Tuesday, December 22, 2009

F&C REWIND: The Top Ten Dining Trends This Decade

  As we near the end of the decade, here are my choices for Top 10 Dining Trends This Decade.  This entry was made in October.

Last week a friend sent me a link to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune listing the 10 most egregious food trends over the last decade.  It didn't really hit me until after I read the piece that we are fast approaching the end of another decade!  So with all the crazy end-of-decade special edition magazines, newspaper columns, and radio countdowns, I thought I might contribute a list of my own to the blogosphere.

I've always been a list guy.  Cooks thrive on them, chef's live and die by them.  But, if The Trib was going to diss the culinary community for the 10 things they found most annoying about this decade, I thought it only appropriate to offer my glass-half-full view of things.  And so, here is my
Top 10 Most Significant Advances in Dining in This Decade!

Disclaimer: understand that as a rule, I consider "significant" to mean a tipping point for the trends listed below.  Most of them didn't start in the last ten years.  Yet, they came into the mainstream consciousness this decade, and thereby survived the fad faze and became a sustained trend making them significant in the way we think about food and dining today. 

1.  No Smoking!  
While many restaurant owners voluntarily banned smoking in the early 90's (and I consider them brave pioneers with vision), only in the last decade have we seen whole statewide and metropolitan bans on smoking in public places.  Not just white table cloth restaurants, but chain restaurants, sub shops and bars.  Let me say it again, 10 years ago, when you were being seated in a restaurant, it was commonplace to be asked, "smoking or non-smoking?" Even as a reformed smoker, it seems arcane to me we tolerated such an assault on our senses as we paid good money to eat a meal in a cloud of second hand smoke.  Yet, to date, there are only 24 states that have enacted bans on smoking in all public places, including restaurants and bars.  However, in 60 of the most populated cities in the United States, only 19 have not enacted some sort of ban on smoking in public places (Philadelphia is one of them).  So, while we still have a ways to go, the clearing of cigarette smoke from the public dining room gets my vote for significant advancement in dining in the last 10 years, nonetheless.

2.  The Ipod  "What?" Indulge me.  As a former front of house manager, restaurant owner, musician, dj and audiophile, the advent of the Ipod was nothing short of achieving warp drive in space travel. You can differ if you like, that's the whole point.  But, I argue that between skipping cds, horrible canned muzak, repeating artists or albums, erratic volume levels and non-sequitur playlists, the Ipod as dining enhancement was huge.  Many people take for granted two key aspects of dining: lighting and music.  Often, both are subliminal, but when music is given equal consideration with things like color choices and linens, it helps contribute to a complete dining experience worth remembering.  Suddenly we were able to quickly and effectively control an important element of luring guests and keeping them at our restaurants and bars.    And so, the Oscar for best supporting role in a dining experience goes to: The Ipod from Apple.  Runner-up: Satellite radio.


3.  Proliferation of Ethnic Cuisines
I used to think that people who talked about "this awesome Afghani restaurant" they went to were just trying too hard to be cool.  But, there is no question that when I get the infamous "Where do you like to dine?" that comes with being a chef, my top 5 answers are always ethnic cuisines.  Hey, don't get me wrong; I love my good all-American dishes of bbq, meatloaf and fried chicken, but variety is the spice of life, baby, and in the last decade, things got a lot more diverse in the country we aptly call the cultural melting pot.  With this trend also comes the "win-win" of being able to find the ingredients that make up these marvelous foods in an accessible grocery so we can enjoy them at home.  That can only mean that more and more people are finding a comfort level with foods they'd not had before.  Which brings me to my next choice...

4.  The 21st Century Grocery
Wegmans and Whole Foods have been around for decades, and many American's take full advantage of their in-house, fresh preparations of take-home foods and a multitude of high-quality products they offer.  But, it's the popularity of these types of stores that made the average frumpy grocer have to shape up, or ship out.  The competition got a lot more competitive in the last 10 years, and so cleaner, more diverse stores rose from the ashes of The 70's and 80's, when supermarkets were about sheer quantity and not quality.  The 80's and 90's saw the addition of the Exotic Foods aisle (which cracks me up, still).  You'd walk down and see lentils and jasmine rice with La Choy Fried Noodles and extra-virgin olive oil and be like, "This isn't exactly my idea of a trip through the spice markets of Marrakesh."  In the last 10 years, the bar was raised on how and where we shopped, because the bar was raised on how and what we ate.

5.  Ferran Adria
At the end of 1998, I had just graduated from the CIA and finished a brief externship in Biarritz, France.  While I was there, I had heard from cooks about an amazing chef who was winning all sorts of praise in Europe.  The odd thing was that he was Spanish, not French.  By the end of 1999 The Wallstreet Journal had published an article about the little known Ferran Adria and his temple of experimental cuisine, El Bulli.  I thought it was cool that he'd been mentioned, but I didn't really expect the impact on American dining that would follow from this exposure.  And suddenly, the dubious FOAM began to make its way onto the plates of finer restaurants all over the country.  Foam was on The Tribune's grumpy list, but it became the most imitated technique Adria helped spawn in an era when cooks began looking at cooking from a scientist's point of view.  I wholeheartedly give props to Adria for steering a complacent American dining scene in a direction that made everyone from the highest praised chef down to the hard-hitting line-cook rethink the way food can be prepared and perceived. 

