Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Tea Obama Loves

Excerpts from an article written by Leslie Milk in Washingtonian magazine:

It was an entrepreneur’s dream: a call from Barack Obama’s people to say that the candidate was hooked on Honest Tea and needed help finding it on the campaign trail. That meant national visibility for the Bethesda beverage company.

. . . Company founder Seth Goldman couldn’t have asked for better publicity. For the Democratic National Convention, Honest Tea created a commemorative label for its Black Forest Berry flavor, changing its name temporarily to Barack Forest Berry. Now the White House refrigerators are stocked with Black Forest Berry and a new favorite, Green Dragon.

. . . In 1998, Honest Tea had sales of $250,000. A year later Giant and Harris Teeter were among its outlets, and sales had quadrupled. By 2002, Honest Tea was the best-selling bottled tea in the natural-foods industry. Sales topped $4.6 million.

. . . by 2004, all Honest Tea flavors were certified organic, and the company had gained a loyal following. One drinker had the logo tattooed on his body.

The company is successful enough that last year Coca-Cola bought a 40% stock in Honest Tea.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Joys of Gingerbread

I have always loved good gingerbread. It's hearty and sweet, but not too sweet. This recipe for Dark Molasses Gingerbread looks enticing, especially because the final product is touted as having a "moist" interior.

This gingerbread recipe includes molasses, as well as honey and brown sugar. It also has instructions for those who want to make an icing for the gingerbread. But I think all you need to "finish" a good piece of gingerbread is a dollop of whipped cream.

The Opening of Potenza

Potenza is a new Italian restaurant located a few blocks east of the White House, on the S.E. corner of 15th and H Streets (in the stately Woodward Bldg., pictured at right). When I dined there with three friends late last week, Potenza had been open only a few days. Here are my initial thoughts.

The restaurant has a nice space, and the bar area (especially) is visually inviting -- it has a classy, but not stuffy look. Potenza has a semi-open kitchen, and the noise level will probably be moderate once (or if) the restaurant is filled up with diners.

Potenza's executive chef is Bryan Moscatello who previously cooked at Zola.

The food was generally very good, but a few things just didn't "wow" us. If you want a stellar charcuterie tray, go to Proof and don't order it at Potenza. But the pastas looked good, and my friends gave them a thumbs-up. Potenza also has a large pizza oven -- none of us ordered pizzas, but a nearby diner who did said his pizza was delicious.

The wine list is okay, but you're going to have to examine it closely to find good values.

Potenza has an adjacent bakery and wine shop, but I didn't get a chance to check out this area. These items (as well as cheese and salami) will be available for take-out purchase.

Potenza needs to update its website and get all of its starters and main courses listed. Potential diners deserve to know more than their "featured" dishes. That said, I have good hopes for Potenza. It didn't dazzle me, but it has a lot of potential. The menu seems to be priced very reasonably, and service was good.

I will be back.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Woes of Beef Sales

The recession isn't the only thing putting a crimp in beef sales. As the Wall Street Journal's Lauren Etter writes in today's edition:

Making the situation even tougher, a new study this week by the National Cancer Institute concluded that eating too much red meat can shorten life spans.

So far, though, beef sales in the U.S. are suffering largely because consumers aren't eating as much at restaurants. Beef sales to food-service establishments were down nearly 5% last year, according to figures from food-consulting firm Technomic Inc. Sales to supermarkets and other retail outlets rose 2% as consumers started cooking more at home.

. . . Historically, half of all beef sales in the U.S. go to the food-service industry . . . But dining at casual chains is down, thanks in part to the recession, according to Knapp-Track, which follows sales at about 10,000 dining outlets.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Turnip Problem

Over at Slate.com, Catherine Price writes about her experiences of participating in one of those community farm programs. She writes:

In August, we receive endless tomatoes. In June, we're invited to a farm event called "strawberry day." Every time we resubscribe, they send us a lavender sachet. But each year, toward the end of winter, I run into the Turnip Problem.

Ordinarily, I would never eat turnips. I managed to go 30 years without buying one. But now every winter I'm faced with a two-month supply, not to mention the kale, collards, and flat-leaf Italian parsley that sit in my refrigerator, slowly wilting, filling me with guilt every time I reach past them for the milk.

After three years of practice, I've figured out simple ways to deal with most of these problem vegetables: I braise the turnips in butter and white wine; I sauté the kale and collards with olive oil and sea salt; I wait until the parsley shrivels and then throw it out. The abundance of roughage is overwhelming.

