Friday, May 30, 2008

Ginseng Oolong

Pictured above are the leaves of a ginseng oolong after one rinse and one brewing cycle. I was too eager to drink this tea to capture the leaf in its most recognizable form, which is dry. In that state, the shape of the rolled leaves combined with the dusting of powdered ginseng root give the tea a nuggety, Raisinet like appearance.

By now you may have noticed my disdain for flavored teas. It's proportional to my love of teas that magically happen to taste like other things, like Peachy Dan Cong (peaches), Gyokuro (roasted chicken), and Puehr (a cave). Deceptive flavors coaxed from nothing but camellia sinensis are still the most impressive to me, but there is a place for quality additions, both historically and as a matter of taste. This tea is such a one.

The slightly sweet, earthy flavor of the ginseng blends perfectly with the mineral and floral tones of the oolong. The two work together as in a dance, complimenting each other with neither taking the lead. Compare this to the modern flavored teas I so loathe. You'll find them increasingly at places like Teavanna, now in a mall near you, where you'll taste blends such as the "cookie-like" Almond Biscotti Black Tea.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Oreo No-No

In my book, Oreo starts with a few strikes against it. First off, it's one of the many freaks of modern food science designed to disguise as much government subsidized GMO corn as possible. I also have never liked the texture, at least outside of ice cream. But now I have a new reason to hate the Oreo: it purports to be a tool for racial healing.

In a commercial I recently saw before the unfortunate experience of watching Iron Man, a white man shares an Oreo with his apparently mixed race, Spanish speaking son. The father dopily tries to follow along as his son describes how to eat an Oreo in Spanish, eventually speaking a few shaky words himself. They then share the cookie, thereby closing the cultural gap between them as though it were nothing more than vanilla "cream," which of course is actually sugar and hydrogenated oil, or until recently, lard.

I found two things unsettling about this commercial. The first is the fact that they now subject you to full commercials before a movie. The second is that the advert fails to mention that foods like Oreos are in large part responsible for the plague of diabetes and obesity affecting many lower income, often Spanish speaking families.

Forget local, sustainable and organic; households such as the real life equivalent of the family in the commercial have less and less access to anything that isn't heavily processed. For instance, vegetables. What do they have? Oreos. And now anyone from such a community who saw Iron Man will be that much more likely to eat one.

Also, does Nabisco think their cookie has the validity to become a symbol of racial harmony because of its color scheme? Guess Seinfeld was right.

(photo courtesy of Steve Gorlin)

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Miracle Berry

After reading this piece in the Times, I once again want to encourage anyone within striking distance of Miami to visit the Fruit and Spice Park. There you can behold (and probably sample) the miracle berry discussed in the article for yourself. A small, West African fruit with the power to make sour taste sweet, it has apparently become the catalyst for the food orgies of some Manhattanite gluttons.

I'm told that the folks at the Fruit and Spice Park sometimes allow chemo patients to harvest their crop to enhance their sense of taste and stimulate their appetites, which is perhaps a more noble use than that of the "flavor trippers."

(photo courtesy of Kinky Solutions.)

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Potato Chowder (With Bacon)

Chop onions and garlic and brown both with bacon, some of which you should remove to reintroduce later for texture. Add roughly cubed potatoes, about two for each eater. Toss to coat, add a mixture of half milk half water. Wait.

These were nice Maine taters, and the bacon was locally raised and locally cured at Lionette's, one of the most hard core (and delicious) fixtures on the Boston local food scene. And generally it goes without saying that I'm using local, seasonal ingredients. In fact, you'll pretty much only hear about it when I don't. Think of it as a public confession.

We cooked the chowder until the taters were tender, then added sea salt and a little more freshly ground b.p. than you think you need. That dose of pipperine can really turn what could be considered comfort food into an eye-opener.

Ladle it out and crumble on that nicely crisped bacon from before. That, a simple salad and a slice of bread is dinner.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Last Chance for La Tene

Stay tuned for a longer post on the tale of La Tene, but for the time being, know that this incredible, local to Boston, artisanal chocolatier has only 10 boxes remaining of its final batch. This despite the fact that it is hands down the finest chocolate I've ever tasted.

Tea and Food contributor and La Tene founder Brendan Gannon recently sent out an e-mail with the following message:

"Sad to say, la tene chocolatier is closing its doors. The last batch of chocolate is done and being boxed up. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience, and I look forward to continued involvement in the fine chocolate world. Thanks for your interest and support, and thanks for being a chocolate person."

