Friday, December 29, 2006

Chocolate Scandal!

From Scott at comes this tale of Noka, a high-end chocolatier headquarted in Plano, TX and named "#1 luxury chocolate in the world" by some British food show. I'm familiar with many chocolatiers (Richart and Kee's being among my favorites), but this was one I hadn't heard of before the article.

It's a long article, but well worth the read. It peels away the layers of deception the proprietors of Noka have set up around themselves. Reading their press, or even hearing them in interviews, you'd think that they are chocolate makers - taking carefully sourced cacao beans and turning them into their own couverture. But in fact, they're doing just what the rest of us are doing - buying a pre-made couverture and turning it into truffles and bon-bons.

But the rest of us aren't getting paid their prices! A 2-piece "encore" box of truffles is $17.50 - a princely $8.75 per truffle! A 4-piece box from the Vintages collection (tastings squares of single origin chocolates) is $16.00. Think that's extravagant, but not outrageous? Each tasting square weighs only seventy-five one thousandths of an ounce, meaning the price for the chocolate is $853/lb. And all Noka has done is temper the couverture they've bought and formed it into squares. I just tempered chocolate twice in the last 2 hours, and I can tell you it's not worthy of that kind of money! The truffles work out to $666/lb. Even names like La Maison du Chocolat and Michael Recchiuti - among the the most well known and expensive chocolatiers - top out at a mere $85/lb for their chocolates, which have carefully conceived fillings and actually required some thought!

Through some careful detective work, Scott actually manages to figure out what couverture the people at Noka are using, and reveals just how outrageous that markup really is. I won't spoil the surprise for you, because the story is very entertainingly told. It was like watching a soap opera - I kept gasping, shaking my head and saying "I can't believe it!"

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Scalloped Potatoes

Made an excellent batch of cheesy scalloped potatoes tonight. Scalloped potatoes are very much something I make by feel - I don't usually use a recipe. Sometimes they turn out really well, sometimes I use too much milk and they're too watery. Since tonight's were a winner, I thought I should try to transcribe the recipe while I could still remember the rough quantities.

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes (serves 4-6)

2 onions
2.5 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes
3 tbsp flour
2 oz sharp cheddar, grated
1.5 cups milk, warmed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Slice the onions and saute in butter with a pinch of salt until lightly caramelized. Meanwhile, peel and slice the potatoes about 1/4 inch thick. When the onions are ready, place a layer of potatoes (about 1/4 of the total amount) in the bottom of a casserole dish. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, 1 tbsp flour, 1/3 of the onions and 1/4 of the cheese. Repeat twice - you will have used up all the onions and all the flour. Top with the remaining potatoes, sprinkle with salt, pepper, the remaining cheese and a few dots of butter. Pour the milk over it all.

Cover and bake at 350 for 3o minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake until potatoes are soft - at least another 30 minutes. If you like a crusty top, increase the heat to 400 degrees for the last 15 minutes or so. Let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving to allow it to cool and set a little bit.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Since I can't actually give you truffles for Christmas, I can at least give you some recipes. These are from my holiday truffle sale, featuring four seasonal flavors. I ended up making over 400 hand-rolled, hand-dipped truffles. Kinda crazy!

I expect you don't want to make quite that many, but fortunately the recipes scale down easily. For all these recipes, you should let the ganache set up at room temperature for about 12 hours, then scoop them into balls. If you are dipping in tempered chocolate, it's especially important to let the balls set for 24 hours to dry out a bit and develop a crust. This will help limit cracking and leaking. But if you just want to coat with melted chocolate and cocoa powder, you don't have to wait that long.

Chestnut Truffles (about 90)
12 oz dark chocolate
24 oz chestnut spread (sweetened chestnut puree, basically)
6 oz unsalted butter
1 tbsp brandy

These turned out to be my favorite. Rich and decadent. Easy to make because I went with a commercial chestnut spread. To make, melt the chocolate and let it cool to near room temperature. Mix with softened butter, then stir in chestnut puree and brandy.

Cranberry Truffles (about 90)
18 oz dark chocolate
12 oz cream
2 tbsp unsweetened cranberry concentrate

This concentrate is really potent stuff. You can find it in health food stores. It's liquid, in a bottle - mine was in the juice aisle. Use any standard ganache method: pour hot cream over finely chopped chocolate and let stand for a couple minutes before stirring to emulsify, or melt the chocolate and combine it with the warm cream. Add the cranberry concentrate after the ganache is fully emulsified.

Egg Nog Truffles (about 70)
24 oz white chocolate
4 oz egg nog
1 vanilla bean
3/8 tsp nutmeg
2 oz rum

Steep the vanilla bean and nutmeg in the egg nog. Reheat and strain, and combine with white chocolate using your favorite ganache method. Add the rum. If you're dipping in tempered chocolate, garnish with some white choco

Gingerbread Truffles (about 80)
21 oz milk chocolate
7 oz cream
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp ginger powder
2 tsp cinnamon
4 tsp molasses
1.5 tbsp ginger juice

Black pepper was the magic ingredient to make these actually taste like what I was looking for. And the combination of powdered ginger and juice from fresh works really well. Bring the cream to a boil and combine with spices. Let steep for about 10 minutes. Reheat, then remove from heat and stir in molasses. Combine with chocolate in whatever ganache method you prefer. Add ginger juice when fully emulsified. (To make ginger juice, finely grate fresh ginger, then squeeze it through cheesecloth or a towel.)

Wine Club - Sparklers

Every December, we like to taste some sparkling wines so we can find interesting things to serve at New Year's. Here's what we tasted this year.

