Every now and then I like to test my own assumptions about food--in particular, about the differences between supermarket-bought "conventional" shipped-from-who-knows-where and the fresh locally-raised organic free-range and/or heirloom stuff that's supposed to be so superior to the former kind.
It's that "supposed to be" part that bothers me. There's so much emotion and romance and sentimentalism and outright hysteria surrounding food that it's hard to separate taste from psychology. We all know that the best meals you ever ate had more to do with circumstance than with the quality of the food itself--either because you were famished, or you were in a particularly charming locale, or you were eating with someone with whom you were desperately in love. And, we know that our era has inherited hundreds of years of food angst and food guilt that warps and blurs our perception of taste.
So, how to separate taste from context, wish from reality? The blind taste test is a great start.
It's really a two part test. First, can you even distinguish one item from another? If so, then the second part is: which tastes better?
Past contests have included organic whole milk (pasteurized and homogenized) vs. conventional whole milk. The result? I couldn't even distinguish between the two, much less say one was better than the other. Raw, unpasteurized milk was another story--easy as could be to tell the difference vs. conventional milk, though there's not a clear winner on taste (raw milk definitely is an acquired taste). Grass-fed beef vs. corn-fed beef: you can tell them apart a mile off. The grass-fed tastes like, well, grass, and easily beats out the conventional stuff (to my palate, at least) when it comes to texture and flavor.
This round it's eggs. In the left corner, in the brownish speckled shell, a fresh free-range all organic egg from a local farm out on Wadmalaw Island. In the right corner, in the pure white shell, a conventional grocery store egg from some hen battery somewhere. The method of cookery: hard boiled in the same pot for 15 minutes (to ensure equal cooking). Then cooled, peeled, and sliced.
The Wife tolerates these sorts of experiments of mine with the forebearance available only to those who, on a regular basis, have to do things like buckle seat belts on imaginary friends, read the same pop-up book 39 times in succession, and try to explain for the twelfth time why chanting "No cuts, no butts, no coconuts" while pointing to one's groin is not only unfunny but also quite impolite. With that unmistakable "maybe if I help him quickly he'll go away and let me read my book" demeanor, she gamely assisted in the contest.
I placed one slice of each into separate spoons then turned my back and closed my eyes and had The Wife deposit one of the slices into my mouth without telling me which one it was. I chewed pensively and concentrated my mental focus on my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Is this the free-range? Or the conventional? Does it taste stronger, firmer? Hmm . . .
A quick swig of beer to cleanse the palate, then egg number two. Okay, the texture's slightly different, but only slightly . . . tasty, but I've always loved hard-boiled eggs no matter what the type. This one was going down to the wire . . .
"Okay," I said finally. "The first one's the free-range egg, and the second one's the conventional one."
"Nope," The Wife said, almost gleefully. "The first one was the regular egg. The second one was the brown one."
So there you have it. Not only did I guess the identity wrong, I can honestly say that they tasted pretty much the same to me. Now, there are any number of explanations to take into account here. Maybe hardboiling isn't the best way to compare them (it did seem a lot cleaner than trying to, say, make an omlet or use them in some sort of complicated recipe). And maybe the free-range egg wasn't all that fresh (there was no date on the container) and if it had been snuck out from under the hen that very morning and never refrigerated maybe the taste difference would have been more dramatic.
But for now I'm calling it a draw.
Friday, December 28, 2007
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
I've been buying Le Petit Francais bread for several years now, ever since I found it in my local Publix's freezer aisle. While it can't really hold a candle to properly-made fresh bread, it is head and shoulders above the stuff distributed by Pillsbury and the average grocery-deli french loaf. I always keep a few packages in my freezer so I'm never without good bread for dinner.
One of the reasons why I like it is that it's very basic stuff, with an ingredients list that doesn't require a chemistry degree to understand: wheat flour, yeast, spring water, and sea salt. The bread is par-baked, and making it is simple: remove from the freezer, thaw on the counter for about 15 minutes, then bake at 425-degrees for eight to ten minuets. Perfect for that scrambling-to-get-it-together-cause-I-just-got-home-late-from-work family dinner.
Then, six months or so ago, I noticed a new little slogan on the package: "freezer to table in 10 minutes!". How can this be, I wondered, when the very instructions on the package say you have to thaw it for fifteen minutes before you even put it in the oven? I kept making the bread the same old way and it tasted fine.
Then, a few months ago, Le Petit Francais came out with a new version of the product: mini-baguettes, which are about half the size of the original, and have new instructions: "No thawing necessary--place directly on the center rack of the oven." The dough appears to be exactly same as the longer baguettes, so why no 15 minute thaw?
The other day, as dinner was about ready, I realized I had forgotten bread. I had a bag of mini baguettes in the freezer and grabbed a couple. Dinner would be ready in just 10 minutes, and the bag said "no thawing required"--so I tossed them in the oven icy and hard as a rock. 10 minutes later the outside was nicely browned, and when I split one apart it was cooked through and soft and steamy in the middle.
Midway through the meal, The Wife commented, "You know, I'm just not crazy about this bread." And, as usual, she was right. The bread just wasn't good at all--flat and tasteless. I nibbled at it, but left most of the hunk on the edge of my plate at the end of the meal.
So the next time, I was very careful and thawed it the full fifteen minutes (probably more) and--guess what?--the bread was crisp and crusty on the outside and rich and tasty on the inside, the way good bread is supposed to be.