But what would be really sad is if you don't hurry up and order one of those ten boxes here:

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Elise's Birthday, Part II

In regards to Elise's birthday festivities, Jay asks: "But what did you make for breakfast in bed the next day?" Scones, of course.

You may recall from one of my post-San Francisco posts that she has a thing for making scones. While the Sun-Maid dried dates we got at Star Market didn't compare to the fresh ones from the San Fran Far-Mar, they were still superb. As was the batch with lemon zest. Elise makes a moist scone, almost like the love child of a scone and a biscuit.

In addition to contending with the plasticky dates, we also had the task of doctoring up supermarket fruit. Though the strawberries in the kitchen garden are coming along quite nicely, I know that we're not supposed to be eating pears and apricots in New England in May. Still, it was her birthday.

I popped the apricots in the oven for maybe seven minutes just to loosen them up a bit. The pears got a spritz of lemon, a dusting of powdered ginger, and just a pinch of brown sugar. The strawberries weren't as much like styrofoam as these freaks of nature usually are. Of course they were organic, but they were Big Organic.

Also, I forgot to mention that we had marrow bones the night before. Here's proof:

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Monday, May 19, 2008

My Mom's Banana Bread

I recently received the following comment: "Aaron, I saw your post on "bitten." Can you share your mom's Banana nut tea bread?!!" Well, Anonymous, your wish is granted:

1 1/2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 tsp soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c butter
1 c sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon extract
1 c mashed bananas
1/2 c thick sour cream
1/2 c chopped nuts

Sift flour soda,salt together. Combine butter,sugar,eggs, flavorings. Cream until smooth. Add bananas, sour cream, nuts and flour mixture. Beat until well blended. Turn into a greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 for one hour. You can substitute 1/4 cup buttermilk for sour cream.

If you think you've had better banana bread than this, you're wrong.

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Elise's Birthday Dinner

Next to "I love you," my favorite three words to hear from my girlfriend are "make me that." Like a dog that can cook, I like nothing better than to take an order for someone I'm deeply loyal too.

When she walked in, she was first greeted with a tray of thematically appropriate appetizers. These included olives and pickles, which she always had on her birthday as a child, and the spiced cheese leyden, which has cultural relevance because of her Dutch roots. There were also Ak-Mak, which is just kind of a thing for us. Then came the oysters.

Two each of three different native Massachusetts varieties. I like mine straight up, but she requested freshly grated horseradish, which I was all to happy to provide. You'll note that the one in the background is not in focus: she grabbed it as the shutter snapped.

For the main course, I fulfilled her request for an arugula salad (with roasted almond slivers and apples soaked in vinegar) and "super creamy" mashed potatoes with garlic and rosemary, into which I dribbled a little truffle oil.

The entree was left up to me, and it turned out pretty impressive if I do say so myself. Inspired by Mark Bittman's latest video, I butterflied and flattened a boneless skinless chicken breast, probably the only I've bought since I started caring about food. I stuffed this with a mixture based on a cornbread that she'd baked earlier this week. I rolled the whole thing up, and because it was for her birthday, wrapped it in giant slabs of bacon.

She's also had an angel food cake for every birthday that she can remember. That kind of dessert is the opposite of my forte, but I gave it a go last year with decent results. This time, I nailed it. It was moist and fluffy with more flavor than these pithy things usually can hold, thanks to freshly grated nutmeg, a glug of vanilla, and good, dark Fair Trade sugar.

I imagine I'm only going to get better at it, year by year.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Yet Another Reason I Like to Make Kombucha

If you don't know by now, I like making kombucha as much as I like drinking it. Maybe more.

According to my local tea vendor, kombucha's origins date back to Chinese Taoist alchemists who were searching for an elixir for mortality. After centuries, that elixir is now available at your local Whole Foods in raspberry and guava flavor. But it's very satisfying to make at home, and if you're in the Boston area I'll even give you a mother to get it started.

In addition to providing an expensive, trendy food product basically for free, home brewed kombucha also makes me feel productive. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, I know that my big glass jar at home is quietly bubbling away, growing stronger.

One thing I realized on my last batch was that I love the sheer volume of the procedure. So much of modern home cooking is in tiny portions that you forget that old recipes call for ingredients by the gallon, or animal. I love making a stockpot of tea proportionally to the amount that I love to make a cup. Stirring my witches brew with a big wooden spoon, I can't help but feel a little alchemy in the air.

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If You Watch One 20 Minute Video About Food...

Watch this one:

In typical Mark Bittman style, he lucidly and entertainingly outlines a very simple solution for much of what is wrong with the modern Western diet, and therefore the world. The short version: eat half as much meat.

