Monday, November 30, 2009

A Condiment That's Hard to Stomach

In today's Washington Post, columnist John Kelly writes:

I arrived late to the book party launching Maggie Hall's new paperback about Marmite, an English condiment that is perhaps the foulest compound legally sold for human consumption. Late, but not late enough: There was still plenty of Marmite left.

... I arrived late to the book party launching Maggie Hall's new paperback about Marmite, an English condiment that is perhaps the foulest compound legally sold for human consumption. Late, but not late enough: There was still plenty of Marmite left.

That's how it tastes, anyway. What it is is yeast extract. You might wonder why someone first thought to extract something edible from yeast. I know I did. Apparently when you brew beer, there's all this sludge left over.
Believe me, marmite is as gross as Kelly describes.

Uninvited Dinner Guests

It has been all the buzz here in Washington, D.C., but many Americans "outside the beltway" may not be appear that President Obama's official state dinner at the White House on Tuesday was crashed by a Virginia couple.

White House security officials are still stammering to explain how the uninvited socialites, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, were able to enter the executive mansion and shake hands with the president.

The Washington Post writes that "it appears to be the first time in modern history that anyone has crashed a White House dinner." I can't seem to find what was on the menu.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Final Tips & Ideas for Thanksgiving

Take a deep breath and relax. Linda Larsen offers these tips on making a gravy for the Thanksgiving turkey.

Cranberry sauce shouldn't come out of a can. Especially when there's an easy recipe like this one. Stir in a little orange zest if you wish.

Mashed potatoes are a predictable side dish. Want to try something different? How about sweet potatoes? No, they don't have to be candied. Try this recipe, but substitute a can of mandarin oranges for the orange, and replace the corn syrup with 1/2 cup of molasses. You'll love it.

What about pies? Pumpkin pie is traditional, but Simply Recipes offers several other options on this web page.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

It's a safe bet that a large bowl of mashed potatoes will grace most dinner tables on this upcoming Thanksgiving. But how they are prepared is likely to vary, if only a little. Today's Washington Post includes this article about making the perfect mashed potatoes:

Mashed potatoes or potato puree is a dish everyone can make. It demands so little: Boil some potatoes and crush them with whatever you have at hand: a potato ricer, a fork or the backside of a wooden spatula.

The transformation from plain boiled potatoes to a dish with its own merit needn't take more than a minute. If the potatoes are good, and if you add a little milk, a lump of butter or some cream, few people would not appreciate or even love the result.

... However the process of making good mashed potatoes does have its demands. ... Cooks who are overeager or inattentive risk ending up with a sticky mass of something more resembling wallpaper glue than gastronomy.

The article talks about the importance of letting the potatoes drain (once they've been boiled). The writer recommends using a hand-held electric mixer rather than a food processor. There are other suggestions and caveats so it's an article worth reading.

Some people swear by using Russet potatoes, while others insist that Yukon Golds are the best. I think the latter make the best mashed potatoes.

There's also the issue of whether to add garlic or an herb like sage. I like these kinds of twists, but my significant other is a purist when it comes to mashed potatoes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

No More Nathans

Strolling through D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood this weekend, something just didn't look right to me. I finally realized what it was. Even though I'd heard that Nathans had closed this July, this was the first time I saw the tavern-restaurant with the light brown butcher paper covering up all of the windows.

I only ate a meal once at Nathans, and it was not a memorable one. Still, the restaurant at the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue was situated right at the heart of Georgetown. It was a landmark that every longtime Washington, D.C. resident knew of.

It seems that Nathans was always operating in the red. This shaky economy probably didn't make things any easier.

Starbucks: Do You Love It or Hate It?

In this post at MSN, Justin Rohrlich explores the intense emotions that many people express -- positive or negative -- about Starbucks:

Hate Starbucks? Have you asked yourself why?

Maybe it's because you find the coffee stores bland and generic. Perhaps you don't like that they seem to be everywhere you look.

Or it could be that you simply prefer your local, independent mom-and-pop coffee shop, and show your loyalty by hating Starbucks.

But guess what. Mom-and-pop coffee shops don't hate Starbucks at all. In fact, most of them love it when a Starbucks opens a location nearby.

... It may sound like something you've read in The Onion, but it's absolutely true.
I'm somewhere in the middle. I like independent coffeehouses, but I also appreciate that when I order a latte at a Starbucks, I know exactly what I'm going to get.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Martha Cops Some Attitude

Looks like Martha Stewart's picking a fight with another femme de la cuisine. According to the Epi-Log blog at Epicurious:

In a "Nightline" interview to air tonight [Nov. 19], Martha Stewart talks less than flatteringly of Rachael Ray's skills in the kitchen, pretty much dismissing her as a "bubbly" "entertainer" who isn't worthy of the title of TV chef.

