Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Latte Art at CoffeeFest

I'd been planning on attending CoffeeFest 2009 before I started writing this blog, for a café consulting project that may or may not pan out. But now that I'm viewing every food-related event as another potential blog entry, my interest in the latte art competition that was going on in conjunction with this trade show grew exponentially.

Taking my new role as cub reporter perhaps a bit too seriously, I packed up my journalist's notebook and my cool new phone which allows me to leave my camera at home, and embarked on the train-to-bus trip down to Navy Pier, where the event was being held. I even managed to finagle press credentials through blogger community website Foodbuzz (although not without some hassle when I actually walked up to collect the pass). Anyway, after all that was sorted out, I checked out the first day of the barista competitions.

There were actually two separate competitions going on--latte art and the more all-encompassing barista championships. The latte art competition involves funky, tattooed and pierced baristas creating these amazingly cool patterns out of coffee and steamed milk using just a cup and a pitcher, by simply pouring the milk into the cup a certain way. It's quite incredible to watch. There's a very specific way that they steam the milk, of course, in order to create just the right texture of foam that allows it to pour (true baristas never use a spoon to move the foam from pitcher to mug, I've recently learned), yet still maintain enough body to support the designs. The trick is to keep the brown coffee part of the design as distinct as possible from the frothy white milk foam part of the design.

All latte art looks pretty cool to me, especially when I'm handed a drink over at Intelligentsia or The Italian Coffee Bar with no expectations that it will have a pretty rosette or tulip on the top of it, but after watching the first few baristas put up their three entries in the allotted five minutes, I started to grasp the finer points of it.

It's not something that translates well to verbal descriptions, so I'll post a few pictures.

This is the first one I saw, and I thought it was so amazing that I took about twenty pictures. After I saw a few more examples, I was able to see that this entry lacks sharp distinctions between the brown and white portions and, therefore, didn't score all that well.

This one really shows just how thick and sturdy the foam is on these drinks. Look how the design just sits up there on top, and how much texture and dimension it has.

A tulip design.

This might've been the coolest one I saw all day, but it was done during the barista's warm up period, so it didn't count. The ones he poured during the actual competition period didn't end up being as good as this one.

This was the winner of Friday's round, an entry by ex-Alterra Coffee guy Justin Teisl, currently of Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco. Note how brown the brown part is and how white the white part is, with almost no muddy areas where they mix. Also, check out how he gets the little brown stripes inside of the delicate white leaves.

After getting up early to get down to Navy Pier by 9:30, downing more than a few espressos, and watching the latte art for a while, I started getting those hunger pangs you only get a few hours after you've had way too much coffee, and I figured I'd better get something to eat before entering the trade show, where I'd be likely to just scarf down every muffin and biscotto I could lay my hands on.

So I headed back down into the tourist-trap mall insanity that is Navy Pier. Gah. Now I remember why I never go to this place. Every bad mall cliche you can think of; the cloying scent of those cinnamon-sugared nuts, cheesy kiosks vending cheap sunglasses, name keychains, and cell phone accessories, air-brushed t-shirt art, the obligatory Build-a-Bear workshop, schlocky Chicago souvenirs, and bad corporate chain food outlets by the gross (double entendre intentional).

Plus, as an added bonus, in addition to the overwhelming mantle of crass corporate consumer-land insanity, I was treated to the sensory pleasure that is finding one's self in a food court amidst at least three separate elementary school field trips while buzzing on about twelve espresso shots.

Have I said 'gah!' yet? GAAAH!

I quickly assessed my limited options--Bubba Gump, the Billy Goat, one of those gloppy, corn-starch-laden Chinese scoop and serve places, some deli, America's Dog, and a few other depressing options. I went with McDonald's, simply because the lines were moving the fastest and I wanted to fill my belly quickly and get away from this particular circle of hell as soon as humanly possible. I downed my chicken selects joylessly while the schoolkids threw ice at each other and bumped my chair as they galloped around the food court, and then I quickly scurried back to the CoffeeFest. Sometimes eating is purely about staving off the discomfort of hunger.

The trade show itself was unremarkable, but the Barista Championship competition was really cool. This is a much more free-form and all-encompassing contest, which attempts to incorporate all aspects of a barista's job. The competitors are given 45 minutes (15 for set-up, 15 for presentation, and 15 for break down) total, and must give a presentation to a panel of judges that includes serving them espresso shots, cappuccinos, and a specialty drink of their choice.

It's partly about technical ability, but it's got a lot more to do with the barista's ability to pick an interesting coffee, present and describe it well, and put on an entertaining, well-polished demonstration for the judges. They're scored on the taste of the beverages, but also on how they comport themselves, their technical skills, cleanliness, and creativity.

It's quite a little show. The baristas are miked and background music of their choosing plays while they do their thing. Most of them brought all sorts of fancy serving pieces and glass carafes for their milk, and the specialty drinks are where they really pull out all the stops, employing side burners for warming non-coffee components like spices, syrups, or coconut milk. Some of them even gave very detailed instructions on how the judges were supposed to drink their specialty beverage; "I recommend you drink this coffee by taking three sips: first, you'll take a small sip, and you'll get the chocolaty nose and bitterness of this single-origin estate Yirga Cheffe. Then, with your second sip, draw in most of the shot, where you'll get the full fruity nose and complex notes. The last small sip will give you a hit of bittersweet chocolate, which lines the bottom of the cup, and that will provide a nice, sweet finish."

Whoa. Crazy, dude. It was cool to see all these slacker-looking coffee-heads taking the whole thing so seriously, speaking in terminology previously reserved for wine wonks. But also kind of surreal. I'm a coffee lover and feel that I can taste and appreciate some of the differences in various types and blends, but I'm not sure that some of this stuff isn't the result of self-puffery and/or a few too many bong hits out by the dumpsters behind the coffeehouse.

Anyway, whatever the motivation, it's good to see so many people taking this whole thing so seriously and the barista championship things was really fun to watch.

I'm not even sure who ended up winning, and, truthfully, I don't care. The whole experience was one of those eye-opening things for me where you realize just how deep and involved some people are with certain skills/hobbies/vocations. It's not really my thing, but it's cool to see how passionate these people are and the espresso certainly tastes good. Despite the unfortunate venue, I'll be back next year to check out the barista competitions and indulge in some good coffee.

Probably wise to re-think my lunch plan, though. Maybe I'll make a quick stop at Bari to pick up a sandwich and then shoot over on the Grand Avenue bus. That way I'll get two blog posts for the effort.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

BBQ Miscue

Following up last week's dinner at Asian Bistro, my intrepid dining companion and I set out in search of some low-n-slow barbecue in the Northwest suburbs. I did a little research online and selected Smokin' T's in Long Grove. We were hungry as we pulled up and ready to tear into some ribs, pulled pork, and whatever sides they offered.