6.  Riches-to-Rags-to-Rebirth of The James Beard Foundation

As a chef it had always been a personal goal of mine to be asked to cook at the JBF.  When I did so in March of 2003, it was an exhilarating, but very humbling experience.  I could look at the success of the dinner not as something to put on a resume but an experience that changed my life and my direction as a chef.  So, to receive an award for excellence or even be nominated for an award by the Beard Foundation was the pinnacle for nearly all American chefs.  

Yet, one year later in September of 2004, scandal rocked the Beard Foundation as the New York Times reported the prestigious non-profit hadn't filed tax returns for two years.  Its president had been accused of helping himself to hundreds of thousands of their tax-free dollars.  It was the culinary equivalent of the steroids scandals that mar the great game of baseball, even today.  To chefs who had cooked there or aspired to do so, it was a huge blemish on all that was sacred in the JBF.  And so, a sullied Beard House saw the resignation of its entire Board of Directors the following January.  An interim board was appointed to oversee the restructuring of this revered institution.  

With renewed vision, the James Beard Foundation climbed its way out of the mud and today, once again, takes its place in the hearts of industry professionals as The Carnegie Hall of the culinary world. 

7.  The Locavore Movement
Sad that it took a film about the degradation of the earth's atmosphere for the one of the largest grossing private industries in America to realize its time had come to grow up.  And so with Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, we saw the green movement explode into a whole new era of social awareness that focused on how we eat, to how it may be harming our environment, to the incredible shrinking farms our super-sized economy helped stamp out.  "Carbon footprints" and "sustainability" entered our vocabularies.  Suddenly, for chefs who all along knew that much of their success depended wholly on the quality of their ingredients, it got a lot easier to shine when local farmers started knocking on the kitchen doors of these low-profile chefs who felt a connection with their new soul mates, the local farmers.  Farming hip?  Stupid that it should have come to that, but there it is;  local, fresh and seasonal is as common today as crab imperial, veal Oscar and steak au poivre was 40 years ago.

8.  The Internet
"The Internets", as W called it, isn't new to this decade.  But, just ten years ago, if you didn't have a website for your restaurant, it wasn't a big deal.  It was usually for the new kids on the block who were showy and didn't have the chops to hang with the old boys.  Or so it seemed.  Today, if you can't find a website for a restaurant, it's assumed they haven't opened yet, or they've already closed.  

The Online Knee-Jerk Restaurant Review took it on the chin from the Tribune in their list.  When Citysearch cropped up and began getting a whole new community of people in search of the latest on the hottest dining spots, the tide turned, and for good or bad, prevalent online comments and reviews helped get the word out as no other form of free marketing for restaurants could.  

The Open Table reservation system started making it more acceptable to make dining reservations online and they rewarded their users for doing so.  Operators jumped on it because it was the most efficient form of demographics tool that ever existed in the restaurant business.  It's literally a culinary concierge.  That's because the company is owned and run by former restaurant people and its software designed by former soldiers of hospitality.  

With the first decade of the internet fully integrated into our lives and industry, it seems natural, for example that we completed simple tasks like ordering food and beverage online, both as operators and customers.  Spelling checks and Wiki-searches help a restaurant look smarter by avoiding erroneous references, one of my pet peeves.  And thick, out of date product catalogs were replaced with PDF files that saved loads of time, reams of paper and allowed for restaurants to stay more current.  

Finally, I include blogging in this category, because when a site like Foodie Blogroll, for example, boasts 5000 different blogs to date, all dedicated to the love of food, it's no longer a fad, it's a trend.  Sure, that's a lot of opinions, but there is an equal amount of passion among food and wine bloggers.  And there tends to be a lot more honesty in writing when the survival of a blog isn't dependent on revenue.  (At least, not yet, anyway.) It may have been partially responsible for the death of Gourmet Magazine, but such is change.

9. Culinary Crusaders
When I saw the film Supersize Me! it made me physically ill.  Morgan Spurlock's project of eating nothing but food from McDonald's for 30 days and nights was a much needed wake-up call for a super-sized America.  His health deteriorated right before our very eyes just from maintaining a steady diet of the world's most popular fast food.  Simply put- had he continued his experiment, it would have killed him.  

Blue Hill chef Dan Barber began to flex his prodigious talent as a writer and helped bring awareness to growing the Farm to Table movement.  Blue Hill in Pocantico Hills, New York became a model for full sustainability in a restaurant.  Frequent editorials in the Opinion pages of the New York Times gave the little guys in farming and community supported agriculture (csa) programs the much needed attention it took to make three of the previously mentioned trends possible.  

And, then there's Michael Pollan.  Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food also got early exposure on the pages of the Times, but soon these writings became required reading for a new generation of cooks and chefs who felt more connected to the earth than The Food Network.  Best sellers, these books questioned not just what we ate, but how much and where it came from.  He made us stare long in the mirror about where we were headed as a nation and the way we ate.  

10.  The Food Network.  
It's the one I love to hate.  It's become such an integral part of how we are entertained, how we view the profession of cooking, how we cook at home, what we buy, what we eat, and how we entertain.  I've made it known I'm not a fan of The Food Network, but like it or not, in the last 10 years, they've been one of the largest influences on dining industry in the US.  Now if we could only get them to see the previous 9 items.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Few things can bring more excitement (and panic) than the arrival of snow to a region that rarely gets it.  And, throw in that it's less than a week before Christmas- mirth and mayhem!

We've always had a strange relationship with snow here in Delaware.  Comparatively, we don't get enough of it for people to rationally behave the way they do.  But that doesn't stop them.  It begins with the ubiquitous grocery store run.  Carts filled to the brim with more food than people could possibly consume in a 72 hour period.  And that's when they call for 4-6 inches.

