Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Trials of Being a Food Snob

Slate's Daniel Gross writes:

We food snobs buy dried Italian pasta rather than Mueller macaroni, artisanal fizzy lemonade from France, not Hi-C. And then we prattle on about it ad nauseam. ... The foods we buy signal to others that we don't just subscribe to Gourmet; we ingest its message of seeking out the finest ingredients.

. . . the cost of being precious about food has also never been greater. Despite the vast advances in American food culture, the finest ingredients frequently must travel a great distance to arrive at your local Whole Foods: wines from Europe, California, and South America; Moroccan harissa and Thai fish sauce; South African guava juice; and pistachios from Turkey and Iran.

But with the dollar weakening, commodity prices rising, and energy costs (and hence transportation costs) soaring, the food snob's dollar doesn't fund nearly as many courses today as it did a year ago. At my local cheese shop, the Etorki, a delightful Basque sheep's milk cheese (from France's Basque region, mind you, not Spain's ...) now tips the scales at $22 a pound, up from $18 a pound a year ago.

. . . If you want to assemble an authentic Italian appetizer of prosciutto and melon, it'll cost you uno braccio e una gamba. At Balducci's this week, prosciutto di parma was $21.99 a pound ,while Tuscan melons ran $4.49.

For the truly wealthy, the gourmet inflation isn't a big deal. Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group probably has not cut back on his consumption of $40 stone-crab claws. But most food snobs aren't really rich.

. . . Some are trading down. Gourmands who swore by New York strip are now singing the praises of the more quotidian hanger steak.

. . . Over the weekend, as I sat in the well-appointed kitchen of a double-income family whose annual earnings run deep into the six figures, my host proclaimed, with exasperation, that $4 for a dozen organic eggs was simply too much. She was switching back to conventional eggs; chemicals be damned.

Buttermilk Cake

This recipe for Kentucky Buttermilk Cake sounds good and fairly easy, but I'm thinking that I'd probably want to pair it with a more interesting glaze, maybe a rum or orange glaze.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Which Food City Is the Most Overhyped?

I recently stumbled on this thread from the blog Chowhound. Written several months ago, it solicited responses to the question: What is the most overrated food city?

Interesting comments. Not surprisingly, the greatest passion arises when they discuss the best cities for pizza.

The Dishonor Roll of Bland Foods (#3)

It's time to add another pick for my steadily growing Dishonor Roll of Bland Foods.
In previous posts, I have nominated parsley and Enoki mushrooms. Now, I will add another: popcorn. I am not saying I hate popcorn, but I just think that it's amusing that so many people feel they cannot watch a movie without eating something that tastes like styrofoam with artifical butter flavoring on it.

I don't eat much at the movies, but there are a helluva lot of options at the theater that I'd choose over popcorn. So here is #3:

The Dishonor Roll of Bland Food

1. Parsley
2. Enoki mushrooms
3. Popcorn

Monday, April 28, 2008

Lost in Translation

Gordon Ramsay, the culinary world's bad-boy chef, has just published a book with the title Gordon Ramsay's Fast Food. The book promises to help ordinary people cook good meals at home promptly and efficiently.

The idea, according to Ramsay, is to encourage people not to "skip meals or resort to junk food, however busy [they] are." But the new book gets a distinct thumbs-down from Slate's Laura Shapiro, who complains that Ramsay and his publisher "made no effort to translate this book into Americanese."

Shapiro writes:
The moment Gordon Ramsay's Fast Food was published in the United Kingdom last spring, it became a best-seller, praised for its fresh, accessible recipes. But while Ramsay has a devoted following on this side of the Atlantic, too, it's a bit unclear whether the recipes will get a similar welcome here.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that the folks who invented toad-in-the-hole are now serving their kids poached duck eggs with anchovy fingers, but it's hard to picture an American family breaking into glad cries at the sight of the same meal. Ditto the supper featuring warm blood sausage, though I'd like to be there when Mom offers it to the field hockey team.

Other recipes call for Charlotte potatoes, pata negra ham, and fresh gooseberries, all of which your staff can easily round up for you — that's how Ramsay gets them — but if you don't live near one of the six remaining butchers in the United States, good luck with the lamb rumps and the oven-ready quails.