The place is located in a strip mall, one of these humongous small-town-size ones where you can't really even see the stores from the street, which I hate, and as we navigated the convoluted path into the parking lot, I spotted T's.

It looked like a Chipotle--which isn't what I expect from a quality barbecue joint. And it had a drive-thru. It also wasn't clear that they were actually open. We parked anyway--we were the only car within sight--and walked up to the restaurant, still uncertain whether this place was, in fact, open for business.

Well, they were. At least technically. The door opened when I pulled on it. But nearly half an hour before their closing time of 8pm, all the chairs were up on the tables and the kitchen looked totally cleaned down. We asked the counter guy if they were open and he cheerfully replied "yes". We asked if we could eat there, which we were planning on, and, again he gave us a cheerful, welcoming "yes".

"Ok", we said, and Mitch made a quick visit to the bathroom while I started to figure out what we should order. But as I was looking at the menu, I started thinking about the prospect of eating in an empty restaurant with the chairs up on the tables. I knew I'd feel guilty about keeping these guys late when they were obviously ready to go home, and forcing them to dirty equipment that they'd already cleaned for the day.

I also wondered if the quality of the food would be compromised. The barbecue that they'd been serving all day had already been held warm for who knows how long and then put away. If I ordered it now, they'd probably just re-heat it again (perhaps in the microwave) and serve it to me. And what about if we ordered fries? Was their fryer already turned off? Would I get fries that were cooked in oil that wasn't hot enough? They'd be rushing to just get our order out so they could close up--I've worked in restaurants, so I know how things get compromised at the end of the day when the cooks are anxious to to get out of there.

So, we bolted. We talked it over and opted to go elsewhere, despite the good things I'd read about the barbecue at this place.

Let this be a lesson to you, restaurant-owners. If you're open, be OPEN. Not half-open, not open but all cleaned down and ready to take off the moment the door locks. Not "you guys are welcome to take the chairs down off the tables and have a seat".

Running a restaurant is about more than providing food. It's about hospitality. It's about making people feel that they're welcome and their presence is appreciated. The counter guy at Smokin T's did his best to say the right things to us, but he couldn't counter the non-verbal messages that we received. There's more to being open than having the door unlocked and the lights turned on.

We decided to go to another nearby spot and grab a pizza, and as we were leaving, we talked about the choices that this restaurant's staff had made, and how those choices cost them our forty-dollar tab. Now, who knows, maybe they would rather forgo our forty bucks and save the hour or so of payroll that it would cost to keep the place looking open until they're actually closed. Could be. But I doubt it. Not in this economic climate--places like this need every diner and every dollar they can get.

But, even worse, they lost the opportunity to make a positive impression on us, and we're potential repeat customers who live in the area. They also lost any potential for positive word of mouth from us telling friends, family, or readers of this blog about their restaurant. Their ribs and chicken might be the best I'd ever eaten, but I'll probably never know at this point, because they created at atmosphere that made me reluctant to sit down and order, feeling that I'd probably be uncomfortable and be inconveniencing their staff.

We might give Smokin' T's another chance. But I doubt we will, since they close at 8pm on weeknights and it's hard for us to get out there early enough to be sure we won't have another repeat of this performance. Maybe sometime when we're interested in take out.

I wish them the best of luck and harbor no ill will as a result of this experience. Mostly, I'm just disappointed. I love barbecue and had high hopes for this place. Maybe I missed out. But at least I got a good real-world example of how hospitality involves a lot more than just making and serving food. It's something I'll take with me in my professional life, as I move forward in my career running kitchens and restaurants, as a concrete example of what not to do, and why.

Friday, February 20, 2009

sMACked Down

As a well-seasoned mac-n-cheese maker, I snapped at the opportunity to compete against several well-known Chicago chefs in a benefit cook-off for the Organic School Project. When I spotted this event listed on Gaper's Block Drive Thru a few weeks ago, I immediately shot off a quick email making a case for why I thought my mac and cheese recipe would be the winner.

The event was called sMACkdown, and I learned a few days later that I'd be competing for culinary bragging rights against chefs from Kuma's Corner, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, The Publican, and Boka, as well as 15 other regular cooks like myself.

But it wasn't those hacks that I was concerned with. Nope. The big game I was hunting was none other than the Top Chef herself, Stephanie Izard.

I watch very little television, but I'm a big fan of the Bravo reality show, and Stephanie was the winner of Season Four (Chicago). So not only did she win the title of Top Chef, beat a number of other very impressive chefs, and turn out some fairly innovative dishes (braised pistachios, anyone?), but she did it on her home turf and represented Chicago.

Well, last night she was going to be on *my* turf, and I was gunning for her. I had designs on writing a great blog entry about how I trounced the Top Chef. In fact, I've even been considering applying for season six of the show, and doing some trash-talking after my triumph was going to be a key feature of my audition tape.

Unfortunately, I lost. did Stephanie. So, technically, I tied the Top Chef. Ah hah! Not too shabby after all.

Attendees got three tickets each to vote for their favorite mac and cheese entries, and the top five vote-getters advanced to the judging round, which resulted in three trophy-winners. The win went to James Gottwald of Rockit Bar and Grill (clickers beware--very loud website), and second place went to Amalia Obermeier-Smith of Kuma's Corner. Third place--and the only non-pro chef to bring home a trophy--went to LTH'er KennyZ.
Stephanie (Top Chef) Izard was gracious despite suffering a humilating defeat.

All in all, a good time was had by all. Ubiquitous uber-mixologist Adam Seger was there mixing up some sort of godforsaken cheddar-cube garnished MAC-tini (I stuck with the Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat--the event was held at the local brewery's Wrigleyville outpost), and the room was literally jammed with charitable comfort food aficionados crowding three-deep around the ring of chafing dishes from whence came the goods.

I applied my signature method of moving through crowded venues (big guy, move with a sense of purpose, people tend to get outta my way) and sampled most of the competition. Some were very good, some were fairly bland, and some were just strange; peanut butter and jelly mac and cheese with a grape breadcrumb topping? Asian-flavored mac and cheese with edamame?

My entry was the exact same thing I make for my family here at home; the classic, straight up mac and cheese. (My mac and cheese recipe and technique will be detailed in a future post). No bacon, no truffle oil, no weird cheeses. I figured, why mess with a good thing?

Well....the winner featured braised oxtail. And both runners up featured truffle oil, one with morel mushrooms, the other, Gorgonzola. So much for that strategy. Strangely, though, the winning recipe is supposed to be going onto a school lunch program menu as a result of this event. Should be interesting to see how the kids take to oxtail.

It'll have to be locally-raised, organic, hormone-free oxtail, of course, because that's what this organization is all about--bringing these type of important food values to schoolkids. It's a really cool project which aims to re-vamp school lunch programs in a way that teaches kids valuable lessons about horticulture, nutrition, and cooking while also preparing made-from-scratch organic lunches on a daily basis. It's similar to the kind of thing that's been going on in France for years, and to what Alice Waters is doing in the Bay Area with her Edible Schoolyard Program.

