Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Off to London

I am heading to London tonight so the blog will be taking a nap for the next several days. But this is a city whose increasing sophistication is reflected in its restaurant scene (The Ivy, The Square, etc.) so I'm sure that I will have a few details to share.

Spuds x 10

Bon Appetit magazine provides this link to the Editors' Top 10 Potato Recipes. Several of them look enticing, but the one that intrigues me most is the recipe for Saffron-Corn Mashed Potatoes.

Maybe I'll try that with Easter dinner.

Artisanal Dairy Products

It seemed only a matter of time before the concept of boutique wineries and small-batch distilleries would encourage a similar trend among mainstream food producers. The NY Times' Marion Burros reports on the artisanal products that more and more small dairy farms are selling directly to the public:

Anne Saxelby had what she calls an “aha moment” a couple of years ago when she drove upstate to try the cultured butter made by Evans Farmhouse Creamery in
Chenango County. Ms. Saxelby, who owns Saxelby Cheesemongers in Manhattan, said that for all the butter she had eaten in her life, “I had really never had butter before — this is butter.”

More and more people across the country are being treated to the same aha experience as they find a burgeoning variety of fresh dairy products made in small batches on little farms and in small creameries. And it’s worth the extra money.

These artisanal operations are turning cow, goat or sheep milk into simple, straightforward foods like crème fraîche, butter, buttermilk, ice cream, puddings, custards, yogurt, yogurt-based sauces and yogurt drinks. Many of these dairies also sell unhomogenized, and in a few cases even unpasteurized, milk with an old-fashioned farmhouse flavor.

. . . Chalk it up to a lucky confluence of events. Most small dairy farmers cannot keep afloat selling milk to large processors at commodity prices, so those who are trying to survive are looking for alternatives. At the same time there is an increasingly sophisticated public that appreciates the difference between mass-produced dumbed-down food and the handiwork of a small dairy that has learned to produce exceptional butter or yogurt or ice cream by doing it the way it was done before World War II, when there was a creamery in every town.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tallula Scores Again

We had another excellent dinner Friday night at Tallula, just across the river from Washington, D.C. They prepare several American "tapas" that give a diner a chance to sample several different dishes. And they have a great selection of wines by the glass.

Chicago's Trattoria No. 10

Last week was a serious blur as I was working long, long days in the Windy City. Chicago has plenty of good eateries, and I dined at one of them on Wednesday night: Trattoria No. 10. It's located right in the Loop so it's convenient for most tourists or business travelers.

Normally, I shy away from a restaurant that's located in a basement or below street-level space, but once you travel a long staircase down to the maitre'd desk at Trattoria No. 10, it doesn't have that "basement" feel to it. Nice decor and clever lighting are a big reason why.

I had a duck confit with farfalle, and a fellow diner had the ravioli with butternut squash and ricotta. Both were excellent.

I ordered a Vino Nobile di Montalcino that was superb. It was around $50 for the bottle.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In Case You Weren't Aware . . .

. . . today happens to be National Cherry Pie Day.

Actually, go to this website and you'll learn that there is a day for virtually every kind of prepared food, baked good or entree you can imagine, including National Cornchip Day (Jan. 29), National Lobster Newburg Day (March 25) and National Pizza with the Works Except Anchovies Day (Nov. 12).

Obviously, the food world went overboard.

In any case, I will be traveling to Chicago for a quick work trip so no pie will be baking in my oven tonight. (Sigh) I ran across a recipe the other day for cherry muffins that looked quite tasty.

The "Greenest" Orange Juice

At Slate.com, Brendan Koerner writes:

I like to start my day with a glass of orange juice. I've always used the fresh-tasting juice from the carton, as opposed to those frozen crystals you have to mix with water. Is my preference eco-hostile? Those cartons contain fewer servings per cubic inch of packaging than the aluminum freezer canisters. That results in lots more fuel being expended during the trip to market, right?
Yikes! Are the green enthusiasts going to give us a guilt trip for drinking OJ that isn't frozen concentrate? Don't worry . . .