Jean Laurent Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut $45.00
Faded sunflower color. Nose of melon, citrus and straw - noticeable chardonnay aromas. On the palate, it opens with a hint of sweetness but resolves dry, with flint/mineral flavors and a long tart finish. Score: 4.0 Range: 3/4.5

2000 Rotari Riserva Brut, Trento, IT $13.99
Nose of vanilla and melon. "Smells just like pinot grigio." Fairly one-dimensional, with some butterscotch and cherry flavors in a light bodied wine with moderate acidity. Short finish. Score: 3.2 Range: 2/5

Henri Maire Vin Fou Blanc de Blancs Cuvee du Centenaire $11.99
Our original bottle was bad - low fizz, nose and palate of banana candy, bitter and waxy. "This can't be right!" A replacement bottles was better, with just a hint of banana that some found pleasant, but it wasn't anything to write home about either - one-dimension and fairly uninteresting, but good enough given the value price.

Jaillance Cremant de Bordeaux Cuvee de L'Abbaye Brut $18.99
Immediate perception of spice and nutmeg, followed by some lily of the valley and lavender. Big and bright on the palate, with those spicy flowery aromas coming through in the flavor as well, and a minerally finish that hints at salt. Nice balance of sweet and acid. (Generally quite well liked, with one outlier who said it "smelled like the bottom of a Maneschevitz bottle left in the sun.") Score: 3.6 Range: 1/5

As usual, we had a couple of nice cheeses as well.

On the left, Ailine de Vigne, an 8-month aged French goat cheese. And on the right, Green Hill, a soft cow's milk cheese made in Georgia by Sweet Grass Dairy. Both were excellent. And that's a piece of my no-knead bread behind them.

We tasted the wines blind, and without anyone but me knowing about the price range beforehand. When we were about to reveal, I said "If I told you one of these bottles cost $45, which one would you say it was?" And everyone chose the Jean Laurent - it was clearly a superior wine. But not that much better than the Jaillance Cremant de Bordeaux, which would have scored nearly as high if not for that one person. So for $19 vs $45, I know what I'll be buying for New Year's Eve. Don't get me wrong - I absolutely loved the Jean Laurent - it had everything I love most about wine (rocks and acid) - but I just find it really hard to pay that kind of money on my budget!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

My cheese and wine dessert

Here's what I put together in response to my eGullet Baking and Pastry Challenge.

On the left, red grapes on the stem, covered in Stilton and rolled in chopped port-glazed walnuts. You can see some of the whole walnuts scattered around the sauce. The sauce is the reduction of the glazing liquid, and has port, sugar, black pepper and bay leaf. On the right, a Seckel pear, which was roasted in a baking dish with a mixture of Carlos VII and sugar at the bottom (recipe adapted from here). That was used as a basting liquid, and later reduced to the caramel sauce. Lying jauntily against the pear is a crisp of 5-year Boerenkaas aged gouda. And a few toasted hazelnuts for good measure.

I invited a few friends over to kibbitz and taste. Here are their comments, so you'll have some idea of the flavors as well as the looks!

Dave: There is great synergy in the pear-sherry-hazelnut-cheese combination. Not only is the pear taste accentuated, but you get an added taste of fig, and a nutty flavor that comes not just from the nuts, but from the cheese wafer, that finishes with a smoky, almost a charcoal taste.

The combination of Stilton cheese and grapes did not work as well, not because of any discordance in the tastes, but I believe because of texture. The grapes are too watery to be paired with this cheese. I recommend chilling the grapes first to firm them up.

Beth: you can never go wrong with Stilton in my book, and the combination of Stilton and 'ported' walnuts was a fantastic combination of sweet and shocking-salty. however the taste of the grape itself was lost. i found that drizzling further with the port reduction added back a nice, fruity flavor.

the pear-gouda had a nice nutty taste as well - i've never had an aged gouda, and the process intensified the nutty flavor that worked well with the pear.

Hope: the stilton-grape-ported walnut combination was absolutely delightful - the delicacy of the grape wasn't overwhelmed by the stilton, and the walnuts gave a wonderful contrasty texture. There could've been a little more of the port reduction sauce, which had a wonderful flavor. The pear-gouda-sherry reduction combo was a little too sweet for my tastes, but the gouda laces set off the sweetness very nicely, and were very tasty all on their own. There were some delightful Montgomery cheddar 'eclairs' that were wonderful, but sadly didn't work with the red wine gelato - though both were very good on their own. All in all, a wonderful evening - it's so much fun being one of Tammy's 'guinea pigs'!
My comments: I over-reduced both sauces, which made it easy to make them stay where I wanted on the plate, but made them too sticky and sweet for good eating - I'd correct that in the future. The pear-gouda-sherry combo worked as well in reality as it did in my head, so that was cool. I'm with Dave and Beth on the issue of the grapes - the Stilton did overwhelm the grape. I think because the amount of Stilton needed to wrap the grape made it too much. I probably should have done what most recipes suggest and cut the Stilton with cream cheese. If I make these for a party sometime (and I might - they are tasty and unusual), I will do that. And chill them - these ones warmed up while I was getting everything else ready. Oh, and the plate needed more of the port sauce for that amount of grapes/cheese.

