Wednesday, April 30, 2008

You Will Not Believe How Intense This Article About Milk Is

Once again, thanks to Mark Bittman. It's long, but it's a roller coaster:

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Review: China Road, Syracuse

What can you expect from such an unassuming store front as this? Well, for one thing, whole, fried Cornish game hen:

China Road in Syracuse is the best Chinese food I've ever had. However, that was not always the case. China Road is also the only restaurant I've had a gestalt shift for.

Though I adore it now, my first trip to China Road was an utter disappointment. I went with a lover of fake meats who wouldn't shut up about their gluten. Since the "meat" dishes were about three dollars more than the tofu, I foolishly went with the latter. There I sat, eating mediocre bean curd and string beans, in what would later become one of my most sought after food temples. It was as though I was in Aladdin's cave, surrounded by riches, but pocketing a piece of jackal poop.

My most recent trip to China Road started with a lingering Chinese New Year Special: crispy shrimp balls.

True to their name, they were crunchy, shrimpy, and spherical. Also, they were delicious. Next came the soup dumplings.

The chef and owner of China Road boasts that his are the only Shanghai soup dumplings outside of New York City. While I imagine that there must be some in San Francisco's Chinatown, or in Shanghai, these might just be the best anywhere.

For those who have never experienced the soup dumpling before, be warned that you must carefully -- carefully! -- use a deep spoon to lift them from their bed of cabbage lest they break, spilling their precious cargo. If you can get one to your lips intact, you're then rewarded with all of the porky flavor of a whole bowl of soup somehow condensed and injected into one, soft, doughy wonder. If you find the meatiness overwhelming, the black vinegar with ginger which accompanies them will perfectly cut it.

A guest blogger on Bitten writes that they're "supposed to be so hot they burn your mouth a little bit." Perhaps, or perhaps this myth is circulated to excuse the gluttonous haste with which people like me eat them.

After these excellent appetizers, the "crunchy Cornish hen" featured at top was a perfect climax. The skin was so crisp, the sauce so savory, that my companion and I were positively moved to abandon our silverware and eat the bird like our earliest ancestors must have: with our hands, and a side of steamed, delicately sauced Chinese broccoli.

This is what our table looked like when we were done:

On our way out the hostess said "You boys have big lunch." We certainly have.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Trader Joe's Turkey Jerky is for Traitors, Turkeys and Jerks

This post falls into the category of things I've had to eat while traveling. Featured above is Trader Joe's house brand of turkey jerky. Despite it's pleasant rhyme scheme, you shouldn't eat it.

As a child I was always surprised that, in addition to bears and worms, there were gummy Coke bottles. Now, Trader Joe's has created a jerky with that same nearly indigestible consistency and cloying sweetness.

As I've said before, the best jerky in the world is clearly carne seca, or "dried meat," available at fine gas station food marts throughout the Southwest. In comparison, T.J.'s stuff is worse than Benjamin Franklin's vote to make the turkey the national bird.

Still, their Sherry is remarkably affordable.

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Comfort Me With Mackerel

The first time I heard the phrase "comfort food," I was ten years old. My family and I were having lunch at a trendy new South Florida restaurant that served kitschy diner food in metal TV trays. I was not comforted, and it was barely food.

Since then, I've learned what comfort food really means to me: mackerel. Specifically, smoked mackerel, on a bagel, with a schmear and a thin strata of onion. Granted, my photo above features toast and lettuce, as Jay has pointed out.

I would be eating smoked salmon instead except for what I call the "twice dyed" factor. First, farm raised Chilean Salmon are fed food pellets with beta carotene to improve the color of their flesh, which would otherwise be a dull gray. When that meat is then turned into lox, colors with numbers start showing up. Sure you can get the good stuff, but it'll cost you. And they might still be lying.

Conversely, I can get locally caught and smoked mackerel at Pemberton Farms for under four bucks. I've had a soft spot for this greasy little fish ever since one formative summer during college. Living on our own for the first time, mackerel was the only seafood we could afford besides crab with a "k." We ate it "fresh" from the local grocery store in Waltham, as sushi in Maryland, canned during a hike in West Virginia, and caught with a pink, children's fishing pole in Maine.