In the end, not-from-concentrate orange juice sold by the carton comes out slightly ahead of frozen OJ sold by the canister in terms of energy use. As a green consumer, your worst choice would be to buy juice that's been rehydrated by the supplier, then placed in cartons (such as Minute Maid Original).
But fresh-squeezed OJ doesn't fare so well in Koerner's green analysis:

What about squeezing your own OJ? Keep in mind that, unless you live in Florida or California (the nation's No. 2 orange producer), chances are those Valencias traveled a long, long way to get to your grocery aisle. And transporting enough oranges to yield six servings of juice requires nine times more cardboard waste than transporting a 12-ounce canister of FCOJ.

The juice industry also claims that its manufacturing process is much more efficient than drinking squeeze-your-own, since factories waste no part of the orange: The rinds are turned into cattle feed, the oils into food flavorings.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Chicken Saltimbocca

I made saltimbocca for dinner last night. The classic dish is usually made with veal, but I used chicken breasts. If I had to give the dish a grade, it would be an A-.

I cooked the chicken well, and I had plenty of fresh sage leaves to use. The only detail that wasn't quite on key was the proscuitto. It should be sliced in very thin strips, but the person at the deli counter of the grocery where I bought it sliced it at almost twice that thickness.

Here's a recipe (one of many versions) for chicken saltimbocca. I would at least double — maybe even triple — the number of sage leaves that this recipe uses. Fresh sage is amazing, and the four leaves called for in this recipe. Unless you're using very small chicken breast halves, I would also consider doubling the slices of proscuitto so that you are able to more completely cover the chicken with the proscuitto — that's what seals the chicken, keeps it from drying out and intensifies the flavors.

One other option to consider: when I am reducing the pan juices, I usually add one good squeeze of lemon into the pan.

I find it amusing that the term saltimbocca was formed from the Italian words "jumps in the mouth."

We drank a French white burgundy with the saltimbocca.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Last of My Ragù

We finished the last of the veal-and-pork ragù that I had made at the beginning of this week. We ate it with spaghetti.

Like a pot of soup, ragù is one of those things that just seems to get better after its sat in the fridge for a few days.

I tried a technique that seems to have improved the consistency and thickness of the ragù: sprinkle just a little flour into the ragù about 5-10 minutes before serving.

Did Michelin Take Away All of Meneau's Stars?

Two of the most magnificent meals I have ever eaten were taken at L'Espérance, a restaurant that is roughly 2 hours by car, southeast of Paris.

Owner-chef Marc Meneau created a name for himself throughout la belle France when he earned his third Michelin star in 1984, the first restaurant outside of Paris to receive Michelin's highest culinary rating.

My first meal there was in 1988 with my mother and sister. It was extraordinary. The dessert, poached pears in a creme anglaise, was simply amazing. Someone else at the table ordered a dessert that came with licorice ice cream — made on premises, of course, and out of this world.

I had lunch there during a trip in 2005, and that meal was equally impressive.

Well, just the other day, I was thumbing through the Michelin guide for all of France, and I couldn't find L'Espérance listed anywhere. It didn't show up in any of the lists of Michelin-starred restaurants. The restaurant's website is still functioning, and it is still listed on the website of Relais and Chateaux.

So what gives? It wouldn't surprise me if L'Espérance had lost one of its three stars, but is it possible that Michelin withdrew all three of them? I doubt it. Restaurants may gain or lose a star from one year to the next, but I've never heard of a three-starred Michelin restaurant that later lost all three of its stars.

It's also possible that Michelin mistakenly left the restaurant out of its 2007 U.S. edition. But that would have been a huge oversight.

Anyway, this is a mystery I hope to solve.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Veggie Burger in West Virginia?

Believe it or not, yes. It's on the menu at Bluegrass Kitchen, a homey little space in an old Victorian storefront on Washington Street East in Charleston, W.V. If you happen to roll into the state's capital city, you'll eat well here.

Last night at Bluegrass Kitchen, I ordered the roasted pork loin with kale and asparagus. It was tasty. The menu isn't large, but there are ample choices, and the kitchen relies mostly on fresh, organic ingredients. There are good beers, a full bar, and good wines by the glass. I sipped an organically cultivated Australian Shiraz called Green Path.

