Friday, January 29, 2010

Review: Cook This, Not That

The N.Y. Times' Alex Witchel is fond of the "Eat This, Not That" series of books that have been co-written by the editor of Men's Health magazine. Witchel writes:

These books give menu guidance to the angels and devils perched on the shoulders of the millions of Americans who eat at chain restaurants.

In this article, Witchel announces a new cookbook that's a spin-off of this series:

Last month brought the publication of “Cook This, Not That! Kitchen Survival Guide” (Rodale, $19.99), written, like the others, by [David] Zinczenko with Matt Goulding, a contributing nutrition editor at Men’s Health. In its first week on sale, according to Nielsen BookScan, it became the best-selling cookbook in the country, providing recipes for healthier home-cooked versions of dishes from restaurants like P. F. Chang’s, the Cheesecake Factory and California Pizza Kitchen.

Although Witchel generally likes the new book, his attempt to replicate a dish from the menu of Olive Garden didn't go so well. He learned this lesson:

But when it comes to the home cooking event that is spaghetti and meatballs, that toothsome duet of comfort and luxe, I’ve got my eye on this month’s Bon App├ętit. Its Spaghetti and Meatballs All’Amatriciana calls for ground beef, white wine and applewood smoked bacon. It serves eight. Which means next time, I will be cooking that, not this.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bad Cookie Marriages

Some people just can't leave well enough alone. Oatmeal cookies are wonderful. So are chocolate chip cookies. But someone came along many years ago and decided to marry the two cookies. Presto: oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies.

Oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies aren't bad, but they aren't nearly as good as each of those cookies by themselves.

And I've encountered other cookie combos that make no sense to me. I bit into a cookie on a tray at my workplace the other day, thinking it was an oatmeal cookie. No such luck. It was an oatmeal-peanut butter cookie. Ugh. Boy, was that terrible.

I love homemade butterscotch icebox cookies, but now I see that someone has created an oatmeal-combo recipe for them.

Do you like molasses cookies? They happen to be my favorite. But even they're being tampered with. Someone has created a recipe for peanut butter-molasses cookies. That sounds positively revolting.

There's even a banana-oatmeal-chocolate chip recipe lurking out there. Are they kidding me?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Worth the TV Time

Last night, I watched the Food Network's show "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." This episode featured salty foods. And the salty-caramelly brownies from Baked, a shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., looked amazing.

Alton Brown discussed a down-home restaurant in Georgia where there are no menus; the staff simply bring you the meal for that day. Country ham seems to be the centerpiece.

I can tell that I'm really going to enjoy this show.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Beyond the Spatula

Medical tweezers? They are one of the tools of the trade increasingly found in the kitchens of top-rated restaurants in New York, L.A., Chicago and other cities.

In this video, chef David Beran of Chicago's Alinea is shown using tweezers to assemble the garnishes for a pork-belly dish.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Savory, Versatile Ginger

I love the flavor of ginger in just about anything, from Thai food to gingerbread. So this article posted on the Washington Post's "All We Can Eat" blog caught my eye.

As Monica Bhide exlains in her blog post, ginger is one versatile food. And she offered this advice when you're shopping for fresh ginger:

When buying fresh ginger, look for pieces that have relatively smooth skin, without blemishes and wrinkles. Ginger keeps well in the fridge for up to a week. If I buy extra, I make a paste and freeze it. Many times I will grate it along with garlic and green chili peppers ...

Another thing that caught my eye is the recipe (at the end of the article) for double-ginger doughnuts. I recently combined olive oil, maple syrup and grated fresh ginger and tossed it with root vegetables (diced carrots, parnsips and brussels sprouts), roasting them for about 45 minutes. It was a marvelous side dish. And how's this for a beverage?

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Roast: The Perfect Winter Entree

The New York Times' Sam Sifton was right when he wrote:

... the best midwinter meal would be cooked in an enormous wood oven over the course of a weekend, the whole house fragrant with the scent of meat and vegetables caramelizing over hot coals.

What accompanies the article is this recipe for "Oven-Roasted Weekend Beef," using a sirloin tip roast. It sounds wonderful, as do the pan-roasted root vegetables.

For some basic tips for roasting beef, try O-Chef or Simply Recipes.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Round-the-Clock Snacking

The headline of this N.Y. Times article says it all: Snack Time Never Ends. In the article, Jennifer Steinhauer writes:

During a single week in December, I was pinged with requests to bring a little food for one play rehearsal, three religious-school events, a school administrative meeting, two soccer games and two multicultural festivals.

... Apparently, we have collectively decided as a culture that it is impossible for children to take part in any activity without simultaneously shoving something into their pie holes.