When it does start to come down, people turn on their televisions, 24 hours a day, presumably for updates.  Now with Facebook and Twitter, you can blurt out the latest forecast for accumulations for all to hear!  And almost everyone will be right.

And, there is always that one neighbor who heads out after the first hour and shovels their sidewalk, despite the fact the forecast is for another 8 hours of precipitation.  The scraping sound of metal on concrete is- most unnatural.
In Wilmington, it's a foregone conclusion that as soon as it begins to snow, the bars fill up in Trolley Square.  Yes, being located in the city actually helps a business when it snows.  My least favorite part is when the Monster SUVs pull into parking lots with two inches of snow on the ground and park like idiots, leaving their vehicles as though they had just suddenly been abducted by aliens.  Yes, there is a downside to snow, Virginia.

I immediately begin to cook something.  Anything.  If it's breakfast I'm making, when we sit down I'm already thinking about what's for lunch and dinner.  I begin to eye up the roasting pan wondering what colossal cut of meat I can seduce marvelous, meaty flavors from.  A soup, a stew, a pot of chili.  Anything with lazy bubbles and little whisps of steam to fill the house with heady, scrumptious aromas.  Now, a crock pot is just too damn slow to cook in.  It's what I cook in when I can't be at home.  But if you insist, do like my mom does on Christmas.  She throws on a batch of apple cider in the pot and busts out the rum.  Now that we're talking about beverages, I'm pretty much down for anything.  Coffee in the morning, cider in the afternoon, Guinness for happy hour, red wine with dinner, port for dessert.

I would like to share my recipe for the most decadent hot chocolate you may ever drink.  As with anything, the final product is determined by the quality of your ingredients.  This one you can't skimp on.  Chef's note:  a little goes a long way.  So, a demi-tasse of this hot cocoa is usually sufficient for even the most avid chocoholic.

Rich Belgian Hot Cocoa
1 Quart Whole Milk
1 Quart Heavy Cream
1 Fresh Vanilla Bean
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dry, dark cocoa powder (this is most important; use a good quality cocoa)
1 cup semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate (chips or shavings; not big pieces)

Scrape the vanilla bean and put the entire bean into a heavy bottom pot with the milk and cream.  Turn on medium heat.  Add the sugar and the chocolate stirring slowly with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar and chocolate.  Once dissolved, sift the cocoa into the mixture and use a whisk to incorporate.  Continue to lightly whisk until there are no lumps and mixture is smooth.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Ladle into mugs and top with your favorite enhancer.  Kids: whipped cream  Adults:  Baileys and Godiva come to mind.

Photo credit:  Breakfast- latartinegourmande.com

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Let There Be Music!

It's really hard for a chef to post at this time of year.  But, when it's in ya, ya gotta get it out.   And so, I want to talk about an important part of dining (to me anyway), and while I'm at it, I'll try to tie it into the season.

I have yet to speak openly about my absolute passion for music.  No- I'm not running out of ideas for posts early on in the game.  But, I'm so devoted to music- my music- that like food, when it is in short supply, I grow cranky.  I need food, I need wine with my food, and I need music with my food and wine.  Period.

I am that guy.  I bring my Ipod to dinner parties.  I "suggest" music when it's not there.  When it's bad- I change it.  When it's soft, I turn it up.  When it's off topic, I steer back.  See- somewhere along the line, the same way that we integrate food into our memories, I've skipped a rail or two and now the three- food, wine and music- are inseparable, interchangeable, indispensable.  Some of you may think this is hype- I assure you, it is not.  

This "merging of the passions" got serious with the advent of the Ipod and digital music.  Not that my front of house experience kept me from getting my fingers sticky.  But, when it became possible to create a playlist, without building a 90-minute mixed tape, without having to stick to 80 minutes of CD time, without any limitations on what plays, in what order and for how long- well- it's ON.  

You have to get, first, that I link the culture of music to the culture of food.  For example, as cheesy as it may be, when I'm at a real Japanese restaurant, I wanna hear music that makes me think of Japan.  I don't want to hear classic rock.  I don't want to hear house and trance.  There is so much awesome music out there, that, yes- I actually do have music that is both culturally correct and cool to quaf sake and slurp sashimi to.  That said, I like to hear music when I'm eating that at least equals the rate at which I am chewing, and doesn't exceed it.  There are all kinds of statistics I could give you about intensity of music volume and even brightness of lighting in restaurants that directly affect the rate at which you eat.  But, I don't wanna ruin it for you.

Then, there's Pandora.  The space-age, intelligent music service that is the closest thing we have to a free-thinking, non-sentient DJ.  It is nothing short of brilliant.  Once you get past the novelty of typing in a song or artist and hearing what comes out, then try to really challenge it;  add other artists, limit content, give it encouragement and reprimand it for being bad, and you've got the closest thing to a musical clone of you possible.  It's one step better than having someone take over your Itunes, because it resources music you don't necessarily have access to.  But, I digress.

Can there really be a more quintessential holiday musical compilation than "A Charlie Brown Christmas?"  I argue, not.

This incidental collection of music from the TV special is one of dozens of albums produced by the great pianist Vince Guaraldi.  He also has solo albums, he's recorded with his quintet, with an obscure, but ultra-talented Brazilian guitarist, Bole Sete- and of course, his trio.  But, no matter what recording, we all know the sound of the bubbling beat that begins the Charlie Brown theme.  We can picture Chuck and Linus hoofing through the snow to buy a tree while the trio lazily laments to O' Tannenbaum.  And of course, the chain of characters catching snow flakes on their tongues and sliding about the ice to Skating.  