The fact that the dinner menu is called the "supper menu" reminds you right away that you're in West Virginia.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

E-Mail . . . E-Food

You can buy just about everything else via the Internet (clothes, electronics, even cars). So why not food as well? Many high-end food producers and gourmet shops have been doing it for several years.

This article from the NY Times mentions a top-notch bakery and a butcher of restaurant-quality meats who are now shipping their food products to consumers. Both of them, the Sugar Bun Bake Shop and DeBragga, sound interesting.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Meet Foodie NYC

Last night, I stumbled onto Foodie NYC, a blog written by Joe DeSalazar, an advertising executive who knows his food. He has worked in the kitchens of Cafe Boulud and Eleven Madison Park (a fantastic space with fantastic food).

DeSalazar's recipe for toasted garlic-shrimp tacos sounds really good. I'll have to try it sometime.

Most of all, I like the fact that Foodie NYC minces garlic, not words. He (correctly) savaged a recipe he found for Chicken Scaloppini:
I'm sorry, but this has to be the worst technically sound recipe I have seen in my life. She suggests that you should buy thinly sliced chicken breasts and braise them with a bouillon cube, Campbell's cream of asparagus soup, and frozen vegetables for 4 HOURS!!!

Not only does this combination sound horrendous to me, the technique for braising is unbelievably wrong. One does not braise skinless, boneless chicken breasts for four hours! Ever.
Good God, bouillon cubes? They still make them?

From Gumbo to Doughnuts

Last week, a New Orleans restauranteur was enticing presidential candidate Barack Obama with gumbo. Yesterday, he was in the District of Columbia (where I live), and the campaign venue was a doughnut shop.

That small orange-and-white box that Obama is holding in the photo is filled with doughnuts. Here's the YouTube clip of Obama entering a Dunkin' Donuts outlet — definitely a better choice than Krispy Kreme.

When you listen, you'll notice that the cheering is loudest when he emerges from the shop with a box full of fresh, hot doughnuts. And don't tell me that's a coincidence.

Just for the record, Obama ordered a dozen doughnuts and a dozen hot chocolates for him and the campaign volunteers who flanked him. Obama allowed the Dunkin' Donuts employee to choose the assorted dozen (say it ain't so). Some critical leadership decisions should not be delegated.

Obama swept the primaries in Maryland, Virginia and D.C., and, much to my chagrin, none of the pundits were willing to give the doughnuts their share of the credit.

Cheap, But Excellent Red Wine

The other night, I had an excellent bottle of red wine called Centine (chen-TEE-nay). It wasn't the first time I've enjoyed this wine, an Italian blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Centine is produced by Banfi from the Tuscany region of Italy. It pairs well with pasta, veal, chicken, just about everything. Best of all, that bottle only cost me $10.99. It has to be one of the best values in red wine that you'll find anywhere -- proof that you don't have to spend more than $15 to buy a nice bottle of vino. (BTW, here is another great value in red.)

I have a couple more bottles of Centine in my wine cooler, waiting for some evening in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dining With OCD

In this recent article in the NY Times, Jeff Bell came out of the closet as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He writes:

Some of us obsess about contamination, others about hurting people, and still others about symmetry. Almost all of us can find something to obsess about at a restaurant.

... restaurants are designed to be calming and relaxing. That is one of the main reasons people like to eat out.

To many of us with [OCD], those pleasures are invisible. We walk into a calm and civilized dining room and see things we won’t be able to control. This feeds directly into one of the unifying themes of the disorder: an often crushing inability to handle the unknown.

... [Matt] Solomon is a 39-year-old lawyer in Fort Worth with order compulsions. To enjoy a meal he needs to separate the salt and pepper shakers, and, ideally, place a napkin holder or other divider midway between them.

Why? He can no more answer that than [Carole] Johnson can tell you why she needs to chew her food in sets of three bites or drink her beverages three sips at a time. Three is her magic number. That is about as refined an explanation as any of us can give for our compulsions, rituals that we understand are entirely illogical.
I have a friend who seems to eat one item on his plate at a time. The wilted spinach is eaten in its entirety, then perhaps the veal cutlet. Once the cutlet is gone, it's on to the garlic mashed potatoes. There have been a few exceptions, but that's his eating pattern. Maybe it depends on where he is dining.

