Archive for October, 2008

Plant Sex

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Home cooking and more with tags , , , on October 30, 2008 by restaurantouring

So, while tending to my basil plants by the window, I got to thinking: “What a terrible life it must be to be a plant.”  I was in the process of cutting off a couple of the stems that have taken flowers when I thought of this.  When a basil plant flowers, any leaves that grow are smaller and less flavorful.  So, in the interest of taste, the flowers should be removed.  Any why not?  Basil is useful!

But, I mean, think about it. . . . plants don’t get to have sex whenever they want to, if humans are involved.  Take the case of my basil, for instance.  No flowers means no sex.  For the human (me), no flowers means bigger and better basil leaves.  I’m like an evil, selfish god to that poor basil plant.  I can’t imagine what it would be like if there were some sort of evil god out there, cutting off my reproductive organs.

Luckily, humans (for the most part) are useless.

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A Dessert of Epic Proportions

Posted in Home cooking and more on October 29, 2008 by restaurantouring

I’m thinking about making a dessert inspired by Pacman and by bacon and eggs.  I guess it’s two separate desserts, really.  I was really proud of the bacon and eggs idea until I found out that Wylie Dufresne does something called the “cyber egg” at his restaurant, WD-50, in New York.  Sigh.  Oh well.  I’m still gonna make it.

Sorry for being so vague and non-descriptive — I just wanted to share that with all two of you out there.  Recipes coming soon (hopefully)!

Comments from the Chautauqua Institute Lecture on Food

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food in the news with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2008 by restaurantouring

A reader on Michael Ruhlman’s blog left some interesting questions and comments in response to the previously posted lecture from the Chautauqua Institute, which you can also view here.  I thought I would post the conversation here, as well, because I think where our food comes from and how it is grown or raised is a very good and important question to ask.  It is a complicated issue, to be sure, and food has a greater impact in this world than I think most people give it credit for.  For example, food has an impact not only on our health and our bodies, but it has political, ecological, environmental, and economical implications as well — and more.  I joined in this conversation fairly late in the game, so I actually refer to a much earlier post.  Apologies!  Anyway, without further ado, here’s part of the conversation so far:

Despite Chef Barber’s misanthropic idealism I agree that the most ecological and ethical choice is also the most delicious, but it is also the most expensive. And while we may not have “an inalienable right to protein” many of us most certainly do not have the luxury of being self-righteous about our food origins, owning multiple successful businesses (restaurants in his case), or befriending Spanish foie gras farmers either. How is making food more expensive (albeit much tastier) going to help feed the hungry? Just curious.

JBL

I think the argument for making food more expensive in the hope that there will be more food for the hungry is pretty shakey no matter which way you look at it as it assumes that poor people are somehow going to have more money to pay for food.

Honestly, I think that the biggest reason for poor nutrition is not lack of access to good food, but a lack of money and the access to high quality education and housing and information that money provides. And the reason there is not enough money among the underclasses is that our lovely global economic system is set up so that wealth trickles up not down.

Moreover, super fresh food like the kind used by the the Dan Barbers and the Kellers of this world will be available cheaply and on a massive scale unless it is grown much closer to where people actually live -And with over 80% of the population of the US living in cities and increasingly urbanized suburbs that seems like an impossible task.

Mr. delGrosso, Am I to understand, given your second paragraph, that poor people are too stupid and ill-informed (and obviously too broke)to make better nutritional assessments and that somehow the global economy is to blame?

@JBL:

Not sure how it can be argued that if you have less money, you are going to have fewer opportunities at an education. And if you are less likely to have a good education, you are more likely to make ill-informed decisions. Of course, it’s a generalization. But I didn’t see anyone call anyone else stupid.

I really wish Barber expanded on the inalienable right to protein.

Mr. Escobar,
You are correct, not stupid per se, just ill-informed (or ignorant or unlearned, or you say tomato I say tomato). But we don’t need a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree to hear about saturated fats, high cholesterol, high calories, evil carbs, artery-clogging fats, etc…we just need a television.

And Mr. Escobar,
I will argue that one indeed CAN get educated in this country if they’re broke; in the form of grants, loans, scholarships, etc..I speak from experience! Unless of course you happen to be a white male/female which opens up a different can of worms.

JBL:

I was pretty careful to avoid saying that one couldn’t get educated. Lots of people do. I said fewer opportunities :). Strong disagree that TV teaches you anything about nutrition, or how to eat healthy. If anything, it is a continuous swirl of contradictory messages.