"Recipes give both standard American measures and metric measures," says a helpful note. Not quite. Many ingredients are listed only by weight — 9 ounces of sliced mushrooms — as if Americans kept scales in the kitchen the way Europeans do.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Brouhaha Over Brunello

In just about every European country in which large quantities of wine are produced, a dizzying set of rules applies as to which varieties of grapes can be used, how long the wine must be aged, and so forth. Italy is a case in point. A prosecutor there is trying to determine whether some vintners in one of the most prestigious wine-growing areas of Italy have broken those rules.

More from the NY Times:

Since late last year a prosecutor has been investigating whether some of the major producers of [Brunello di Montalcino] have been violating the laws that determine whether their product can bear that name, the most prestigious among all Tuscan wines.

The prosecutor has impounded more than a million bottles from some of the most prominent Italian winemakers — including Antinori and Frescobaldi — while he determines whether they used unapproved techniques or grapes other than brunello, the local name for sangiovese, supposedly to give their idiosyncratic wine a broader international appeal.

The woes of Montalcino come on top of other scandals that have called into question the purity of some of Italy’s most famous products. On Monday, Italian police said extra virgin olive oil from seven factories had been doctored with sunflower and soybean oil. There have been concerns that mozzarella might have been contaminated because of illegal garbage dumping around Naples, and adulterated wine is said to have been found in several regions.


Project Chicken

Better Homes & Gardens challenged chefs and test kitchens to come up with recipes offering a fresh take on chicken. Courtesy of MSN.com, the result is these seven recipes.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Inspired by the Beehive Hairdo

Apple pie is a wonderful dessert -- one of my faves. It is a recipe that has stood the test of time and isn't in need of serious tinkering. I have no problem with someone adding a minor twist here and there: perhaps adding some raisins or making a streusel topping, for example. But there are some changes that simply cross the line.

Click here and you'll see one of the most over-the-top perversions of apple pie imaginable. Paula Deen, the grande dame of TV food shows, calls it Savannah High Apple Pie. I call it positively ridiculous.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Puddings and Other Sweets

This NY Times article offers various takes on chocolate pudding. I guess I'm kind of a purist when it comes to pudding.

If you want to make banana pudding, fine. You want to make chocolate pudding? That's fine too. But milk chocolate-banana pudding? No thanks. Sounds like a recipe created by someone who can't make a decision.

The Highs and Lows of Brittany

I've been meaning to post a few more details on my recent travels through the French region of Brittany. Here are the highs and lows from my trip:

The Highs

Cider: The cider, both sweet and dry, is superb throughout Brittany. It's a must, especially worth drinking with crepes.

Oysters: I am not what you would call a huge fan of oysters — I can take 'em or leave 'em. But the oysters I tasted in Brittany did not have the stringy and unpleasant texture they sometimes have in U.S. restaurants. The ones I ate in Brittany were fresh, incredibly delicate and almost sweet. I would eat a lot more oysters if I lived there.

La Roseraie de Bel Air: Tucked in a small village on the outskirts of Quimper, this Michelin-starred restaurant was wonderful — stellar food in a rustic stone cottage with a cozy fire burning in the huge hearth. I haven't had a pork chop that was that good in my life. I keep telling myself it was "just a pork chop," but it was juicier than most tenderloins.

The Lows

Kouignettes: (pictured above) These would appear to be the most popular pastries in southern Brittany, and they also happen to be one of the most overrated. I really wanted to like them, but both times I tried kouignettes I found them to be a syrupy, sticky and bland glob of dough.

Meringue Cookies: Like the Italians, the French seem to love meringues, especially when turned into cookies that are sold at confiseries (confectionary shops) throughout the country. Meringue cookies are often included among the petits fours that are served right after dessert in a high-end French restaurant. But I just don't get 'em. They are bland — a real waste of egg whites.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ignoring the Price Tag

Does the food and restaurant press ignore the rising costs of gourmet foods and meals? Slate's Sarah Dickerman makes her case:
As an industry, we rhapsodize about la cucina povera — that is, "poor food" like polenta, beans, and braise-worthy cuts of meat like short-ribs and pigs trotters — but we rarely talk about cooking in terms of dollars and cents. When food writers and producers advocate economy, they're usually talking about time — churning out recipes for fast, easy, everyday weeknight meals that can be prepared in minutes.

The dollar-savvy recipe is far less common. Why, even as the economic news turns grim, is it so unusual for the food media to take cost into account?

In part, it's because we assume our readers are looking for a window into the epicurean life, not a mirror of their own kitchens.