Barefoot and Frozen

I have watched the Barefoot Contessa numerous times on the Food Network, and I find most of what she's cookin' looks pretty appetizing. But then I saw her recipe for Coq au Vin — a classic French dish that I adore.

One ingredient she lists is . . . . . frozen onions? First of all, she doesn't specify, but I assume she means pearl onions, which are frequently used in Coq au Vin. But why frozen? It isn't hard to find pearl onions in the produce sections of most grocery stores.

Even if they aren't there and even if someone wants to avoid having to cut and blanche the onions in order to peel them, one could opt for a mixture of diced fresh onions and smaller shallots.

Finally, the photo right above the recipe does nothing to make my mouth water. Looks to me like bland, overly fried pieces of chicken.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A New Doughnut to Try

I was watching CBS's "Sunday Morning" when they aired a segment on pączki — pronounced "poonch-kee."

What are pączki? I wouldn't have been able to answer that question before watching the TV program on Sunday. Pączki are deep fried pastries that look and (supposedly) taste a lot like jelly doughnuts. They are produced by small ethnic bakeries in Chicago, Detroit and other cities with large Polish communities.

Pączki are traditionally served on Mardi Gras, right before Lent. The ones that CBS showed being prepared by a bakery in the Detroit bedroom community of Hamtramck looked delicious.

I'll have to give 'em a try the next time I'm up in Detroit.

Dinner at Rice

On Friday night, I had an excellent meal at Rice, a Thai-Asian restaurant in the thriving, happenin' 14th Street district of Washington. I had pork dumplings as a starter, then followed them with an entree of spicy duck.

My dining companion started with a pumpkin empanada that was simply above average, but his entree of pork with a mild ginger sauce was superb. We had a bottle of a Grenache blend from Spain — a reasonable $27.

Food at Rice tends to be fairly spicy as Thai-centered food generally is so if you have no tolerance for spicy food, your menu options are somewhat limited.

It's a nice space physically (exposed brick on one side of the dining area), but it can get pretty the noisy at times. Some fabric on the other wall might help to lower the dining clatter.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Obama: In Need of Gumbo

From the Wash Post's campaign 2008 blog The Trail:

At a morning rally at Tulane University in New Orleans, (Democratic U.S. Senator Barack) Obama pledged new resources to help New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina. He toured a local school and visited the Creole restaurant Dooky Chase, flooded in the 2005 storm but now looking as good as new.

Owner Leah Chase patted Obama on his stomach and told him, "Get a little gumbo right quick. You're too frail baby. We gotta fatten you up a bit."
With a big red napkin like that, Sen. Obama is ready to do some serious gumbo eatin.' The debate can wait.

Fight Lightning With Lightning

Or white lightning, to be more precise. Excerpts from a CNN article on Thursday about the recent tornadoes in Tennessee:
LAFAYETTE, Tennessee (CNN) — James Kruger was watching election results Tuesday night in Lafayette, Tennessee, when a warning appeared on his TV screen: A tornado was headed straight toward his town. Then the lights went out.

He put on sweat pants, grabbed a flashlight, drank a shot of whiskey, "and then I heard this noise," Kruger said Thursday.

He headed for a door, "and all of a sudden I heard the glass breaking and it was sucking," he said. "When I tried to shut the door, [it] seemed like the door was lifting up. So I just dove and I lay flat on the floor."

Lying there, everything in the house flew over him, scraping and banging his back, Kruger said. Then the chaos stopped. "I was laying in the dirt. There was no floor. No nothing."
No word yet on whether Kruger's bottle of whiskey survived the tornado, but I'll try to keep you posted.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Are Huge Kitchens Overkill?

Today's Wash Post has an article headlined "Chefs at Home," in which White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford says

A super-big kitchen will overwhelm you. It's there, but it's not useful.
I have a galley kitchen in my condo-apartment, about 17 feet deep. Perhaps it's a little bit of kitchen-envy on my part, but I have long wondered if owners of those trophy homes really get that much benefit out of their huge kitchens — y'know, the kitchens where it takes 30 seconds to walk from the range to the "island."