The two parts of the plate didn't really go together, but neither did they clash. If I was serving the pear on it's own, I would do it in a little bowl, because then I could use the unreduced sauce, and that would be very tasty. And while the crisp was fun and made for a nice presentation, I think some of the sweet butterscotchy flavor of the aged gouda was lost, so I'd just do shavings of the cheese.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

eGullet Pastry and Baking Challenge

This week, I've been tagged as the challenger in the Supreme eGullet Pastry and Baking Challenge. Noting my interest in pairing food and wine, last week's challenger set this task for me:

So, my challenge to Tammy is to sweeten up the cheese course! Create a dessert with at least 2 different wines and 2 different cheeses. At least one of the cheeses has to be a savoury rather a 'sweet' cheese (so no ricotta, mascarpone etc.)
What a great challenge! There are a million possible ideas of course, and people are chiming in with all kinds of them in the comments. I have three main ideas so far:

1. Grapes coated in blue cheese and rolled in chopped port-glazed walnuts

2. A sharp cheddar pate choux (aka cream puff) filled with red wine sorbet

3. An aged gouda crisp (like a parmesan crisp) with caramel ice cream and a sherry reduction

1 and 2 could be served together, as a duo on the same plate. 3 wouldn't work with either of the first two, I don't think, so I'd need to find something else to pair it with. Or expand it out somehow into something that incorporated another wine and cheese.

Or perhaps I need to go back to the drawing board all together. Anybody have any ideas?

I'm eager to begin experimenting, but I haven't had time yet to do anything but conceptualize.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Robert is Here

I first read about this farm stand in Issue 70 of The Art of Eating. When I found out I was going to be in Homestead, FL for work, I had this vague inkling of having heard of that area before. Eventually I discovered the Fruit and Spice Park, which had been featured in the same article as Robert is Here, and slowly but surely I started to remember why all of this seemed so familiar.

Once I put all the pieces together, it was an easy decision to scrap my plans to hit South Beach and check out art-deco hotels, and instead take myself on a culinary tour of this south Florida farming community.

Robert is Here is certainly a strange name for a farm stand. Here's the story, according to the Art of Eating article:

[Robert's] father was a farmer who used brokers to sell his produce. One day a broker said he'd been unable to find a buyer for a large supply of cucumbers. Robert's father asked for them back, so he'd at least be able to reuse the crates. But what to do with the cucumbers? He decided to put his six-year-old son to work.

He dropped the boy off at a nearby crossroads on a Saturday morning, along with a table, the cucumbers and some change in a coffee can. Robert sat all day. When he was picked up at dusk, he hadn't sold a single cucumber. No one had even stopped.

That can't be, thought the father. Perhaps people hadn't even noticed the small boy? He retrieved two hurricane shutters from the barn, spray-pained "Robert is Here" on each, and sent the boy back out on Saturday morning.
Okay, today this story would end up in child neglect charges, but this was 1961. Robert sold all the cucumbers, and a business was born. He started taking donations of extra produce from neighboring farmers, although when they found out how much money he was making, he had to start paying them. During the school year, he'd set up his stand with a can labeled "honor system" during the day, and get dropped off by the school bus to work the afternoon shift. By the time he was age 8, things were too busy during the day to leave the stand alone, so Robert hired his first employee.

Robert is Here continues to be a family affair. When Robert was helping me pick out fruit for my Taste of the Tropics party, he pointed out all of his kids to me, working at various tasks around the stand. It's a friendly, family kind of place, just like you'd expect. Robert himself was a great host, cutting a perfectly ripe passionfruit in half for us to share, and helping me select guavas and papayas that would be perfectly ripe in exactly 2 days time (and they were).

I didn't try one of his famous Key Lime milkshakes - something I sorely regretted when my dinner plans got pushed back a couple of hours. In addition to fruits and vegetables, both ordinary and exotic, the stand also features a huge variety of sauces, jams, jellies and honeys, most of which are available on their website. They also ship citrus, and perhaps other fruit as well.

Robert is Here
19200 SW 344th St (aka Palm Dr)
Homestead, FL

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

More Chef Talk

What one dish is always on Charlie Trotter's holiday table? Beluga caviar and Krug champagne.

Who would Michelle Bernstein want as her personal chef? Mario Batali.

What snack would Jason Wilson leave for Santa? Valrhona chocolates, stuffed with salted caramel and bacon.

When did Tom Collicchio know he wanted to be a chef? When he was 15 years old and his father suggested it - one of the few times he actually listened.

Questions and answers taken from the current issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. The issue will only be available on planes for a few more days, but the article is online here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Taste of the Tropics

I came back from Florida with a suitcase full of fruit. Not oranges and grapefruits, as might be expected this time of year. My selections were a little more unusual. Spiraling clockwise to the center from bottom left: kumquats, black sapote, papaya, guava, dragonfruit, passionfruit, atemoya and carambola. I'd tried some of these before, but others were completely new. I'd always rather share a new discovery than keep it to myself, so I invited a bunch of friends over for a Taste of the Tropics.

The black sapote was the most unusual fruit we tried, I think. It's ripe when the outside is green black and extremely soft. The inside contains several large seeds and a very soft, chocolate pudding colored pulp. In fact, the texture is a lot like chocolate pudding too - very creamy and custardy. Flavorwise, it's hard to describe. It's very mild and slightly sweet, but somehow also suprisingly addictive - we just keep going back to it until the skin was scooped clean!

This is the inside of the Atemoya. It contains several dark black and poisonous seeds, which I'd removed before taking this picture. It's a hybrid of two slightly better known tropical fruits, the sugar apple and the cherimoya. The rollinia pictured in my Fruit and Spice Park post is also in the same family. The flesh is cool and moist and smells a little bit like mango and pineapple. The flavors are in the same vein but mostly sweet with a mild tanginess. This one was many people's favorite.