Historically, salmon isn't the be all and end all de rigueur smoked fish that we think it is anyway. In fact, you may remember that we didn't eat a whole lot of salmon until about eight years ago, when an explosion of information about it's health benefits made it the pomegranate of 2000. Conveniently, that's also when massive amounts of the farmed raised stuff started flooding in, and when I first became aware of twice dyed lox.

Sure, people have been eating smoked salmon for thousands of years, but it was a lot better than the stuff you're getting blended into your cream cheese. And while it's heavily associated with Jewish food, "my people" were just as likely to be smoking and eating whatever finned and scaled fish they could get their hands on while scattered around the world. And when I build my smoker, I'm going to do the same.

That's a bottle of home brewed kombucha in the background. It imparts that citric tang I crave when I eat bagels and fish, thanks to growing up with ample access to Florida orange juice. Also, it's kind of Russian.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Kill and Eat: Japanese Knottweed

This is Japanese Knotweed. If you see it, destroy it. Or eat it.

Foolishly imported by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Japanese knotweed is now taking over the Northeast as an extremely hard to eradicate exotic invasive. It's sheer strength and determination makes dandelions look like pansies.

Once you learn to recognize J.k, you won't believe how quickly it's spreading. In a strange twist, it's also quite tasty.

Simply peel and eat raw the tender shoots that pop up this time of year. The flavor is an exact cross between asparagus and rhubarb and it imparts a delightful crunch and tang. Steamed, it loses much of its zip and tends more toward asparagus. In a pie, I'm told it's a dead ringer for rhubarb, and sweeter. A lover of urban areas, make sure your knotweed comes from soil you can trust. But don't worry, because it will soon be in your backyard.

The root structure can push stalks through the tiniest cracks in concrete, extend 7 meters underground, and survive temperatures up to 30 below, so it's now wonder that J.k. is illegal to spread in the UK and on the World Conservation Union's list of the 100 most invasive plants. Whole armies can spread from mere cuttings or fragments of the rhizomes, so if you're going to dig it up, which you should, get it all. See article for more tips on eradication.

Frederick Olmsted: what hasn't he f*cked up?

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Best Salad I've Ever Had

Granted, at this point any salad with walnuts, something sweet, and crumbled cheese is basically a cliche. I mean come on, even McDonald's has one. Still, this was incredible.

Made entirely from ingredients left by the gracious hosts for whom I'm house sitting, this salad featured:

-slightly blanched asparagus
-toasted walnuts
-crumbled feta
-extremely ripe hunks of avocado
-freshly ground black pepper
-a pinch of sea salt
-a drizzle of honey
-a drop of red wine vinegar

And yet it was so much more than that. Together, with a bite of black pepper, honey, avocado, feta, endive and salt, something entirely new was born. A world of flavors, a world of textures, even a world of slightly varied temperatures (toasty walnuts, still warm asparagus, cool endive, room temperature feta).

I have to say it again: it was the best salad I've ever had.

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Local Steak, Maine Potatoes, Homemade Kraut

At least here in Massachusetts, it's that time of the year for incongruous eating. The weather is warm, the trees are in bloom and the birds are singing, but we're stretching the last of our sad, winter squash. If you go by what's on display at Whole Foods, you'd think we're smack dab in the middle of corn and cubed, seedless watermelon season. But we're not, so don't eat like it.

I finagled this entirely local meal entirely from my wares. The River Rock Farm steak was frozen since Fall, the Maine (okay, local to New England) taters are the last hangers-on from my annual latke fest, and the kraut is of course homemade from FarMar cabbages from, say, October.

I seared the steak in Kate's Butter, then crumbled on a little Berkshire Blue. I browned the taters in more K.'s B., and added homemade stock wrung from the remains of a local bird. It cooked down into a nice demi glace. The kraut was served raw with nothing but the billions of tasty bacteria that colonize it.

The stock, butter, and demi glace were all inspirations from Anthony Bourdain. After finally getting around to reading Kitchen Confidential, I was left with two major impressions:

1. This guy is a jerk.
2. French cooking does sound good!

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Passover Leftovers: Part III

I know a lot of Jews complain about Passover food (like Jay, who commented on my last post), but I love cooking with creative restraints, so I'm in my own personal no-leaven heaven. Turns out my cousin's homemade chopped liver went really well with my cousin's homemade charosets. My homemade horseradish didn't hurt, either. Well, it did hurt my sinuses, but that little kick is what helps us remember 400 years of slavery.