Pablo Escolar,

Point taken with respect to your egg shell walk; and if you think TV is a “continuous swirl of contradictory messages” try college! (kidding…sorta’)

While it is debatable that even the “news” objectively informs (teaches anything), free information is available, via various media, for anyone who cares or chooses it to actively pursue.

@Pablo Escolar,
Also seems like you’re “paisa”! 🙂

Oh no! Knowlton is a judge?! Kill me now!

JBL

It’s axiomatic that lack of access to money, results in a reduction of access to high quality education or, more to the point, the didactic experiences that enhance critical thinking skills and that help people make wiser eating and other life-style choices.

Also, being poor kind of limits what one can afford to eat to what they can afford.

How you read that I was suggesting that the poor are too stupid to make wise choices is not at all clear to me. I’m pretty sure that IQ scores follow a more or less normal distribution throughout the global population. Of course, the same thing cannot be said of money spent on education.

As for the global economy being to blame for limiting the choices of the poor, well, I’m not willing to go so far as to suggest that an abstract concept can cause anyone to do anything. However, I am sure that the global economic system is not the result of a unanimous decision by a myriad of businessmen and government officials that the end product should be the intellectual, physical and monetary enrichment of the poor.

Mr. delGrosso,

“It’s axiomatic that lack of access to money, results in a reduction of access to high quality education…”

We just have to agree to disagree with respect to this point. Where you see axioms I see non-sequiturs; in fact, I’ve already provided a counterexample.

“Also, being poor kind of limits what one can afford to eat to what they can afford. “

That’s also true for the non-poor (credit not withstanding).

Pertaining to your statement regarding the IQ of the entire world’s population I hasten to say: “I don’t know”.

I also do not think that the global economic system is the result of any unanimous decision period (wacko conspiracy theories not withstanding).


JBL,

Not to dismiss anything that has been discussed already (about education, socio-economic status, etc.), but this response is about your original post, which asked “How is making food more expensive (albeit much tastier) going to help feed the hungry?”

The point of all this is NOT to make food more expensive. Rather, it is about becoming conscious of where our food comes from and understanding what it does to our body, what it does to our environment, and how our environment impacts us in turn. It’s a cycle. It’s about appreciation of that food. Only then can we hope to affect and justify [massive] change. Hopefully, once we better understand food in and of itself, we can not only make food healthier, but stop wasting so much of it so that the poor and hungry can have something to eat as well.

Initially, you’re right. Locally growned, “natural” foods WILL be more expensive than conventionally grown produce and factory-farmed meat, but there is a massive ecological cost to those methods that is difficult to quantify, yet it is catching up to us today in the form of polluted air and waters, obesity, and sickness and disease from food-borne illnesses. Salmonella and E. Coli occur today in far more resilient forms, and are also present in greater quantities of our food. Thousands upon thousands of people get sick every year from contaminated batches of meat and even vegetables (spinach salad, anyone?).

The alternative (one of the alternatives, anyway) is to buy locally. Not only does this help local farmers and local economies, but because small scale farms are better able to control quality and the conditions under which their animals and plants grow, the potential for sickness and disease is greatly diminished. The shorter the distance that food has to travel from farm to plate, the less time there is for food to spoil. Additionally, there are fewer hands involved in the exchange of raw foods, which may result in less of a chance for cross-contamination as a result of long-distance shipping. Finally, if the food DOES happen to be contaminated, the pathogen(s) has less time to reproduce to significantly harmful levels (bacteria need time to multiply) AND the contamination should be limited to a relatively small quantity of food produced in a specific region, unlike the massive recalls of millions of pounds of hamburgers that have occurred over the past few years.

Thus, a better question might be, “How much money is spent on medical care as a result of food-borne illnesses caused by commercially grown food?” Or, perhaps, “How much money is lost through a lack of productivity as a result of people being sick from these food-borne illnesses?” If we knew the answer to those questions, the answer should be clearer.

