Tuesday, January 29, 2008

School Lunch

Actual items from the Seven Year Old's school lunch menu for the month of January:

"1/3 less sugar frosted flakes": I'll give you 95% less sugar: Corn Flakes!

"Chicken filet sandwich, steamed broccoli, garden salad w/RF Dresssing, banana, milk": broccoli AND salad: that's double vegetable. Sure, the lunch may offer "<30% fat", but if no kid eats the broccoli and salad, what difference does it make? And what the hell is "RF?" Refried? Refrigerated? Ranch/French?

"Beefaroni": Really? In 2008? Did you ever see Seinfeld?

"Tacos w/ Lettuce, Tomatoes, Cheese, Tomato Soup." Tacos with tomato soup? Hell, why not!

By far the best menu item of the month: Friday January 18th: "Teacher Workday: No School."

I can't wait to see what February brings.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What the World Eats

Thanks to a tip from Food on the Food, I recently discovered Time Magazine's excerpts from Peter Menzel's book Hungry Planet, which captures in vivid photos families from all over the world assembled in their kitchens along with all the food from their pantrys.

It's a fascinating snapshot of what people eat in various cultures, and you GOTTA check it out.

Two things struck me as particularly notable in the pictures. First was (counter to my expectations) the huge number of prepared commercial products in brightly-colored, logo-festooned packages that appear not only in the photos of American and Western European families (where I would expect it) but also in those from all over the world, like China, Mexico, Kuwait, and Egypt. The only exceptions were those families from the poorest of locations (a refugee camp in Chad, a remote village in Ecuador).

The second thing that struck me was that the real differentiator between the two American families represented and the rest of the world was not that the former eats a lot of processed, prepackaged foods and the others don't. Instead, it's that in the two American photos prepackaged foods was just about ALL that appeared. The Caven family of California has a few potatoes and broccoli stalks in the foreground and some bananas and apples toward the back, but everything else in the photo--including the breads and other vegetables--is wrapped and packaged in some fashion. The Revis family of North Carolina displays a few tomatoes and some grapes, but there's nary another whole food in sight, unless you count the two whole restaurant pizzas that the younger family members are holding.

It's quite different in other parts of the world. The Casales family of Cuernavaca has plenty of Coca-Cola and a big box of Corn Flakes in their picture, but they also have piles of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole, unwrapped round loaves of bread. Mounds of oranges, bananas, carrots, peppers line the back of the Al Haggan family of Kuwait City's table, and a platter of whole fish and a double-stack of egg trays with several dozens eggs are major features of the front.

Not sure what to make of these observations, but what's interesting is that, in general, the further down the monthly food expenditure tally the pictures go the better the food looks to me--whole, fresh, attractive--until you reach a certain point where you get down around $50 American dollars a week and under in food expenditure and, while some of the provisions look pretty tasty, there is very little variety and you know it would be a pretty bland diet.

No matter what you conclude, though, the pictures are pretty damn cool. And, the Melanson family of Iqaluit in Canada's Nunavut Territory (in Part II of the photo essay) have what has to be the all time greatest melange of traditional and modern foods in their "favorite foods" list: "narwhal, polar bear, extra cheese stuffed crust pizza, watermelon."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Chef's Table

There used to be a running gag on TV where a poor sap and his date would get stuck in the worst table in the restaurant--the one next to the kitchen, with all the noise and the banging and the waiters coming in and out and dropping things on their heads.

Times have changed. Now that table is the best seat in the house. At some places you even have to pay a premium for sitting there. It's called the "chef's table."

Some of the local restaurants that now have chef's tables include McCrady's, Slightly North of Broad, Cru Cafe, Oak Steakhouse, A Culinary Art Company, and the Dining Room at Woodlands (where a seat at the chef's table will run you a cool 175 bucks). At most of these, the service is special at the chef's table, featuring the chef himself presenting the dishes, and the fare is sometimes special, too. Out at Woodlands, for instance, your $175 buys a twelve-course "Ulimate Tasting Menu."

I ate at a Charleston restaurant the other day where I was given the choice at the reception stand to have a regular table or a seat at the chef's table. I was dining alone and thought, what the heck, let's see what it's like.

It was a lot like sitting at that proverbial table next to the kitchen. It was loud. It was bustling, with all the traffic coming in and out from the open kitchen's service area. And, due to the proximity to the stoves and grill, it was rather, um . . . intensely aromatic. The menu was the same as the one for the regular dining area (fortunately, the prices were too), and while I could see the upper torsos and heads of the crew as they worked their stations, the food was served by the same waitresses who were working the floor.

In short, I failed to see the point.