At the end of the night, I may not have earned any bragging rights, but I met some pretty cool and interesting people, I watched a grown man proudly hoist a macaroni-festooned plastic trophy over his head, learned about a very cool organization trying to teach kids to reject the agro-pharma-industrial food establishment, and--bonus!-- I loaded a pretty good-sized to-go container full up with leftover mac and cheese to bring home.

Not a total loss, I guess. Ms. hot-shot Top Chef, however, fresh off her humiliating tie with yours truly, will be jetting off to the Bahamas for a Club Med food and wine festival. Grrrr. No wonder she was so gracious about losing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Bacon List--Broadbent's Original Hickory Smoked

Back in December, when I started this epic, far-reaching project that I'm calling The Bacon List, I detailed the difference between two drastically different types of bacon; bacon that's mass-produced, made cheaply, using faster, less expensive processing, and bacon that's made the old-fashioned way. I have been referring to the two styles as "grocery store bacon" and "fancy bacon" throughout subsequent entries I've made to The List, but I've yet to review a fancy or artisanal bacon.

Well, let this be the first. And it's a doozie. Damn, damn, damn is this good bacon.

Broadbent’s B & B Foods is a company based in Kuttawa, Kentucky that's been making country hams and bacon for more than 80 years. The Broadbent family business was, however, sold in 1999 to a couple named Ronny and Beth Drennan who appear to have had the wisdom not to mess with success, as far as the ham- and bacon-making process goes, but who have had enough business acumen to go ahead and ramp up the mail order and promotion. It seems they're smart enough to realize that they've got a world-class product on their hands here, and that this is the internet age where anyone can buy any yummy foodstuff they can dream up with a few clicks of the mouse button. Good thinkin', Drennans.

Locals bemoaned the sale, fearing that their traditional country products would go by the wayside, but the Drennans have allayed any fears, and perhaps even raised the already stellar reputation of Broadbent. Their hams have been named Grand Champion in multiple categories over multiple years at the Kentucky State Fair, and the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) has named Broadbent’s country hams their National Grand Champion Winners four of the last five years.

National foodies have raved about their products as well. James Beard, in a 1974 column, wrote “It was only lately, while in Kentucky, that I become acquainted with these superb hams. There’s a company called Broadbent-Bingham that sells cured and aged country hams. If you visit them, you can also buy extraordinarily good ham hocks, thick ham steaks and hams, all cured the same way. I carried back a cooked ham for Thanksgiving which was much admired by all who tasted it”.

Also, David Rosengarten covered Broadbent in a 2003 edition of his newsletter The Rosengarten Report, saying that he was "completely knocked out" by their bacon.

I first found out about this producer while researching gift ideas for my dad, another bacon aficianado. I was considering buying him a membership to one of those hideously expensive Bacon of the Month Clubs, but my budget didn't allow for spending $315 plus shipping on a friggin' year's worth of bacon, so I was forced to think outside the box.

I found myself perusing the website of the famous Zingerman's Deli (and now global mail-order specialty food retailer) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and their bacon of the month club, which listed all the various producers that were featured each month. I figured I'd just google'em up and see which ones had their own websites, order directly from the source, and create my own bacon sampler, hopefully saving some money by eliminating the middleman.

Broadbent's Original Hickory Smoked was on their list, and so my dad was gifted with a couple pounds of their fine product. (Obviously, I also ordered a few pounds for myself. I'm really bad with Christmas-gift shopping that way.) Is there a finer way to celebrate the birth of Jesus than gifts of cured pork? I think not.

And what can I say? Swoon! This bacon is why God created pigs. And hardwood. And fire. Having eaten and reviewed a bunch of factory-made, mass-produced bacons prior to eating and reviewing this one may have influenced me some, but eating this stuff was like a revelation. We were like "oh, DAMN! This is what it's supposed to taste like!"

How many interesting adjectives and descriptors can I come up with to tell you how freakin' good this bacon is? I'll do my best, but probably still won't do this wonderful product justice. Someone should build a shrine to these fine Kentucky folks and their devilish alchemy of traditional pork curing and smoking. Put'em in the hall of fame. If there's not a hall of fame, build one. Seriously, people. I am not kidding.

Thank you, Broadbent. Thank you Drennans. Thank you Zingerman's, and thank you, tasty piggies, whose bellies were transformed by salt, sugar, and smoke into this fine, fine product.

Ok. Let's do the rundown:

Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store? Fancy. Identified by the manufacturer as "country" bacon. Purchased via mail order from Broadbent's website.

Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon? $8.19/lb. sold by the website for $23.90 for four packs of 14 oz. each, which is $6.83/lb. I bought two four-packs and paid $9.50 shipping, which works out to an additional $1.36/lb. for shipping, hence the lofty total. Yikes. Not cheap.

Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc... Asymmetrical slices indicate that the belly hasn't been pressed or 'tumbled'. The color is a nice bright red streaked with clean white fat. Texture is firm but moist. Visible outer 'crust' appears darker and harder. This is a hallmark of bacon that is truly smoked over burning hardwood. All slices appear to be 'center cut', resulting in a nice uniformity of product--no 'all lean', small, or weirdly-shaped pieces in the pack.

How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter... Very little shrinkage. Typical of artisanally-produced bacon that is dry-cured and smoked over a longer period of time, it hardly shrank at all. This is due to the fact that the meat isn't injected with any saline, sugar, or phosphate solutions like the factory-produced stuff, and the long hot smoking pulls all the moisture out during the production process. The end result is more meat on the plate after it's cooked.

Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture. Dark outer edge where it was exposed to more smoke, appealing curl, good color. Slices are just the right thickness, resulting in a perfect crispy yet chewy bite.

How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness". Amazing.
Smoke flavor for days, but not that fakey processed artificial smoke. Real hardwood smoke flavor that just smacks you in the face. Very restrained on the sweetness and saltiness. Both are really more complimentary to the pork flavor than they are elements all on their own. It's all about the great pork flavor accented by the smoke. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the texture, which is just incredible. The lean parts are crispy and chewy at the same time, and perfectly so. The fat just utterly liquefies when you bite into it, and it feels almost cool on the tongue, kind of like when you step on a cool spot on your floor and you think for a minute that you stepped in water. Do you know what I mean? Am I rambling, here? Seriously, it defies description, despite my fumblingly lame efforts. All I can do is once again resort to saying stuff like "Damn, Damn, Damn!"

Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. 9.1. I don't really see how it could get much better from here, but I'm leaving a bit of room at the top and keeping my mind open.