Coffee Magnate Dies

Earlier this week, the N.Y. Times reported:

Ernesto Illy, who as chairman of Illycaffè, maker of an expensive brand of coffee, was renowned as a scientific perfectionist of coffee and especially as an evangelist of espresso, died Sunday in Trieste, Italy. He was 82.

. . . “Our coffee is twice as expensive as the run-of-the-mill stuff, at least,” Mr. Illy told The New York Times in 2001. “Our goal is perfect beans, zero defects, and we think we get close to that.”

“Fine espresso paints the tongue,” he said of his favorite drink, which he made a product of precision.

. . . Mr. Illy, a chemist, was chairman of the company from 1963 to 2004. It was founded in 1933 by his father, Francesco, a chocolate maker from Hungary who moved to Trieste after World War I. By then, Trieste, a port city on the Adriatic, had become a coffee hub, the most convenient place to receive beans from Africa and South America and ship them to caffeine-craving European cities.

. . . Every step of the manufacturing process is monitored by (Illy's) computers. There are 114 quality-control checks between the time bags of raw beans arrive on the loading docks to the time roasted beans are shipped in sealed cans.

Every day, Mr. Illy, along with 15 other people he had trained, would taste every lot of beans that the company was considering buying.

Now that's quality control.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

How Was Your Pancake Day?

I love pancakes, but I still had a hard time believing that yesterday was Pancake Day. Well, it turns out that my co-worker wasn't pulling my leg. In some countries, Shrove Tuesday — which is what the British, Australians and Canadians call the day before Ash Wednesday — is also referred to sometimes as Pancake Day or "Pancake Tuesday."

The reason? It is customary in many parts of Canada, Ireland and Britain to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Wikipedia offers this explanation:
The reason that pancakes are associated with the day preceding Lent is that the 40 days of Lent form a period of liturgical fasting, during which only the plainest foodstuffs may be eaten. Therefore, rich ingredients such as eggs, milk, and sugar are disposed of immediately prior to the commencement of the fast.

Pancakes and doughnuts were therefore an efficient way of using up these perishable goods, besides providing a minor celebratory feast prior to the fast itself.

I even found a blog called Pancake Tuesday. Well, this is all news to me. I guess Pancake Day was more of a Protestant observance. My dad loves pancakes and he's a Catholic, and I've never heard him refer to Pancake Tuesday. Trust me, I'd have remembered.

I wish every Tuesday were Pancake Day. Whether they're made with buttermilk, buckwheat flour or whole wheat, I love pancakes. With a few strips of bacon on the side and real maple syrup, of course.

Deborah, the Irish woman who writes the blog Humble Housewife, included this recipe for Pancake Day that includes vanilla bean. Could be worth trying sometime.

This Weekend, Perhaps a Ragu

This weekend I'm planning to prepare a Ragù. No, not that brand-named sauce in a jar. I'm talking about this kind of Ragù (courtesy of wikipedia):

Ragù is an Italian term for a meat-based sauce, which is traditionally served with pasta. Etymologically the word derives from the French ragoût, a noun derived from ragoûter (to revive the taste).

Typical Italian ragù include ragù bolognese (sometimes known as Bolognese sauce), Neapolitan ragù, and Ragù a la Barese (which contains horse meat).
I am looking for a new recipe for Ragù, but I don't think a recipe for the "a la Barese" variety is quite what I'm thinking of. More from wikipedia:

A ragù is usually made by adding meat to a soffritto (a partially-fried mixture of chopped onions, celery, carrots, seasonings, etc.) and then simmering it for a long time with tomato sauce.
Served with a nice bottle of red wine, of course.

Here's a recipe I found for Ragù Bolognese from Mario Batali at the Food Network's website. It might serve as a good template, although I frequently improvise a little. Hmmm, maybe I'll replace some of the onion with shallot.

Soup's On

When you travel as much as I do, you learn to make dishes in advance that you can store in the fridge for a while. Soup is a perfect example of this. In fact, most soups seem to get better after they've been in the fridge for a few days and the flavors have had a chance to meld.

I made a beef-and-barley soup a few days ago that came out well, although I probably was a bit generous with the barley — it almost looked like a risotto.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"I Scream, You Scream ..."

