Thursday, February 25, 2010

Acai Steps Onto the U.S. Stage

If you had asked me about acai 10 years ago, I would have shrugged my shoulders and replied, "What?" In 2005, I tasted acai berries for the first time -- at a juice bar in Brazil.

I enjoyed drinking acai (it's best in combination with other fruits) and wondered why it was virtually unknown in the U.S. Five years later, acai is sold as part of beverages and other food products in many areas of our country, and it has created quite a buzz.

This slide show at the N.Y. Times' website shows how acai berries are grown, how they are picked and how they are processed into food products.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

National Pancake Day

Today is National Pancake Day. A weekday is not a great day for enjoying pancakes. Most of us working stiffs don't have the time to sit down to a pancake breakfast. Why didn't they pick a Saturday or Sunday?

I love 'em plain, with blueberries, buttermilk, bananas or pecans. But I must confess that I'm not a fan of chocolate chip pancakes, which are usually on the menu of IHOPs and other pancake houses.

To truly enjoy a stack of pancakes, you need to have the right kind of syrup. Aunt Jemima? No friggin' way. Maple syrup is my one and only choice. Sure, it costs more than cane sugar syrup, but the depth of flavor is so much better than the mass-marketed non-maple varieties. Want to make pancakes from scratch? It's not that hard. Find out by clicking on this article.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Taking Liberties With Recipes

Improvising can be very tricky when you have a recipe card in front off you. This is especially true when you're making a recipe for the first time -- when adding or subtracting an ingredient can make or break the final product.

I was reminded me of this when I recently made a batch of cherry muffins using dried tart cherries. I had some leftover sour cream in my fridge so I decided to merge two different muffin recipes -- one used sour cream, but the other did not. Although the recipe didn't turn out disastrously, the muffins tasted a lot more like sponge cake than like the normal texture of a muffin.

I think people like me are often tempted to tweak an existing recipe partly because it will somehow make the recipe a little more"mine."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Heading to Italy? Leave Your Cat at Home

Many restaurants in the Italian region of Tuscany offer wild boar on their menus. But apparently things can get much more exotic than that. According to the Associated Press:

Italian state TV has suspended a cooking show host who shocked the nation by saying cat stew is a Tuscan delicacy he swears he has enjoyed many times.

... When his 27-year-old female co-host looked stunned as (Beppe) Bigazzi said he has eaten cat stew "many times," the white-haired grandfather figure defended his tastes. "Why, people maybe don't eat rabbitt, chicken, pigeon," Bigazzi said.

... "Cat, soaked for three days in the running water of a stream" in Tuscany, "comes out with its meat white, and I assure you -- I have eaten it many times -- that it is a delicacy," Bigazzi continued.
The Italian Health Ministry issued a statement reminding Bigazzi and the public that cats "are pets protected by law."

Friday, February 19, 2010

A New Cupcake Outlet ...

. . . is coming to Washington, D.C. As today's Post reports, the N.Y.-based Crumbs chain will start opening outlets this May in the D.C. area:

The 26-store chain plans to open the first of at least five D.C. area stores at the intersection of 11th and F streets in downtown Washington, featuring a cupcake selection that Crumbs co-founder Jason Bauer said will easily outdraw the local sugary establishments.

"When we come into the market, people are going to realize what a real cupcake is all about," boasted Bauer, 40, who opened the first Crumbs on New York City's Upper West Side with his wife, Mia, in 2003.

The D.C. region is already pushing out thousands of cupcakes a day, courtesy of stores such as Something Sweet, Baked and Wired, Red Velvet and Georgetown Cupcake, whose two sister owners will be featured on a reality TV program this summer.
I think Georgetown Cupcake is the best of those current outlets, although I can't speak for Baked and Wired because I haven't eaten one of their cupcakes yet.

I loved the response that Something Sweet's owner gave in response to Bauer's swagger of a statement:

Something Sweet owner Bo Blair said the Crumbs crowd is taking itself too seriously. "This ain't brain surgery," Blair said. "It's making cupcakes."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gently Cooked Eggs ... I'm Not Alone

I love eggs. I still remember that ad campaign that ran on TV during the late 1970s. Its tagline was "The Incredible, Edible Egg." I couldn't agree more.

Fried eggs, egg salad sandwiches, omelettes, scrambled eggs . . . you name it, I'm happy to eat it -- and not just for breakfast. But I am a little particular about how my eggs are cooked. I don't like my scrambled eggs or omelettes to be cooked until they are dry; I prefer them to be somewhat moist. Am I rolling the dice on my health?