I suppose that's why I'm happy to simply go to a local farmers' market or the Whole Foods and just buy what I want when I want it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"If It Ain't Broke . . ."

If you're a fan of the classic poulet roti, you should have read this recent article by Andreas Viestad that was in the Washington Post:

Thomas Keller [chef at New York City's Per Se restaurant] knows exactly how to make the perfect roast chicken. But he chooses not to.

. . . The logical approach would be to use sous vide when roasting chicken, too: to cook the bird for an hour and a half, until it had the perfect interior temperature, and then finish it off in the oven. "It would be perfectly juicy and tender," Keller says.

. . . Keller's reasons for not subjecting chicken to a more precise way of cooking are mainly personal. For him, as for so many others, roast chicken is a dish that, like Proust's madeleine, has personal and cultural importance more than objective culinary value.

To some, hearing Keller admit that he prefers his chicken roasted the old-fashioned way might be equal to catching a sushi chef searing his fish on both sides. It can be viewed as heresy, or as a reminder that one of the world's leading chefs is a human being, too, and that he will sometimes let his guard down and allow food to just be food.

Calmed by Candy

It seems that many of us are. According to this article from Monday's N.Y. Times:

Since he was laid off in December, [Raymond] Schneider, a 33-year-old interior designer, says he has become a “gummy junkie,” stocking up on sweets every time he shops for groceries. “Sugar is comforting,” he said as he scooped Red Licorice Scottie Dogs into a plastic bag.

The recession seems to have a sweet tooth. As unemployment has risen and 401(k)’s have shrunk, Americans, particularly adults, have been consuming growing volumes of candy, from Mary Janes and Tootsie Rolls to Gummy Bears and cheap chocolates, say candy makers, store owners and industry experts.

For many, sugar lifts spirits dragged low by the languishing economy. For others, candy also provides a nostalgic reminder of better times. And not insignificantly, it is relatively cheap.

At Candyality, a store in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, business has jumped by nearly 80 percent compared with this time last year, and the owner, Terese McDonald, said she was struggling to keep up with the demand for Bit-O-Honeys, Swedish Fish and Sour Balls.

Monday, March 23, 2009

So Where Is the Sage?

And, no, I'm not searching for Gandalf the wizard. I am referring to this kind of sage.

That was my question when I went looking for a recipe to make chicken saltimbocca, and I came across this recipe on the Food Network's website.

The recipe from Giada De Laurentiis calls for no sage. No sage. Has she lost her mind?

Does she think that spinach is a legitimate substitute for sage, a wonderfully aromatic herb?

Mario Batali's chicken saltimbocca recipe properly calls for sage. So does the recipe of Lidia Bastianich. Although I ended up using De Laurentiis' recipe as a foundation for the chicken saltimbocca that I made this past weekend, I corrected her mistake. I not only used sage, but I picked up some fresh sage leaves from the grocery on Saturday.

I washed and then finely chopped the sage leaves and used them basically as De Laurentiis had used the spinach. I used a total of about 3 tablespoons of chopped sage. I placed 2 of the tablespoons atop the chicken cutlets, and the other tablespoon I added to the skillet sauce.

I also increased the lemon juice for this recipe to 3 tablespoons. And do make sure it's fresh lemon juice.

Two other changes that I made: 1) Immediately after removing the cooked chicken from the skillet, I deglazed the skillet with roughly 2 tablespoons of white wine; and 2) I didn't bother rolling the chicken cutlets as De Laurentiis did. To me, this is extra work that doesn't add any flavor.

Finally, if you're making chicken saltimbocca, don't cut corners by purchasing bargain-basement chicken breasts. This is one situation in which you truly do get what you pay for. Spend a little more and buy good organic, free-range chicken from a place like Whole Foods. It'll be worth it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lotta Ways to Make PB & J's

In this recent post, I shared one way not to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. In yesterday's Washington Post, columnist John Kelly revealed that there are a lot of different ways to make PB & J's. He writes:

Smooth versus chunky. Skippy versus Jif. Grape versus strawberry versus raspberry versus peach. (Peach!) White versus wheat versus pita. (Pita!) Crust on versus crust off. And let's not get started on diagonal slicing versus horizontal.