. . . "She's a totally different kind of cook than I am. I don't know if she has a garden; I don't think so."
Um, Martha, in case you didn't know it, there are these things called "farmers markets." In most metro areas, you can go to one and buy a wide variety of fresh produce there. So don't get too uppity about having a garden.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pumpkins, While Supplies Last

Apparently so. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Recent heavy rains in the Midwest are putting pumpkin pie in short supply this holiday season. On Tuesday, food giant Nestle, which controls about 85% of the pumpkin crop for canning, issued a rare apology and said that rain appeared to have destroyed what remained of a small harvest this year and it expected to stop shipping the holiday staple by Thanksgiving.
So if you love pumpkin pie, enjoy a slice or two over Thanksgiving because it may be the last taste you have for a while.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Make-Ahead Thanksgiving

The N.Y. Times' Mark Bittman opens this article by writing:

For cooks, most Thanksgiving problems are brought about by the sheer number of dishes competing for the stove: It's not easy to roast a turkey and sweet potatoes for 20 at the same time.

The best solution is to make food in advance . . .

What follows are dozens of recipes for side dishes, relishes and soups that can be made ahead of time. Some sound much better than others, but any Thanksgiving cook should be able to find several good ideas here.

Speaking for myself, I don't get serving "soup" for the Thanksgiving meal.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Brining a Turkey

I've eaten a turkey both ways, brined and not brined. And I can tell you that brining makes a big difference in producing a tastier, juicier turkey.

Slash Food offers these do's and don'ts for brining. Over at the weblog Serious Eats, this post walks people through the ABC's of brining. As the blog notes, brining is not a new concept:

The Scandinavians and Chinese have been extolling the virtues of brining for milennia, and Cook's Illustrated has for at least a decade. But the thing that is odd to me is that people can't seem to agree on how it works -- even the experts.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Taste, Not Appearance, Matters Most

Everywhere you look these days, it seems that cake decorating is all the rage -- from the Food Network's Ace of Cakes show to the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show. Hell, there's even a magazine devoted to cake decorating.

The cakes in these competitions look quite lavish and glittery. But I've always been skeptical of cakes in which appearance is the focal point. Maybe it's because I've tasted my share of "pretty" cakes from weddings and other events that simply couldn't stand up to a basic Duncan Hines box cake.

The frosting on these decorator cakes tends to be made (at least it tastes like it) with Crisco instead of butter. And I prefer the taste of frosting that's made with real butter.

To be fair, there are at least some cake decorators who understand what matters most: taste. Phyllis Lester, who owns a cake-decorating business, puts it this way:
A cake isn’t memorable unless it tastes fabulous.
Here, here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cranberry Cravings

“It has been an unchallengeable American doctrine that cranberry sauce, a pink goo with overtones of sugared tomatoes, is a delectable necessity of the Thanksgiving board and that turkey is inedible without it.” -- Allistair Cooke

I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that turkey is "inedible" without it, but it sure tastes a lot better with it. Everyone I know seems to have a favorite version of cranberry sauce. For some, it's the no-nonsense gelatinized version that comes right out of a can. For others, it's more of a relish that may have orange or lemon zest in it.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this article on MSN's "Delish" offers several different recipes for cranberry sauce. The version with apples and port looks most appealing to me. The Ginger-Orange version is also enticing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Food-Exploring in the Lower East Side

The Lower East Side of NYC is not a typical destination for foodies who are visiting New York. But it should be because there are some fun eateries and shops down there.

First, the Doughnut Plant (see my previous post) is located there.

Second, you can buy some of those donuts and enjoy them with a good cup of coffee by strolling a few blocks over to 81 Orchard Street, where the Roasting Plant coffee bar is located. (Its beans are fresh-roasted only 15 minutes away in a building in Greenwich Village.) I really liked the sign they posted outside -- see above.

Next door, at 79 Orchard Street, a fun and cozy restaurant called Cafe Katya serves Austrian food. Prices are reasonable, especially for NYC.
An interesting sidebar: by 1905, this block of Orchard Street was the most highly populated block in the world -- a stretch of tenement buildings that were overflowing with newly arrived immigrants. The Tenement Museum is located further north on this block.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Sweet Tooth in NYC

Ever since I saw the Doughnut Plant featured on the Food Network, I wanted to go there and sample it for myself.

So when I was recently in NYC, I had to head down to the Lower East Side, where the Doughnut Plant is located. It's a simple, inconspicuous storefront. The front counter is tended only when a customer happens to enter the building.

The range of flavored doughnuts that they make is extraordinary. From Valrhona chocolate to coconut cream to creme brûlée. I ordered a couple of pumpkin cake donuts that were topped off with a maple-spice glaze. They were incredible.

The morning I was there, they also had apple-cinnamon yeast donuts with bits of minced apple worked into the glaze. They were yummy.