I forgot to take pictures of our next two fruits. After the Atemoya we moved on to Carambola. You've probably seen it before - when cut across the fruit, it looks like a star (thus it's more common name of star fruit) and is commonly used to decorate fruit trays. They come in several varieties. This one was among the sweetest, and even then it wasn't very. It was a deep yellow color and smelled like green peppers. It was very juicy and mild, slightly sweet and slightly tangy.

The contrast with our next entry was certainly pronounced! Kumquats are very intense. The pith is not as powerfully bitter as oranges and lemons and the like, but it does impart a bitter aftertaste. The pulp is sour, but there's some sweetness in there too. We found that it was much better to pop one in your mouth whole and eat it all at once than to take bites of a single kumquat. Eaten all together, the flavors meld into a very harmonious whole.

Dragonfruit is the fruit of a cactus. It's more pretty than tasty - you can understand its importance as a desert fruit because the flesh is just bursting with water. It smells kind of melony and floral. With the crunchy seeds, it's very reminiscent of kiwi fruit, but without the acid tang of kiwi. Instead there's sort of a mild watery flowery sweetness. Coming after the pungent kumquat, this made for a nice palate cleanser, but I'd probably change the order were I to do this again.

Most of us weren't very fond of the papaya. It looks and smells very much like cantaloupe. It tastes like... well... papaya. There's a hint of something odd about it. We think it's the latex - green papaya is a prolific source of latex, from which the meat-tenderizing enzyme papaian is produced - and that flavor seems to stick around even in the ripe fruit. It was much better sprinkled with a little lime juice. We also tasted the seeds, which have a distinct peppery bite. It was easy to see see why in some countries dried papaya seeds are used to adulterate more expensive black peppercorns.

We had to move the guava off the table while we were tasting the earlier fruits, because its lovely fruity muskiness was overwhelming our attempts to smell the milder fruits. But upon cutting, what was a pleasant aroma in the whole fruit became quite acrid and sharp. Once we could get past the smell, however, the flavor was really nice. Something like a cross between an apple and pear with a hint of musky mystery. This was definitely one to eat cut into wedges, so everyone could experience the variety of flavors and textures. It went from a a pear like skin to a really creamy smooth bit right in the center.

Passionfruit is one of my favorite flavors. When I made some passionfruit chocolate truffles for a sale earlier in the year, I was surprised to hear that many of my customers were not familiar with passionfruit. People were really skeptical that this was going to be good - a passionfruit is ripe and ready to eat when the outside starts to get wrinkly and dessicated. They're very light, so it's easy to think that it's going to be all dried up. But instead, they're filled with a tart and tangy pulp that surrounds a bunch of seeds (which you can eat or not as you so desire). Mmm.

I bought all these fruits at a Homestead, FL fruit stand called Robert is Here. More details on this mecca for fruit lovers is still to come.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Future of Zingerman's

Zingerman's lays out its vision for 2020. It includes:

  • Zingerman's will stay in and around Ann Arbor.
  • Zingerman's will grow to include 12 to 18 different businesses. A Mexican restaurant, bed and breakfast, candy company, Asian noodle restaurant, conference center and publishing company are among some of the ideas being tossed around.
  • Zingerman's will remain an open-book business for its employees, meaning all workers have access to - and are expected to know and understand - the company's financial records.
  • Zingerman's will establish its own nonprofit foundation.
  • Zingerman's will expand its educational opportunities to have international exchange programs for employees, an internship program and a scholarship program for people in the community who want a food career.
The article is a good quick overview of how the company developed from a deli to something resembling a foodie empire.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Fruit and Spice Park

Carambola (aka Star Fruit)

This week, I had the opportunity to visit a really fascinating place - the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead, FL. This 35 acre botanical garden has over 500 varieties of exotic fruits, herbs, spices and nuts from around the world. The park was mostly flattened by Hurricane Andrew, and they are still rebuilding. But there's plenty to see. Tours by tractor-driven tram are offered three times a day, and I highly recommended timing your visit to start with one. The biggest problem with the park is that the signage is nearly non-existent, so a tour is almost a necessity to know what you're looking at. And what you're tasting - visitors are invited to eat any fruit that's on the ground. Picking off of trees is forbidden to all except the tour guides, who will provide you with plenty of tasty snacks as they take you around the park.

The park is open year round, and because of Florida's climate and the diversity of plant species, there's always something new coming into season. Most of the fruits that are ripe that day are available for tasting at the gift shop/park entrance building. Fruit can't be taken out of the park, and none are available for sale. But fortunately, there's an excellent fruit stand just a few miles away called Robert is Here that carries many exotics. (Stay tuned for more about Robert is Here in a near future post.) Here are a few of my favorite pictures from the tour - check out my web album to see the rest and take a virtual tour with descriptions.

The stunningly beautiful flowers of the Guiana Chestnut.

Yellow coconut palm

Balsam Pear - considered a weed, but the prettiest I've ever seen!

Eating Rollinia (aka "snot fruit") fresh from the tree. Yum!

If you're a foodie in Florida, I highly recommend making a stop here. It's just 35 miles south of Miami, and right on the way to the Florida Keys.

Fruit & Spice Park
24801 S.W. 187th Avenue
Homestead, Florida 33031

Thursday, December 07, 2006

No-knead bread in action

Like practically every other foodblogger in the blogosphere, I've been playing around with the no-knead bread recipe that I linked to earlier. The gist of the recipe, for anyone's managed to avoid it, is that you make a very wet dough that you don't need to knead. You let it rise for 12-18 hours, do a few folds to form it into a ball, let it rise for 2 more hours, then bake in a preheated heavy pan, with the lid on for the first 30 minutes. The high liquid content evaporates lots of steam into the closed pan, which helps produce a perfect artisanal crust.