Eating this wonderful bacon and clicking around the company's website has made me very curious about their other products, especially their award-winning hams. I know a little about American country ham, but not as much as I probably should. I'm much more knowledgable about Spanish jamons and Italian prosciuttos than I am about these US-made products that have been made for centuries right here in our own backyard. I'm really considering ordering one up. American country ham would make for a fairly interesting blog entry, I think.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Valentine's Day Sucks

Ok, just let me preface this by saying that I'm happily married and not entirely unromantic. I like love. Love is nice. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, it does.

Valentine's day, however, isn't about love. No, despite all the hearts and cupids and sexy innuendo, Valentine's day is about selling you stuff.

Most holidays are, these days, of course. But at least other holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas have some substance beneath the crassly over-commercialized surface. With Valentines' day, there's just no there there. At least, not anymore. The whole thing used to be kind of cool; back in the pre-Roman empire days when it was referred to as Lupercalia. But the cutesy teddy-bear laden, bouquet-bearing current incarnation has strayed so far from its roots that it has rendered itself unrecognizable, doomed to be discarded as a hollow, empty exercise in pressuring people to buy stuff, boosting the sales of greeting cards and cheap chocolates, and filling the reservation books of restaurants during an otherwise flaccid February.

But before it became the fuzzy feel-good Valentine's Day, this Hallmark holiday was a pagan fertility festival known as Lupercalia, where men donned goat skins and employed whips to spank women in hopes of increasing their virility. The festival was traditionally kicked off by a ceremony which included a sacrifice of male goats and dogs, whose blood was used to anoint the foreheads of young men. These men would then strip down naked, covering themselves only with the freshly-skinned pelts of the sacrifice animals, fashion whips out of these same skins, and run around town, delivering lashes to young women who would line the parade route, in hopes of receiving the ceremonial spankings, which were said to prevent sterility and stave off the pain of any future childbearing.

Damn. Now that's a party. Today, we get fondue by candlelight and Whitman's samplers.

As with many pagan holidays, the fun ended when the Christians co-opted the holiday and cleaned it up. The Romans did away with the trappings of the pagan craziness around the fifth century, and somehow the whole deal got latched to some guy named Valentine, a priest who reportedly flouted a law imposed by Roman Emperor Claudius II, which forbade young men to marry, thinking that single men would make for better soldiers. Valentine broke the law, married young couples, and, once this was discovered, Claudius ordered him to be put to his death. The church eventually bestowed him with the "Saint" tag, and the rest is history. Or lore.

Awwwww. Isn't that sweet? Makes me want to go spend a lot of money on mail-order lingerie and cute teddy bears. NOT.

If the whole thing was just about getting a card, a box of chocolates, and having a nice quiet romantic dinner somewhere, it would be bearable. But it's not. It's become this massive industry--Americans will spend about $15 billion this year on V-day related stuff, despite the poor economy--that aims squarely at our insecurities and baser instincts as a means to separate us from our hard-earned cash.

Have you seen (or heard) some of the ads these companies run? One that I've seen repeatedly this V-day season is run by a company in Vermont that sells teddy bears (I shan't link them) and the commercial is so chock full of cheesy gender stereotypes that it almost feels like an SNL skit. The virile-looking, cubicle-dwelling guy pumps his fist after ordering up the $70 stuffed bear that will surely enable him to score! The gaggle of women ooh and ahh over the cute widdle teddy bear as the trampy-looking lucky recipient lasciviously brags about how her man will be getting a "special surprise" later that night.

The cheaply-produced minute-long spot has been running on cable news channels all this week and, frankly, it left me feeling like I needed a shower. Men are all and only about getting laid. Women are all and only about using their sexuality as a means to getting gifts. Not to mention the whole infantilization thing that gifts of sexy leather-clad teddy bears conjures up. Gross.

Our culture already puts enough pressure on us to meet, mate, and reproduce without these companies using this impulse to sell schlocky made-in-China garbage. Although, who can blame'em, I guess? They're just doing what they can to make a buck. The real problem is our "I'm so special" culture which sends out repeated signals that we must all compare ourselves to celebrities and royalty. People watch these gossip shows and read People magazine and see what Brad gave to Angelina for V-day and feel compelled to try and measure up. And the media and advertising agencies are willing, enabling accomplices.

As a married guy with a spouse who agrees with me about this, it's easy enough for me to turn my back on it--the most we do is buy cards and I make a nice dinner. But the folks I really feel bad for is those who are single on days like New Year's and V-day. The buzz over these couple-centric holidays becomes so pervasive in the weeks leading up to it, that it really makes people feel bad about being solo, so it ends up just being a big stressor.

And for couples this is true as well. Expectations are so built up, and there's so much pressure to be lovey-dovey, that what actually happens is inevitably a let-down. Break-ups and fights are all too common. A bouquet of a dozen roses and a few chocolate-dipped strawberries would be a wonderful surprise on most other days, but on V-day, many guys would be seen as not going the extra mile if this is all that they came up with. Too cliche. Yawn. Not enough effort or thought put into it. She just watched on TV about how Tom gave Katie a rose-petal-strewn, chocolate-covered Bentley that releases doves when she opens the moon roof....

Even if things do live up to the hype--what then? Life goes back to its un-romantic, humdrum, bleh normalcy the very next day for the next 364? What kind of weirdness is that? It seems so strange to somehow distill all the symbolic romance and sexiness of our relationship into one officially-sanctioned day where we are forced to compete with all the other couples' relationships and strive to measure up. Wouldn't it be better to spread it out over the longer-term? And to go to the romantic restaurant on a Tuesday night in June when they're perhaps not so crammed full of nuzzling two-tops?

Even worse is the strangeness of selling this adult holiday to children. My kid's pre-school is having a V-day party and has been making construction paper hearts for the last week. What is that about? He's four, fer Chrissakes! Does he really need to be getting messages about romance and love from his school? I realize that adults find it cute to see four year old boys giving cute little chintzy paper valentines to four year old girls all dressed up in their cute little red velvet outfits, but I find it freaky to be pushing these kind of messages about love, coupling, and (implicitly) sex onto four year olds. And I'm not even going to address these creepy daddy-daughter dances people go to. Whoa. I mean, I love my daughter. Just not that way.

Is there a name for someone who's this Grinch-like and Scroogy about Valentine's Day? If there is, I'm it. I don't know if I'm coming off as curmudgeonly or just generally misanthropic, but it is what it is. Think of me what you will.

Our go-to V-day tradition has, in past years, been the heart-shaped pizzas over at Barnaby's Family Inn in Niles. You don't even have to ask for it--all pizzas sold that day are heart-shaped. I happened to stumble onto this one year and we've tended to do it every year. They don't charge extra or anything and the dark, spooky-feeling pub filled with screaming kids running around is somehow a perfect anti-V-day setting that suits me just fine.

That's where we tend to go for V-day, although maybe there's something to be said for trying to get back to the roots of the holiday and embracing the whole Lupercalia gestalt. We'd have to get ourselves some goats, I suppose. And it might get a bit too messy, what with the sacrificing, and the blood ritual and all.