The lazy melancholy we can all connect to at this time of year is captured in every bar of every song.  But it's not all a downer.  Just like the holidays, we relate to the highs and lows we experience in a time that is charged with emotions, memory and life.  

This is the cultural connection I'm talking about.  They're musically indelled images from memory.  It's hard, therefore, to be in a bustling bistro where classic French country cuisine is the fare, and they're playing the Gypsy Kings.  But, forget my cranky complaints- how much more ENJOYABLE would it be to hear some gypsy swing or Charles Trenet and Josephine Baker while finishing off a steak frites and a Stella Artois or carafe of beaujolais?  

When you sit down to crack a bushel of crabs open and sip some frosty longnecks- do you pop in the Carpenters anthology, or do you work in a thoughtful playlist of Bruce Springstein, Blues, Nina Simone, 70's pop and the Stones?  I think I've made it clear which I'd choose.

Yes, for those who know me well, this is for serious.  I'm willing to bet that for each of you out there who can name their top three restaurants ever, the one that is #1, you can also tell me about the music they play.  Even if you don't know the artists, you could say for certain there is a recognition.  Now, what about the rest?  *Come on- think aout it.*  See?

Funny thing is, when you dine in Europe, the lights are turned up and there is no music.  WTF?  Where did all these dimly lit, cozy restaurant images come from in our heads with romantic period music lilting in the background? I'll tell you where:  AMERICAN CINEMA.  Because, sitting in a real, classic Italian pizzeria in Verona or a boisterous brasserie in Paris, there simply is no music- and the lights are like the DMV.  

One of the more surprising recommendations from Thomas Keller's recent cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, is to make sure music is a part of your kitchen experience.  Chef Charlie Trotter is also an avid fan of music- he likes everything from Portishead to John Coltrane- and even modeled one of his cookbooks after the concept of the jazz improvisations of trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis.  What more appropriate way to describe a menu that changes daily, relies on the classics, but provides combinations that are artful, modern and thought-provoking?  Self-indulgent? Yes.  Accurate?  Absolutely.
So, get in touch with your inner DJ.  Poke around the internet.  And, when  you hear music at a restaurant you like, someone has made great strides for you to notice, even if you don't notice.  Ask what it is.  Search engines these days, like the ones from Pandora, Amazon and Itunes are so advanced, you're bound to find music you enjoy while dining, cooking or just throwing back some cocktails.  Now I like the sound of that.

Monday, November 30, 2009

UPDATED: Speaking the Language of Wine

Navigating the aisles of your local wine store at the holidays can be a bit taxing.  For the most part, you know roughly how much wine you're going to need.  You know the mix, such as red/white/sparkling.  And, you go into the store with your price points in place.  That's the easy part!  But, what about the types of wines?  It can be seriously intimidating when you're taking a chance on a wine or wines you've never tried and may be buying multiple bottles.  Here are a couple tips on how to minimize the- er,- crush- at the wine shop.

Once I've determined the above factors, I stick to my guns.  If my price point is $10 a bottle, I stick to it.  But, you needn't skip the wines over and under your mark.  If, for example, you find a real bargain on a Spanish wine (and there are many) at $8, you've just earned some bonus points to trade up to another wine at $12.  Comparatively, if you're buying a 12 bottle case and use this methodology, just keep a running average in your head so there won't be any surprises at the check out.

Next, it doesn't hurt to have a little bit of an idea what you'll be serving with said grape juice.  Are you going to be noshing through this stuff, or is it a house red and white for the company?  Do you cook on the zestier side, or are you a minimalist?  See, the point here is, no one wants to bring home a case of pinot grigio you got a deal on if it's going to come off as wimpy and not up to the fare you've prepared.  Get just one, bring it home and give it a try.  

As a rule, I try to step up my choices a notch above sipping wine, or cocktail party wine.  While a pinot grigio is good for gulping, a crispy sauvignon blanc will show better once food (especially cheese) is introduced.  Similarly, reds with some body and abundant fruit will show better with a crowd used to bolder styled blends.  

"Ah, but you make it sound so easy!"  Yes, eventually, you're going to have to pull the trigger on a wine you've never had.  You'll stare at the label, back at the price, then back at the label.  Check out the artwork- look for some discernible words, back at the artwork, flip to the back for a description (if there is one) and then glance back at the price.  Okay- anyone out there embarrassed that you've been caught doing this?  Women are more likely to ask for a suggestion, but men- put aside your pride; this isn't directions you're asking for.  You just need a couple bits of information before you make your decision.  

If you've had luck with a certain varietal, or grape type, in the past, stick with it.  You've still got some narrowing down to do, like region.  Merlot from Napa is not merlot from South America is not merlot from Italy or France or Australia.  Don't get frustrated.  You know what you like, so go with what you know.  And then, enlist some help from the shop.

So, you know what you like, you know the price point, you have an idea whether you like fruity, earthy, citrusy, etc., you know if it'll be served with food and hopefully what kind- now, just ask: "I'm looking for a fruity red at around $10 a bottle that will go with some tapas-type hors d'oeuvres.  I like red zinfandel but sometimes it can be a little too sweet for me.  Do you have any suggestions?"  You've just narrowed your choices significantly, and you did it all on your own!  If the shop is worth it's weight in wine, they'll offer you at least two to three choices hopefully from different regions of the world.  They might even have something open for you to try.  