My first loaf didn't turn out very well - it overproofed, so I got zero oven spring. Plus it stuck to the floured towel, so was decidedly unphotogenic. Crust was great, but the interior was overly moist and just not very flavorful. I vowed to try again.

Thanks to a voluminous thread on eGullet and Rose Levy Berenbaum's blog, I was able to benefit from the experience of dozens of other no-knead bread bakers. The enameled cast iron pot I was using is pretty wide, so my bread had a tendency to spread out. I decided to try making a larger loaf so that the bread could get an assist in rising from the sides of the pan. And I added some semolina flour and upped the salt content to boost the flavor.

This time I watched the dough rather than the clock, and decided to stop the first rise at 15 hours rather than going all the way to 18. I used rice flour on my cotton towel for the second rise, and had no sticking. Based on other's reports, I knew that leaving the lid on for the whole 30 minutes would produce a thicker crust than I'd like, so I checked after 20 minutes, and took the lid off at 25 minutes. Another 25 minutes, and the internal temperature of the bread measured 209.5, so out it came (the target temperature is 210 - close enough!). The result is the perfect (if I do say so myself) loaf you see up above! Great crust and an nicely flavored crumb. Here's the recipe I settled on:

No-Knead Bread (large loaf)

20 oz King Arthur AP flour
4 oz semolina flour
3/8 tsp rapid rise yeast
4 tsp Morton kosher salt[1]
2 1/2 cups water

Combine flours, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Add water and mix to blend - dough will be quite sticky. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 12-18 hours at room temperature.

When the surface of the dough is covered with bubbles the dough is ready. Generously flour your counter and turn the dough out on it. Sprinkle the dough with some more flour, and flour your hands. Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter) in one direction, then in the other direction, to form a ball.

Place the ball seam side down on a generously floured cotton towel - rice flour seems to work the best (you can make your own by grinding rice finely in a blender or spice grinder). Cover loosely with the towel and let rise for 2 more hours - dough should double in size and stay indented slightly when poked with a finger.

At least 30 minutes for the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, placing your heavy cast iron, enameled or other pot and lid in the oven as it heats. When dough is ready, remove the hot pan from the oven and carefully invert the dough into the pot. It will now be seem side up. Shake the pan if necessary to even out the dough.

Cover and bake for 20-25 minutes, removing the lid just when the crust begins to brown. Remove the lid and turn the temperature down to 425 and then bake for another 25 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches about 210 degrees.

Cool completely on a rack before cutting. (Hard, I know, but you'll be rewarded with superior flavor and texture.)
Here's a link to Mark Bittman's new NYT article summarizing the learnings of the legions of no-knead bread bakers - "No Kneading, but Some Fine-Tuning." He includes many of the same suggestions that I've incorporated above, and there's a link to the original recipe from that article.

I'll certainly be making this again. It's too easy not to! In fact, it's nearly effortless, although you do need to plan in advance because of the long rise time. If you haven't tried it yet, what are you waiting for? Now is the time!

[1] Note - If you use Diamond Crystal kosher salt, you'll only need 3 1/2 tsp. If you use table salt, it's more like 2 1/4 tsp. This is because there are big differences in crystal size between brands of salt, and between kosher and non-kosher salt.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Wishlist: Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet

I don't have an easy-bake oven any more, but I have fond memories of baking itty-bitty cakes in my childhood. So I really MUST have this cookbook. It features 32 recipes from 26 chefs, all specially formulate for the Easy-Bake Oven! It includes recipes from such noteables as Rick Bayless, Mark Bittman, Bobby Flay, Gale Gand, and Mollie Katzen. Plus:

--Rare Easy-Bake Oven memorabilia, an illustrated timeline of the toy's first forty years, plus never-before-seen anecdotes and personal photos from the recipe contributors!
--Six removable recipe cards with fabulous, full-color photos of delicious dishes such as Queso Fundido with Roasted Poblano Vinaigrette, Warm Kumquat and Date Sticky Toffee Pudding, and Roasted Quail Breast with Wild Mushrooms and Pomme Anna.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Wish List: Stemmarkers

I found these in the Imbibe magazine holiday shopping guide, and I've been coveting them ever since. I like the idea of wine markers, but on all the ones I've seen, the charms are really dorky.

These foam rings have the advantage of being useable for those oh-so-trendy stemless wine glasses as well as the traditional kind.

And at $9.95 for a set of 10 ($8.95 if you order two or more), they're a great stocking stuffer! (I expect them to move from my "wish list" to my 'bought list" real soon now.) Made especially for the MoMA store by designer Eric Janssen.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Foodmomiac's Gift Guide for Food Lovers

Foodmomiac, one of my favorite foodbloggers, has created an amazing gift guide, just in time for the holidays. Whoever the foodie in your life is, you'll find a great gift idea for them there!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Eating El Paso

Last week my travels took me to the city of El Paso. I had a couple days of great meetings, and my contact there, José, was an excellent tour guide who was totally willing to indulge my foodblogging idiosyncrasies.

After a very long day of meetings on Wednesday, we wanted to go out to dinner. I showed him the list of restaurants that I'd assembled from my pre-trip research, and he picked out GeoGeskes. We actually ended up at Geskes Fire Grill, which is the sister restaurant to GeoGeskes and was much closer to where we were.

