Sunday, March 30, 2008

It Ain't All Chez Panisse

To fill you in a little on my relationship with food, I thought I'd switch things up and post about some of the things I actually don't like to eat. Sadly, this is a category into which most of my meals fall.

The reason I'm so enchanted with good food is that, given the amount I travel, I rarely get it. I come to nice meals not from a place of comfort and stability, but from depravity and misery. I come crawling.

For every slowly simmered crockpot stew I write about, there's a whole lot of cold, plain oatmeal eaten on my lap at an airport, with chopsticks. And that's a good day.

I see a world on fire, and I see food as a way to still see the good in it. Additionally, I see responsible, ethical, sustainable food as a way to, in part, save ourselves from ourselves, as the Lakota holy man Lame Deer once said. Every morning, when my NYTimes homepage comes up, I look with horror at the news of the day. Afghanistan, Iraq, Tibet, Darfur, New Orleans - you name it.

Then I see a ray of light: the food section.

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The Barbecue Capitol of the World: Part II

As promised on Chowhound, the barbecue was indeed chopped fresh all day, and the rhythmic tattoo of the cleavers, the heat, and the meat, were enough to lull me back to a time when people recommended good restaurants in person.

I’ve never had barbecue like this before. There was no sauce. It just tasted like meat. Good meat. The Skylight Inn has been an advocate of “nose to tail eating" ever since their ancestors started serving the same food from a covered wagon back in 1830. Unadorned, the flavor comes solely from the smoke and the meat, which consists of the many different parts of the animal cooked together, then chopped together. This includes the cracklings, which were a delightful contrast to the otherwise moist and tender flesh.

The only decision you have to make is what container you want your meat to come in. Your options are a bun, a little cardboard boat (pictured above), or a bucket. Each comes with tart, fresh, finely grated cole slaw and a slab of cornbread so dense and hearty that it doesn’t seem leavened, though no one would call it dry.

If you like, you can sauce it yourself with the peppery vinegar that sits on each table. You may notice a wallet in the background of this photo. It was almost unnecessary, as a bun costs a mere $2.50.

The staff was extremely friendly and not at all confused as to why I had come from so far away, having received honors from such publications as People and National Geographic plus visits from a couple presidents. When I seemed interested in their food, they handed me a copy of one of their many reviews, to keep. The date on the paper said 1989.

I figure that’s around the same time that Calvin was still getting recommendations for the Casa House. It seems that, these days, people are only honest about restaurant recommendations when cloaked in the anonymity of the internet, but as long as it keeps me out of Ruby Tuesdays, I’m happy. And I think Calvin would certainly approve of this meal, regardless of how I heard about it. Not only was it authentic barbecue, but they didn’t have plates.

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The Barbecue Capitol of the World: Part I

I recently found myself with two free hours in Greenville, North Carolina, and hungry.

In Tummy Trilogy, Calvin Trillin often describes his frustration at recommendations for what he calls “La Maison de la Casa House,” a.k.a. generic, fancy, bad continental dining. At the time of his writing, locals were afraid to suggest any restaurant that wasn’t along those lines. If only that were still true.

It’s much worse now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked hotel employees, gas station attendants, help desks, information kiosks, luggage handlers, cab drivers, college students and random pedestrians for a good place to eat, only to have them recommend Pizza Hut. People used to be embarrassed by any restaurant that wasn’t French. Now, they won’t even acknowledge the existence of a restaurant that isn’t corporate. I am not exaggerating. I travel a lot, and this happens 100% of the time.

Enter the internet. I’m in Greenville every couple years, and until now I hadn’t heard squat about any restaurant that wasn’t a chain. This time, I spent about five minutes on Chowhound and had more leads for authentic, East Carolina barbecue than I knew what to do with. Fortunately, one post shone brighter than the rest:

“Forget those other places. All now cook with gas or electicity [sic]. Some of it is outstanding, but real NC barbecue it ain't. Go south on NC Hwy 11 to Ayden, NC to the Skylight Inn. There you will find the last practitioner of purely traditional eastern NC que as it has been prepared for almost 300 years. They cook only whole hogs over live wood coals, using blackjack oak. The wood pile out back is enormous and appears to be on the verge of collapse. The barbecue is chopped fresh all day.”