On second, thought, maybe instead of sacrificing a live male goat, we'll just go get some birria, and instead anointing myself with blood, I could, uh, smear some of the broth all over my chest or something. Probably best to not even bring up the whole spanking thing to my wife.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fruit vs. Vegetable

When you've got kids, and you're doing your best to be actively, engagingly parenting at all times, everything is a "teachable moment". And when you're a foodie like me, meal times are especially fraught with opportunities to inform, enlighten, and just generally inflict my personal worldview onto my progeny.

But sometimes, even though I consider myself pretty well informed about food and all matters relating to food, I find myself saying stuff that I'm not even sure is true.

And so it was, the other night, when dinner included dishes featuring spinach, cucumbers, mushrooms, avocados, and grapes.

"Grapes! I like grapes!" says Henry.

"That's nice"

"Grapes are a fruit!"

"Yep, they sure are."

From there, we started breaking down the relevant categorizations of the other foodstuffs of which our dinner was comprised.

Spinach is an easy one. Clearly it's a vegetable. Grapes, we know are a fruit.

What about mushrooms? "Neither", I said. "Mushrooms are a fungus." I think.


Cucumbers? "Cucumbers are a fruit", I confidently announced. "And so are avocados. If it has a seed, then it's a fruit."

But I wasn't so sure, and found myself doubting this analysis, since, if this is the case, that means there are really a lot of vegetables that are really fruits.

So I looked it up.

The official scientific definition is that anything that is produced by a plant for the purpose of reproduction (so seeds and the stuff that contains/holds/protects seeds) is a fruit. Any other part of a plant (stems, leaves, flowers, roots) is a vegetable.

Crazy, no?

We tend to think of anything we tend to eat with our meal, in a savory preparation, as a vegetable, and things we eat on their own or as part of dessert as fruits. But that's just completely ass-backwards.

Olives and avocados are fruits, just like peaches and plums. They are all drupes. Other examples of drupes are mangoes, apricots, and almonds. Blackberries and raspberries are actually clusters of tiny drupes called "drupelets".

Cucumbers are fruits. Which makes sense, since, if you think about it, they are really similar to melons. Try eating a not-so-ripe green melon and see if it doesn't remind you of a cucumber. Squashes are part of this same "family" as well. Winter (or hard) squashes like acorn, butternut, and pumpkins, as well as summer (soft) squashes like yellow squash or zucchini are all fruits.

(Incidentally, the designation of "winter" or "summer" squash is fairly meaningless in today's horticultural world, although we do tend to eat the winter squashes much more during the cold weather months. Basically, winter squashes are long-keepers and, before the advent of refrigeration and flying in produce from South America, people would keep them in their cellars and eat them throughout the winter, whereas "summer" squashes would rot quickly and needed to be eaten soon after harvesting.)

Tomatoes, as most people know, are fruits. I think people are more open to this one, since good tomatoes do have a lot of sweetness, even though we wouldn't eat them for dessert or out of hand like we do an apple. But many people don't realize that eggplant and peppers (both spicy and sweet, or "bell" peppers) are also part of the same group, the "nightshade" family (Solanaceae).

This family also includes the poisonous belladonna plant, and, because Europeans knew of the belladonna before tomatoes were brought back from the new world (all Solanaceae are native to the western hemisphere), people in many parts of Europe were very slow to embrace tomatoes as a foodstuff. They were used as decorative items for years before they began to be incorporated for culinary use. In fact, the Italian word for tomato, pomodoro, (literal translation; "apple of gold") derives from what was basically a marketing campaign to get Italians to eat the foreign fruit that many associated with a poisonous plant. Considering how ubiquitous tomato products are in Italian cooking, it's pretty amazing to consider that they weren't really widely used in Italy until the 1700's.

Incredibly enough, the question of "fruit or vegetable" as it relates to tomatoes once came before the US Supreme Court. The Tariff Act of March 3, 1883 imposed a duty on vegetables, but not fruits, and so, the case of Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304), in which the Nixes sued to recover back duties paid to the port of New York under protest, the Supreme Court was forced to weigh in on the question.

The court ruled against the Nixes, claiming that the culinary categorization of a tomato as a vegetable based on the way it was used overruled the scientific designation that it was a fruit.

The court got it wrong, of course. Tomatoes are a fruit. This is the precursor to Ronald Reagan's infamous declaration that "ketchup is a vegetable". So the government has a history of (and some would argue, a vested interest in) getting it wrong.

Another yardstick some use to answer the question is; does taking the item and eating it kill the plant? Fruits are totally regenerative--plucking them off and eating them hurts the plant not at all. In fact, that's just what the plant wants you to do, since doing that effectively spreads the plants seeds around and aids in reproduction. This is, in theory, why many fruits are brightly colored and taste sweet. So eating fruits clearly doesn't kill the plant, whereas when you pull a carrot up out of the dirt and eat it, that carrot plant is no longer with us.

This, of course, calls into question the designation of a few "vegetables". Specifically, those that are essentially flowers (squash blossoms, broccoli, cauliflower) and those where the plant isn't killed when the vegetable is harvested, like asparagus. But flowers, while part of the reproductive process, are not, in and of themselves, reproductive in the way that seeds are.

So I'm sticking with my first definition, concerning reproduction and seeds, for the sake of sanity.

Getting back to the first definition, then, peas are a fruit. All peas, in fact--pea pods, English peas, snap peas, and blackeyed peas. Oh, but blackeyed peas are not actually peas, they're beans. But that's ok, because beans are in fact fruits as well. They're seeds contained in a seed pod which you can pluck off the vine and eat. Or, if you plant them, they'll grow a whole new bean plant. So, they're a fruit.

This is pretty crazy stuff once you start getting into it. Nuts are also fruits. They are the reproductive organs of trees like almond, hazelnut, pecan, and walnut. Same thing with nuts that aren't normally eaten by humans, like acorns, beech, and hickory nuts. Cashews are also a fruit, but don't grow on trees. Peanuts aren't really nuts at all; they are legumes. But, since legumes like lentils and soybeans are reproductive, they're fruits. So, a peanut is neither a pea nor a nut, but it is a fruit.

Corn, too, is a fruit. Each kernel contains a seed which can be planted and grown into a whole new corn plant. Which brings the question of grains into the discussion. Grains (rice, wheat, oats, etc) are seeds of certain grass plants. So they are also fruits. Almost everywhere I look on the internet disagrees with this, and most seem to be claiming that "grains" is a whole 'nother category, separate from fruits or vegetables, but that creates all sorts of gray areas with regard to "pulses" like lentils, beans, and, as noted above, corn. So I'm calling them fruits.

And, if that's not enough to really send your mind spinning, consider this; an argument can be made that a potato is actually a fruit. The eyes sprout and are reproductive. If you put a potato in water or the ground, a new plant will grow. Leave it long enough and the sprouts will flower and produce seeds. But, harvesting a potato kills the plant. And potatoes themselves do not actually contain seeds.