I suppose a seat at the chef's table is a fascinating experience for someone who has never worked in a restaurant and seen the other side of the house. I sort of enjoyed my meal there, but just for the nostalgia, taking me back to my own restaurant days in my early 20s. It was still early on a weeknight, so the kitchen didn't have that mad roiling energy of movement and emotions that you get, say, at eight o'clock on a Friday evening. But, you still had the rhythm of "order in" and "food's up" and "86 grouper" that took me back to the old days.

I suppose the phenomenon of the chef's table reflects the rise of chefs as celebrities in their own rights, with personality and fame often eclipsing the food itself as the star of the show. The openness of today's restaurant kitchens moves what used to be the backhouse secrets of food production to the front and center. There's probably something healthy in this interest in watching chefs cook--it shows, perhaps, that restaurant partrons are growing more interested in how their food is prepared and are valuing good food more. But, I'm not sure how much I would like working in such a place.

Back in the day, when you passed from dining room to kitchen, you went from a dark, gently-buzzing world of elegance through a swinging door into a blindingly-bright white-tile-and- stainless-steel inferno of chaos and anger. It was steamy and hot and everyone was sweating. Open hostility was the order of the day, especially between the line cooks and the waiters, who became the proxies of the idiot customers out front who wanted to sub one item for another or had the gall to send back a steak that wasn't cooked to their liking. The pressure of the incoming tickets and the constant dodging and jostling of too many people in too small a space kept tempers at a constant simmer, and every fifteen minutes or so a manager would burst in to throw some kerosene on the blaze with a well-timed burst of profanity and abuse.

You don't get that dynamic at restaurants with the open kitchens, for the sous chefs and line cooks and servers are now on stage and have to at least partially behave themselves. Part of me wonders if the open kitchen isn't just a decor and marketing thing but also a sneaky management tool.

While the kitchen activity was pretty dull from my vantage point at the chef's table, I got to eavesdrop on the conversation of the waiters and waitresses as they paused to wait for an order to come up or their next table to be sat. There were two main topics: the crazy shit that happened last night when they were all out boozing it up, and where they would go tonight to booze it up again once their shift was over. Sprinkled, of course, with plenty of gossip about who was hooking up with whom and who was mad at whom and how their car just broke down and how broke they were. And I remembered why after a year or so of the restaurant life I had started applying to grad schools.

My dinner at the chef's table was a nice walk down memory lane, but the next time I'm given the choice, I'll stick with the two-top by the front window.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Pizza Taxonomy

Adam Kuban of the Slice section of Serious Eats has just posted an exhaustive catalog of pizza styles. This is one for the old reference link list.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

BEWARE! Sneaky Seasonal Beer Can Ruin Your Winter!!!

Lately The Wife and I have been enjoying a lot of the seasonal beers that various breweries have been releasing for Fall and Winter, such as Magic Hat's Jinx, Red Hook's Winter Ale, Sam Adams' Autumn and Winter beers. There's something about a smooth ale with a little hint of spice that's perfect for a cool afternoon.

So, one day a few months ago at the local Publix, I spied a new seasonal six-pack there in the midst of all the import and micro-brews: Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale. The Wife was full-on Jonesing for Sam's Octoberfest at the time, and they were all sold out, so I figured, "That looks like it might be pretty good."

Boy was I wrong.

Back at home, I cracked open the first bottle and took a sip and almost gagged. The taste of pumpkin was overwhelming--as if they'd brewed the stuff straight from discarded jack-o-lanterns and left out the barley. And, while a hint of spice is pretty good in a beer, this was a jackboot of cinnamon and ginger right in the snoot. Garrgh!

About then I noticed up in the upper right corner of the label: "Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis Missouri". Now, I've got nothing against old A-B. I'll drink a Budweiser every now and again. It's a nice accompaniment for fishing or shooting pool. I'm not proud. But, what irks me is the way the "seasonal brew" was slipped right there in the middle of all the German imports and small batch microbrews rather than being down with the Miller and Coors and Schlitz when it belongs.

The six-pack--now a five-pack--languished in the back of the garage beer fridge for weeks. At some point I thought to myself, "how bad could it be?" and, since all the rest of my beer stash was gone (how does that keep happening?), I thought I'd give it a second try. Three sips in, I wondered, "why am I putting myself through this?"--and down the drain it went. I can't remember the last time I poured out an uncompleted beer, and not another option in the house, to boot!

The rest is still out there, waiting for the unsuspecting house guest I can fob it off on. I tried my best over the Christmas holidays, but everyone kept opting for the Sam Adams or the Sierra Nevada or the Palmetto Pale Ale. Go figure.

Today, back at the Publix checking out the beer options, I noticed a new variety up there amid the Warsteiner and the Fuller's and the Anchor Steam: "Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale." Sounds interesting . . . checked the label text: "aged on bourbon cask staves and whole Madagascar vanilla . . ." Vanilla, in beer--might be good, could be a little cloying . . . wait a second, cloying . . . yep, there's the old Anheuser-Busch logo right up there in the corner of the label.