Despite the five TVs surrounding the bar, this would be a good restaurant to go to with a date, as there are a lot booths that really encourage sitting next to the person you're with. In fact, it was a little difficult in one of those booths to find a seating configuration that worked for a business meeting sort of dinner. But we managed.

My initial impression of the menu was fairly "eh." Burgers and other sandwiches, some not very exciting sounding entrees (although if I was a lobster fan I definitely would have been enticed by "The 'L' Pasta - Linguine, lobster, lemon, leeks.") I was also still recovering from the giant burrito I'd grabbed in the airport for lunch, so I think food just wasn't very appealing, and the idea of ordering an entree was overwhelming. So instead I ordered the sashimi appetizer and a house salad. José ordered a bacon cheeseburger with margarita fries.

As you can see in the pic, what they call sashimi isn't - it's a seared but still very rare piece of nice tuna. This happens to be just how I like my tuna, and the menu did state that it was seared, so I knew what I was getting myself into. It was drizzled with a sweet tamari glaze and sprinkled with sesame seeds and was all in all a delightful appetizer. The house salad was similarly well executed. Despite being an awfully busy salad - blue cheese, cashew bits, parmesan crackers, dried cranberries - it actually worked really well. It was perfectly dressed - a nice light coating of balsalmic vinaigrette on every leaf and not at all soggy.

José raved at length about his burger, but I didn't taste it so can't comment. I can, however, give huge raves to the margarita fries. This huge mound of shoestring fries with citrus salt would have fed at least two more people, and they were perfectly hot and crispy with a salty-sweet-sour tang. Excellent.

Service was not so good as the food, and at times it was actually overbearing. And my mojito was perhaps a little watery. Still, the food was much better than I expected from the menu, and I suspect those margarita french fries could be downright addictive.

Geske's Fire Grill
1506 Lee Treviño, Suite C
El Paso, TX

When I told José that I wanted to go to H&H Car Wash for lunch the next day, he was a little croggled. "No, really," I told him, "it's supposed to have really great food!" Later, as we walked past the people handwashing and detailing cars and into this divey little lunch counter, he made sure to remind me that he was doing this for me.

This was the first place I'd come across when I was searching for places to eat in El Paso. It seemed to be pretty high up on the lists of all the food cognoscenti. Here's a sample review from Chowhound. I knew I'd want to try some good Mexican food while I was in El Paso, so I decided to go for it. Lunch in a car wash - that would be a first!

As you'd expect, it's not much to look at. 3 tables and a bunch of stools at the counter. A stove covered in pots of this and that, which get moved out of the way to make room for other things. Menu posted on the wall.

We opted to try the chile rellenos and huevos rancheros. Both were good, although the chile rellenos were my favorite. José said they were almost as good as his mom's - high praise, indeed. He especially praised the beans, and when I asked him why, he told me that Mexican food is meant to be simple, and should taste like itself. Beans, cooked simply, mashed, and topped with just a little bit of cheese are the perfect example.

A pitcher full of potent salsa verdé added an extra kick to anything that needed it, and by the time we finished lunch, my face was bright red. A basket of fresh flour and corn tortillas on the side was the perfect accompaniment, and provided me with a fabulous revelation. Trying to tame the burn in my mouth, I finished up my lunch with a plain corn tortilla. It was amazing. I've had corn tortillas before, but they've been nothing to write home about. This one - just a locally made commercial one, not even handmade - tasted like pure, fresh sweet corn. A lovely finish to a lovely lunch.

H & H Car Wash and Coffee Shop
701 East Yandell Drive
El Paso, TX 79902

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Chicago Chefs Roundtable

Chicago Magazine sat down to chat with six of Chicago's best chefs about the star system, food plagiarism, ethics of food, and more. It's a good read.

My favorite line is from Grant Achatz of Alinea. In response to the question "Grant, you do a lot of local food sourcing. It seems like no one ever talks about that part of your food" he says "Of course they don’t. I make it all in the laboratory, in test tubes and petri dishes." That is certainly the perception about his kind of cooking. Which is really too bad.

Here's what the assembly had to say about celebrity chefdom:

Q: The celebrity chef thing: does it annoy you?
Bayless: It doesn’t really have anything to do with me as a chef. We play a role in the culture, so I do what I have to do for that. But in the long run, I have a bigger mission that I’m trying to accomplish and it allows me to do that.
Trotter: I don’t think anyone at this table got into the business because they thought they’d become a celebrity. Along the way, things happen and opportunity comes your way. But, as Rick says, it doesn’t change what you do. You’re still devoted to a much higher good. I keep pushing forward to refine what I do. It’s dreadful when you’re interviewing a person and you ask why he wants to be in this business: “Well, I see myself having a TV show.”
Kahan: That’s happening more and more. It’s creepy.
Trotter: You should go into this business because you love touching food and caressing food and cooking food—and you love to serve people. And you better love to serve more than being served. But we’re blessed because we have opportunities. We’ve benefited from what Paul Bocuse started in the sixties, and it just keeps going. I can only imagine what the situation will be in 15 years.
Bayless: It also enhances the livelihood. You figure out how much you have to do and how much you don’t have to do.
Stegner: Sometimes you feel like you can make a difference so you say yes to charities that touch you. But it’s a time management thing. Since my child came along I’ve pulled back a little bit. You just have to make time for it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Booty from Canada

So, in a previous post I wrote an ode to the Canadian McChicken Sandwich, but that's not the only thing I miss from the old country. The chocolate bars (note: not "candy bars") are also generally superior to their American counterparts. The milk chocolate is similar to British milk chocolate, and doesn't have that waxy chalky Hershey's flavor. That's why the Reese peanut butter cups are pictured above - sure, you can get those here, but the Canadian ones taste completely different because of the superior chocolate. And I think the peanut butter filling is a little less sweet. Note that they are "Reese" not "Reese's" and that they come in a pack of 3 as their standard size.