Also, this piece of matzoh....

Was much better with this paprika roasted eggplant and feta atop it.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Passover Leftovers: Part II

I got into egg creams after a trip to NYC when I was about fifteen. Back home in South Florida with a bottle of Fox's U-Bet, I quickly learned to perfect them. I knew exactly how I liked them, and that's how I made them. Therefore, by my own standards, my egg creams were the best in the world.

By this rational, I also make the ultimate matzoh brie - it's just how I like it! While the Brie Battle is raging on Bittman's blog, by the Egg Cream Principle, mine's tops. (As is yours.)

My version started as a family recipe and received a few tweaks from one of my food gurus, who turns out amazing brie from the unlikely environment of his wood heated rustic Vermont kitchen.

Break the matzoh into pieces quite large, though longer than they are wide. Barely soak them in warm water. Fry them and the onions in olive oil, until crispy. Pour on the egg. Keep it real hot. Toss in some coarse sea salt and as much freshly ground black pepper as you can handle. Roughly flip the matzoh and surrounding egg so that the other side has a chance to brown, still keeping your pieces intact. You want a pile, not a mess. I'm sure it would be better in schmaltz, but frankly, I don't have the balls.

Gratuitous texture shot:

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Passover Leftovers

Unless you're a chicken, I know of no more comforting sight than a steaming pot full of matzoh ball soup. It looks a lot better than the inside of the I-93 tunnel in Boston, where I just ran out of gas after an extra trafficky jaunt from Westchester to Boston. Luckily, I know the soup will be even better than it was last night when it was fresh, thanks to that most magic of soup ingredients: sitting overnight.

If you tried her Jewish cooking, you'd never know that my dear second cousin Nina was born a Christian Texan. Just look at this chopped liver, fried in schmaltz.

Or these perfect, extra-crunchy-under-the-chocolate macaroons.

The charosets was great this year, too. She did the dirty work, and at the end I put half of it into the food processor for that realistic mortar consistency. The zest of two lemons and a Manischewitz reduction gave it a little zip, which also helped soften the blow of the annual raw maror-off my cousin Adam and I have going.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Deep Fried Lobster (In Homemade Lard)

My usual criteria for ordering off of a menu is to find the dish that presents the best ratio of affordable to appetizing to ethical. Other times, it's to order deep fried lobster in homemade lard.

That's what I did at Lydia Shire's Blue Sky on York Beach. How was it? Of course it was good. It was a lobster. And it was deep fried. In homemade lard.

It was fun, but in the future I'd never take it over a plain old steamed lobster. The intense heat of the deep fry made it possible to crunch through the smaller pieces of the arthropod, shell and all, sort of like lobster chicharrones. But it also incinerated the meat in those little places I so love to pick at.

If for some reason you don't like the deep fried lobster in homemade lard, which would be crazy, perhaps you'll enjoy the peace offering of four perfect ribs that it was perched atop, for no particular reason, besides gluttony.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Best Cup of Tea I've Ever Had

I've enjoyed tea ever since I was old enough to be trusted with things that were hot. Still, it wasn't until Taiwanese Oolongs that I realized how truly magnificent a cup could be. When I drink my tung ting, I feel like a better person. It's not just the caffeine, of which there are only trace amounts by the time I'm on repeated brewings. It's the magic.

This cup was the best I've ever had for two reasons. First, the tea is nothing short of fabulous: floral, grassy, sweet. Second, it was my first cup after two weeks of heavy travel, during which time the only tea I drank was a noxious "white citrus" from Wild Oats that tasted as much like my steel travel mug as it did its own awful flavors. The best cup of my life: in a mason jar, on my lap, riding shotgun.

It set me up well for the deep fried lobster I did not yet know I was about to eat. Stay tuned.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Redland Fruit and Spice Park: Part 2

Growing up with a Cuban banana "tree" in the backyard was a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I got to eat the best little bananas in the world. On the other hand, now all other bananas taste like pillows.

This tiny, bulbous banana is one of 75 varieties hanging in the lush groves of the Fruit and Spice Park. Despite its small stature, it had oodles more flavor and texture than any of the monolithic phalluses available at your corner store. Since his visit to a Dole plantation, our tour guide urges everyone in the States to think of the bananas we eat here as nothing short of industrial products. He also told us that workers are fond of secretly putting "too small" stickers on their bosses' backs.