Sorry, fellas. Fool me once . . .

(Sidenote: "Madagascar vanilla" sounds pretty exotic, doesn't it--till you look it up in Wikipedia and realize Madagascar is far and away the world's largest vanilla producer, putting out some 59% of the world's supply. By law, bourbon whiskey has to be aged at least four years in "virgin" [new] oak barrels, so the barrels have to be discarded after their first use, making them, by my way of thinking, pretty much scrap lumber. But it sounds good on the label.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Anson Mills Grits

I just got a new order in from Anson Mills--grits, polenta, heirloom wheat flour, and "rice grits." About the same time, I learned that Anna over at Anna's Cool Finds was hosting an Is My Blog Burning event on "A Taste of Terroir." It was serendipitous, for what could be more representative of South Carolina terroir than a heaping plate of heirloom grits?

Anson Mills is a South Carolina treasure and has steadily been making a name for itself on the national culinary scene. Almost 10 years ago, Glenn Roberts gave up his job as a historical restoration consultant in Charleston and moved up to Columbia, where he rented an old metal warehouse behind a car wash and set out to grow and mill heirloom South Carolina grains, including corn, rice, and wheat. In his old job, when trying to create period dinners for the openings of restoration projects, Roberts had found that most antebellum recipes simply could not be made any more because the ingredients used to make them could no longer be had. With Anson Mills, he has started to correct that.

Roberts scoured old fields on the backroads of South Carolina looking for vestiges of the old heirloom varieties. He found Carolina Gourdseed White corn in an old bootlegger's field near Dillon and in 1998 harvested his first crop of the long-lost grain. Gourdseed White is an example of Southern "dent corn" (there's a dent on top of each kernel), long favored by bootleggers because it was easy to grind into mash for whiskey. Carolina Gold rice and Red May wheat soon followed in his fields.

Anson Mills farms Thursday through Saturday and mills their products Monday through Wednesday. Most of the products are sold wholesale to restaurants, but you can order retail products on their website.

Heirloom Grits

Throughout the 19th Century, most South Carolina farmers raised a wide variety of corn and took their crop to local millers to be ground using stone wheels. By the early 20th Century, these mills steadily lost ground to big, steel roller mills, and the older varieties were replaced by hybrids grown for long shelf life. By World War II grits and corn meal were being ground to a fine, uniform size that crushed the germ into dust, resulting in an end product that was smooth but largely flavorless.

Anson Mills grits are cold-milled with hand-buhred stones--granite wheels with channels chiseled in them that cut the corn kernels as the revolving stone moves against the stationary one. Stone grinding wheels generate a lot of heat from friction, which damages the flavor of the corn. In his research, Roberts discovered records of millers grinding their corn frozen. He tried it, and the results were remarkable. Anson Mills' grits are whole grained with uneven particles, including lots of the yellow germ, and have a rich, strong corn taste.

The coarse ground grits aren't quick grits. You soak them overnight and simmer them slowly for an hour or more. Typical Charleston recipes call for cooking grits in milk, though Glenn Roberts recommends plain water (filtered or spring water, NOT tap water) to allow the corn flavor to shine through the most.

These grits are not in-your face glamour food. You don't get that big "wow!" like you do when you bite into a chunk of barbecued pork pulled straight from the pit. Instead, grits are "wait a minute" food. You take a bite, think, "that's pretty good", then, just as you're swallowing, think, "wait a minute!" There's more there than first met your palate.

A lot of this has to do with the texture of the grits. The grains are thick and fluffy, with big white bits of the germ flecked throughout. You can roll around the individual grains with your tongue and mash them between your teeth and they are nice and firm and chewy.

Grits were never a delicacy of the south. They were just work-a-day filler, not the star player. But, if the most common, ordinary base of Southern cooking once tasted this good, just imagine what the high-falutin' stuff must have tasted like.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Restaurant Websites

Here's a simple plea to the graphic artists who design the web sites for high end restaurants:

Your graphics are lovely. You make the food look scrumptious and the restaurant seem glowing and seductive. I get hungry just looking at the home page. Nice job. But please, please, pretty please--give Illustrator a rest and think about the poor visitors to your site.

I just spent a maddening half an hour online trying to arrange a dinner for a group of my work colleagues, and I've got a few modest suggestions.

#1: The graphics are sexy, but do we need to watch a fifteen second slide show every time we click a link to navigate to a new page? You already sold me on the food on the animated intro page (which I clicked "skip" on within 2 seconds so I could get on with the rest of my life). Now, I just want to go to the directions page to figure out where the restaurant is. I don't need to wait while more food fades in and out on the screen in funky combinations. I want to see the damn directions!