In this hyper-worrisome world, I suspected that most people were avoiding sunny-side-up eggs simply out of fear that they'd get salmonella. Apparently, I was wrong. Based on an unscientific Washington Post poll of its readers, there are many others like me who are not about to give up eggs that are gently cooked.

Even though the Food and Drug Administration's egg-carton advisory urges the public to "cook eggs until yolks are firm," there are plenty of us out there who are willing to not go quite that far.

Out of more than 3,300 respondents to the Post's poll, 78% said they would eat sunny-side-up eggs. Only 22% said they would not. So, if I am throwing caution to the wind, I sure have a lot of company.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Those Pesky Shrimp Tails

I've been wondering about this for a long time: why do restaurants leave the shrimp tails on when serving entrees and other shrimp dishes to their customers?

Clearly, I'm not the only person who has been perplexed by this. Many people say leaving the tails on makes for "better presentation." But that's also why some restaurants serve some fish whole -- and that's something many diners don't care to stare at on their plate.

There are some who actually eat shrimp tails, but I don't think they are meant to be eaten. I can't seem to find any consensus view on whether eating them is unhealthy or not. And I don't know what to think about the person who called shrimp tails "crunchy and delicious." Crunchy, yes. But delicious?

I am someone who enjoys eating soft-shell crab so I'm not inherently opposed to shells if the texture is different. But shrimp tails don't add flavor (in my opinion) and it's a hassle to have to reach into one's entree to either cut or pull them off.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Comparing Demi-Glace Brands

I love bearnaise, but there are many other sauces that make an excellent companion to beef or other types of meat. Bordelaise sauce (which is the sauce pictured above) is a good example. For those who want to cut hours, instead of flavor, out of making these sauces, an indispensable ingredient is something called demi-glace (pronounced "demmy-gloss").

If you check a classic French cookbook for an old-fashioned recipe to make a bordelaise sauce or another so-called "brown sauce" for a steak, what you'll find is a recipe that calls for buying and cooking carrots, celery and a lot of other things (like beef bone marrow, which is not exactly sitting around in everyone's pantry). Demi-glace is a concentrated stock that has been produced from those kinds of ingredients so it enables you to leap-frog some of the time-consuming tasks that normally would be required.

Most importantly, using demi-glace will give a sauce the complex flavors that you would normally only get from a sauce prepared in a high-end restaurant.

I have tried several types of demi-glace, and I've compared two major brands that seem to be used widely by amateur cooks -- More Than Gourmet and Williams-Sonoma. I have cooked with both of them, and here's my view on how they compare in value:

Quality: Williams-Sonoma was the better demi-glace, hands down. Whether I used the chicken or veal demi-glace, it yielded a sauce that was superior to those produced by using More Than Gourmet's demi-glaces. The sauces created by using More Than Gourmet had less depth of flavor and more of an unpleasant, gelatinous texture.

Price: A 10.5-ounce jar of Williams-Sonoma's demi-glace costs $29 online or $2.76 per ounce. By comparison, a 16-ounce jar of More Than Gourmet's demi-glace (veal-beef) costs $39.50, which equates to $2.49 per ounce.

The Better Value: I think it is more than worth it to pay the extra 27 cents per ounce to use Williams-Sonoma's brand of demi-glace. You'll be much happier with the results. This Los Angeles Times blog also had good things to say about Williams-Sonoma's demi-glace.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Hearty, Late-Winter Dinner

This was the menu we made for dinner on Saturday night:

Porterhouse Steaks with Brandy Sauce

Apple-Roasted Parsnip Puree

Rum Raisin Ice Cream with Sauteed Bananas

Everything was very good, although the quality of the beef would have been better (and more expensive) if we had shopped at Whole Foods instead of Harris Teeter. The porterhouses were broiled, roughly 7-8 minutes on each side. Some people prefer to sear both sides first and then cook the steak through.

The sauce was prepared using low-fat beef broth, butter, chopped shallots, herbs de Provence, brandy and then a little arrowroot to thicken it. First, I melted about three tablespoons of butter and sauteed about a 1/4 cup of shallots. Next, I added about a 2/3 cup of beef broth (low-salt, low-fat) and brought it to a boil until it was reduced slightly. Then I reduced the heat to medium, adding two tablespoons of brandy and the herbs de Provence. I mixed a tablespoon of arrowroot with a 1/4 cup of beef broth and then added this to the saucepan, stirring it constantly to incorporate. The sauce should thicken slightly within a few minutes.

For the apple-parsnip puree, I relied on the ingredients from this recipe, but I cooked the parnsips and apples differently. Instead of relying on a slow-cooker, I roasted the parnsips for 45 minutes in a 425-degree oven and sauteed the apple in a skillet. Then I pureed them in a blender. In all honesty, this was the best dish of the entire meal.