You might not have known this, but walking among us are people who eat what might be called a PBB&J: The first thing they spread on their bread is a layer of butter. Some of these people claim to have grown up on dairy farms, where, apparently, you put butter on everything, just to keep from being suffocated by the stuff.

Of course, these are all but variations on the original holy trinity: bread, peanut butter, jelly. My question was whether to plunge the knife into the peanut butter first or the jelly.

"I spread the jelly first, lavishly (because I like the jelly more); rinse the knife, then dip into the peanut butter," wrote Ann Van Aken of Gaithersburg.
Some people think a little too hard about PB & J. But I'm with Kelly -- PB & J on pita bread? You gotta be kidding me. And peach jam? I'd love it on toast, but not with PB. I'm just too much of a traditionalist.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Corn Flakes = Boys? Not So Fast

The following excerpts are from a recent column in the Washington Post by David Shaywitz, a former endocrinologist at Harvard:

When a group of British academic researchers reported last spring that women fond of eating breakfast cereal were more likely to give birth to boys, the story was lapped up by journalists the world over. "Skip breakfast for a daughter, eat up your cereals for a son," advised the Economist, just one of many publications to seize on the report.

The problem with this fascinating study? It appears to be wrong. An analysis led by Stan Young of the National Institute for Statistical Sciences found that the original conclusion was based on poor statistics and is probably the result of chance.

That [Young's rebuttal] is ignored by many of the media outlets that lavished attention on the original report isn't surprising; in fact, the most remarkable thing is how ordinary that lack of attention may be. A lot of science, it turns out, can't withstand serious scrutiny.

Thoughtful analysis by John Ioannidis suggests that more than half of published scientific research findings can't be replicated by other researchers.

The Diverse and Delightful World of Ice Cream

The temperatures this time of year in Washington, D.C., are still relatively cool, which makes it difficult to think about sorbet. But I thought this blood orange sorbet at the blog A Spoonful of Sugar looked absolutely fantastic.

It got me thinking — are sorbets, sherbets and ice creams any more delectable when they are served during the warm-weather months? My spouse and I disagree on this point.

Maybe that's because I grew up in Arkansas. Sure, we ate ice cream throughout the year — a scoop or two always adorned apple or pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving — but my memories of ice cream are closely associated with the summer months, which could be sweltering.

At those times of the year, ice cream and sherbets were not just tasty; they were particularly refreshing. Whether it's the climate or not, ice cream seems to become much more enticing to Southerners in the summer.

Still, I respect the fact that New Englanders enjoy their ice cream throughout the year. If they only thought about ice creams and the like during the warm weather months, that would restrict their obsession to roughly three months of the year.

And I know from experience that there are some small dairies and creameries in New England that are serving amazing ice cream.

If I ever make it to Tokyo, I will have to visit "Ice Cream City." Here is a description of it on the blog Cooking With Amy. The "soft creams" sound wonderful.

But if there's a first-on-my-list ice cream I'd like to try making at home, it would be this one — courtesy of the blogger Brooke at Bear Necessities. It's cinnamon-mascarpone ice cream (see the photo above). Now does that look yummy or what?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Unthinkable "Uncrustables"

Just the other day, I saw this package in the freezer case at a grocery store. It was so bizarre that I almost did a double-take. It's a product that proves that American food marketing trends are getting scarier each year.

Smucker's makes them, and they are called Uncrustables. They are frozen peanut butter "soft bread" sandwiches (PB & J and peanut butter-and-honey are among the varieties). You're supposed to buy them, throw them in the freezer, take them out and let them thaw, and then eat 'em. Quick question: How can a frozen sandwich be described (as this label does) as having "soft bread"?

First of all, I wouldn't want my peanut butter frozen . . . for any reason. I realize that the Uncrustables target demographic is the parents of petulant children, but I still don't get it.

Since when is it considered child abuse to serve a kid a PB & J on normal sandwich bread?

And what makes the Uncrustables a time-saver? By the time you could thaw it (or defrost it in a microwave), you could have made a PB & J sandwich and simply cut off the edges of the bread.

American food manufacturers, the fine people who brought us frozen pizza (ick!), are now trying to sell us frozen PB & J sandwiches. Has the world gone positively mad? Who would buy this?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Phony Fiber

Kudos to Slate's Jacob Gershman for writing this post:

Who knew that I could get as many grams of fiber from Cocoa Pebbles as I could from a bowl of Cheerios or a slice of whole wheat bread?