My personal answer to this problem is a combination of Michael Pollan’s first three sentences in “In Defense of Food,” and of one of Chef Barber’s responses during the Q&A session, “Vote with [my] forks.”
1) I will eat food: not that expensive, unsatisfying, processed crap that harms both my body and the environment, AND benefits big companies that thrive off of carelessly grown produce and livestock.
2) I will eat mostly plants: Meat’s more expensive and I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables anyway. It’s healthier to boot. Plus, if everyone eats less meat, there’s more of it to go around. A part of the law of supply and demand is that, with a given supply of something (we’ll use meat as an example), decreases in demand result in a concomitant decrease in cost. Since meat is highly perishable, the meat will need to be sold quickly, even if it is at a lower cost. This example (admittedly, none of what I’ve said) isn’t foolproof, I know, but it is a suggestion. I am not claiming to be infallible.
3) I will not eat too much: See above, but apply that to food as a whole.
4) I will vote with my fork: (Also, see number 1) I personally would trust a local farmer more with making sure that deer (which, btw, also carry E. Coli! Imagine that!) don’t go prancing all over his or her farm, shitting all over the leafy greens that I eat (spinach salad, anyone?), than a factory farm of epic proportions which may not be able to do this — may not even care– in an effective way at all. If I have a significantly more expensive cut of locally raised meat, it will probably be tastier and healthier, and I will be damn sure to eat all of it, and probably also to stretch it out so that I can keep my food budget down. It’d be too much of a shame to let that beautiful food go to waste otherwise, unlike the tons and tons of food waste produced by restaurants and home kitchens in our throw-away culture.

To further lower the cost of food, I personally grow some of it. Hell, I just watered my basil plant while reviewing this ridiculously long response. With technology, home gardens of even miniscule scales are possible with little mess or effort. For example, Michael Pollan gave a lecture in New York’s Public Farm 1, where I met Dr. Paul S. Mankiewicz, Ph.D while standing in line for book signings. Paul — and I apologize profusely if I am mistaken or if I am forgetting anyone — is the inventor of Gaia Soil ( http://www.GaiaSoil.com and http://www.GaiaInstituteNY.org ). With Gaia Soil, easy, lightweight, convenient gardens can be created in almost any environment with access to light (it’s nighttime now, but my baby basil seems to be doing just fine photosynthesizing with the ambient light from the various fixtures in the room).

My point is this: I believe that even with these proposed, dramatic changes, food will not become significantly more expensive to obtain. Additionally, any increased costs in obtaining food may very well be offset by the lower incidence of illness as a result from food poisoning. Health of both body and planet will improve, local farmers and economies will benefit, and the only losers will be big agri-business (which is a GOOD thing). Hopefully, others will think the same way I do in terms of not letting more expensive food go to waste. That way, less food overall is eaten (a potential solution to obesity!), and less food will be wasted or go bad and spoil overall. With decreased demand for more expensive foods (meat), costs will likewise decrease (farmers tend to produce more to break even with production costs, rather than produce less to artificially increase prices for profit), enabling the poor to afford food as well.

I look forward to your response. Also, sorry for the wordiness. I’m REALLY good at that.

I forgot to mention the costs of fossil fuels required to grow, fertilize, harvest, refrigerate, and transport the goods, but you knew that already anyway.

Interesting Talk on Food

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food in the news with tags , , , on October 28, 2008 by restaurantouring

Check out Michael Ruhlman’s blog for a very interesting talk about food.  He and Chef Dan Barber both speak for twenty minutes, with an additional 20 for Q&A.  The whole video is over an hour long, but if you’re like me (and you love love love food), you’ll wish it were longer.  You can also find the video here.

A Cook’s Job is Never Done, Part I

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Home cooking and more with tags , , , , , , on October 25, 2008 by restaurantouring

A cook’s job is never done.  That, I think, is a fact that most serious cooks need to understand and accept if they really wanna cook in the kitchen.

There’s too much to do.

There’s not enough time.

You gotta eat every day anyway, right?

A cook’s job is just never done.

This week, I worked as usual.  I also cooked a lot.  A friend of mine comes and visits me on Tuesdays, so I spend my Mondays prepping all the food.  This week, it was the beef short ribs I talked about in my “About Me” page.

Shopping.  I found a pack of Flanken-cut short ribs.  Not my favorite cut, but still good.  And cheap.  Two bucks and change per pound, cheaper than a fancy steak, and damn tasty to boot.

So, slice and trim them.  Salt — ALWAYS KOSHER — and pepper.  Heat the cast iron (clad pans work too).  Sear.  Flip.  Repeat on all sides.

Meanwhile, I retrieve the bag of beef bones I’ve been saving in the freezer.  Every time I have a steak or some ribs or oxtail or anything, I save the bones.  Them’s good eatin.  Well, not really. . . not YET anyway, but you’ll see. . . .

Boil a big pot of water.  Rinse bones.  Dump them into the boiling water to blanche for a minute.  Dump.  Refill the pot with cold water.  Bring up to temperature.  Skim that nasty foam.