Back in midtown Manhattan, I had a very decadent hot chocolate at Lily O'Brien's Chocolate Café, located on 40th Street on the south side of Bryant Park. Lily O'Brien's sells "chocolate shots" in both milk chocolate and dark chocolate.

Visiting an Old Haunt

I recently spent a few days in New York City and thought I'd share some food experiences with you.

First, in the category of "visiting an old haunt," I booked a table for me and my significant-other at Il Cantinori, an Italian restaurant in the Village. The restaurant caught some free publicity years ago from an episode of "Sex and the City" when Carrie celebrates her 35th birthday by dining there.

It had been 12 years since I'd eaten there. I had fond memories of taking a friend out to dinner there. It's noteworthy when any restaurant in NYC has the staying power to last 10-plus years, and I was curious about whether Il Cantinori was still preparing solid meals.

The food was still good. Not great, but definitely good. The wine list was very reasonably priced, and I give them big points for that.

If anything had changed in those 12 years, it was the whole vibe of the place. Instead of the Il Cantinori that was fairly quiet and slightly formal in the mid-1990s, the present-day restaurant is loud and hip (at least during dinner). Recorded rock and hip-hop music cascaded throughout the restaurant.

Il Cantinori is also rather dark at night with lighting so soft that you have a hard time reading the menu.

It's always interesting to see how owners try to redefine a restaurant to appeal to new crowds or to reintroduce the place to the dining public.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is Galileo Soon to Reopen?

I hope so. Rumor has it that there's a sign in the window of what used to be the restaurant Butterfield 9 stating that Galileo will soon reopen in that space. Butterfield 9 has been closed for over a year.

Most foodies in the Washington, D.C.-metro area have fond memories of at least one meal they ate in Galileo, a restaurant on 21st Street that was overseen by chef Roberto Donna (above right).

I haven't strolled past the window of Butterfield 9 lately so I can only hope that the rumor I've heard is true.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tips for Restaurant Staff

Consider this an appropriate addendum to my last post. It's a list from the N.Y. Times' You're the Boss blog.

Here are a few samples from Part 2 of the list of "100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do":

  • Do not bring judgment with the ketchup. Or mustard. Or hot sauce. Or whatever condiment is requested.
  • Specials, spoken and printed, should always have prices.
  • Do not ask if someone is finished when others are still eating that course.
  • Do not ask, "Are you still working on that?" Dining is not work -- until questions like this are asked.
  • Do not ask if a guest needs change. Just bring the change.

Take Me to Your Server

Have you been to one these restaurants lately? One person takes your order, a different person fills and refills water glasses, and yet a different person brings food to your table.

I was eating at the Arlington, Va., location of Jaleo yesterday, and although I had a nice meal, it was annoying that whenever I wanted to order an additional food item, I seemed to hear: "You need to tell your server" or "I'll go find your server and send him over."

Every restaurant should train all of its staff to take or handle basic requests -- a glass of wine, coffee, etc. It's silly that one should have to wait for one's server to make those requests. Don't present customers with hurdles for ordering food or drinks.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A French Element in Spanish Tapas

Even when a chef prepares ethnic foods, the origin of those foods frequently crosses at least border. Here's a quick example.

Earlier today, I watched Food Network chef Tyler Florence preparing tapas -- classic Spanish hors d'oeuvres. One of them was a dish called Gallina de Madre (pronounced: guy-ee-nuh day mad-ray). In Spanish, the name means "mother hen." Here's the recipe, which looks very tasty.

Interestingly, Gallina de Madre is prepared with a béchamel sauce, a white cream sauce that was conceived by Louis de Béchamel, a steward to France's King Louis XIV. Béchamel (pictured above) is the base used for the cheesy Mornay Sauce, and it is also used in some recipe versions of a Croque Monsieur.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rethinking Key Limes (and the Pie)

I'm a big fan of Key Lime Pie. This Los Angeles Times article offers some other ideas for making good use of key limes.

But I have no intention of taking heeding the article's suggestion of incorporating meringue into Key Lime Pie. Why tinker with such a marvelous dessert?

BTW, I found this recipe from Bon Appetit magazine for Key Lime Cupcakes. The recipe doesn't specify key lime juice so I suspect you could use either type of lime juice. I may have to try making them this weekend.

The most interesting thing I learned from the L.A. Times article is that although key limes are a novelty among U.S. consumers, these limes are the most popular choice by consumers outside of the U.S. The reason why key limes aren't as widely bought and sold in the U.S. can be traced back to a 1926 hurricane.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Urban Vineyards

It surprised me to learn from this N.Y. Times article that there are 1,700 acres of vineyards planted within the city limits of Vienna, Austria.

I drank some good wines when I was in Vienna about a year ago, but I don't know if any of them were cultivated within the city limits.