“Children used to come home, change into play clothes and go outside and play with other children,” said Joanne Ikeda, a nutritionist emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. “There were not snack machines, and the gas stations only sold gas. Now there are just so many more opportunities to snack and so many activities after school to have snacks.”

And government statistics support this assessment. Between 1977 and 2002, the percentage of Americans eating at least three snacks a day jumped from 11 percent to 42 percent. That helps explain why the child-teen obesity rate has skyrocketed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The 11 Best Foods You Don't Eat

This post on the New York Times' "Well" blog identifies the "11 best foods you aren't eating." And each one of these foods is accompanied with a brief explanation of what makes it healthy.

Some of the foods on this list -- like beets, for example -- are no surprise. But I eat a lot of foods with cinnamon, which is one of the 11 foods named. I suppose that's good news for me. But sardines? Yuck. No thank you. I love dried plums (otherwise known as "prunes") so that's an item I should try to eat more of.

To read about all 11 of these foods, click here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Crabcakes at G&M Restaurant

On Friday night, I met a friend from West Virginia for dinner. He happened to be in the Baltimore area. So I suggested we go to G&M Restaurant in Linthicum Heights, Md.

G&M is known for its crabcakes. Some people swear they're the best in all of Maryland. I had been to G&M a few times before, but it had been a year and a half since I had eaten there last.

G&M has upgraded its look since I last ate there. A renovation has extended the space considerably and created a section dedicated to carry-out orders. Dark-wood mouldings and trim have been placed around doorways. The prices have risen a little. Would the crabcakes be as good as I remembered them?

The answer was yes -- wonderful lump crabmeat. The soups are excellent at G&M too. Yet the salads they serve there are just okay. I have a pet peeve: why serve tomatoes with salad in mid-January when tomatoes are the variety that gets picked too early and shipped halfway across the country? But maybe that's just me.
The desserts looked good, but I didn't order one.

Anyway, it was a very pleasant evening -- good food and good company.

Monday, January 18, 2010

BBQ Sandwiches: Perfect for Winter

I don't know how any parent manages to put meals on the table week after week for a family without having a crockpot or another type of slow-cooker. I don't have kids, and even I am using my slow-cooker more and more. Last night, our meal was a simple one: barbecue beef sandwiches.

Some people think of barbecue as a summer entree, but not me. On a cold, wet winter afternoon or evening, few meals hit the spot more than barbecue. Here is the recipe I used with my slow-cooker:

SHREDDED BEEF BARBECUE (makes 7 to 10 sandwiches)
  • 1 beef chuck roast or beef sirloin tip roast (3 lbs.)

  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper

  • 1 tablespoon of canola oil

  • 1 cup of ketchup

  • 2/3 cup of water or beer

  • 1/2 cup of chopped onion

  • 4 tablespoons of molasses

  • 2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce

  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons of dry mustard*

  • 2 teaspoons of celery seed

  • 1 teaspoon of chili powder (optional)

  • Kaiser rolls or toasted hamburger buns

* - feel free to substitute 1 tablespoon of dijon mustard.

NOTE: I prefer using chuck roast, but either cut of beef will work. An ingredient such as celery seed may seem like something you could do without. Think again. I've made this recipe both ways -- with and without the celery seed, and I strongly encourage you to add it, even if it means an extra trip to the grocery store. It definitely enhances the flavor. I also think the beer adds a depth of flavor to the beef, but either water or beer will work fine.

Directions:

1. Sprinkle the beef roast with the salt and pepper. In a nonstick skillet, add the canola oil and turn the burner on medium-high heat. Wait until the skillet and oil are hot -- then add the beef, browning it on all sides. This should take a total of 7 or 8 minutes.

2. Place the beef roast into a 5-quart slow-cooker. Turn the slow-cooker on low. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients (except the rolls) and stir together.

3. Pour the barbecue sauce over the beef roast and cover the slow-cooker. Set the timer for 8 hours. After eight hours, test for doneness. The meat should be tender enough that it shreds without much effort.

4. Remove the meat from the slow-cooker and turn the temperature down to "warm." Use two forks, one to stab and hold the meat, and the other to shred the fibers of the beef. Shred the beef into small pieces or strands. Then return the shredded meat to the slow-cooker and stir it well with the sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

5. Wait 10 to 15 minutes and then spoon the meat onto the Kaiser rolls. Use a slotted spoon if the sauce is a bit watery. Baked beans, potato salad or cole slaw are excellent side dishes to consider.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Brokaw: "I'm a big Dairy Queen guy"

On Monday, USA Network debuts the new show "American Character Along Highway 50," starring former NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw. In this article from Politico, Brokaw reveals one of his favorite no-nonsense food venues:

... [the show] led him to chats at kitchen tables, diners -- and even on horseback.