Monday, April 21, 2008

So Where's the Bread Plate?

It's a question that I suspect many American visitors ask themselves when they sit down at a restaurant table in France.

"Place your bread directly on the tablecloth rather than on your plate. If there is a bread plate provided, you can use that."

"How to Follow French Table Manners," from eHow.com
As for the "if" cited by eHow, there is rarely a bread plate provided at French restaurants. I recently returned from eight days in Bordeaux and Bretagne, and only once did I eat at a restaurant or brasserie that provided a bread plate on the table.

It didn't seem to matter where I dined — large city or village, Michelin-starred restaurant or small village bistro — bread plates were almost never to be found. It's one practice (or lack of practice) that seems to be holding firm over there.

Some French restaurants in the U.S. do without bread plates, but it is much more common to see a bread plate on this side of the Atlantic than on the other.

Either way, it's no big deal to me. I am far more concerned about the quality of the bread itself than I am about whether it will rest on a plate or a tablecloth.

Muffins and Cupcakes

Is there a difference between the two? The N.Y. Times' Melissa Clark recently posed that question to a friend who is a pastry chef. His take on the difference?

“Nothing,” he said, explaining that when it comes to breakfast, Americans have a Puritanical inhibition. “Muffins are just an excuse to eat cake for breakfast,” he said.

Setting aside his broader cultural analysis, he did have a point about the nature of muffins, at least as far as my sweet tooth is concerned. In my view the best muffins are sweet little cakes, not too decadent (no buttercream frosting) yet not too heavy with whole-grain righteousness. My ideal muffin would fall somewhere on the healthfulness scale between a brownie and a bowl of spelt flakes.

Ever since hearing my friend’s explanation, my muffin modus operandi has shifted slightly to the sweeter side.

I began using recipes for full-size cakes as a starting point. One 9-inch cake recipe makes a dozen muffins. This formula gives me the freedom to make a nice batch of muffins out of any cake recipe I want but can’t find an excuse to bake.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Medium Rare and Unbranded, Please

The Skymall catalog that is available on airlines has some pretty wacky, who-would-ever-use-this kind of stuff in it. But this one takes the cake:
Personalize Your Barbecue!
A great steak is a work of art and now you can sign your work! Create a personalized iron to brand your steaks, chicken and burgers and show your guests the pride you take in being a great chef!
More accurately, show your guests that you've got an ego 10 times larger than the flank steak you just threw on the grill.

The Barbecue Branding Iron costs $79.95. If you want the Branding Iron to arrive in the lovely cedar gift box, however, the cost climbs to $89.95.

Oh, and they also report that "brand new NASCAR drivers and college team logo irons are now available!"

Yipee. I can hardly want to dazzle my guests.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Nothing to Cry About

Onions seem to be one of those foods you either love or hate. No one seems to be agnostic about 'em. I fall into the "love" category. That's why this article about caramelized onions in the Wash Post caught my attention.

I especially enjoyed this paragraph from Andreas Viestad's article:

Onions are one of the most important building blocks of cooking. They are an essential part of salads and sauces, stews and savory pies. They give us depth of flavor, a hint of sweetness, a blast of pungency. But to most of us they are also a mystery. They are just there, quietly fulfilling the task we want them to. We don't notice or appreciate them until something goes wrong. Then we realize that we don't really know them at all. And that's just a crying shame.

Who Is Olivier Cassat?


He's a French winemaker who speaks very passionately about his grapes. When I was traveling in Bordeaux last week, I ventured to the esteemed appellation of St. Emilion and Cassat gave me a prearranged tour of his vineyard operations.

As is the case with other St. Emilions, Cassat's Chateau Mauvezin (Grand Cru) wines are made up primarily of Merlot with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

As we tasted a few of his recent vintages, I was impressed to see Cassat get that pensive expression on his face as he sipped his wine, trying to assess its fullness and aging potential. I got the sense that he looks that way every single time he tastes his wines.

The following day, I drove to the Medoc and visited Chateau Mouton Rothschild, but that visit, although interesting, had more of a self-promotional, aren't-you-lucky-to-be-here feel to it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Opting for a Different Side

A man in Magnolia, Arkansas apparently said no to cole slaw and instead chose a rather unconventional side order to accompany his takeout fried chicken.

Here's more from the AP article.