I meant to pass this along last week — an interesting article from the NY Times that demonstrates how much New Englanders love their ice cream. The Times' Abby Goodnough writes:

Two weeks ago, when the Massachusetts Revenue Department shut Toscanini’s, a revered ice-cream shop, for nonpayment of taxes, customers were livid — but not at the shop’s owners, who the state said owed $167,810, mostly in sales taxes but some payroll taxes.

They rose in defense of Toscanini’s, donating more than $30,000 in one week to help the owners, Gus and Mimi Rancatore, make enough of a payment to reopen. Sam Mehr, a college student who works there and set up a Web site to solicit contributions, said that about 300 poured in between Jan. 18, the day after the shop was seized, and last Friday.

Corby Kummer, a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and an ardent fan who once wrote a long essay about his favorite flavor, burnt caramel, said the ice cream was not the only thing that kindled their passion.

“It’s also the intellectual bonhomie that is served along with the ice cream,” said Mr. Kummer ...

But for sure, it is the ice cream, too. Mr. Rancatore and his team of ice-cream makers scour cookbooks for new flavor possibilities and seek ideas from customers, many of whom grew up in other countries. A Harvard professor from India helped concoct a flavor called kulfi, with cardamom and pistachios, based on a South Asian dessert. Another flavor, grapenut, is popular with customers from the Caribbean.

“If a bunch of people from Lithuania showed up in Cambridge,” said Mr. Rancatore, who opened the shop in 1981, “we’d try to find out what we could sell them that would remind them of home.”

This is not to say that everyone loved the idea of helping the Rancatores out of their self-inflicted predicament. Many who posted comments on the Web site savetosci.blogspot.com blasted both Mr. Rancatore and his backers.

... “Honestly,” another wrote, “I think it’s a slap in the face to everyone who has been a loyal customer to take their money for taxes, ‘lose’ this money and then ask for donations to get them out of a mess they caused themselves with bad management.”
It has been a while since I was in Boston, and I've never been to Tosci's. An ice cream shop with a flavor called "burnt caramel" is definitely worth visiting the next time I'm in Beantown.

The Peculiar Gift of the Gods

There are lots of interesting resources at FoodReference.com, as well as this quotation on the site's home page:
“A good cook is the peculiar gift of the gods. He must be a perfect creature from the brain to the palate, from the palate to the finger's end.”

Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Super Bowl Party

Super Bowl XLII was about as good a game as I have ever watched. Our friend Brian hosted a Super Bowl party last night. The food ranged from the standards (meatballs, nachos and guacamole, etc.) to lighter and healthier choices, such as edamame.

I was thinking of beer as I entered the party, but I ended up drinking red wine — as a matter of fact, a very nice Tempranillo.

In case you're wondering, that photo above is not from Brian's party. It's an amusing image that I found at the website eHow.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Risk of Ordering Pie "A La Mode"

Just left Madison, Wisc., on Friday and returned home to Washington, D.C. Before I left the state, I capped off a successful trip with a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie Thursday night at the Hubbard Avenue Diner in Middleton, a bedroom community just west of the city.

The diner is well known for its pies. Indeed, most of them are quite good, but someone needs to tell the owners of Hubbard Avenue Diner: a good piece of pie is suddenly rendered mediocre if its topped with a scoop of bland vanilla ice cream.

Being based in "America's Dairyland," this diner should be able to find a much better quality of ice cream than this — something that actually tastes as though a vanilla bean played a role in its creation.

Mickies: As Authentic as They Come

One local newspaper in Madison, Wisc., calls Mickies Dairy Bar the "best morning-after restaurant." Given the noise levels inside Mickies, I'm not sure it's the ideal place to bring a hangover, but it's an authentic dairy bar with good, simple fare.

Located a stone's throw from Camp Randall Stadium, Mickies is definitely atmospheric. Its charm is a gritty charm, as the booths, counter stools and signs don't seem to have changed much since the 1960s.

At times, the food quality can be a little uneven, but you can get a good sloppy breakfast here. Milkshakes are excellent.

On the weekends, you've got to get there early, especially on a football Saturday.