After a little research, I learned that higher doses of fiber are showing up in all sorts of bizarre places, like yogurts, cookies, brownies, ice creams, and diet drinks.

. . . The fiber in Cocoa Pebbles comes from a little-known ingredient called polydextrose, which is synthesized from glucose and sorbitol, a low-calorie carbohydrate.

And, according to Gershman, we can thank the FDA for this nonsense.

Recent FDA approvals have given manufacturers a green light to add polydextrose to a much broader range of products than previously permitted . . .

The problem with this is that nobody knows if these fiber additives possess the same health benefits as natural fiber found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber, which consists of nondigestible carbohydrates, was already one of the least understood nutrients even before the introduction of ingredients like polydextrose.

. . . Polydextrose shares with dietary fiber one fundamental property: It seems to rev up your GI tract. It does so, however, at a fraction of the level of wheat bran. And while diets heavy in oat bran have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and whole grains have been linked to lower risks of heart disease, there's no evidence that polydextrose protects cardiovascular health.

Our government continues to allow major food producers to chemically alter our food supply and then spin it as a "healthy" change.

A Tablecloth Tantrum

I think that's the best title for the complaint which is featured in the most recent edition of the Washington Post's "Ask Tom (Sietsema)" column.

A Post reader complains about butcher paper on the tabletops at Bistro Bis, stating that "we were quite irritated because our sleeves kept being snagged on the paper and lifting it up!" I have eaten at Bistro Bis many times and never had that same problem.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Review: Ceiba

It had been several months since I'd last dined at Ceiba (pronounced say-buh), a Latin-Brazilian restaurant. So consider this more of a "check-in" than a full-fledged review.

I had an excellent meal at Ceiba on Friday evening, just as I have each time I've been there.

Ceiba prepares homemade guacamole that is very good, and they also have a nice selection of various ceviches to have as starters.

My main course was the pork shank, which was excellent. But it was a tough decision to make because there were several entrees that were tempting. Click right here for links to the restaurant's menus and wine list.

The wine list has a broad price range, and there is a nice diversity to it -- Tempranillo from Spain, Pinot Noir from Argentina, CabSav and Red Zin from California, Pinot Gris from Oregon, etc.

Save room for dessert.

Easier Cake-Making

Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake? It sounds yummy to me.

The N.Y. Times has a recipe for it that accompanies this article about ways to make cakes without all the typical time and fuss. The article was written by Melissa Clark, who says:

I’ve been building up a small repertory of quick, easy cakes that I can whip up without turning on (and later cleaning) the food processor or electric mixer.

The key is using liquid fat (oil or melted butter) that doesn’t require creaming, and chemical leavening (baking powder or soda or both) to eliminate the vigorous beating of eggs.

. . . Unlike the blander oils, good olive oil has character. I’ve had olive oil cakes and liked their pronounced flavor. I even baked one once, though it required beating yolks and whites separately with an electric mixer, which disqualified it from the quick category.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Italian Wine Lists (Sigh)

We went to Notti Bianche the other evening. We've had very good meals there during the past year or so. But, on this particular night, we ended up leaving within five minutes.

Why? The menu items simply didn't look that interesting to us. But the main reason was that the wine list was such a downer. Their selection of whites was okay, but the choice and prices of reds was very disappointing. It looked to me as though they had raised their prices since the last time we were there.

A bottle of Nebbiolo from California for $140? You've got to be kidding me. And they didn't have a single riserva Chianti on the list.

The only pinot noir was from Oregon. Ugh. Pinots from Oregon are flimsy; they have no backbone. You might as well be drinking a rose wine from Provence. The only bottle on the list that looked intriguing to me was the Super Tuscan. But I was suspicious of a Super Tuscan for only $34.

I love Italian food, but I don't love the typical Italian wine list. Why did Notti Bianche feel the need to have four different Barbera wines on its list? Except for pasta, Barbera is a red wine that just can't stand up to most meats. Nice bouquet, but that's about it.

And I think Valpolicella is a perfectly adequate red wine. You can call it "superiore" or "classico" all you want, but Valpolicella simply can't hold a candle to a Brunello di Montalcino or a Vino Nobile, but none of the latter wines were on Notti Bianche's list.

It's laughable that Valpolicellas typically sell for the three-digit prices they do. Someone must be shelling out that money, but who?