Caution, though:  be careful of too much information.  If said wine clerk begins talking about the winemaker's technique of canopy management and brix levels right out of the gate, he/she is a self-important douchebag and is not listening to you.  If on the other hand you've decided on a wine and ask for more information, some basic geographic and wine-style information is good, but don't hang on every last word.  Wine is subjective.  And if ever any doubt, drink what you like.

Now- that said, I came across a wine I want to share.  It just happens to fit all the criteria above.  Las Rocas de San Alejandro, Garnacha, 2007.  The grape is "garnacha", which is what the Spanish call grenache.  If you are into beaujolais, California zinfandel or cotes du rhone, try this out.  A region's climate determines the structure of the wine, that is it's acidity, tannins, sugars, alcohol, etc.  And this wine, despite it's bright fruit of ripe cherry and spice is dry with a pleasantly long finish.  In short, it is very versatile.  I've had it with turkey leftovers and I've had it with pork and mushroom ragout over pasta.  I grabbed some cheese from the 9th Street market in Philly this weekend, and it hung right in there.  And, at $10 a bottle, it outshines many wines that are double the price.  

There.  You have a template for finding your way through the wine maze, you've got some rules of thumb and at least one suggestion for a red that works with lots of foods and moods.  Once you develop a roster of wines you like, you have reference points, and your vocabulary will increase.  Then, be prepared for all the emails from friends who want to know what you served last weekend or what they should drink with chili and Chinese food.  Answer, "Why, BEER, of course!"

UPDATE:  Some further suggestions on choosing wines and pairing with food...Out & About December: A Perfect Match

Friday, November 27, 2009

Holiday Memories, No Offense...

These days, it's hard to celebrate a holiday without someone getting in your face about the political correctness of it all.  And, everyone is so touchy!  "Don't eat this!  This tastes better, and it's better for...(fill in the blank)." There are online non-scientific polls and petitions to quell those offended by the word "Christmas".  And, then we take national air time to pardon- a turkey.  (You could just see the "Big O" was thinking it had to be one of the more ridiculous presidential traditions he's participated in as yet.)  

I'll betcha can't find a real "Indian" or facsimile thereof (as in Native American) on any kind of Thanksgiving decorations made in the last 20 years!? Oh sure- there are lots of innocuous mini pilgrims running around, or my favorite, the smiling turkey with a pilgrim's hat on.  WTF?  Was Gary Larsen at Plymouth Rock??  After all, we all know now that the "traditional dinner" we celebrate that is supposed to commemorate Thanksgiving has been airbrushed so many times, it's a wonder we don't celebrate with a buffet of McDonald's and Pizza Hut (you know- as a kind of tailgate before the big game, which eventually will take over the holidays.  More commercials. Bigger bucks.)  

It's no surprise, therefore, we so desperately cling to the traditions we've always known, not messing with a single cube of stuffing or blessed drop of gravy.  Reading the food sections of papers around the holidays is interesting, but for new twists on old classics, it's not very realistic.  Friends and fellow bloggers have told stories of near crucifixion for putting cream cheese in the pumpkin pie or switching the almonds to hazelnuts on the green beans. 

My first year of culinary school, I came home for Thanksgiving dinner to a very enthusiastic family.  "Chef boy is home!".  And I was ready to show off.  So, you can understand that my suggestion for boning out the entire turkey and making confit out of the legs and roasting the other parts separately was met with, well- LESS than enthusiastic comments.  In fact, I believe the only leverage I was given was being allowed to make the first course pasta dish, which happened to double as an alternative for the non-turkey eaters.  Oh, I got to carve the turkey.  With an electric knife.

*Sigh*  What's a new cook with mad skills to do on a big holiday?  Answer: shut up and cook.  That's what.  It doesn't matter how good your cranberry relish with orange zest, ginger and mint tastes; if it isn't ribbed, shiny and jiggling like a truck driver, get it off the table.

But, now I've been indoctrinated, and as such, I go with the flow. 

Holidays are the one time when foodies are trumped by the rest of the hungry world.  Not that I mind now.  We look forward to mom's pie or dad's bread.  The mashed potatoes, the gravy, the cranberry sauce (woooooo)  Although, I'm usually gonna pass on the green bean casserole, since this is the one that get's farmed out to the guest who insists on bringing something. Made with Campbell's.  And, the saving historical correctness of Thanksgiving dinner?  Corn.

Some other holiday odds you could bet on; like, the more people there are, the more likely someone is going to "disappear" for a short period of time, though as George Carlin pointed out, there are few opportunities to do anything on a bed during on a busy holiday.  Or, when someone offers to take the dog for a walk and comes back 40 minutes later and devours three pies.  All in all, it's a pleasantly predictable time.  Only when the alcohol reaches drama levels or someone forgets their meds do things get interesting.  Hell, that's when the the fun begins! 

One year when I was about 12, I sat pensively on my bicycle at the top of our street waiting for my grandparents to arrive on Christmas Eve.  I was just young enough to not care for the delay, and just old enough to remember why.  It seems my crazy cousin snapped a cap earlier in the day, and in an emotional meltdown, pulled a gun on my aunt and uncle.  As she waved a pistol in the air and screamed her head off about the end of the world, it was just enough time for the cops to come and get things under control.  Ahhh, the holidays.

And so, as we start this holiday season, let us raise a glass to each other in hopes of seeing the real meaning of tradition, and salute our stamina as a..patient, thoughtful- ...huh- wha-  Oh.  Game's on.  Gotta go.

Got any classic holiday stories you wanna share?  The lines are open- go ahead caller...!

