Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Those Demonic Salt-Lovers

As you may know, the FDA is preparing regulations to limit the amount of salt in processed foods. Today’s Washington Post includes this letter to the editor from a woman who recently traveled to Germany. She offers both a fascinating story and an unorthodox approach to curbing American’s salt intake:

Much German cuisine is wonderful: meats, breads, soups, vegetables, desserts. But the saltiness is stunning. Germans routinely salt buttered bread. They put salt in bottled water and on raw vegetables. Their "adult" licorice brings tears to the eyes and a painful thirst to the throat.

An interesting explanation is given at the Museum of Medieval Crime in Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Aversion to salt was associated with the devil. Women who did not cook with salt were suspected of being witches, and a negative reaction to salt could be damning to a person on trial. Holy water was salted. So the overuse of salt has been inculcated in Germany in an essentially nonculinary way.

Maybe the Food and Drug Administration should try a converse approach here. What about an ad campaign connecting overuse of salt to terrorists, drug dealers and Wall Street rip-off artists?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Gluten-Free Bandwagon

I have no sensitivity to glutens so, up to now at least, I haven't had any reason to worry about glutens in the food that I'm eating. But a lot of loudmouths seem intent on changing my behavior. So should people like me think twice about eating glutens?

This article at MSN's Delish notes that going gluten-free seems to be all the rage these days:

... shunning glutens -- it's in wheat, rye, and barley, and often in oats -- has become the diet of the moment.

Why? Lots of people swear they feel 10 times better when they don't eat gluten, celebs included: Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, and Jenny McCarthy are all rumored to be gluten-free.

... "gluten sensitivity" is a medical gray area. There are no tests for it, and although problems -- migraines, skin breakouts, irritability, even autism -- have been blamed on it, doctors haven't found a clear link.
The fact that some people claim to feel better after dropping glutens from their diet could be a classic case of the placebo factor. It's hard to say. Besides, eliminating glutens from my diet would deprive me of some of the things I love the best -- pizza dough, toast, English muffins and a nice crusty baguette.

This article certainly won't sell me on going gluten-free by showing a photo of beets with the silly caption: "Delicious cooked beets are a gluten-free side or snack."

Um, no. Trail mix, maybe. An orange, sure. But don't try to convince me that beets are a "snack." And when someone has to describe a food as "delicious," that's when you know it isn't. Do you ever hear anyone say: "Delicious chocolate is a good dessert" or "delicious buttered toast is a good breakfast food."

No, you don't. Why? Because everyone knows those foods are delicious.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Give Bitter Greens a Chance

Bitter greens are something I enjoy from time to time, but I only seem to eat them at restaurants. I can't think of any time when I've cooked them at home (except for throwing a few small pieces of radicchio into a green salad). In this article, the New York Times' Mark Bittman urges people like me to give it a shot:

Like radicchio and other bitter, tough greens, escarole can survive the winter in many places and appear early in spring. But unlike radicchio, escarole is inexpensive. And it's more versatile: it tastes better cooked than does its round, red cousin.

In fact, escarole is at its most appealing when sauteed or braised, as the flavor becomes softer and even a bit buttery. It's especially excellent with loads of garlic ...

The article has a recipe for escarole soup with rice. It would have been nice to see a few other recipes in Bittman's article using bitter greens. This recipe using kale with cannellini beans and pancetta sounds great. And scroll down to the end of this web page for additional recipes.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Delicious Dining in Durham

Durham, N.C. is a town best known for being the home of Duke University, an elite private college. But the food served in Durham can taste pretty elite too.

This article in the New York Times profiles several restaurants in Durham that are relying largely on locally sourced ingredients to produce excellent food. Many of these eateries have a very casual feel, but the food served inside is worthy of lavish spaces. The Times writes:

Watts Grocery, for example, looks like an upscale sports bar, but it tastes like a Southern-artisanal Union Square Cafe.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Post-Cupcake World

The Times of London believes it has seen that world, and it is filled with "whoopies" -- sponge-cake cookies filled with buttercream. The newspaper declares that whoopies have "taken Britain's chic-est bakeries by storm."

... the Americans somehow have a way with cake that is so much more indulgent than our pristine British afternoon teas of dainty Victorian sponges and lemon drizzles.