Just Drink It

And stop trying to find cover in obscure studies for why you consume wine on a regular basis. That's essentially the message in this Slate.com article written by Mike Steinberger. He writes that there is

. . . an obsessive interest in the nutritional and therapeutic properties of wine. This seems to be a particularly American fixation, and it raises an intriguing question: Why are we — Americans — so anxious to find justifications for drinking wine beyond the fact that it tastes good and we like it?

. . . Personally, I'm thrilled to learn that red wine could help me avoid cancer, outlast opponents on the tennis court, survive a nuclear attack, and lead a long, lucid, and Viagra-free life. However, a little caution is in order. Most of the testing with resveratrol has been done on mice, and they have been given ungodly amounts of the stuff.

. . . Regardless of how beneficial wine ultimately proves to be for the heart, lungs, groin, and other body parts, we already know it has a powerful and mostly salutary psychological influence. Wine — or, to be more precise, the alcohol in wine — leaves us happy; it is a relaxant, a stimulant, a balm. It can make a bad day good and a good one better.

. . . if it turns out the mice have been screwing with us and that red wine carries none of these magical side effects, there will still be a bottle on my dinner table every night. Wine is a habit that requires no rationale other than the pursuit of enjoyment.

Here, here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A History of Hash

Maybe that looks good to you. Maybe not. It's a hash made with andouille sausage and sweet potatoes. I think it looks good. When hash is prepared well, it can be a wonderful example of comfort food.

The recipe for this hash accompanies this article in the Washington Post. The article written by Scott Reitz also provides a brief but interesting history of hash:

The name first shows up in English in the mid-17th century, derived from the French word "hacher," which means "to chop."

. . . In the 19th century, restaurants serving inexpensive meals became known as hash houses. Canned corned beef was a mainstay for British soldiers during both world wars.

. . . At the close of the 19th century, here in Washington hash was making headlines. Maggie Maloney, the cook for influential Ohio senator Mark A. Hanna, made a renowned corned beef hash for the regular breakfasts he hosted for friends, the president and political adversaries.

Political dignitaries angled for breakfast invitations as Hanna added leaves to his morning table. On more than one occasion, the New York Times reported, Maloney's hash "brought the light of reason to recalcitrant legislators."

There are several links to hash recipes embedded in the article. One thing that Reitz did not mention (and it struck me as an unpardonable omission) was the fact that the Plaza Hotel's famous chicken hash was the centerpiece dish served at the Black and White Ball hosted by Truman Capote in the 1960s.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dinner With Douglas

They left without trying the marvelous apple tart

We've been to the Georgetown restaurant La Chaumiere many times over the years. But last night's meal was noteworthy for two reasons.

1. I've never dined at a restaurant while Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were eating only 15 feet away from me.

Douglas and Zeta-Jones strolled in around 9:45 p.m., and they ordered only a single course. They drank white wine with their food. Both of them seemed reasonably cheerful, exchanging pleasantries with their waiter.

Okay, now for a few silly, gossip-column notes. (No, that photo above wasn't taken last night — this blogger is not a paparazzo.) Last night, Zeta-Jones looked far better than she does in this photo. She was lovely, dressed in black from head to toe, wearing a stylish jacket with slacks and high-heels. Douglas? Well, he looked slightly tuckered. Of course, those coast-to-coast airline flights can take their toll.

2. The house-made apple tart with caramel sauce was extraordinary. (It's one of those desserts that has to be pre-ordered because they make it from scratch.) The pastry dough was amazing, as were the apples — but the caramel sauce was really superb.

It reminded me of the burnt caramel sauce that is made by Recchiuti, a gourmet confectioner that's based in San Fran. That sauce was heavenly when I first tasted it, and the caramel sauce that was served last night with the apple tart was equally scrumptious.

If you happen to dine at La Chaumiere, you have to order the quenelles as either a starter or main course. They are wonderful and rarely found on a restaurant menu.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Whatever Happened to Real Toast?

If Joy of Toast had not already been taken by this food blog, I might have chosen it as the name for my own blog. I guess that attests to how much I like toast. (According to N.Y. magazine, fashion model Heather Marks is pretty fond of toast too.)

No matter if it's white, sourdough or whole wheat, I really like toast — for making sandwiches, with jam for breakfast, or just with butter. And this is why I am increasingly distressed to see how much of the world is incapable of properly toasting a piece of bread.

