I found these excerpts helpful:
Tough cuts of meat require longer cooking to dissolve their connective tissue, and stewing or slow braising in a low oven is a simple and popular method of doing so. But many recipes don’t give the best results, simply because they don’t take into account the vast difference between cooking with the lid on and off. Even in an oven set as low as 225 or 250 degrees, if the pot is covered, the contents will reach the boil, and the meat will overcook and dry out.

Leave the lid ajar or off, and evaporation of the cooking liquid cools the pot and moderates the meat temperature, keeping it closer to 160 to 180 degrees. This is hot enough to soften the connective tissue in a few hours without also driving out most of the meat’s moisture.
The entire article is worth reading.

South Meets South-of-the-Border

I have several wonderful food memories from my years spent growing up in Arkansas. BBQ pork is definitely at the top of the list. McClard's in Hot Springs and Lindsey's in North Little Rock were two of the state's finest temples of mouth-watering BBQ.

But would you believe one of those wonderful memories is . . . . tamales? That's right. During my college years, I discovered a place called Sullivan's, which was little more than an old ranch-style, wood-frame house in which two women made some of the best tamales I have ever eaten. And they were dirt-cheap, which was good because every penny counted back then.

Well, it turns out that tamales have become quite a hit in the Mississippi Delta region. I found this website for the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. At this website, John Edge offers this explanation for the tamale's popularity in this region:

As best as I can determine, tamales came to be a Delta favorite sometime in the early years of the 20th century when Hispanic laborers began making their way up from Texas by way of Arkansas to work the cotton harvest.

Imagine the scenario: It's an unseasonably cold November day. Two laborers sit side by side in a cotton field, unpacking their lunch pails. One, an African American, has a sweet potato, a slice of cornbread and a hunk of side meat. Though they were hot when he packed them at sunup, by lunchtime they're cool, almost cold.

The Hispanic laborer unpacks a similar pail -- probably a lard bucket lined with crumpled newspapers -- but his lunch emerges from the bucket still warm, because tamales, packed tightly, have wonderful heat-retention qualities. In essence, the cornmeal mush jackets serve as insulation. The African American laborer casts an envious eye over at his co-worker's hot lunch, begs a taste and then a recipe.

Soon, both men are heading to the field, their pails packed with tamales.

. . . rather than fret about the origins of Delta tamales, most Mississippians would rather eat them. Visit any of these purveyors of culture and cuisine, and you'll be inclined to do the same.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Iowa: Meet the Voters, Sample Their Food

The Republican and Democratic candidates who have crisscrossed Iowa for votes in the state's first-in-the-nation caucus have become acquainted with both the state's voters and its favorite foods.

A friend alerted me to this story that aired on National Public Radio last month. The pork tenderloin sandwich that is described in the NPR story sounds yummy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Kobe and Wagyu Beef

Today's Washington Post Style section features its annual The List, which declares what is "in" and what is "out" in 2008. According to the Post, Kobe beef is "out," but Wagyu beef (pictured above) is "in."

So exactly what is the difference between Kobe and Wagyu beef? I did some googling and stumbled upon this web page from Tripod. The web page offers this distinction:
Kobe beef comes from a breed of cattle called Wagyu. In order to earn the designation/appellation of "Kobe Beef", the Wagyu beef must come from Kobe,
Japan, and meet rigid production standards imposed in that prefecture.

. . . The "Wagyu beef" designation can legally be applied to the meat from any cattle of the Wagyu breed; it's a genetic thing, not a place appellation or a reference to how the cattle were raised and fed. This breed is genetically predisposed to intense marbling, and produces a higher percentage of oleaginous, unsaturated fat than any other breed of cattle known in the world.
In other words, it's like the difference between a rectangle and a square. All Kobe beef is Wagyu beef, but not all Wagyu beef is Kobe beef.

The writer of this web page shares his frustration at the difficulty of purchasing Wagyu beef on this side of the Pacific, even though there are American cattle ranches that produce Wagyu.
Annoyingly, when we in America want to purchase Wagyu, we have one of two options: we can buy it shipped back over from Japan at some insane cost per pound that includes two transoceanic fares, or we can try to track down an independent Wagyu rancher who will sell one carcass. This is harder than you think.

. . . I finally succeeded in finding a small, independent producer who was sincerely interested in marketing Wagyu beef in America, and I am purchasing one carcass (and a heck of a deep freezer). I plan to give out samples to many, many chef friends of mine, and encourage them to buy carcasses, and encourage local gourmet stores to begin carrying the stuff — at a reasonable price, which we can get if I start putting together a good large order.
This all made me rather curious so I did some surfing and discovered this website for Lobel's American Wagyu. It warns visitors to think twice before buying beef that is advertised as Wagyu, but sells for about $30 per pound. From what I learned, the "good stuff" apparently sells for at least $100 per pound.

At that price, I'll be watching from the sidelines.