Similarly, one can find arguments made that strawberries are not a fruit, because the seeds are on the outside, and because the plant actually reproduces by sending out "runners", not via the seeds on the outside of the strawberry (another tangent; separate arguments exist that claim that strawberries are not actually berries either).

Crazy stuff. My mind is reeling. And, just think; all this started because I wanted to make sure I was giving my kid the right answers at the dinner table. Damn. I liked it better when cucumbers were vegetables simply by virtue of the fact that they go in salad. But it's not like I could claim that blue cheese and crumbled bacon are vegetables.

This parenting stuff is a real pain in the ass sometimes. Next time, I'm just going to take the easy way out and lie. "Yep. You got it. Cucumbers are vegetables. Now, quit squirming and eat your vegetables, Henry."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Spicy Szechuan at Asian Bistro

During the years that my wife was staying home with our kids and I was working, I always thought that she had the easier end of the bargain; I envied her time at home all day--in my mind she was always idly reading, sipping hot beverages on the couch while the kids napped. I'd come home after 10 hours of running around hot restaurant kitchens and wonder why she was always so stressed and ready to hand the kids off to me the second I walked in the door. "C'mon," I'd think, "how hard can it really be? Millions of women have been doing this for centuries."

Well. Karma--it's a bitch, isn't it?

Now, I'm unemployed, my wife is working, and I'm staying home dealing with the kids. And now I get it. It's hard. It's stressful. There's no leisurely beverage-sipping, no naps (for me, at least), and even carving out enough time to shower without worrying about coming out and finding Henry pinned under a bookcase is a challenge.

So, now, around six when I'm walking circles around the dining room table with the baby on my shoulder, attempting to employ just the right bounce so that she'll stop frickin' SCREAMING, Henry's telling me for the four hundred and sixty-third time about how, "Hey, Dad--Gordon is fastest and best" whereas Thomas is "really useful", and I see the dog run toward the back door, I breathe a sigh of relief and try to rein in the impulse to hand off the baby before my wife's even got her coat off.

So, yeah--ok. I get it. Props, ladies. It's not easy. In fact, I'm looking forward to going back to 10 hour days in a restaurant kitchen just to get some peace.

All of this is a big reason why I've been making an effort, in recent weeks, to do a regular Thursday night out with Mitch, a friend I've known since fifth grade. My wife doesn't work on Friday, so Thursday is the last day of the week that I'm solely responsible for diapers, spit-up, playdates, and Play-Doh®, so I took it upon myself to make Thursday night an opportunity to get together with an old friend, have a few beers, and try a new restaurant.

Mitch was the friend I mentioned in my review of Burt's Place, and he and I recently went to Asian Bistro in Arlington Heights last week to try what I had heard was some pretty authentic Szechuan food.

This place would've probably never even been on my radar, but Mitch is reluctant to drive too far and he lives in this area, so I did a little research (using this handy suburban restaurant index topic at LTH forum) and decided that this place would be a good one to try.

(A note about my intrepid dining companion: Mitch is not a foodie. He'd be perfectly happy eating a mediocre steak and under seasoned mashed potatoes every day of the week, which is fine. For him. But I like to try new places and new things and, if I'm spending some bucks, some time, and a meal opportunity on a night out, it's important to me to make it somewhat of an experience. If I left it up to Mitch, we'd be at Fox and Hound or Stony River Steakhouse every Thursday.)

That's not a knock on Mitch. Or others for whom restaurants like TGI McHoulihannigan's are just fine. Food simply doesn't hold the intellectual, cultural, and entertainment appeal for them that it does for me. Hey, I'm not really interested in movies or theater, so to each his own.

So while loaded potato skins and chicken fajitas might fill the belly, they don't feed my appetite for authenticity, for real, personalized experiences, or for the novelty of trying new, interesting dishes that I can't make myself or haven't ever heard of.

And Mitch, to his credit, appears to be allowing me to drag him to places that he normally would be disinclined to try. Probably due to the fact that I really had to talk him into making the half-hour drive over to Burt's, where he was blown away by the pizza and loved the classic old dive, hole-in-the-wall-type ambiance.

Burt's vindicated me; gave me credibility with Mitch. A mandate, even. I've got culinary capital now...and I intend to spend it.

Which brings us to Asian Bistro. (Finally. Damn, I do go on, don't I?)

It was practically empty when we arrived at around 7:30 last Thursday. There were two other tables--parties of two and six--and we were the only non-Asians in the place. We were greeted warmly and seated promptly at a nice booth to the rear of the dining room.

When the server first approached, Mitch asked for an iced tea, which appeared to confuse the guy. Mitch repeated his request and then I tried to help the waiter understand--but really, all I did was also repeat "iced tea" with a slight Hispanic accent, which is what I inexplicably tend to do when speaking to non-native English-speakers. Needless to say, this wasn't at all helpful.

Anyway, the guy vanished and we didn't see him for about 10 minutes. We thought maybe he was in back, frantically icing down a pot of hot tea or something, and he did eventually emerge with a pitcher of iced tea and two large glasses full of ice. I didn't order iced tea, and would normally have opted for a Diet Coke, but given the fact that the guy apparently went to some effort on this, I wasn't going to say anything and so just drank some of the tea. It was actually pretty good.

When he asked if we were ready to order, I started asking some questions and butchering some of the names of the dishes, so he called for backup and soon we had three--and then four--people at our table making sure we were being well taken care of.

And we were. This is why I love these kind of family-owned, authentic places. If you just show some interest, ask a few questions, and put yourself in the hands of the people for whom this food represents a cultural heritage, you get a really tasty meal, some knowledge, and a good dose of real hospitality.

The owner, an older woman who introduced herself as "Jenny", came over to help with the ordering. I knew I wanted the La Tsi (Dry Chile) Chicken, since I had read about this dish on LTH forum, and I knew Mitch wanted a couple more pedestrian choices, like fried rice and Mongolian beef, but other than that, we put ourselves in Jenny's hands.

She did not steer us wrong. She asked us if we liked spicy, and I said yes, so she recommended the spicy Szechuan wontons, which were fabulously spicy but also a bit sweet--steamed dumplings tossed in a very addictive sticky sauce (they're at the right in the picture above). She also gave us an eyeball-poppingly spicy cold noodle salad with these translucent gelatinous square-cut noodles that were apparently tossed in the same sauce, but with added crushed chiles and, I believe, fermented black beans. This dish was interesting, but too spicy even for me, and also texturally kind of strange.

We also tried Shu Mai, which were just kind of average (that was my choice, not Jenny's) and the Thai Meat Egg Roll, just to have something crunchy to dip into sweet and sour sauce. These were quite good, filled with lots of very good, sweet-tasting shredded pork and cellophane noodles, and wrapped in a very thin delicate skin that reminded me of what lumpia are usually wrapped in.