Minutes later, I was eating there.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Donut Wars

I was in Leominster today, picking up some chocolate equipment, and seized the opportunity to visit Dippin' Donuts. Not because of anything inherently good about their donuts, or their blueberry muffins, but because Dippin' Donuts is all about giving the finger to the Man. According to my friend Hillary.

Hillary (who has family ties to the Birthplace of Plastics) told me long ago that two brothers opened up a donut shop in Leominster. In time, they came to disagree about the future of the business. One sought to expand and create a national chain...and Dunkin Donuts was it. The other wasn't interested in a franchised empire, and stayed right where he was...Dippin'.

Apocrypha? Maybe. But there is no doubt that Dippin' Donuts is giving a hearty "f@#$ you" to Dunkin. The font on their sign is conspicuously similar, the color scheme the same, and the signs on the donut racks more or less identical. Moreover, the selection of donuts is a page right out of DD's three ring binder. Conspicuously absent: the "NO TIPPING" sign seen increasingly at Dunkies. And my favorite thing of all--in response to DD's Milky Way Hot Chocolate--was the handmade sign on the front door extolling their Almond Joy Hot Chocolate. These guys don't miss a trick. Coincidentally(?), Almond Joy is licensed to the Hershey Company, while Milky Way belongs to their archrival Mars.

Dippin's donuts are pretty much what you expect from Dunkin'. Which is a step up; in my experience when you get a donut at Dunkin' Donuts it actually turns out to be significantly worse than you expected. Here's to Dippin', and the legend of a small business shamelessly ripping off a shameless national franchise.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Coconut Water

Anything that finds its way into ambrosia can no longer be considered an exotic ingredient. Still, the coconut is a greatly misunderstood food. And drink.

For instance, if you crack one open, you don't, as cartoons suggest, get milk. That's made by some combination of cooking, pressing or straining. You get coconut water, or "juice." Technically it's a liquid endosperm, but that doesn't sound very appetizing.

Most commercially available coconut water, like Goya's, is chock full of refined sugar and preservatives. But I must say that the increasingly available unsweetened varieties, like Amy and Brian's, are pretty close to the fresh stuff I used to climb trees for as a kid in South Florida.

I've always found coconut water to have a powerfully energizing effect. After a long day of travel, when I pop open a can that's been nicely chilled by the belly of an airplane, my whole mood changes. So I wasn't surprised to find that it's a naturally isotonic beverage. But unlike synthetic sports drinks, it doesn't glow. It does, however, have chunks.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

When Pigs Fly

I feel the same way about Davis Square that Calvin Trillin does about Kansas City. So when a When Pigs Fly Bakery shop opened up, I took it as confirmation that I truly do live in the epicurean epicenter of the universe.

Pictured above is the Cardamom Breakfast Bread, which in addition to its delicate spicing is a dried peach minefield. Taking a chomp from the loaf while leaving the store, I was shocked to find an entire, whole dried peach hanging from my mouth, a moist, Roswell sized crater where it had just been. I looked like a dog taking a walk with its favorite toy in its mouth, and was just as happy.

At home I toasted a slice with crumbled chevre, which tasted like an adult version of the Sun-Maid raisin bread we ate as kids with cream cheese. In comparison, it was as exciting as an "adult" movie is compared to a regular one.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Comfort Food

You know you like to cook when you find yourself using a hotel ice bucket for mixing pancake batter.

My last hotel room, at a Comfort Inn in Vermont, featured a kitchenette. Apparently that's French for "kitchen that isn't actually functional." Still, my traveling companions were excited by the prospect of me making them breakfast the next day. Since one is vegan and the other vegetarian, and since they were going to pay me, I accepted the challenge

When starting from zero, you realize just how many little supplies you're used to having on hand at home, like salt, or white truffle oil. I solved this problem by shopping in the bulk section of a natural foods store, where I could buy as much or as little buckwheat flour and maple syrup as I wanted. I also pared down the pancake to a lumber-jack style of simplicity, minus the beaver tail fat (not vegan). The other major challenge is adapting to an unfamiliar mis-en-place. Hence the ice bucket.