Basically, the dessert was no more complicated than preparing Bananas Foster but serving it with Rum Raisin ice cream (rather than vanilla).

Friday, February 12, 2010

For the Cheesy Romantic

Chicago is a city that definitely loves its pizza. So it came as no surprise to learn that at least one pizzeria-restaurant in the city's suburbs celebrates Valentine's day by making heart-shaped pizzas. A suburban newspaper reports:

At Nonna Silvia's Trattoria and Pizzeria in Park Ridge, heart-shaped pizzas have become a Valentine's Day tradition -- ever since a customer requested one for his wife nine years ago, said owner and chef John Giannini.

... "A lot of husbands will bring a pizza home for their wives. It's a nice touch," Giannini said.

The pizzas are hand-rolled just like any other that the restaurant serves up, and a variety of toppings are available.

... "The dough is our canvas, the sauce is our paint," he said.
You gotta love that statement.

For romantic diners who aren't in the mood for pizza, Nonna Silvio's offers another option: red, heart-shaped raviolis.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Cream

A recipe for snow cream in the Washington Post generally would pass unnoticed in this area of the country, but the current "snowmaggeddon" we're experiencing makes this recipe surprisingly relevant. According to the Post:

Making snow cream couldn't be simpler: Mix together freshly fallen snow; milk, cream, or condensed milk; sugar; and vanilla. (Some recipes call for the addition of whole raw eggs, making the snow cream custardy.)

... John Groopman, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, frowns on eating snow because of what the snow might pick up on the ground. "You would not drink from a water puddle on the sidewalk, so why would you want to eat snow from the same source?" Groopman asks. ... some snow cream devotees contend that the snow gets cleaner the longer it snows. Experts say there could be some truth to that idea.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cooking to Contain my Cabin Fever

My hometown, Washington, D.C., has been walloped by a snowstorm of 25 inches, and now we're expecting anywhere from 8 to 16 additional inches of snow by tomorrow.

When Washingtonians hear forecasts like that, they panic, rushing to the grocery store and leaving the shelves practically empty. Which is why I'm glad I did my shopping early. Cooking has helped me endure the cabin fever that occurs when one is essentially locked indoors for several consecutive days.

So far, here is what I've cooked:
  • Sour cream and maple muffins

  • Duck risotto with dates

  • A pot of chicken noodle soup

  • Apple-cherry pie

  • A pot of beef barley soup
Given that we're facing a new snowstorm this evening (that will shut down the city), I guess I should check my recipe files to see what else looks interesting enough to cook. Hmmmm.

A Shortage of Sweetness

We're used to hear economists and Wall Street insiders discuss the oil supply and potential shortages, but now it seems that a different commodity -- sugar -- is prompting a similar discussion.

A global sugar shortage, which drove prices to the highest level in three decades, may peak in the third quarter this year ...

Sugar had its biggest annual (price) advance since 1974 last year as heavy rains and drought pared harvests in Brazil and India, the largest growers.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Today's Dinner Special: Noise

When it comes to interior design in restaurants, wood floors add class. An open kitchen adds an element of charm. High ceilings add dimension and "wow" factor. Unfortunately, all three of these design features add something else: noise.

In this article, the Wall Street Journal's Katy McLaughlin explores the noise factor by profiling a San Francisco restaurant called La Mar Cebicheria Peruana. She writes:

Even as restaurants are ditching style elements that squelch sound, they are bringing in more sources of noise: Open kitchens, lively bar scenes and disc jockeys and iPods programmed with the latest rock music. Loud music can make diners talk louder—which ups the volume even more.

... many restaurateurs often fail to consult with acoustical experts during the design process because of the cost, because the right look is paramount to them or because they believe that their customers actually enjoy the noise.

... David Myers, the chef and owner of Comme Ça in Los Angeles, recently hired a company to install acoustical panels on the ceiling to quiet a restaurant that was so noisy that "I had friends who didn't want to come back because it was so loud," Mr. Myers says.

I'm sure there were a lot of non-friends who felt the same way about Myers' restaurant. Maybe it's a sign of middle age, but restaurant noise matters more to me than it used to matter. It's not pleasant to go to a restaurant where you practically have to shout to be heard by your friend seated less than three feet away.

I wish more restaurant owners gave some thought to this during the interior design phase. They're investing a lot of money to create a space that may be very sleek and glam, yet so noisy that it turns people off.