... The name may be worth a giggle, but it's misleading. A classic American whoopie pie is not a pie at all, but is often described as a cross between a cookie and a cake sandwich -- some cakies call them "Oreo sandwiches," since they have a drier bite than regular sponge.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

NYC's Brunch Trainwrecks

Finding a good brunch or breakfast in New York City (at a reasonable price) remains a daunting challenge. This past weekend provided another example of a trainwreck eatery for brunch: Sarabeth's.

Several reviewers heap praise on Sarahbeth's. I had eaten there once before and felt the food was fine -- not bad, not great. But this past Sunday's visit was horrific. Waiting for a table is something you expect at many restaurants in NYC, but this wait was outrageous. I put in my name for a party of 2 and was told that the wait was 30 to 40 minutes. Sure, I know this is only an "estimate," but 1 hour and five minutes later, we were still waiting with no sign that our situation would change in the next 5 to 10 minutes. So we just left.

The food didn't look very appetizing so I'm not sure we missed out on a good meal. We walked a few blocks north to Le Pain Quotidien and had a tasty breakfast at a better price.

I can't speak for the East side location of Sarabeth's, but at the West side location, the staff are extremely slow to clear tables and take orders. The "wait times" they give to customers remind me of the estimated times airlines give for flight delays -- totally unrealistic. There are some people who praise Sarahbeth's, but I just don't get it. They must grading on a curve.

Norma's, the restaurant in the Le Meridien hotel on 56th St., is another place that has won kudos. What makes a place with $7-a-glass orange juice so enticing to them? Good question. It sure as hell isn't the food, which was distinctly mediocre. Even by NYC standards, customers are crammed together so tightly that you could be forgiven if you responded to a question from the adjoining table.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Tasty Detour to NYC's Lower East Side

Visitors to New York City are rewarded when they venture off the beaten path. In the East Village, right on the edge of so-called Alphabet City, we found both relative quiet and culinary bliss.

Our first stop on Friday was a place called Porchetta. It's located at 110 East 7th Street. What, you might ask, is the allure of a tiny storefront eatery with interior room for only four stools and plain wooden counters? It's all about the food: succulent, fall-right-off-the-bone roast pork with crispy skin and those wonderful "burnt ends." (You can even order a side of burnt ends.)

I ordered the porchetta plate, which was accompanied by sauteed kale and canellini beans. Delicious. Before it is roasted, the pork at Porchetta is seasoned with that marvelous Italian mixture of salt, parsley, sage, rosemary and perhaps one or two other herbs.

Dessert was found across the street and only a few doors down at 123 East 7th Street is Butter Lane. It's an appropriate name for a cupcake store. This is no chain outlet. Butter Lane relies on solid ingredients, many of them locally sourced, to produce excellent cupcakes. A banana cupcake with buttercream frosting was excellent.

Friday, April 16, 2010

New Haven's Little Italy

This is the archway that greets you on Wooster Street as you enter the two- or three-block enclave in New Haven, Conn., that is called Little Italy. I was here yesterday, enjoying pizza at Frank Pepe's and then a cannoli and coffee at Libby's Italian Pastry Shop. Pepe's pizza is baked in a coal oven, and it has made pizza that way since the 1920s.

It seems that every local has his or her favorite restaurant in the neighborhood. Last night, as I strolled the area, the smell of garlic was wafting in the air. Heavenly.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Very Good Food at Bar Pilar

Bar Pilar, located on Washington, D.C.'s 14th Street, gives bar food a whole new image. Halibut ceviche, slow-roasted pork shoulder and grilled octopus were some of the small plates that I shared with friends there last night. Each one was excellent.

The bar is cozy and intimiate without giving one a claustrophic feel.

Their website pictures Ernest Hemingway, and at first I was stumped at the connection between the author and Bar Pilar. But it turns out that Hemingway had a boat that he named "Bar Pilar."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Boldly Bland" Berlin Street Food

Before I identify the montrosity pictured above, let me offer this disclaimer: I do not hate German food. There are some products of German cuisine of which I am rather fond. Potato pancakes, for example. Then, of course, there is linzer torte, spaetzle and bread dumplings. In addition, it's easy to find very good beer in Germany, and both Germany and Austria have a handful of wines that will delight the palate. (This critic at Wine the Blog shares my fondness for Austria's Blaufrankisch.)