Above the peanut butter cups is Coffee Crisp. My husband tells me that they have these in the vending machine at his office building, so perhaps they are available in the US now. (Just checked, and according to, Nestle began marketing them nationally in the US in July of 2006.) But for a long time they were the number one chocolate bar people requested for me to bring back from Canada. According to its Wikipedia page, Coffee Crisp is "a combination of coffee cream, cookie wafers and milk chocolate coating." I like them alright, but my husband is the real fan in the family. He especially likes eating them frozen.

I've saved my favorite for last. Crunchies. A Crunchie is sponge toffee covered in milk chocolate. The sponge toffee has a nice bitter edge that makes for a perfect counterpoint to the chocolate. The only downside is a tendency to stick to your teeth. But they are definitely one of my all time favorite chocolate bars. I understand that sponge toffee isn't very hard to make, so I may try my hand at making a homemade version.

(Not pictured: the Crispy Crunch I ate before I thought about this blog post. As described in the link, it's a lot like a Butterfinger - the same flaky crunchy kind of texture - but the flavor is different and much better. Butterfingers always taste really artificially flavored and nasty to me.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

My Dirty Little Secret

Every time I go to Canada, I have to stop at McDonald's and get a McChicken Sandwich. I almost never go to McDonald's in the US - preferring Burger King or Taco Bell when my only option is fast food - but as soon as I cross the border, the craving sets in.

Although it may look like any crispy chicken sandwich served at lots of fast food restaurant in the US, it is a different thing. I remember as a teen ordering a McChicken sandwich from McDonald's while on vacation in the States, and being horrified that it was not the same.

Unlike most chicken sandwiches, it is not all white meat, but a mix of white and dark in a fabricated patty shape. Mmm - doesn't that sound good already? The sauce is not mayonnaise, but McChicken sauce, which is somewhat closer to Miracle Whip. Same sesame seed bun as the rest of McDonald's products, and the same shredded iceburg lettuce (of which I would have appreciated a more generous handful on the pictured example). I don't know what the flavoring mix in the coating is, but there's something about it that I love, and the combination of it all is just inherently satisfying.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, it's not a tremendously popular item. Popular enough to keep on the menu, but not so much that they're being cooked fast enough to always be fresh. If you're lucky they'll cook yours to order - and there's nothing better than a McChicken sandwich than a McChicken sandwich that's piping hot from the fryer. Well worth the wait. But if you're there at the wrong time, you can end up with the one that's been sitting in the warming drawer for the full duration of its 20 minutes lifespan, and the quality does decline.

I should note that I worked at McDonald's for nearly 5 years as a teenager, so I suppose I imprinted on them at an impressionable age. But if you find yourself in Canada and need to grab a quick lunch, you could do much worse than a McChicken.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Saturday Morning Pancakes

Nearly every Saturday morning since my son was able to stand on a chair, he and I have made pancakes together. Or "cakies" as he called them until just recently. I measure, he dumps and stirs. We cook up the whole batch at once, and put the leftovers in the fridge. They reheat well in the microwave or toaster oven, and he'll eat one a day for breakfast all week long.

I figure by the time he's 3 or 4, he should be able to make them all by himself.
(adapted from the Joy of Cooking)
1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c all-purpose flour
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 3/4 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 1/4 c milk
1 egg

Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl.

Stir together butter, milk, and egg. If your milk is cold from the fridge, add it slowly to the hot butter and mix constantly with a fork to prevent big chunks of butter from forming.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix to combine. Add extra milk if it's too thick.

Drop scant 1/4 c portions onto a hot, lightly oiled (or non-stick) griddle or frying pan. Cook until dry around the edges and bubbles appear in the center. Flip, and cook just until done, about 30 seconds to 1 minute, longer.

Makes about 10 4-inch pancakes.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Jambalaya for 24

This is a recipe I've made for my cohousing community several times. We have people in the community with shellfish allergies, so it's shrimp free, but you could certainly add shrimp at the end, and substitute some clam stock for the chicken stock. When I put this on the menu I was worried about getting all the rice cooked without burning it on the bottom, since most jambalaya recipes call for cooking everything together in one pot, and I just didn't see that working in bulk. To get around that, this recipe cooks the rice separately and combines it with the rest of the ingredients before serving. It makes for a really easy and nearly foolproof recipe, without sacrificing flavor or texture, IMO.

Cohousing Jambalaya (serves 24)
(recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated)
6 cups long grain white rice
9 cups chicken stock
4 onions (peeled, ends trimmed, and quartered)
4 ribs celery (cut crosswise into quarters)
2 red peppers (stemmed, seeded and quartered)
2 green peppers (stemmed, seeded and quartered)
1 head garlic (cloves separated and peeled)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 lbs andouille sausage (halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4 inch pieces)
20 bone-in chicken thighs (skin removed [1])
2 lg (28 oz) cans diced tomatoes
1 tsp salt
2 tsp fresh thyme
6 bay leaves
1/2 - 1 tsp cayenne (optional - see [2])
1/2 c chopped parsley

Combine rice and chicken stock in a rice cooker and start cooking.