In recent years, it has become more and more difficult to get a proper piece of toast at a restaurant or through hotel room-service. What they call "toast" appears to have been dropped in a toaster for all of 30 seconds and then removed. It has only the slightest brown hue to it.

Somewhere along the line, one of those "efficiency consultants" must have approached a restaurant or hotel chain and told them that they could save time (and bread) by simply under-toasting bread. But that's a travesty. I no longer order room-service breakfast, even if I have plenty of time to spare in the morning. I want real toast that has that golden-brown hue.

A good cup of coffee and a couple of pieces of buttered toast — that ensemble is one of life's simple pleasures. But if you want this with real toast, your best option seems to be making it yourself at home.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Maximizing Your Wine Dollar

Since wine-drinking is too wonderful to abandon during the economic troubles in America, it's time to ponder how to maintain this lovely habit with an eye toward the bottom line.

Thankfully, the Weekend Journal section of the WSJ had this excellent article entitled "10 Ways to Save Money ordering Wine." Here are some excerpts, along with some commentary of my own:

1. Skip wine by the glass. Restaurateurs like to make enough on a single glass to pay for a whole bottle, which is great for them but not so great for you. And it wouldn't be so bad except that so many wines by the glass are poured from bottles that have been open for too long and mistreated after opening. At a trendy Asian restaurant in Manhattan, we recently ordered a New Zealand Pinot Noir by the glass for $12 that was served so warm it could have been our after-dinner tea.
I have had this same experience -- very annoying. But there are exceptions to this rule. When you are dining at a wine bar or other establishment that makes proper storage, temperature-control, etc., a priority, ordering wine by the glass is a smart thing to do.

This rule shouldn't be considered absolute. Enough of us travel or find ourselves in other situations where we are dining alone, and we shouldn't be forced to buy a full bottle of wine that we can't possibly drink by ourselves.

If you order a glass of wine, and it has a musty taste or it is unacceptably warm, politely point this out to your server and send it back. That's one way to send the message.

5. Avoid the Chardonnay tax. Chardonnay is America's favorite wine. Just about everybody loves it and feels comfortable with it, which is why the Chardonnays on so many lists are grossly overpriced compared to other wines.
I agree with this, but not simply because of the so-called Chardonnay "tax." I think most American Chardonnays have been strangled with so much oak that the fruit and bouquet are left virtually undetectable. There are other white wines that are underrated much as Chardonnays tend to be overrated (in my humble opinion).

The co-authors of the WSJ article suggest choosing either a Riesling or a Grüner-Veltliner. Those whites are certainly options, but also consider a Sauvignon Blanc or a Viognier. And you should try an up-and-coming white called Albariño (alba-reen-yo), assuming there is one on the wine-by-glass list. This white — popular in Spain and Portugal — has nice fruit and a light to medium body.

Herr Hitler's Dining Habits

Der Fuhrer would eat his food "rapidly, mechanically."

This and other details are shared in an article in Sunday's N.Y. Times. As a foodie and history-buff, I really enjoyed reading the article. Hopefully, you will too.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cube Steak: The New Silk Purse

When beef prices starting soaring in the early 1970s, cube steak became a staple in my family's household. (With six kids, the better cuts would have taken a toll on our food budget.) I hated cube steak . . . absolutely hated it.

No matter how you cooked it, it just seemed like you were eating a piece of shoe leather. I have never eaten a cut of beef like that since, and one way I assess my success in life is that I no longer have to eat crap like that.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found this N.Y. Times article online. Kim Severson writes:

I am in love with the cube steak.

. . . The realization came to me not too long ago, when I found a package in the grass-fed beef bins where I buy my groceries. I took them home, patted them with some seasoned flour and slipped them into a hot skillet. Six minutes later I was right back at my childhood dinner table, when cube steaks on a Tuesday night meant life was safe, steady and predictable.

But my feelings for the cube steak are more than nostalgic. That I can get grass-fed cube steaks for about $8 a pound (half that if I go for conventionally raised beef) is a comfort to my budget, too.

Of course it's cheap -- lousy cuts of beef always are. I'm sure that the cube steaks my parents served us when I was a teen were not "grass-fed," but I refuse to even entertain the possibility that this alone would magically transform the gristle-like texture of a cube steak into something edible.

Severson seems to be looking for validation when she writes this:

The amount of cube steak sold during the last quarter of 2008 was up by almost 10 percent over the same period a year earlier. The overall amount of beef sold went up only 3 percent.