... Like on any road trip, there was good nosh along the way: fresh crabs in Maryland, a lamb patty in California, burritos and lots of Dairy Queen. "I'm a big Dairy Queen guy," he said. Brokaw's favorite? The Tropical Blizzard. "It's a high-end milkshake," he said.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Giving Chicken Cutlets New Appeal

So you've opened your 'fridge or freezer, and you're wondering what to do with that package of chicken cutlets you see. Well, this N.Y. Times article offers a few suggestions for ingredients and cooking instructions that will take the "boring factor" out of eating chicken cutlets.

The article shares some approaches that borrow heavily from recipes derived from old French cookbooks.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Waiters by Memory

In this article, the Washington Post notes that the old-school practice of waiters relying on their memories to take diners' orders seems to be vanishing. "Good," I thought when I read this. But The Post writes of this trend as if the postal service were stopping mail delivery.

Moreover, The Post profiled a longtime waiter at The Palm:

During a lunch rush last week, he smoothly kept track of the food and beverage demands of almost 20 diners, an ever-shifting matrix of steaks and salads, cocktails and Cokes, running credit cards for some, describing specials to others.

But how "smoothly" did the Palm's waiter take all of those orders?

"I've always gone by memory -- it just feels more professional that way," Weber said above the fork-and-knife clatter. "Sometimes you have to go into the walk-in cooler and scream, yeah, but usually I can keep it all straight without too much trouble."

"Usually" he can keep the details straight? Gee, great. Only one diner at a table of four gets their order screwed up. How comforting.

The Post is wrong to view order-taking-by-memory as a charming tradition that we can't do without. There is nothing quaint about worrying whether a waiter or waitress actually remembered all the details of your table's order. I think this shift to waiters with pens and paper is a very good development.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Suffering Egg Nog Withdrawal

The holiday season is over, and I'm in withdrawal. The reason? No excuse to drink egg nog. I was at the local grocery store tonight, and for several seconds tonight, I stared through the glass refrigerator case at the few remaining cartons of egg nog.

It was very tempting to buy one more quart of egg nog, bring it home, pour some in a glass, add a shot of bourbon or brandy, and get out my nutmeg grinder for the finishing touch.

But I didn't buy another quart. Even though I love the stuff. If egg nog were readily available year-round, I would be carrying an extra 10-15 pounds on my frame right now.

* * * * * * * * * * *

If you're interested in learning the history of egg nog and how this marvelous beverage has evolved through the years, click here. This article includes a recipe for making your own egg nog.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tips for Guilt-Free Cooking

Today's Washington Post offers some helpful tips for those trying to enjoy food while limiting calories. This article provides 5 tips for "guilt-free flavor." One of those tips is to use herbs when cooking.

Also in The Post is this column by David McIntyre about ways "to boost your wine IQ." Both articles are worth a look.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Waiterly Woes

Are the protocols that guide restaurant servers changing or simply breaking down altogether? I've wondered this lately after several unpleasant experiences at restaurants. In one case, for example, the waiter at a restaurant rushed to clear dishes before all diners at our table had finished the same course.

In other cases, waiters removed plates that still had pieces of food remaining without confirming that we were truly finished.

Even some of the most renowned restaurants seem to hire staff who aren't trained to know how not to be intrusive. Here's an example from this 2005 post on the site San Francisco Gourmet:

The first less-than-stellar experience I had at The French Laundry was in January 2003. The food remained at the same magnificent level as on earlier visits, but the graceful service – described as “balletic” by some – was clearly lacking. Waiters were presenting and clearing dishes from random directions, refilling wine glasses by reaching across the front of guests, and thrusting baskets of fresh white truffles uncomfortably close to diners’ faces.
There's also the unwelcome and unrequested check-dropping of which some waiters are guilty.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Marcel's Deserves Higher Ranking

Washingtonian magazine just came out with its list of Top 100 Restaurants in the greater Washington area. And Marcel's is rated #17.

Are they kidding? Sure, it's a pricey restaurant, but even if you consider value-for-dollar, Marcel's deserves to be in Washingtonian's Top 10. The food is sublime, and the service is excellent.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Eve Dinner

We had some friends over for New Year's Eve dinner. Overall, it turned out well, although pork roast (even if you've brined it) can be tricky to cook thoroughly but not excessively. If we'd left it in the oven another five minutes, it would have been too dry. Here is the menu we cooked.

Pork roast with a sage, mustard and maple glaze (with gravy)

Cranberry-ginger chutney*

Mashed potatoes

Creamed spinach

Eggnog-pumpkin pie

Champagne

* - I adjusted this recipe a little by adding orange zest (from one orange) and substituting brown sugar for the white sugar.
We drank a Macon-Villages (French chardonnay) with the meal.