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Sautéed Skate Wing

Skate wings originally attracted me because they fit nicely into my ideal food criteria: unusual, inexpensive, and unprocessed. Since then I've gotten them pretty much any time it's occurred to me, and I've never regretted it.

When I first bought one of these watermelon slice shaped pieces of the ray family, the fishmonger regarded me strangely. Finally, he spoke up:

Him: Are you French?
Me: No.
Him: Haitian?
Me: No.
Him: Then what are you? No one else likes to buy these things.

Why, I cannot imagine. Perhaps the shellfishiest fish, skate wings have a texture that it downright lobster-like though the flesh shreds apart like a Jewish mother's brisket. I simply dredge in flour and sauté in oil, or if I'm wise enough, butter. You can deglaze the pan with a splash of balsamic and reduce it, or dribble a little soy sauce over the finished product. That's Chinese broccoli in the background of the photo, but you can also serve it between bread for an extraordinary fish sandwich.

One strange thing about the skate wing: it sometimes leaves a feeling in my mouth not unlike a miniscule dose of menthol. Either it's a mild allergic reaction or just nature's way of letting you know your specimen is slightly past it's prime. Either way, it's pretty weird, but has never stopped me.

However, I just read that many skate are considered "Critically Endangered" by the World Conservation Union and are listed by the Marine Conservation Society as a "fish to avoid." So as much as I've loved eating them over the years, this one will have been my last.

Good luck, little skates.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Savory Oatmeal

Oatmeal is one of the many foods that, as an adult, I've tasted again for the first time. That's because what we called oatmeal growing up was in fact a packet of sugar with perhaps a few oats thrown in for effect.

Any time a dish that isn't a dessert is served on the sweet side, you should be skeptical. Remember, sugar hasn't been around in our part of the world forever, so its presence often implies an altercation of the original. Just compare what "cereal" meant a hundred years ago to what it means for American kids today.

My earliest memories of oatmeal involve pouring hot tap water into a pulverized, artificially "apple and cinnamon" flavored, pre-cooked powder. I first went savory when a Scottish friend told me of his native oat preparation (egg, black pepper, cheddar), and I will never go back.

Many times a week, I cook whole oats on the stove top in a 2:1 water to oat ratio. When they're just cooked through but not yet mushy, I take them off heat and enjoy with coarse sea salt, tons of black pepper, and a generous tablespoon or so of oil. The oats are so large and toothsome that I often eat them on a plate, with a fork. The ancient simplicity of the meal - a grain and oil - is almost Biblical. It's hearty, it's fortifying, and it's real food.

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Far Away Food Blog

I received this blog in a comment from Edamame, called Japanese Foods and World Food Culture. Check it out if you're interested in seeing what a Japanese food blog is like, or if you'd like to see how accurate google translate is.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Mussel Risotto

If you have arborio rice and one other ingredient, really almost anything, you've got a hearty, inexpensive, universally well regarded dish. The basic idea for this version is to steam your mussels, remove them, and then use the liquor to flavor the risotto. Of course at the end, you reintroduce them.

I started the pan with about a bulb's worth of halved garlic cloves, which once browned ended up looking a lot like mussels. I tried to grate in some black pepper, but the cap fell off my mill, so I ended up with whole peppercorns. It's not for everyone, but I liked the element of surprise: you never knew when you were about to bite into a little pepper mine, and what you thought was a mussel might very well turn out to be garlic.

For liquid I used chicken stock made a few days prior. I've been told to warm the liquid so that it's temperature wouldn't arrest the cooking each of the multiple times it was added. But once the stock was warm, I thought "why not keep going and reduce it a little?" Then I thought "why not add the mussel shells to the stock?" Then I thought "what if I have chicken syrup before the risotto's done?" -- in which case I'd have to finish with water. I know, it's a disgusting thought.

In the end it was a race between the two pots, but everyone was a winner. Except the mussels.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Brunch: A Photo Essay

This weekend has actually felt like a weekend, thanks in large part to the privilege of getting a lot of time in the kitchen. Elise and I took our sweet time this morning, whipping up blue corn banana pancakes and an avocado and parmesan frittata. You could say the theme was "warming tropical fruits in oil before pouring something on top of them." For instance, the above bananas.

The guinea pig pancake.

The same idea, much evolved.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love the subtle saturation of both color and flavor that a touch of heat imparts on an avocado. We put the slices in the pan with a little oil for just a few seconds, much like the bananas, then added the egg mixture.

The finished product.