Nice try, Ms. Severson. Has she watched CNN or the other cable news channels recently? The economic meltdown and rising joblessness have made people desperate. Let me emphasize that word: desperate. Which proves, of course, that an atmosphere of desperation is what it takes to drum up interest in cube steak.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What "Organic" Means

The public tends to get confused about what the term "organic" means, and what it does not mean. This N.Y. Times article explains:

The plants in Texas and Georgia that were sending out contaminated peanut butter and ground peanut products had something else besides rodent infestation, mold and bird droppings. They also had federal organic certification.

“Why is organic peanut butter better than Jif?” said [Ellen] Devlin-Sample, a nurse practitioner from Pelham, N.Y. “I have no idea. If we’re getting salmonella from peanut butter, all bets are off.”

Although the rules governing organic food require health inspections and pest-management plans, organic certification technically has nothing to do with food safety.

The rest of the article is right here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Osso Bucco Advice

A friend who recently came for dinner asked me about the osso bucco that I prepared. It seems that he's going to have a few relatives in town, and he wanted to prepare osso bucco too.

There were three pieces of advice I gave him. Since he's working from a Silver Palate cookbook, the temperature they recommend to cook the osso bucco is 350 degrees for 1-1/2 hours. I told him to cook it at 325 degrees for an hour, then turn it down to 275 and let it braise for another full hour.

Here's my second piece of advice. Just add your spices (these vary from one recipe to the next), and don't worry about using a bouquet garni. It's a hassle that, in my opinion doesn't add anything to the final dish.

My third and final piece of advice? Be sure to include the lemon zest. Most osso bucco recipes call for it, but it's one of those ingredients that cooks tend to disregard if they don't have it readily on hand or if they're in a hurry. The lemon zest really adds a nice, subtle flavor.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Chicken Tagine

On Sunday evening, I made a chicken tagine using the ceramic tagine I bought recently from a kitchen store. I was pretty happy with it. If I had to give it a grade, it would be an A- or a B+.

I used this recipe from Epicurious.com, but I added 1/3 cup of dried plums (prunes), which added a nice flavor to the dish.

I used tupelo honey, which is mild yet has much more depth of flavor than orange blossom honey (which seems to get most of the shelf space in grocery stores). I didn't use fresh cilantro because I didn't have any on hand. If I made this recipe again, I would:
  • add an extra tablespoon of honey
  • reduce the amount of water to heat with the apricots and prunes to only 2/3 cup
  • use fresh cilantro

  • make some couscous to serve alongside the chicken -- it would soak up the wonderful juices that remain inside the tagine

Monday, March 2, 2009

Atlanta's "Napa"

San Francisco and Oakland have the Napa Valley, and now Atlanta has the burgeoning hamlet of Palmetto. This article from the N.Y. Times profiles the small town of B&Bs and organic farms:

Each morning, as the breakfast dishes are cleared, Nick Melvin escapes the kitchen at the Inn at Serenbe, where he is the executive chef, and drives five minutes down a country road to a sumptuous 25-acre organic farm. There he examines [vegetables] . . . and decides what looks best for that night’s table and next week’s menu at the Farmhouse, Serenbe’s acclaimed restaurant.

Since opening in Palmetto, Ga., in June 2006, the Farmhouse has become a Southeastern showcase for the country’s growing farm-to-table movement, winning accolades for food that is both innovative and authentic.

The same ethos, it would seem, infuses just about everything in Serenbe, a utopian experiment in New Urbanism being molded out of red Georgia clay, about 30 miles southwest of downtown Atlanta.

In just a few years, this idyllic community — which aspires to be something of a Sonoma for the New South (though without the wine) — has become a destination for Atlantans in search of a day trip with the kids or a getaway without them.

The Secret Ingredient

I have just finished reading a biography on the life of the actor Gregory Peck, written by Gary Fishgal. Here was a tidbit I found amusing.

After church on Sundays, Peck's Aunt Myrtle would cook a roast chicken dinner with stuffing. Her husband, Uncle Charley, was an ex-silver miner and teetotaler. He loved her chicken-and-stuffing recipe.

"After his second or third helping," Peck recalled, "[Charley] would always sit back and say, 'Yessir, that's the best dressing in the world. Myrt's got a secret.' "

What he never found out was the secret: Aunt Myrt used to put about a pint of bourbon in her recipe.