So what's the deal? A wild guess: marketing. I can only imagine that someone for Le Petit Francais ran some focus groups and found their bread wasn't selling as well as it could because it takes too darn long to prepare--who has that extra fifteen minutes for thawing, after all? I can only imagine that Pillsbury is eating their lunch with their ghastly but (judging from the amount of it on my local grocery store shelves) strong-selling "Hot & Crusty in 5 Minutes Twin French." 5 minutes!?!? How can we compete?
And thus begins the slippery slope (or, rather, continues the slippery slope, since the reason I bought Le Petit Francais in the first place was for the convenience of always having pretty-good bread on hand.) To save a few extra minutes we settle for a product that is markedly inferior but before long we forget what the good stuff ever tasted like.
And before long we have Easy Mac.
Friday, December 21, 2007
I'm on a "Friendly Friday" email list with a bunch of old grad school buddies, and every Friday someone sends out a question to get a conversation rolling, and it's a fun way to keep in touch. This week, the question came from one of the single people on the list, and it was as follows:
Why is it that people with kids a) take their young children to nice restaurants and b) don't seem to care that their children are screaming and yelling and running through the aisles and annying everyone? When you are childless and single and eating with friends at a nice place, you used to make fun of these parents...so what happened to make you become one? Will I become one too?
This is what I replied:
The other day a guy with a mustache cut me off in traffic and gave me the finger. Why are people with mustaches such jerks? If I grow a mustache, will I start giving people the finger too?
On point a), a little clarification: Define “nice.” If by nice you mean someplace WITHOUT a child’s menu and crayons at the door, where entrees cost more than $10, where you would order a bottle of wine with your meal, and/or would take a date for dinner, then the answer is, “I have no idea. They must be clinically insane.” I would no sooner take my kids there for dinner than pay $50 bucks to buy them an opera ticket—-we’d all be miserable and it’s money down a hole, and when I eat at a nice restaurant I like to linger over coffee and dessert and not eat my dinner in 19 minutes or less.
On point b) if you mean literally running through the restaurant screaming, then the answer is “those people are assholes. They don’t care about other people around them”. Those people were never like you back when they were childless and single. They were the jerks who would crash your party, drink all your beer without asking, and steal your CDs. Becoming a parent doesn’t make you an asshole, but becoming a parent doesn’t cure an asshole either.
On point a), if by "nice" all you mean is someplace where you don’t order at a counter and they actually refill your drinks for you then, first, you need to elevate your standards and, second, it’s no surprise that the second date never happens. And, if at one of these “family restaurants” you mean on point b) not literally screaming and running through the aisles but really mean periodically throwing their silverware on the floor and crying every three minutes because you won’t let them put your steak knife in their mouth and keep trying to get up and go to the hostess stand because they need a different shade of blue crayon, then you don’t realize that children will break your will to the point where you just don’t give a crap anymore.
Yes, you will become like this, too, just like you will slowly turn into your dad and make the same corny jokes you hated when you were eleven. Your wife will turn into your mother in law, you will become unable to turn a corner in your car at faster than 3 mph, and you will lose the ability to stop rambling on about “when Coca-Cola used to cost fifty cents and came in 12 ounce cans” and there’s NOTHING you can do about it. Until then, I advise eating at places without a kid’s menu. The buffets at strip bars are usually pretty reasonable priced.
Maybe for next week's list we’ll pose this “question that people without kids ask stay-at-home mothers” (actually posed by my younger cousin to my wife at Thanksgiving), “Aren’t you terribly bored? I mean, what do you DO all day?” I’ll let The Wife tackle that one.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
I was down at Mt. Pleasant Seafood company and saw some good looking squid and bought it. And, as usual, I was in a quandry over what to do with it since fried calamari is a great and wonderful thing but a pain to make at home (unless you enjoy the odor of fishy, burnt cooking oil liongering in the air for day, which is usually what happens whenever I try to stove-top deep fry anything that came from the sea).
So, I trolled the 'Net and found a promising looking recipe for "Squid with Bacon and Garlic Oil" from Bobby Flay on the Food Network site. Here's my version, pared down a little in volume, and it made for a great tapas-style appetizer--enough to keep at bay The Wife (who oddly thinks eating at 9:00 PM is too late) while I bathed The Seven Year old then cooked a big shrimp-and-scallop feast:
2 slices of bacon, sliced into small bits
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
drizzle of olive oil (about 1 T)
4 squid tubes, rinsed and sliced into rings
salt & pepper
1/4 of a lemon
Cook the bacon slowly in a pan over medium heat until the fat has rendered out and it's starting to get crispy. Raise the heat to medium-high and add a drizzle of olive oil, then the garlic and squid. Cook, tossing occassionally, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the squid is cooked through. Don't overdo it--overcooked squid turns to rubber.
Remove from the heat, stir in the chopped parsley, and squeeze over the lemon juice.
The lemon juice doesn't appear in Flay's recipe, but when I took the pan of squid off the stove they were almost audibly screaming to be squirted with lemon juice. So I did, and the resulting lemon-and-bacony-garlicky-olive oil combination was so unbelievable I had to sop it all out of the bowl once the squid was all gone.
Posted at 9:53 PM
Sunday, December 09, 2007
First it was the nationwide barbecue cook-off competitions, then regionalism-blurring sit-down barbecue restaurant chains, then round-the-clock coverage on Food Network. Now barbecue has conquered New York City. Pit-smoked BBQ joints are now popping up all over the city, and (according to an article in today's New York Times) "demand has pushed up salaries for pit masters by 50 percent during the last two years."
BBQ marches on . . .