Brasserie Beck is an excellent restaurant -- one of the best (purely in terms of food quality) in the city of Washington. But the noise level inside is so intense that I don't go there as often as I otherwise would. If you plan to dine there, ask them to seat you as far away from the bar area as possible.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nachos: The Super Bowl Snack

The N.Y. Times recommends adding pork rinds to the menu for your Super Bowl party. But I have a feeling that nachos will remain the prevailing choice for snack food for most Super Bowl watchers.

This blog post by Bon Appetit's Andrew Knowlton offers these "10 rules for making nachos." From what I can see, they seem like sensible rules worth heeding. Here is one of them:

Don't buy pre-grated cheese (ever). Grate it yourself so that the cheese will be fresh and finer in texture, which leads to uniform melting.

I prefer guacamole or salsa to nachos-and-cheese dip, but I realize I'm swimming upstream on this one. I was lucky enough to be at last year's Super Bowl. I hope this year's game is even half as suspenseful as last year's 4th quarter was.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vancouver: Ready for Both the Olympics and Foodies

Lots of athletes around the globe will soon depart for Vancouver in quest of Olympic medals. Yet, according to the N.Y. Times' Sam Sifton, the city deserves a medal of its own -- for the quality of its food. He writes:

Vancouver is a terrific place to eat. It is diverse and exciting in its culinary offerings. ... Vancouver is among the best eating towns in the history of the Winter Olympics.

Exactly what is it that makes Vancouver such a fine city for foodies? Find out by reading the article.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"And What Do You Recommend?"

I find it strange that this wikiHow page on "How to Be a Waiter?" makes no mention of how a waiter should respond when a diner asks for a recommendation on what to order. After all, lots of diners ask for one. From what I can tell, there seem to be two schools of thought among restaurant-goers. The first school is that if you want to know what's good or what's fresh, ask the server for his/her recommendations.

The other school of thought appeals to human cynicism. This other school questions whether a waiter or waitress is really giving you an informed recommendation or simply pulling a "recommendation" out of their hats. Or, even worse, recommending a dish that the restaurant has too much of -- i.e., nobody seems to be ordering the skate in ginger sauce or the poulet normande so the servers are told to recommend these dishes.

I'm caught somewhere in between these two schools. First, I think it depends a lot on the type of restaurant in which you happen to be dining. If the menu is fairly static -- no seasonal shifts or daily specials -- there's less reason to ask about recommendations. Second, I pay close attention to what my server says about the recommended dish. I tend to be suspicious if all they say is: "I recommend the sea bass." I usually want to know why they recommend it. Is it fresh? Is it a specialty of the house? If they can't offer me a little more info, I take their recommendation with a grain of salt (yes, pardon the pun).

Last but not least, I take a cue from the tone of the server's recommendation. If they seem tentative or as if they're reciting a couple of dishes from a list, I tend not to be swayed. But if they sound confident -- like they really want to steer me toward a dish -- I'm more likely to listen. After all, they have to know that the amount of my tip (to some extent) is shaped by whether the food they praised or pushed actually met my expectations.

Deciding how much faith to put in a server's recommendation would be easier if I had a good sense of how many waiters actually eat or try the food in their establishments. I think most servers do eat or try the dishes in top-flight restaurants, but that's just my guess. It's hard to know. If they aren't, there's a problem because waiters can't truly recommend a dish that they haven't tried, can they?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pizza Pursuits in Washington, D.C.

Pizza has come a long, long way since I've been living in the nation's capital. There was a time when the few local chains in D.C. weren't making pizza that was much better than Domino's Pizza. Today? There are a lot of places where you can enjoy excellent pizza.

Here is my list of the top 5 places to eat pizza in Washington with the neighborhoods cited in parentheses:

1. Pizzeria Paradiso, two locations (Georgetown & Dupont Circle)

2. Two Amys, 3715 Macomb St. & Wisconsin Ave., NW (Tenleytown)

3. Sette Osteria, 1666 Connecticut Avenue, NW @ R St. (Dupont Circle)

4. Matchbox, two locations* (Capitol Hill & Gallery Place/Chinatown)

5. Pete's Apizza, 1400 Irving Street, NW (Columbia Heights)

Each of these places serves a NYC-New Haven style of pizza. This was a tough choice. There isn't much separating my top three choices as far as quality goes. Two Amys would probably be my #1 choice if they made a better crust.

I'm sure there are some Washingtonians who read this list and wondered: "Why isn't Coppi's on this list?" I have had pizza at Coppi's twice and enjoyed it, but it doesn't belong in the top 5. However, it deserves an honorable mention.

* - I recommend going to the Capitol Hill location on 8th Street SE, between E and F Streets. The waits there tend to be shorter at peak times than at Matchbox's other location.