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

I am not a baker.  Bakers are ultra-organized, super neat freaks and patient as Moses, as my grandmother used to say.  Baking is methodical and consistent.  And, contrary to the ongoing debate, it is an exact science.  Yes, yeasts and leaveners do have their own ideas about how and when they'll work, if at all.  But, the learned baker keeps this and any other factors under control by observation and accounts for any rogue ingredients.  A great baker doesn't get any "surprises".   And, for what it's worth, the most talented bakers I know are either Virgos or Geminis.  *Just sayin'*

Yet, for all that apparent rigidity and discipline, there is something very calming and therapeutic about baking.  If you're in the kitchen all day with your onions, garlic and other non-pastry ingredients, the chance to cook outside the box is a welcomed and delightful change.  It's like picking up a guitar; each time you play, it's always fun.  You pick up where you left off, tinker here and there.  And, the more you play, each time you learn a little more, and before you know it, you've got a list of songs you're good at.  That's baking, in a pie shell.

Just the sheer aromatherapy of baking can transform you.  I realize I'm preaching to the choir here; I mean, who doesn't swoon over smells of caramelizing sugar, fresh vanilla, warm chocolate, cinnamon and butter?  Baking is a treat for all the senses.  For me, the less gadgets, the better.  I want to get my hands dirty.  Give me a good set of mixing bowls, a killer scale and durable measuring cups and spoons, a Kitchen Aid, a sil-pat, great pans- and I'm good, yo.  

The second tenet of successful baking, after good equipment, is great ingredients.  Use good butter.  Please.  Know which flour a recipe calls for- and get it.  Farm fresh eggs are always going to be better than supermarket.  Period.  I could write a whole post on vanilla- just know that all vanilla is NOT created equal.  Cream and milk?  Fat is important.  And a little known fact, cream that is out of "date", is actually better for baking (It whips up faster).  Use fruits that are in season.  And finally, there is a reason why there are hundreds of types of chocolate.  Read a little about chocolate and educate yourself.  

I'm not talking just sweet baking, either.  Bread baking can soothe the savage beast.  Kneading dough with the sleeves rolled up is like a good workout.  And, the toasty, yeasty aromas that emanate from your oven on a Sunday morning or winter's afternoon can transform the moodiest, crankiest cook into the most blissed out baker. 

If there is one thing that baking has taught me, it's the importance of method, method, method.  If you follow a well-written recipe to the letter, you're gonna rock the house every time.  I think one of the reasons people fail when baking is because a recipe is too vague.  For example, the #1 reason cookies turn out flat and not fluffy is because people skip the step of chilling the cookie dough before baking.  It's like we can't wait another blessed second to get a steaming, gooey chocolate chip cookie off the sheet and into our mouth; if the recipe or chef explained why it's so crucial, we'd never skip the chilling process again.  

The liquifiers, other wise known as eggs and butter, require congealing with the other ingredients, the stabilizers.  When that little dab of dough hits the oven, the first thing to happen is the steaming of the butter and eggs.  If the dough is too warm, they go flat- instantly.  The colder it is, the longer it takes to liquify the eggs and butter, thereby allowing the cookie to retain its desired lumpy, chunky shape.  The steam released from the butter causes the dough to rise, aided by the eggs, and in just a short 9-14 minutes, depending on the recipe, you've got an enviable cookie.  

Don't stop there.  Follow that recipe!  When it says "cream the butter and sugar", know what you're doing and why.  By combining the two until they are one isn't enough.  You're incorporating volume that is equally crucial to the height of a killer cookie.  I've seen cookie recipes that call for using a paddle on the mixer, and some that call for the whip.  At this point, it's up to you.  Do you want a dense cookie, or a light, fluffy one?  This is the difference.  How about a c.c. cookie recipe that calls for all brown sugar?  Again, different sugars behave differently; brown sugar has moisture- whip it into butter and you're trapping air- which will work to your advantage for a fluffy cookie.  Double the amount of vanilla and your cookie tastes just a little more decadent than the ordinary.  Mix the chips (the last step) until just incorporated so you aren't activating the gluten in the flour further, and your "crumb" is larger.  "Overmix" and you have a chewier cookie.  Old baking soda?  Not nearly as effective as new.  Or, sift your flour, and your cookie is fluffier.  Do you see the numerous factors that contribute to the outcome of your cookie?  Yet, no one exlpains why.  

These are concepts.  Once you've experimented with them and ultimately obey them, they apply to all of cooking and baking.  

Freeze your tart shell like your cookie dough for a flakier crust.  Experiment with fat- do I use lard or butter?  Shortening or a combination?  Play with it until you find a recipe you really dig.  Experiment with moisture in your oven when baking bread.  Own a convection oven?  Whoa!  That's a whole other post, Bubbalouie!  But, know that heat source is a HUGE determining factor in the outcome of a baking product.

And so, as is common, my foodie nerd side gets carried away, and I approach a TMI phase.  If you follow this blog, you'll know that a common theme is "concepts and fundamentals".  Once you've grasped them, you have more control over what you're cooking.  No one is trying to make a scientist out of you, but when some of these tidbits are taken into consideration, it may help demystify cooking.  And that alone is worth the virtual paper this is written on.

The following is a straight-off-the-wrapper recipe for Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies.  And it happens to be the only one I use.

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 2 large eggs

  • 2 cups (12 oz. pkg.) Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Morsels

  • 1 cup chopped nuts

  • Directions

    PREHEAT oven to 375° F.

    COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Chill batter until firm, about 45 minutes.  Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

    BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

    Monday, November 9, 2009

    Further Signs of the Apocalypse

    After a few days under the weather, I'm back up and in the saddle.  I celebrated with some Champagne last night.  No, no- I don't often bust out the good stuff for getting over the sniffles.  It's just that I haven't had Champagne in such a long time, it seemed like the right thing to do.  Whenever I want to bring my palate back into focus, I go for the bubbles. 

    While I was chatting with my bartender about the particular bubbly I was drinking, I overheard two guys next to me order shots of bubble gum vodka.  At first, I thought it was a type of shot.   You know, like the chocolate cake shot, or sex on the beach- well, you get the idea.  But, they asked for and got what they wanted: Three Olives Bubble Gum flavored vodka.  

    *One eyebrow creeps up slowly*

    Flavored vodka isn't new.  It's everywhere.  In fact, Three Olives from the U.K. alone makes these other flavors:  root beer, tomato, espresso, watermelon, grape, chocolate and cherry.  What is particularly disturbing is the combination of vodka and chewing gum.  

    Haven't we all been there before?  You walk into a bar, order a martini and the thought of putting perfectly delicious vodka and briny olives in your mouth at the same time gum is sloshing around in there is, well- repulsive.  We ball it up in the napkin that came with our drink, and off we go.  So, they ordered a shot.  A sensible way to go, I suppose.  See what it's all about before you go head first into ordering, say, a full on bubblegum cosmo, bubblegum and tonic or the soon-to-be famous bubblegum rickey.  I mean, why waste your money, right?  

    The first guy said, "Hmmmmm- tastes like Trident."  

    Do you think they aimed for that specific flavor or were they going for the Double Bubble sugar blast?  Maybe this guy doesn't know his gum flavors?  Anyway, a minute later, I overheard the other guy said he "burped and it tasted like gum".  Well- there it is, folks:  the ultimate compliment.  Maybe he could do an ad.

    When I was growing up, they made kids' candy in the form of cigarettes and cigars out of bubblegum.  They were even cleverly laced with powdered sugar in the wrapper so you could take a puff and fool your grandma into thinking you stole one of her smokes.  Miniature record albums were collectibles, too; I had all the Beatles original albums in miniature LP covers with bubblegum discs inside.  My favorite, however, had to be the Oscar Meyer Bologna bubblegum.  It looked just like a slice of bologna taken from the bright yellow OM packet.  Didja notice the slogan "blow your lunch"?  Yeah- I think after four or five slices of this stuff, you're gonna blow your lunch, allright.

    But, we're talking about an adult product in the form of a kid treat.  Bubblegum vodka is the kid treat in the adult product.  Campuses everywhere this fall are going to reek of bubblegum and vomit.  And, if there was ever any chance of the estranged college kid returning home for the holidays to bond with the parents over an adult cocktail, those chances are now shot to hell.  I guess they couldn't make Southern Comfort taste any more like bubblegum, so they started over.

    The hook here is definitely to get the beer and Smirnoff Cooler crowd over the fence to the big kids' booze.  "Say, if you hate vodka, you'll LOVE this!"  And since the vodka is clear, you'll no doubt have to mix something pink with it to make it just a little less threatening (as if).  Yeah- I could rake in some tips with this stuff.  Here then, are some off-the-cuff recipes I came up with if I were bartending a college party:

    The Leftfielder:  
    1 part bubblegum vodka
    1 part sweet vermouth
    2 parts chewing tobacco
    Spit between sips.

    The Lewinsky
    1 shot of bubblegum vodka
    1 shot creme de minthe
    Serve straight up, garnish with bubblegum cigar.
    Sip between spits.

    The Fixodent
    Fill a glass with soda and ice

    Add 2 shots bubblegum vodka
    Refreshes while it cleans your teeth and gum.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    An Ode to Campari

    I never dreamed my life could get so busy or hectic that I wouldn't have time to go out every once in a while and have a cocktail somewhere.  I don't mean a beer, and I don't mean a glass of wine.  I mean a dewy, crisp cocktail delivered in a tall glass or inverted pyramid, otherwise known as the martini glass.   Usually, I go for something that is citrusy and clean; vodka or gin works.  In the summer, it's Mount Gay Rum and tonic with key lime.  The key lime takes it OVER the top.

    I am a fan of the nerdy drinks.  I adore pastis.  Set me up with a tall glass, a couple cubes, a shot of the ole Green Fairy and a little pitcher of water, and my world gets just slightly fuzzy and warm like viewing a Seurat up close.    I am gonzo over grappa, armagnac, eau de vie, calvados and cognac.  Single malts?  Yup.  Oban.  Ooooh ban.  Mmmmm.   But, my heart belongs to the bitter lady we know as Campari.  
    The Italian appertivo has been around since the 1860's.  It's alcohol content ranges in the mid 20's, but varies depending on what country you drink it in.  Campari is a type of bitters.  Bitters are typically made from aromatic plants, bitter herbs and fruit.  Water and alcohol are added and they are distilled to create their unique, fruity but bitter flavor.  Cynar is a type of bitters made from this process using artichokes.  Amaro (which literally means bitter) is one of the most common digestivos in the world.  Campari's firey red color used to be derived from adding the dye (carmine) from crushed insects as late as 2006.  It's intensity holds when added to seltzer or other mixers, making it an eye-catcher when it arrives to your table.  No wonder Salma Hayek is the poster girl for Campari.  Sassy x 10. 