I must say that, despite these hurdles, I turned out a perfectly good and entirely vegan pancake breakfast from scratch. Sure the sausage tasted like sawdust, but that's Tofurky's fault, not mine.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Best Hamantaschen I've Ever Had

Hamantaschen are one of the few foods that I know I've eaten every single year of my life. Others include bread and, until age fifteen, pixie sticks. But these were by far the best I've ever had. Sorry, Mom.

I was doing a show for the Hillel of the University of Vermont when I discovered these gems. Standing out amongst the typical college function food, including cold fries and jalapeno poppers, I could tell right away that these were special. That careful pinching of the edges, the rustic dusting of flour, the visibly excellent crumb. I was right. Both the dough and filling were of the finest caliber, and they burst with honey sweetened, firm poppy seeds like an all tobiko sushi roll.

Before I could thank whoever had made them, he or she had vanished like Vashti. But that didn't stop me from stealing all the leftovers like Haman.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Egg Scrambled In Shell

You may have noticed that many of my posts are responses to recipes of The Minimalist, aka Mark Bittman. You may also have noticed that I've gone too far.

This isn't for everyone, but I feel the need point out that you can scramble an egg in its natural container. Not ideal if you're going for loft, but if you're just looking to merge white and yolk, why sully another dish when the good lord's given you a perfectly good one for no extra cost? And really, what better way to celebrate Easter?

Simply knock off the top of the shell as you might perform champagne sabrage, insert chop stick, and swirl.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Champagne and Cherry Juice

Neither tea nor food, this was too good not to share. Last night Elise surprised me with a Washington state champagne -- sorry, "champagne like non-geographical sparkling white wine product" -- for no particular reason. I was thrilled. Though I have yet to find a champagne that's too dry for my taste, this Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut didn't really have anything going on except dryness. To be fair, I didn't have a chance to "sip with bagels and lox" as their website suggests.

Meanwhile, at $2.50 a bottle, Knudsen's "Just Black Cherry" juice has been disturbingly inexpensive lately, despite it's high quality. That kind of price usually corresponds with cutting a major sustainability corner, but this is one of my weaknesses, and juice really isn't that bad as far as vices go.

We glugged a healthy (antioxidants!) does of the juice into the wine, and it was great. Champagne is typically mixed with light, bright juices like orange or peach, but combining it with this dark, earthy one made for a serious cocktail.

Since I consider this juice to be the champagne of juices, and cocktails made with champagne to be the champagne of cocktails, and it's made with champagne, I've decided to call this drink Champagne Champagne Champagne.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Beard's Basic White

Though it only contains four ingredients, this recipe from the classic Beard on Bread goes on for eleven pages. But despite it's almost obsessive attention to detail, BOB is as welcoming and full of knowledge as your favorite uncle.

Beard's directions include such friendly words of encouragement as these:

"If your loaf has cracked on one side during the baking, don't worry. It is likely to be a perfectly good loaf -- in fact, it may be utterly delicious -- even if it doesn't look beautiful."

These instructions for making bread are every bit as warm and comforting, as, well... bread. The text is accompanied by equally soothing 70's era pen and ink illustrations that look like they were lazily doodled by Hobbits.

The bread was great. And if it wasn't, I could have consulted the final three pages of the recipe, which include twelve "Remedies for the Not-Quite-Perfect Slice."

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Chocolate Waffles?

No, dirt waffles. These are little peat pots that I filled with arugula, French sorrel, lavender, Boston lettuce, and chamomile seeds. Soon I hope to graze in my own bedroom.

A lifelong hater of flowers (besides edible ones), I've always been confused as to why people are willing to spend time and energy on ornamental gardens, and then spend more time and energy on buying food that they could have grown in those gardens instead. Same goes for houseplants.