Too complicated already?  Too bad.  That’s the way you make stock, so pay attention.

Bring the mix up to a boil for a minute and turn the heat down low.  Way low.  I don’t want to see my stock boiling anymore, but I want it piping hot.  Collagen starts to break down and turn into gelatin at around 140 degrees, so I want it anywhere from 140 to 180 degrees if possible.  Gelatinous stock is delicious.  Leave the lid off, since keeping it on will make the liquid boil even with the lowest possible flame.

Some people call this simmering.  I think it’s more like steeping, like tea.  Steep them bones for a few hours.  Then toss in your aromats.  Thyme, parsley, bay leaf, rosemary.  Celery, carrots, onion.  Classic French Mirepoix.  Maybe some garlic.  An hour later, you’re good to go.

Strain it.  Chill it.  Refrigerate.  You’re done for the night.

Well. . . almost.

Gotta clean.  Gotta do the dishes.  Damnit.

The downside to living in this apartment is that there’s no dishwasher.  In a restaurant, you have a dish washer.  After service, you might have a night porter that cleans everything else up for you.

I don’t have a night porter.

I don’t have a dishwasher.

Well, technically, I AM the dish washer.  Ah well.  I clean things better than any machine anyway.  Suck it up.  It’s relaxing and meditative anyway.

Soap. Rinse. Dry dishes. Put them away.

Wipe down the stove top. Wipe down exhaust hood, top AND bottom (that grease gets EVERYWHERE). Wipe down handle of the oven. Wipe down knobs and panel.

Wash the counter.  Spray with disinfectant (cleanliness is next to not-being-sickliness).

Quickly wipe the floors.  That grease gets EVERYWHERE.

Wipe eyeglasses.  That grease gets EVERYWHERE

Sleep.

Wake up.

Shit. Shower. Shave. Brush. Rinse. Get dressed.

Grab my shit: wallet. cell. keys. keys for work. work id. messenger bag. lunch.

Hungry. Eggs. Toast. Maybe some bacon. Maybe I’ll settle for milk and cereal instead.

Bust out the slow cooker. Peel carrots, wash celery, grab an onion.  Chop. Dump em in cold.

Take out the ribs from the fridge.  Dump em in cold.

Pull out a bottle of red.  This time it’s a Barefoot merlot.  I like cooking with cheap wine — the taste is more balanced once the liquid’s reduced.  Fancy wines just taste off-balance.  Drink the fancy, cook the cheap.

Pull out the stock from the fridge.  Remove the hardened fat on top (DON’T YOU DARE THROW IT OUT) and stick it in the fridge or freezer for when you make savory pastries or beef patties (I lived in Jamaica for a year and a half.  I’ve got a soft spot for beef patties).

Add both the stock and the wine to a pot.  About equal portions.  A little more of the stock than wine, maybe.  Boil.

Pour the hot stuff over the ribs and aromats until they are just covered.  Maybe a little more to account for evaporation.  Lid it.

Here’s the kicker: don’t turn the slow cooker on high.  Or low.  Turn it onto “keep warm”.  Remember what I said about collagen?  My slow cooker keeps things warm at 188 degrees.  I tested it.  Thermometers are awesome.

Here’s the downer: wash the dishes you just dirtied.  I don’t like leaving shit in the sink.

Time check: Damnit.  Five minutes late for work again.

Run, don’t walk.  Speed, don’t cruise.  Don’t get caught.  You’ll be great.

Check back for Part 2, folks.

Love is a Plate of Kielbasa and Kraut

Posted in New Jersey Restaurants with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2008 by restaurantouring

I know I talk a lot about foie gras and tasting menus and fancy dinners sometimes.  Maybe I haven’t gotten around to it too much yet in this blog, but it’s true that I talk about those things a lot in my day-to-day life.  But I’m not all about haute cuisine all of the time.  Rather, I consider myself bipolar.

I say I’ll eat anything.  I guess that’s not really true.  I’ll eat anything that has been carefully prepared.  I’ll eat anything that is new to me (or at least I’ll try really hard to do so, in case I can’t get my mind wrapped around eating something really strange and initially off-putting).  What’s more, (and I know this will sound cheesy, even before I say it.  Bear with me anyway) I’ll eat anything that’s been made with love.