Having said all of that, let's agree that one doesn't travel to Germany for culinary enchantment. I was reminded of this when reading this article from the current issue of Travel & Leisure. The article offered this not so glowing description of street food in Berlin:

To acclimate ourselves to the city we went directly to Curry 36, a Currywurst Imbiss. For the uninitiated, this iconic Berlin street food -- fried sausage topped with ketchup seasoned with curry powder -- is a creation to behold.

Keep reading.

There is something beautifully, boldly bland to it, an altogether likable badness. For the price of two orders of currywurst with mayonnaise-topped fries, our stomachs were convinced we'd really been to Berlin. And we never had to eat it again.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Nostalgic Detour

I'm visiting friends and family in Arkansas, and this past weekend a few of us went to Oaklawn Park to watch thoroughbred racing. En route to the racetrack in Hot Springs, we made a pilgrimage to one of my favorite barbecue eateries in the world.

It had been more than 20 years since I last stepped into one of the booths at McClard's Bar-B-Q. They've added tamales to the menu since the late 1980s, but longtime patrons seem to go there to eat one of two entrees: the ribs or the pulled pork.

For the past 82 years, McClard's has been tickling the tummies of patrons. Interestingly, McClard's most popular entree when the restaurant opened in the late 1920s was barbecued goat.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Fangs of a Restaurant Critic

This is the kind of writing that makes The New Yorker such a pleasure to read. In the magazine's April 5 issue, there is a review of Le Caprice, a restaurant in the Pierre Hotel. The magazine's critic, Lila Byock, calls Le Caprice "a stuffy take on a sceney London institution." She continues:

As on "Made Men," however, meticulous appearances mask trouble; Lutece this is not.

While you're waiting to be seated, you may be tempted by one of those nostalgic cocktails. Don't be: they're as cloying as the Disney ballads tinkling out of the piano.

... On recent visits, [service] ranged from hostile to bumbling to non-existent. After checking in with the host, a diner was chased down by a suspicious employee who seemed to feel she didn't belong. A bartender recited, unmprompted, the ingredients of every cocktail on the menu, as if to prove he knew them.

A waiter, preoccupied with a former "Saved by the Bell" star at a nearby table, briefly materialized only to sweep away a third-full bottle of wine. When asked to leave it, he froze. "It's not a scam!" he protested. At these prices, one might beg to disagree.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Enjoying the "Worst BBQ in Texas"

With a week off to play before my next job, I'm visiting friends in Austin, Tex., reacquainting myself with the excellent eateries in this city. One such no-nonsense place is Rudy's Bar-B-Q. Each Rudy's location adjoins a Shell gas station, which may seem off-putting to non-Texans, but here in the land of oil and cars, that's a handy thing. Rudy's produces brisket, pork spareribs, smoked turkey and sausage. All are good, especially the brisket (which, of course, is the core meat of Texas BBQ).

As they approach the counter to order, diners at Rudy's grab their favorite beverage out of large tubs that are filled with ice. Then you order your sides and meat (generally by the 1/2 pound). Food is eaten at family-style tables. Rudy's strange tagline (displayed on its sign) should be off-putting to customers: "Worst BBQ in Texas." But anyone who has eaten at Rudy's knows this is a case of self-deprecating humor.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Lettuce Reconsider

Salads made with iceberg lettuce are only an unpleasant memory for me. When I make a salad these days, it's made with an arugula mix of greens. But are there ways to enjoy the so-called "loser lettuces" that I'm missing out on? Maybe.

This N.Y. Times article offers five recipes using romaine or iceberg lettuce, including -- get this -- lettuce soup.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Cause Near and Dear to Me

Ravenswood, the prominent California wine producer, has a marketing campaign that is built around this "No Wimpy Wines" petition. The URL folds right into Ravenswood's main website. My idea of a wimpy wine might not be precisely in line with the attitudes of the petition's creators, but I think we're probably of the same generally mind.

So, yes, I signed the petition.