We got an excellent crust under the maximum heat of the broiler, thanks to the marriage of egg and parmesan. You could fork and knife it like this:

Or pick it up like a little slice of crustless, sauceless pizza.

Because everything we were eating was cooked in oil, halfway through the meal things started to feel a little heavy. That's when we busted out the Iggy's and arugula, and made little frittata crostini. (Though Camille's probably going to tell me that's incorrect.)

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Magic of Glace de Poulet

What turned these distinct and not particularly interesting ingredients into a satisfying, well rounded dish? A does of that magical ingredient known as demi glace, a.k.a. reduced stock. (Or as Camille has informed me in the comments section, "glace de poulet.")

Much like a serial killer, I've gotten into the habit of hanging on to my carcasses and finding interesting uses for them. For instance, the remains of my roommate's Whole Foods roasted chicken became a stock, which in turned was cooked down to a demi glace, which in turn transformed this dish from dull to, well, super-chickeny.

So instead of having a bunch of ingredients that didn't necessary go together (green beans, sweet potato, leftover lamb shank), I had a well rounded dish unified by the dominant flavor of the d.g. Serve it over pasta, eat it like a stew, call it a ragout or what have you, but there's no better way to turn a handful of random leftovers into a dish that can actually hang.

And it's not at all difficult to make: all you have to do is throw your chicken (or any other meat or even veggie scraps) into a pot of boiling water instead of the garbage. I know French cooking terms can be intimidating, so just think of it as "chicken syrup."

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Okara "Soysage"

One way you can look at the last era of American food is a test of the effects of bounty. What happened when we, a thrifty, pioneering people, were suddenly given never ending supplies of food and water and garbage that magically disappeared when placed on the curb? The answer: all hell broke loose.

Just in the past six months, fuel costs have soared to record highs and the price of wheat has tripled. The global food crisis is no longer a matter of sympathy, as we can now empathize with all those peoples around the world who we've so thoroughly screwed in procuring the cheapest, most consequence free food in human history. Of course this has been happening for decades, but it wasn't until my access to affordable fuel and bread came into question that I realized how hard we've socked ourselves in the gut.

However, hope remains. I stayed over with some friends in Maine last night, and for breakfast they served up a hot batch of okara soy "sausage," aka soysage. This hearty, flavorful and highly nutritional meal was made entirely from the by-product of their new soy milk maker. They put in the beans, out comes soy milk, and from the remaining solids they're able to make a whole other food.

While soy is a relatively new crop to our shores, their thrifty use of it is nothing fresh. Not only has okara been a staple in many Asian countries for centuries, but their making it in the U.S. represents a return to the way we've always done things, here and everywhere, for all of history. In a way, it's a good thing that we're losing our magical ability to consume whatever we want, whenever we want it, turning up the air conditioner on those increasingly common record temperature days. God is finally taking away our toys, so we're going to have stop playing with our food.

Fortunately, unlike other revolutions (ie: the French one), the food revolution promises to be delicious. It was tough convincing racists to adopt Civil Rights, but it shouldn't be as hard to convince people to eat food that happens to taste a whole lot better.

Save us, soysage.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Both Tea and Food

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Margarita Pie

No, that's not a term of endearment for my girlfriend. The name is in no way misleading: it is in fact a pie made from a margarita.

I had it after a show in South Paris, Maine last night where it was listed on the Cinco De Mayo menu of the local watering hole.

This drink was also offered, but for some reason the name put me off:

The pie was basically a frozen key lime with crushed pretzels in lieu of a graham cracker crust. It wasn't as bad as it sounds, which isn't saying much.

If you're going to eat dessert at a place like the Smiling Moose, your odds are much better with a classic than with a gringo bastardization of a Mexican dessert that doesn't exist. In fact, their gingerbread was great. Just look at that foamy, melty whipped cream*!

In the end I definitely got the dose of local color I was looking for. Especially when I and my traveling companions were accosted by locals upon leaving, being asked repeatedly "where's the party?"

*By "cream" of course I mean ultra pasteurized, homogenized milk plus stabilizers, preservatives, growth hormones and antibiotics

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Think Globally, Drink Locally

Continuing on the epicurean wonders of Ithaca, I am proud to announce that the bar known as Korova now carries the local cider Bellwether on tap. This is a bigger deal than you realize.

For fans of sickly sweet ciders like Woodchuck and Cider Jack, this may not seem like news. However, the U.S. has come a long way since its early days, when cider was the most popular alcoholic beverage. Flash forward to 2008, when you can get virtually any beer you want from any number of far away countries in almost any bar. Our taps read like an Epcot brochure, with brews hailing from such exotic locales as Japan and Jamaica. But cider? Uncommon.