#2: How come I can't find the menu? As much as I love mousing over little pictures and watching them blur into something else, I'm not here to visit an art gallery. I'm just looking to see what kind of dishes the restaurant serves to make sure it will appeal to all my colleagues. Where the hell is the menu link? Oh, here it is--hidden behind the lovely image of a pork roast. Silly me, I was looking for a picture of a menu!

#3: Why can't I copy the text from your website? All I want to do is copy the address of the restaurant and click over to Google Maps and paste it in and figure out if the restaurant is close enough to our meeting venue to be walkable. So why is the address embedded into the image of your restaurant? I can't DO anything with that!

#4. While we're on the subject of maps, Google Maps (or MapQuest or Yahoo--take your pick) is easy as can be to link into. Don't pop up an attractive but utterly static graphic map showing only the three-block vicinity around the restaurant. This is GREAT if I happen to already be three blocks away, but what if I'm coming from the other side of town?

#5: This is specific only to downtown spots, but if the restaurant you are creating the site for does not have a parking lot, can you please include directions on the nearest public parking garage? Unless you have valet service (and you should indicate whether or not you do), getting me to your front door doesn't do me a lot of good if I can't leave my car there.

Sorry. I feel better now.

Okay, That's About Enough of THAT

I don't really have anything to post about just yet, but that shrink-wrapped bloody meat picture on the Sous Vide post was freaking me out every time I opened the main page. What was I thinking with that one?

So here's some nice leafy lettuce to keep things more pleasant till I get around to a longer post . . .

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sous Vide

I had my first taste of sous vide cooking the other night at McCrady's.

The technique involves vacuum-sealing food in a plastic bag and cooking it in sub-boiling water (around 140 degrees Fahrenheit) for long periods of time. Because it cooks under pressure in tightly-sealed bags, none of the juices or fat is lost during cooking; because it is cooked in water, the temperature of the food can be precisely controlled--to the tenth of a degree. All told, the technique is supposed to intensify the natural flavors of meats and vegetables and bring out the absolute best in top-quality ingredients. (For some great pictures, see this post at the molecules blog).

Proponents of sous vide include heavy-hitters like Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller, and Joel Robuchon. Here in Charleston, the leading practitioner is Sean Brock down at McCrady's.

There were two fine beef sous vide choices on the menu: a tenderloin and a ribeye. I went with the ribeye on the waiter's suggestion, but I tried a friend's tenderloin, too, so I got to try them both. It was a tight contest, but I think the tenderloin edged out the win.

Both were very tender and flavorful steak--how much was due to the cooking method and how much to the quality of the meat it's hard to say. The one thing I did miss, though, was the crusty seared outside that you get when you pan-sear a steak or cook it in a very hot oven. In fact, one of my all time favorite gustatory delghts are the crispy, fatty outside bits of a well-seared steak. You miss all the with the sous vide method. The meat is tender as can be--not exactly butter-like (why do people insist on describing tender steak as being like butter?)--but close to it. In the end, though, it left me a little flat. Bring on the crispy bits, I declare!

I'll remain open minded, though. The short ribs appetizer (also cooked sous vide) was absolutely out of this world--a small slab of the most tender, flavor meat I think I've ever had.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Little Food Math

The Wife, when she was single, developed a very elegant formula for menu planning: one food per person. Figuring that the effort put forth cooking a meal should be roughly proportional to the number of diners, if you are having a big dinner party you would really blow out the stops, but if it was just two people sitting down to a regular dinner, why bother. And if you were dining alone . . .

The math is simple. Dinner for a family of four: four foods required. Maybe baked chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and rolls. Just two people? Macaroni and cheese with a can of fruit on the side. Dining alone? One food will do. Being single at the time meant many meals alone, so The (Future) Wife frequently dined on a bowl of cereal. Or, corn. By itself, nothing else. Just a big plate of corn (from a big frozen bag). Or, a half gallon of ice cream.

I do all the cooking for the family now.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Farewell, Mr. Lagasse

Okay, so it only took me about two weeks to notice this, but . . . Holy crap! The Food Network canceled Emeril! The bammeister himself, the guy who made the network what it is today . . . canceled?

The real story is murky and complicated, involving shifting cable TV competition and celebrity chef branding and fickle television audiences. The best quote in the article, though, is from Mario Batali, who explains his recent move from the Food Network to public television as follows:

“They don’t need me. They have decided they are mass market and they are going after the Wal-Mart crowd,” which he said was “a smart business decision. So they don’t need someone who uses polysyllabic words from other languages.”

Okay, a little snooty there, Mario, but funny nevertheless.

The winner in all this? Rachel Ray, who just signed up with the network for a new primetime show called "Rachel's Vacation"

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