The food of love.  My co-worker, Ben, introduced me to a little dive in Jersey City a little while ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about it for the longest time.  It’s called Sava Polish Deli, and they quite possibly serve the best damn food in all of New Jersey.  It’s run by an adorable old woman named Jadwiga, and she makes the food fresh every day.  Hell, she even ferments the sauerkraut herself!  The commercially available (often canned) sauerkraut it too sour-tasting, she says.  Beyond acidity, the flavor is flat, so Jadwiga will slice and salt cabbage and leave it to ferment in huge barrels in-house.  Fantastic.

Jadwiga (pronounced YAD-zia), the cook!

Jadwiga (pronounced YAD-zia), the cook!

The restaurant itself is small.  It has several small tables and chairs, and a huge fish tank obscuring the view into the place in one of its windows.  To be frank, it does not inspire confidence by most conventional standards.  But that’s all fine, because this woman really knows how to cook.  The menu seems to change slightly, but there’s plenty on the menu that’s there all the time: pierogies, sauerkraut and kielbasa, stuffed cabbages, and a couple other items.  I went back there with Ben to have lunch on Friday, and this is what he got for 11 bucks:

Clockwise from 12 o’clock: Kielbasa, sauerkraut, stuffed cabbage, pierogies four ways – potato and cheese, farmer’s cheese, sauerkraut, and a veal and beef pierogi.  The potato and cheese pierogies are the best.  The farmer’s cheese pierogies are excellent, too — sweet and slightly tangy.  Good flavor.  The stuffed cabbage keeps getting better and better every time we go there, and Sava’s kielbasa and kraut can’t be beat.

I had almost all of that last time I went, plus I’m a huge glutton so my plate was more diversified:

Clockwise from 12 o’clock: pork rib, beef short rib with BBQ sauce, braised pork chop with dill and mushroom gravy, pork goulash on a bed of kasha (buckwheat groats), and a beet and kielbasa stew.  I started with the pork rib, which sadly did not have a lot of flavor.  The beef short rib (my favorite) more than made up for it, because it was ridiculously tender and juicy.  The pork chop with dill and mushroom gravy was probably my favorite, because it tasted the best, and was nice and tender.  The pork goulash was a little dry, but the kasha with the beet and kielbasa stew was fantastic together.

In this case, we overpaid for the variety of items that we got (me especially — I paid 19 bucks!).  Don’t let that dissuade you, though; most normal plates run no more than 8 bucks and change:

This place is so good, it’s even won an award!

Affordable home-cooked Polish food

Affordable home-cooked Polish food

Once you’ve gorged yourself on Polish goodness, Jadwiga’s a blast to talk to.  Last time, I remember cracking up at some of the things she said about Italian food (she is not a fan).  This time, we talked about business, catering, the rising costs of gas, food, and the cost of doing business, a little bit about politics, Polish food, and more.  Ben joked about how if things got more expensive at Sava’s, he’d go eat somewhere else.  Here, Jadwiga sweetly (don’t let the smile fool you!), jokingly threatens us by saying that if we ate someplace else, she would go buy a gun:

A disarmingly sweet smile

A veiled threat

Threats aside, I personally always like going there because Jadwiga gives us treats:

A smaller version of kielbasa, stuffed in sheep's casing

A smaller version of kielbasa, stuffed in sheep's casing

If you don’t go there for the plate specials, Sava also sells deli over the counter.  They carry several kinds of kielbasa, a variety of the usual cold cuts, and even specially made veal hot dogs:

Veal hotdogs (right) and Kielbasa links (left)

Veal hotdogs (right) and Kielbasa links (left)

I bought one of the hot dogs.  Cost me somewhere around 70 cents.  I think I’m gonna take Mike Ruhlman’s suggestion, from his book on Charcuterie, and just saute it and serve it with a steamed bun with some minced onion and good mustard.  I can’t wait.  I can’t wait to go back to Sava’s either.  All this talk about food has got me hungry.

Sava Polish Deli is located on 346 Grove Street, in Jersey City, New Jersey.  When you’re there, get the potato and cheese pierogies.  They are delicious.  If they haven’t sold out yet, get a stuffed cabbage before they disappear.  And of course, don’t forget the kielbasa and kraut.  It’s gooooood.  If you have time to chat afterwards, ask her for her honest opinion of the Italian joint across the street and prepare yourself for some hilariously scathing criticism about the “grrrass” that they put on top of their food (I think she’s talking about parsley).

Rachel Ray

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts with tags , , on October 11, 2008 by restaurantouring

I wonder if she realizes how much shit comes out of her mouth.  Or her kitchen.