    When all is right with the world, I'm about to sit down with my wife before an extravagant dinner and two frosty negronis arrive.  The negroni is one of the more popular cocktails made with Campari, using 1/3 gin (I use Hendricks), 1/3 Sweet Vermouth (Punt e mes is a more flavorful variety than Cinzano) and 1/3 Campari.  The perfect negroni is measured out, with no liberties taken.  A pulpy piece of orange is the garnish.  This drink is served either on the rocks or up.  For me, rocks if it's a hot day and I'm dining al fresco.  Otherwise, it's up.  I realize there are other versions out there; but this is the purist recipe I enjoy most.  The Americano is Campari, Sweet Vermouth and soda.  Served in a tall glass, it was popular among the 1950s jet-setters and guys in shiny, skinny suits.  In fact, James Bond orders one in the first novel of Ian Flemming's, Casino Royale.  Campari and soda is just that.  Garnished sometimes with lime, it's the one cocktail bartenders f-up the most.  They don't understand that because it's a bitters, it's not the standard 1/3 pour to 2/3 mixer.  What you usually get is a watered down, shirley temple looking drink.  Send it back.  Fill a glass half-way with ice, pour 2/3 Campari and spritz it with soda.

    A nice intermezzo for dinner can be made by mixing some campari with orange juice, a little sugar and water and freezing it. Scrape the ice, or granita, into a small sherry glass and serve with a twist of lemon.    
    "Oh, Campari, for myself I'm feeling sorry
    For when you're not around, I feel quite down.
    But, when you are near, and it's time to sup,
    I'll take mine with gin and vermouth- this time, straight UP!"

    Campari on Foodista

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009

    A Daffy Day

    I'm not supposed to make fun.  I mean, when you reach a certain age, people stop telling you things like, "If you don't have something nice to say...".  But, at times I'm amazed at the stuff I come across on the internet.  And, I feel the uncontrollable urge to share.

    Take for example, a most uncommon disorder known as anatidaephobia.  Latin scholars might be able to dissect this one without help, but since we won't be reviving any dead languages today, I'll spill it:  it is the dreaded fear that no matter where you go and what you do, you are being watched.  By a duck.

    If you want to tab away for a second to check it out, I'll be here when you get back.  *Hmmm hmmmmm, dat da dummmmmmmm.  Checks the weather.  Hmmm mmmm*   Back?  See, what did I tell you?  It's worth at least 15 minutes of poking around on the internet, and then you come across lists of all other kinds of phobias, but it's this one that seems...perplexing.

    After a quick look around just to be sure, one can only wonder the immense anxiety one must feel after, say, coming home from a walk in the park, or a trip down the meat aisle at the grocery store.  Paranoia is strange enough.  But, terror-induced mania from a web-footed waterfowl?  What could he be watching for?  What could he want??  And why, oh WHY is he staring?!  (See, I'm being insensitive.)

    It's been hard to avoid some of the obvious, hilarious puns and fake scenarios.  I mean, tell me how many times that little bugger has cropped up in your head since you started reading this?  See??  You're trying to envision a foreboding stare and bad attitude from a bird that has no eyebrows.  At best, his head would bob and weave a little, but threatening?  Maybe it's payback time for all that foie gras I've eaten?  *Gulp* Good heavens.  That's it!  Maybe if I leave a little trail of melba toasts and a glass of sauternes, he'll go away.

    Now, in what can only be compared to a perverted Poe paragraph,  I swear I've begun to hear his heart beat.  I'm getting calls from purveyors saying they've got a special on Long Island breast of - DUCK.  *gasp* Why is that lady on table #12 picking at her food that way?  Why didn't that man on #17 just say he was hungry, but instead said, "peckish"?  They're everywhere!  Agghghhahhghaghhahgaiiiiiiiiighhghghgh!

    *Pant.  Pant.  Pant.*

    Okay- see what a wise ass?  In case you catch that little bugger, here's my favorite recipe for confit of duck legs.

    Six Duck Legs, fresh
    30 garlic cloves
    8 cups of rendered duck fat
    Kosher salt, about 2 cups
    2 cups Light brown sugar
    1/2 tsp ground ginger
    1/2 tsp ground coriander
    1/2 tsp smoked paprika
    1 tsp dried thyme leaves
    2 bay leaves, finely crumbled
    1/2 tsp fennel seed
    4 pieces star anise or clove
    *1 branch fresh lemon grass, broken with a mallet
    Peel of one orange

    *This releases the oils from the lemongrass.  Cut it into pieces that will fit in the dish, but not so small that they can't be fished out when you're done.  When you smell "lemon Pledge", it's ready for the pot.

    Pat dry any moisture on the duck legs.  In a large mixing bowl, add all the dried spices, garlic, salt and sugar.  Generously massage the mixture into the legs.  Place the contents of the bowl in a glass baking dish, pat down and cover with plastic and store for 24 hours in the refrigerator.

    Rinse the mixture from the legs with cool water, keeping the garlic cloves.  Thoroughly pat dry the duck legs and garlic.  Put back in the dish with the orange peel and lemongrass.  Cover the mixture with the rendered duck fat.  Place in a 275 F oven, uncovered.  (You may want to put the dish on a baking sheet with sides so it doesn't spill)  When the meat of the drumstick has separated to expose the bone (after about 2 1/2 hours), check the thighs to see if they are also tender (and the meat falls apart) and not rubbery.

    Remove from fat, pat dry and serve hot or warm.  Or, for storage, you can leave the legs in the fat as long as they are covered, in your fridge for up to three months.  If you properly jar or can them, they will keep up to six months.

    Good luck!  I'll be watching...


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