Where They Love Their Salt

(Below) The salt ponds of Bretagne in western France

In the French region of Bretagne, they celebrate their salt. Bretagne butter isn't simply "butter" — it's frequently labeled beurre du sel. Some of the most heralded caramels in France are made with Breton salt.

Having said that, the food in Bretagne didn't taste noticeably salty to me. As often prevails in French cooking, it seems to be about quality, not quantity.

Historically, salt was used more in Bretagne for two reasons. First, it was plentiful because it could be hand-gathered from the salt ponds along coastal areas. Second, Bretagne was one of only a few provinces in which the much-despised French salt tax (La Gabelle) was not collected.

By the year 1343, La Gabelle had become a permanent year-in, year-out tax in France. It wasn't ended until the year 1790, right after the French Revolution. Sixteen years later, Napoleon reinstated it. La Gabelle didn't end permanently until 1946, roughly six hundred years after it had been initiated.

During my recent trip to Bretagne, I visited the medieval walled town of GuĂ©rande, where virtually every shop seemed to be selling fleur du sel — literally, "flower of salt" — in rustic little ceramic bowls. The French believe this sea salt enhances the flavor of most foods.

If you search the recipe index at Epicurious.com, it will turn up 63 recipes calling for fleur du sel — ranging from bigeye tuna to sugar snap peas.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Ultimate Arbiter

One of the great ironies of the culinary world is that the ultimate arbiter of excellence in restaurant dining is . . . . . a tire company.

In 1920, the French tire company Michelin began assigning stars to restaurants in its travel guides. In 1931, Michelin changed its blue-colored book to red. These days, gourmands regularly refer to Michelin's "red book."

Michelin's red books also provide information on hotels and brief maps of cities and towns, but the restaurant recommendations have always been the foremost lever for sales.

During my recent eight days in France, I ate at two Michelin-starred restaurants.

Michelin's red book assigns one to three stars to the most accomplished restaurants, as well as a "bib gourmand" designation to restaurants that haven't quite earned star status but serve excellent food at reasonable prices.

Michelin traditionally has focused on the Europe and North America, but earlier this year the company ventured into Asia to publish a Japanese-language red book guide. The reaction in Japan — literally: "How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?” — demonstated that the Japanese are even more absurdly nationalistic and chauvinistic than the French.

Strawberry Season

In some regions of the U.S. and Europe, strawberry season is just beginning. While traveling through western France, I had a dessert one night of fresh strawberries that were drizzled with an amazing sabayon sauce.

Plougastel, a village in the French province of Bretagne, is renowned for the quality of its strawberries. How much do they love their strawberries? They opened a museum that celebrates them.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

En Vacances

The Food Dude is traveling to food heaven: la belle France. So the blog will be taking a nap until April 14.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Layoffs and Lemonade

You'd hardly expect both of those words to appear in the same N.Y. Times op-ed column. But both were in this column, co-written by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. And, if you can believe it, that column also included these words:

skyrocketing oil costs

chocolate chip cookies

credit crunch

junk food

It was an interesting, if unexpected, column.

OBT: The Koffee Kup

Off the Beaten Track (OBT)

On my way to the airport from a conference in southeastern Wisconsin, I made a pleasant pit-stop in the small town of Stoughton, Wisc. Right on East Main Street, flanked on both sides by Victorian-era storefronts is The Koffee Kup, an old-fashioned coffee shop-cum-diner.

Ask for a no-foam latte here, and you'll get a strange look. This is the kind of homey, no-nonsense diner where coffee comes in those heavy, white porcelain mugs. The coffee, however, is not the main attraction.

The food is basic comfort food, and most of it is homemade. Desserts are the stars — cherry pie, blackberry cobbler and others.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Pasta and Cheese

Writing recently in the NY Times, filmmaker Robert Trachtenberg laid bare his oddball status:
Sneer all you want, but I like cheese on seafood pasta. For years I even managed to escape the wrath of the Italian people for this supposed transgression. And then I went to Milan.

The waiter didn’t yell at me exactly. Rather, he turned to the nearest table and started screaming at them — something about ruining his food, the culture, the country . . .

Don’t put cheese on your seafood, don’t order a cappuccino after noon, keep your bread right side up — the rules never stopped. Was I in my own culinary Siberia?

I veer to the other extreme — no parmesan on any pasta dishes.

Let Them Eat Cake

. . . especially this cake -- at least that's the hope of the Maryland legislature.