While small craft American beers have made a tremendous comeback in the past few years, cider's popularity has greatly dwindled. I remember touring New England as a kid in 1987, and my dad ordering Sam Adams (in moderation) whenever he had the chance. That's because back then, at least where we lived, the only alternative to Bud was Miller. And brands like Red Dog and Icehouse were still just a glimmer in the eyes of the evil marketing wizards who spawned such tasteless poisons.

But in beer's upswing, our old friend cider has for the most part been left high and dry, in the sense that no one has been getting high from drinking fine, dry cider. Hence my double take when I saw a locally produced cider on tap at Korova.

Since local apples are a whole lot easier to come by than local hops and barley, if you see a cider like Bellwether on tap, you're odds are good that it reflects a deeper kind of local than beer: one which has in it's interests your region's trees.

I'm hoping that Korova's Bellwether tap is part of the larger trend in which Americans are remembering how much better it is to consume things that we ourselves produce. My hope is that real cider will ease into the niche created by brands like Woodchuck as smoothly and effectively as the coyote has taken the place of all the wolves we've killed. In fact, here's my first prediction since coquito: you're going to see a lot more cider. That goes for fancy French cider on wine lists, and hopefully for affordable, local cider at your neighborhood pub.

Only then we can honestly say: "the cider house rules!"

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Review: Ca Phe House

Sorry, I don't know how to do accent marks.

Ithaca, NY has so many interesting and affordable places to eat that I suspect the Roman goddess Abudantia hovers above it, doling out leases for inspired restaurateurs from her horn of plenty. In other words, for such a small town, it has some great restaurants.

That observation rings only more true now that Ca Phe House is on the scene. While they do serve the infamous Vietnamese coffee, Ca Phe house is not a false cognate for coffee house. Instead, it's an excellent place for Banh Mi, aka Vietnamese sandwiches.

Not only does Ithaca now have a Banh Mi shop; it has a Banh Mi shop that sources as many organic and local ingredients as possible. As one Cornell professor put it, "they're making their own local, organic mystery meat!"

My companion and I ordered the Special and the Mack. They were so good that they made us feel like we ourselves were special, and the Mac.

The Mac comes with a somewhat disorienting amount of differently textured meats.

This includes ham, sausage, pork loaf, and in case the pork loaf isn't enough for you, paté. Yet the sandwich is lightened considerably by shredded, zingy, pickled veggies and razor thin slices of raw jalepeno. The Mack is so named for the two fillets of canned mackerel slapped between halves of a baguette. Okay, so that's probably not local, but it's surprisingly good for a canned fish sandwich.

In addition to being great and featuring local ingredients, Ca Phe is also incredibly cheap. Sandwiches are six or seven bucks, but they could easily pass for eight dollar sandwiches.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Roasted Sesame and Carrot Soup

Another dish that falls into the category of "made entirely from things on hand at the house I was house sitting for."

Clearly I'm not the first to say this, but the more I learn about something, the more I realize there is to learn. Take roasting nuts and seeds. For years I've thought that a quick brown in a dry skillet was all there was to it. Until my last read of the Trout Point Lodge Cookbook, which recommends a slower, lower heat -- about 20 minutes. All this time I've just been searing my nuts, but their method allows the heat to penetrate to the core, providing a full and thorough roast. Reminds me of the NYT article about how we use heat.

In other words, I roasted some sesame seeds and learned something about myself. I then browned several split cloves of garlic and threw in the chunks of carrots, giving them a literal flash in the pan. Soon after I added water, simmered, and waited. Of course there was sea salt and freshly ground b.p., and towards the end I added a small handful of chopped, fresh tarragon. Partly because I like it, partly because I'm fascinated by the way the licorice flavor compound spans different plant species. With few ingredients and no additional purchases, we had a fantastic dish that served as the cornerstone for the meal.

All you really need to make carrot soup is to steam carrots and then put them through a blender with the cooking water and a touch of salt. All you need to make the ever so popular carrot ginger soup is to do the same with ginger. But I rarely make the same thing twice, and the sesame seeds were calling me. They imparted a depth of flavor that you rarely get without good stock. Sesame seeds: shortcut to soup.

They also made this usually bright dish a little earthy and heavy, so I topped each bowl with strips of crisped leeks and a blob of everyone's favorite yogurt (this week), Fage.

Now that it had texture and tang, all it needed was to be slurped.

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