You've heard of Food Not Lawns? Well this is Food Not Lucky Bamboo.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mark Bittman's 30 Minute Chicken Stuffed with Mark Bittman's Whole Grain Pancakes

I know it sounds strange, but bear with me. For breakfast I made Mark Bittman's "whole grain pancakes that you actually want to eat." For dinner, I tried his 30 minute, "fast" roast chicken. I wanted to stuff it with something, and as I looked around the kitchen, I noticed those leftover pancakes just sitting there... Cubed, they went right into the chicken.

For breakfast, the pancakes were every bit as pillowy and ethereal as MB promised. As stuffing, they were just as good. Since I'd used blue corn meal and whole wheat flour and hadn't used any sugar, it really wasn't any different from a cornbread stuffing. And the hint of cinnamon and allspice was nice and interesting.

However, the chicken itself was still as raw as sashimi. Yes, I got the skillet hot. No, I wasn't drinking cooking sherry. If anyone has done this with success, let me know, otherwise I'll assume that Mark's trying to food-poison us all. Not in the mood for chicken tartare, or for diarrhea, I turned the heat down and kept cooking it.

How did it turn out in the end? Not as "fast" as I'd hoped, but still so good that I couldn't snap a Rockwellesque picture of the whole bird before it was devoured.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Green Rooibos

Rooibos is fine, but you're right to be suspicious of how often it's doctored up with vanilla and chai. Most tea shops now have a whole wall of kooky rooibus blends that appeared as suddenly as the dark chocolate wall in Whole Foods. The reason? It's not that impressive on its own.

So when I saw my first green rooibos, I bought it, grateful for a new twist that was actually more simple. Green rooibos is much like green tea in that it's fermented and oxidized for less time and boasts an even higher amount of those microscopic do-gooders that, according to studies, will make you immortal.

Unlike green tea, it's terrible. There's absolutely nothing interesting happening in it. Drink it if you're dying of hypothermia or dehydration, but even if it's a close call, hold out for better.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Avocado Frittata

It's a little known fact that you, like god, can make an avocado ripen. Just heat it up.

For this frittata, which is fancy talk for "omelette," I gently warmed some still rubbery avocado until soft, buttery and a deeper green. Then I got the skillet really hot - this is key - and poured in my beaten eggs. I topped it off with a little feta, black pepper and sea salt. Finished with a quick pop into a hot - also key! - broiler, and you've got a golden, puffy breakfast spectacle.

Working hot at both of those key junctures is what will make it puff up. Slide it out of your well oiled skillet and onto your guest's plate quickly, or it and your reputation will deflate.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Poached Egg Over Polenta

You really have no excuse not to eat this for breakfast tomorrow. It has to be the creamiest, heartiest thing you can make for under a buck. Simply drop a poached egg onto a fluffy little pile of polenta. Heck, you could even poach the egg IN the polenta. Keep it softly cooked and you won't know where the yolk starts and the mush stops.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Eggplant, Chevre and Feta Lasagna

Most lasagna is bad, but when it's good, it's actually good. Plus it lets you indulge your secret soft spot for grade school cafeteria food.

Much like having the daughter you always wanted after a few boys, we'd made some perfectly good lasagnas lately, but this one I really love. The trick was a better sauce, fully roasting the eggplant, enormous fresh noodles from Capone Foods, and choice of cheese.

Why does everyone use ricotta and mozzarella for lasagna? I know bland cheeses are really cool right now, but in time people will remember that more flavorful cheeses are more flavorful. Feta and goat go a long way in making lasagna, which is often as dull as a wooden spoon, sharp and interesting.

Also, we finally put some beef in it.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Honey Syrup Revani

For centuries, fans of the semolina cake known as revani, or ravani, have asked: why bake a moist cake when you can make a dry one and then soak the sh*t out of it?

A revani marries the coarse texture of semolina with a deluge of tooth-aching syrup. I followed Joyce Goldstein's recipe from her book "Sephardic Flavors," in which you bake the cake by folding in whites, yolks, butter, semolina and a touch of "regular" flour. Goldstein then juices hers up with a syrup made from sugar, water and lemon, but I opted for warmed honey with tons of fresh lemon juice.

I suspected all the separating and folding might be excessive, but apparently it wasn't enough. The cake turned out a bit tough and dry, the syrup not quite penetrating to the core. Still, it was mesmerizing to watch the inch-deep golden fluid slowly disappear into the cake.