We liked the appetizers, but the entrees were really what blew us away. In particular the La Tsi chicken, which proved to be so addictive that I got another whole order of it to take home after we were done (it was Mitch's week to pay. Heh.) It's essentially this huge plate of small pieces of chicken that are stir-fried with slivers of garlic, slices of ginger, and about two hundred whole dried chiles. I'm not enough of an expert to know what kind of chiles they are, but they stir-fry them whole to simply infuse the oil with the heat and, while they're served in the bowl, you're not supposed to eat them. Or at least I'm not supposed to eat them. Jenny and her assistant, who kind of doted over us the whole meal, quickly clearing the plates the moment we finished the last morsel off of them, rushed over as the plate came out, making sure to warn us to "not eat the chiles".

I knew this already, but I kind of played up the gringo act for a laugh and picked one up as if I was going to chomp down on it. They got this great look of panic on their faces, so I assured them that we knew not to eat the chiles.

The chicken dish was awesome. The small pieces of chicken were simultaneously crispy, chewy, and tender, in a way that only a thin coating of cornstarch and an insanely hot wok can produce. It's a distinctly Chinese texture that I have never been able to reproduce in a home kitchen setting. The flavors were great. Very spicy, but the heat was balanced well by the large slices of stir-fried ginger which provided a great burst of flavor and relief from the spice. Mitch and I both loved this dish.

I tried the Mongolian beef and was pleasantly surprised as well. They used really high quality, large pieces of beef, and it was cooked perfectly, with lots of that smokey wok char flavor that you get from good Chinese cooking. Also, the fried rice was really excellent. We ordered the house special combo fried rice, which featured chicken, beef, and shrimp along with all the normal elements of fried rice, and it was just loaded. Tons of meat and really large shrimp in there, and, again, lots of flavor from the wok. I'd come back here again just for the fried rice, which, for me, is somewhat of an afterthought when eating Chinese food, especially Szechuan.

(Sorry for the low-grade cell-phone pictures, but you get the gist.)

We raved about the food to Jenny and the two helpful servers continued to attempt to anticipate all of our needs. The guy who came to our table first appeared to relegate himself to iced tea duty exclusively, but I was actually kind of thankful, since I was downing glasses of the stuff to put out the fire from the chiles. Jenny came over about halfway through and asked how I had heard about them and how I knew about some of the dishes I'd ordered, and I told her that I'd seen them mentioned online.

She was noticeably excited by this and told me that I should make sure to write a review about them. And, really, I should. I mean, this blog is one thing, but I should actually go to sites like Citysearch and Yelp and give these guys some love. The economy's killing little independent restaurants, and even with the huge Asian community in and around Arlington Heights, places like this probably need all the help they can get to survive. It would be a shame to see them close up only to be replaced by another Chipotle or Panera.

So this place was definitely a find. I only wish I lived closer so that we could do take-out from there once in a while. My wife, who is normally very interested in ethnic food and trying new and interesting things, is strongly anti-Chinese food (but I suspect that's due to one too many bad experiences with Amero-Chinese stuff like Egg Foo Yung and Chop Suey) would, I believe, really like this place.

And, of course, it was good to clear my head, get away from the kids, and be able to walk ten steps without sidestepping a Diaper Genie or tripping over the friggin' bouncy chair for the thirty-eighth time this week. I look forward to doing it again. Much the same way I look forward to breathing. Or drinking water. Or having coffee in the morning.

I need these Thursday nights. Really--I now feel your frustration, stay-at-home moms. And I'm already looking forward to my next foray into the northwest 'burbs. Since I'm picking the restaurants, I thought it would be only sporting to allow Mitch to make genre requests. And week will be barbecue. Suggestions welcome...stay tuned.....

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Bacon List--Dutch Farms

One thing I'm learning with this exercise I'm calling The Bacon List is that cheap bacon often tastes as good--or better--than pricey bacon. A lot of it depends on where you buy it. Now, that being said, I've yet to review an artisanal bacon for The List (got one coming up for the next post, I promise), so once those reviews start coming down the pike, that observation may be refuted. We'll see. Suffice to say that in the world of grocery-store bacon, price and quality don't seem to be very closely related.

The bacon that I'm putting under the microscope for this entry is Dutch Farms brand "bacon". No embellishing adjectives. No mention of the wood used or the cure flavors. Nada. It's bacon. What more do you need to know? Nothing, I guess...

I picked up a pound of this at Lincolnwood Produce, which is quickly becoming my favorite grocery store (if you'll remember, that's also where I got the Andy's Deli slab bacon I reviewed). It cost $2.50 for a pound.

The package indicates that the bacon is "distributed by Dutch Farms, Chicago, Illinois". Which leads me to believe it's probably Oscar Mayer or Hormel bacon that's sold to a smaller company and then packaged under the Dutch Farms brand name. But that's just a guess. As far as I know, it could be the same stuff that's sold under Costco's Kirkland brand that I also already covered. It's possible. It's pretty similar. I need to keep this in mind for future purchases, since I really don't need to be wasting time reviewing the same bacon over and over again.

A quick google on Dutch Farms turned up a nice-looking website that tells me that the company is a pretty large distribution house serving most of the Midwest, that they're down on 107th street on the South Side, and that they've been around for about 80 years, but that they've just started carrying packaged meats like bacon in the last 10 years. I searched for some more specific info about their bacon, but although they have a pretty extensive online catalog, the listing doesn't give me any additional knowledge about the product.

Ok, so on to the review; how'd it taste? Pretty damn good. It's a quite serviceable inexpensive grocery-store bacon. For $2.50/pound, it's almost as good a deal as the Kirkland brand stuff, but you can buy this one pound at a time vs. the four pound minimum purchase at Costco. It also doesn't require making a special trip, which is probably worth the extra fifty cents. I'd say the bacon ranks right up there in all the categories. We liked it.

Here's the rundown:

Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store? Grocery Store.

Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon? $2.50/lb. purchased in a 1-pound pack.

Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc... Nice looking slices, medium thickness. Nice fat/lean ratio. Nice color.

How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter... Some shrinkage, but not huge. An appealing amount of curl. Just enough to give it that nice, rippled bacon-y look and improve the texture and bit a little.

A note: I have officially changed the cooking technique that I'm using to cook bacon reviewed for The List. Using the rack just became too annoying because the bacon always stuck to it and it was really hard to get it off the rack without breaking it all to bits, since I cook my bacon crisp. I have now switched to a straight parchment paper method (which can be viewed in the two pictures in closest proximity), which consists of placing the raw bacon strips onto a piece of parchment paper (a much utilized product in restaurant kitchens that has recently surfaced amidst the plastic wrap and tin foil at the grocery store--it's about time!) on a sheet pan, placing in a cold oven and then turning on the oven to about 300-325º. With this method, you don't need to flip the bacon strips over at any point, as the rendered fat will cook them on both sides evenly, but you do need to rotate the sheetpan to account for any uneven heating of your oven, and I actually move the strips in the center of the tray to the outside so that they cook evenly. This is now the new Official Cooking Method of all bacon reviewed for The Bacon List.

Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture. It's fine. Attractive curl. Nice color. Some loss due to shrinkage, but nothing major.

How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness". Great texture. Salty. Salt is the first flavor you get and it's by far the strongest. There's some smoke flavor, and some sweetness, but not sugary cure sweetness, more porky sweetness. The fat is very melting and tender, which is lovely. The texture is great. Crisp, with a little chew, but not too much, and a luscious amount of melting fat that just disintegrates on the tongue. We enjoyed it very much with our breakfast, especially as a foil to sweet breakfast items, like the frangipan pancakes that we ate with maple syrup.

Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. 6.0 Overall, this is a completely decent bacon for everyday use, especially considering the price. It's a good value. Nothing to go out of your way for, but if you see it in your store for the price I paid or less, pick up a few pounds and stow them in the freezer.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Chocolate Pudding

I've stated many times on this blog that I don't do recipes. And I don't. Usually. But when it comes to desserts, I break my own rule.

In professional cooking, there's a clear divide between the sweet and savory sides of the kitchen. It's a completely different mindset. Line cooks and chefs cook by feel, smell, sight, sound, and intuition, grounded solidly in classic technique. But they generally don't utilize recipes, because the products are not always exactly the same, and adaptations have to be made on the fly.

In contrast, pastry chefs almost always use recipes, and not only do they use them religiously, but they scale everything, weighing their flour and sugar on a digital scale to account for slight atmospheric and product variations that might throw off their precise formulas. Cooking pastry is like science whereas cooking on the savory side is like, or improv jazz, maybe? or...I don't know. Something.

Anyway, my point is that when I make desserts, I usually use recipes. Here's one that I've made a few times recently and is very good.

Chocolate Pudding

1 Cup sugar
1/4 Cup cornstarch
pinch salt
8 ounces Baker's semi-sweet chocolate
3 Cups whole milk or half and half
2 egg yolks
2 T. butter (unsalted)
vanilla bean

Mix the sugar, cornstarch, and salt together in a heavy saucepan.
Chop the chocolate and add it to the mixture in the pot.
In a bowl, mix the milk and egg yolks together and then add them to the mixture.
Split and scrape the vanilla bean and add the pods and the bean to the mix as well.
Put the pan on the heat, over medium-low heat and bring gently to a boil, whisking constantly.
Allow to boil for about a minute, until mixture thickens, continuing to whisk.
Pull off the heat, remove vanilla bean, add butter, stirring to incorporate.
Divide into ramekins. Allow to cool before covering with plastic and refrigerating.
Serve cold topped with whipped cream.

This recipe was adapted (yes, I copped it) from one I found on The Food Network's website, credited to Sara Moulton of Gourmet Magazine. I made a couple minor changes, but it's essentially the same recipe.

The technique is kind of interesting. Usually pudding involves heating the dairy and flavorings, and then adding the starch and tempered eggs to the hot mixture, much like making pastry cream. This can be kind of dicey, as there's always that question about whether your mixture is too hot, whether your starch has thickened as much as it should have, and you have to be careful not to scramble your eggs.

This recipe avoids all that by simply dumping everything into the same pot and bringing it all up to temp at the same time. The eggs warm slowly so there's no danger of scrambling, and once the mixture boils for a moment, the starch thickens and it's done. No muss, no fuss. Plus, less clean-up. I love it.

Even better, this recipe employs a pretty large quantity of high-quality chocolate, rather than using cocoa powder, as many pudding recipes call for. I've detailed my disdain for the choice of cocoa powder over real chocolate in the past. Suffice to say that I strongly dislike the 'dusty' taste that using cocoa powder in lieu of chocolate imparts. Frankly, I'm not sure I understand why anyone would choose it if using chocolate is an option.

So, thanks, Sara! Good recipe.

As a gossipy aside, the fact that Sara Moulton isn't on the Food Network any more speaks to the demise of quality and the embrace of lowest-common-denominator pandering that the network has recently employed. Moulton was famously told that the network wouldn't be renewing her show, Cooking Live, as part of a still on-going effort the network was making to move away from using professional/classically-trained chefs as hosts of their shows in favor of more camera-genic, cleavage-sporting "personalities" like Rachel Ray, Giada Giganto-mouth, and--feh--Sandra Lee. This whole deal is well-chronicled all over the web. You can read more about it here, here, here, and here.

I'll stop here in order to ensure that this post doesn't devolve into an all-out rant about The Food Network and how much it sucks, save for a few decent shows. That topic really deserves its own separate entry. [This space reserved for link to future blog post]

Suffice to say that while Sara and her pudding recipe may not have been the direction that The Food Network was going, I like her--she's got a show on PBS, a network where the focus is on cooking instruction rather than catch phrases and cleavage (if any proof of that is needed, this guy is the host of what appears to be their most popular show right now)--and I like her pudding recipe. 'Nuff said. Let's make some pudding!

Dry ingredients go into the saucepan.

Everything in the pan, applying heat.

Color gets darker, milk begins to froth. Keep whisking!

Mixture thickens very quickly.

Presto! I now pronounce it to be pudding. Portion into ramekins.

After the portioned pudding cools down to room temp, cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Opinions vary, of course, on the appeal, or lack thereof, of pudding skin, which forms on the top of the pudding when it's allowed to be in contact with the air. In our house, we hate pudding skin, so I place the plastic wrap over the ramekins and then gently press it down so it's in direct contact with the surface of the pudding, ensuring no disgusting skin forms.

And that's that, really. It's a deceptively easy recipe. It is a bit thicker and denser than your average pudding recipe--almost like a pot de creme. But that's a good thing in my book.

Top it with whipped cream and enjoy it--it's a classic comfort food indulgence, which, even though it's served cold, somehow seems appropriate for cold winter weather.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Istanbul Photos

Istanbul is a bustling city with street vendors everywhere,
people running by with giant loads on their backs,
and seemingly endless markets where you can get lost for days.
It's worth the trip just to visit the famous Spice Bazaar.

I feel lucky to have made it there in my life. Enjoy.

Fresh Chiles at the Spice Bazaar

This guy would scurry into a crowd, set up his stand and sell half his stack in about two minutes.


Haggling at the Spice Bazaar

Where the Spice Bazaar gets its name.

Doner vendor

Gotta love a market where you see offal just glistening in the sun!

In Italian, corn is referred to as Granturco, or "Turkish Grain", because it was first introduced to the Italians via Turkish trade routes. Istanbul was and still is a world crossroads, serving as a gateway between Asia and Europe.