The custard apple, also known as white sapote or cochitzapotl. It was by far the best fruit I ate at the F&SP, if not the best I've ever had in my life. Creamy, sweet, tangy, and, well... custardy.

As you can see, North American's vocabularies in describing tropical fruits are woefully inadequate. We generally describe the qualities of other more familiar fruits, saying mango tastes like a combination of peach and a pear. The fact of the matter is that fruits like the white sapote taste like nothing we've ever had before, and our meager words cannot describe them. You have to go to the Fruit and Spice park and eat one, still very warm from the sun, to understand.

The jackfruit is the largest fruit on earth. Imagine how embarrassing it would be if one shaped like this fell on you and killed you.

Pictured above are two bilimbi, resting in a banana flower petal. Think of these as nature's pickles, with an impressive crunch though too sour to eat more than a nibble of.

I'd heard that you could eat nasturtiums, but assumed that, like most edible flowers, they would be as bland as they were pretty. Wrong! This blossom, popped whole into the mouth, starts sweet and finishes with a peppery bite not unlike horse radish.

That was my trip to the Redlands Fruit and Spice Park. If you are anywhere near Miami at any point in your life, I command you to go there.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Redland Fruit and Spice Park: Part 1

Since childhood, I've bemoaned the fact that the edible room in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory does not actually exist. Recently, I discovered that it does.

The Redland Fruit and Spice Park in South Florida is a wonderland of strange and delicious treats no less bizarre than a chocolate river or life sized candy canes. Don't believe me? Then you've never seen a miracle berry, which, once eaten, makes lemons and vinegar taste sweet.

Park rules dictate that you may only eat fruit that has fallen, but there is always a bountiful sample table in the gift shop, and you're allowed tastings of most everything in season if you take the informative and tasty tour. Also, after the tour, employees will sometimes permit you to graze freely with a wink and a nudge. The sheer quantity of rare and exotic fruits within your reach is nothing short of intoxicating. Each time I've visited the park, I've left dazed from the hot sun and buzzing on fructose in shapes and flavors that stretch the limits of the imagination. For six bucks, you can basically re-enter Eden.

This is stevia, which tastes exactly like children's chewable Tylenol. One bite of this confoundingly sweet herb and you know that only a powerful sugar lobby could keep it confined to wacko diabetic cookies.

You might think that you don't want to eat this, but you do. It's the black sapote, also known as chocolate pudding fruit. The pulp is goopy and as dark as coal, but the flavor is mild, sweet, and not unlike actual chocolate pudding. Current trends indicate that darker pigmentation in fruits and veggies indicates higher health benefits. If so, the inky meat of the black sapote must render you immortal.

Reptilian in appearance, sweet in flavor, and with a mouth feel like slimy poppy seeds, cecropia is the kind of fruit I would expect to eat at an alien's house.

I grew up eating Chinese Cherries, or "Surinam Cherries," as a kid in South Florida. No other taste takes me back to my youth as much as the flavor of this bright, potent, pumpkin shaped orb. My dad always said that they're ripe when they more or less fall into your hand. He also once cut his finger open trying to pick me one from the driver seat of his moving Lincoln Continental.

These are the dried seeds of the African oil palm. Not edible, though very cute.

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Friday, April 4, 2008

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner at the Black River Cafe

In addition to its white squirrels, Oberlin, Ohio is also blessed with the perfect restaurant. The Black River Cafe has unpretentious, local, organic, good, cheap food.

In town for twenty four hours, I ate three out of four meals here, and wish that I ate all four. For breakfast I had poached eggs, a corn cake, home fries, and Curly Tail Farm sausage with local maple syrup on the side. Everything was how you would want it to be.

I tried the marinated tofu sandwich for lunch.

Tofu sandwiches have many pitfalls, the worst and most common of which are dryness and lack of flavor. The BRC's take on this usually inedible dish was both moist and flavorful, thanks to the freshness of the tofu, a healthy strata of sauteed mushrooms, and vegenaise. As a non-vegan, I can say with pure objectivity that vegenaise is confusingly tasty. Also as a non-vegan, I ordered the local, organic Ohio beef burger for dinner.

Because of my scruples, I almost never get to eat real burgers. Thank god for the Black River.

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