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bottling Kombucha

An ancient beverage thought to date back to the Qin Dynasty in 250 BC, Kombucha has only recently tipped here in the U.S. Perhaps that's because it was a well guarded Chinese health secret, but more likely it's because it's weird and slimy.

Making it at home is much more rewarding and infinitely more cost effective than buying it. And like many homemade products, it's also usually much worse.

Until now. For fifteen bucks I bought a bottle capper and caps at a local brewery supply shop, poured the brew into beer bottles, and capped them off. The capping alone won't stop fermentation, so I stuck them in the fridge, except for one, which I left out for a few more days. That one was as fizzy as a Coke.

To avoid confusion, I labeled each of the bottles, which formerly housed my roommate's Amstel Light, with a piece of masking tape marked "kombucha." I wouldn't want him to get healthy instead of drunk.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Brave Brassica

I posted about some stragglers in the kitchen garden back in October, but this is ridiculous. Identified only as "mixed cabbage family" by the friend who gave it to me, the plant never grew much larger than this. Yet it's survived after being buried by feet of snow and thick crusts of solid ice. Most likely an heirloom variety, it seems more obsessed with survival than tasting good.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

The Culinary Institutes of America: A Review

I've had the pleasure of visiting both the Napa Valley and Hyde Park campuses of the CIA this past month. The Napa Valley experience was much more pleasurable, perhaps because I didn't eat there. At Hyde Park's American Bounty, my meal was a series of service debacles and dishes on a scale of mediocre to fine.

I started with an appetizer called "Two Fat Tamales." There were two of them, and though bad they were tamales, but they certainly weren't fat. "Frail" would in fact be more accurate.

I much prefer any two dollar tamale I've had in Somerville than those served at this prestigious institution. They were in no way helped by a mango salsa and drizzling of sauce atop the husk. Unless you're Gerald Ford, these additions were useless.

My main dish, a pappardelle with chianti braised duck ragout, was fine. It was fun to eat such large noodles and the duck was extremely soft, though they'd let a few blobs of fat sneak in (which I was secretly very happy about).

The service was nothing short of bizarre. Our waitress said that one Washington state wine was from "D.C." When my companion noted the sooty ring his plate had left on the tablecloth, she hypothesized that "it must just be dirty." When I ordered a hard cider, she brought a warm, spiced one. She let me keep it, but I didn't want to. A mix of mostly water, an amount of cider so negligible that it could not be detected by taste, too much whiskey and too little cinnamon, it was terrible.

Since the restaurant was closed at the Napa campus, the only thing I ate was a leaf of French sorrel snapped from the herb garden. Soft and impressively packed with fresh, sour flavor, I preferred it to anything I ate at American Bounty, which despite it's name had an embarrassingly short list of local offerings.

Granted, it is a school. But let's hope the students learn a lot.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Stone Soup

We've all been there. You're hungry. You look at your supplies. You realize that you're about to be tested. Anyone can whip up a passable dish from a well stocked larder, but it takes vision to wring blood from a stone. On this occasion, I decided to wring fat from a bone.

It started with a pot of water and a River Rock Farm marrow bone frozen since it's purchase at the Davis Square Farmer's Market in Fall. As I've tried to stay local deeper and deeper into the winter, these bombs of fat and flavor have really helped me stretch things out. If you have a bone and some water, you've almost got a meal.

Then came a cubed butternut squash (also local, also put up since the growing season), three cubed potatoes (local to New England and remainders from a latke feast), a few bay leaves, and a cayenne you may remember me drying back in November. Once the vegetables were tender and the marrow had escaped, I added a can of pintos. It was now earthy and rich, but it lacked that snap that I and Ferguson Henderson agree every dish needs. A couple teaspoons of white vinegar and a can of crushed tomatoes took it there.

None of the ingredients had appealed to me on their own, but together they dazzled. Mostly local, mostly native, and made entirely from food I had on hand, this was the best soup of my life.

Water, bone, vegetable. It's a dish that's had little reason to change since we first made fire.

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