Chop the vegetables (onion through garlic) in a food processor. It will take about 6 1-second pulses - do not overprocess - you want finely chopped, not puree. It's okay if there are a few larger bits in the mix. Work in batches, with some of each ingredient in each batch. The number of batches will depend on the size of your food processor. Set aside.

In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil over high heat, then add the andouille and cook until it's browned all over. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside, leaving the fat in the pot.

Add chopped vegetables and cook until soft. Add cooked sausage, tomatoes, salt, thyme, bay leaves and cayenne (if using) to pot and bring to a boil. Add chicken thighs and cook until chicken is done, about 20-25 minutes.

Remove chicken from liquid and set aside to cool slightly. Meanwhile, stir the now-cooked rice into the liquid. Turn heat to very low or off entirely - the pot will keep its heat for a long time. When chicken is cool enough to handle, pull it off the bone into bite size pieces and stir it back into the rice mixture.

By this time the rice should have sucked up all the yummy liquid and it should be nicely integrated and ready to serve.
[1] Quick tip for removing chicken skin - loosen it with your fingers, then use a paper towel to grip the skin and pull - it will pull right off. Don't worry about getting off every last bit of fat - you want the flavor.
[2] The amount of cayenne you need will depend on the level of heat in the andouille you're using, and how spicy the crowd you're cooking for likes it. If your sausage is particularly mild, you might need to increase the amount beyond the range I list here. I have a mixed crowd with kids and adults and the sausage I use is quite spicy, so I omit the cayenne when I make it and put hot sauce out on the side for those that want to punch up the heat.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Eating California

I haven't been posting very much lately because I've been on the road a lot for work. And not necessarily in a way that gets me out to restaurants that inspire great foodie posts. For example, here's what the last couple of days have looked like:

Sunday afternoon on the plane, flying to LA - bottled water, 2 clementines

Sunday night
- Dinner with friends at Cozymel's, a Mexican chain restaurant. I was starving, so I ate way too many chips and salsa and couldn't eat much of my dinner, which was a really tasty slow-roasted pork with some lovely housemade flour tortillas.

Way too early Monday morning - leftovers from Cozymel's, eaten with my fingers

Slightly later
- orange juice in the hotel restaurant

- A chicken taco salad at Taco Bell. I wanted an In-N-Out burger (I've never had one, but know people who rave about them), but there weren't any on the restaurant row where we had to grab a quick bite to eat. I would have gone for Tommy's World Famous Burgers (also highly lauded as better than average fast food) instead, but I ceded control of the restaurant choice to the driver a minute too late, and she picked Taco Hell.

At the airport
- A four-cheese pizza from Wolfgang Puck Express. I wanted the spinach salad with gorgonzola and caramelized pecans and other yumminess, but this is California, so they're still not serving spinach.

I know there's way better food than this is in LA, and some day I hope to eat some of it. I'd briefly entertained the idea of going to Lucques for Sunday Supper, but opted to see friends instead. Oh well - there's always next time.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Ugliest Vegetable Competition

A parsnip has won the accolade of 'ugliest veg'.

We are happy to announce that a parsnip grown in Bedfordshire, but resembling a creature from the abyss, is top of the crops in our Ugly Veg Competition to find the ugliest veg in England.

The overall winner, grown by Mrs Hilary Nellist in Bedford, stood out from the rest of the vegetables, its tangled shape giving it an uncanny similarity to a creature from the depths of the ocean.

I wish there were pictures of more of the runner-ups too, such as the "rhino-like tomato."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Zebra Milk

Top-flight London hotel manages to procure zebra milk for picky guest

And while we're talking about unusual milks, a classic thread from eGullet on why we don't have pig milk cheese.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

No-knead bread

Just finished reading this very interesting article in the New York Times, and now I can't wait to get home to try making some bread!

Mr. Lahey’s method is striking on several levels. It requires no kneading. (Repeat: none.) It uses no special ingredients, equipment or techniques. It takes very little effort.

It accomplishes all of this by combining a number of unusual though not unheard of features. Most notable is that you’ll need about 24 hours to create a loaf; time does almost all the work. Mr. Lahey’s dough uses very little yeast, a quarter teaspoon (you almost never see a recipe with less than a teaspoon), and he compensates for this tiny amount by fermenting the dough very slowly. He mixes a very wet dough, about 42 percent water, which is at the extreme high end of the range that professional bakers use to create crisp crust and large, well-structured crumb, both of which are evident in this loaf.

What makes Mr. Lahey’s process revolutionary is the resulting combination of great crumb, lightness, incredible flavor — long fermentation gives you that — and an enviable, crackling crust, the feature of bread that most frequently separates the amateurs from the pros.
Edited to add: Here's a link to a really detailed discussion of the recipe on eGullet with precise weight measurements and lots of tips for improving the results.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

And now for something completely different

How to read a pet food label

Really interesting commentary on shopping for dog food, with detailed label analysis of several brands.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Where food comes from

This past Friday, my usually separate worlds of work and foodblogging overlapped, when I went for a site visit to a meatpacking facility in Colorado. We are doing a study of manufacturing employers who are partnering with community colleges to help Hispanic immigrant employees pursue higher education, and we found a really wonderful example of such a partnership in rural Colorado.

Part of our site visit included a tour of the facility. Going in, I will admit to being a little concerned. I'm an avowed meat eater - would seeing cows become meat turn me off of beef forever?

Judging from the roast beef sandwich I ate in the company cafeteria shortly after the tour was over, the answer would seem to be a definitive no. But it did give me a whole new level of understanding about how our meat gets to supermarket shelves, and a whole new level of respect for the people who do the sometimes brutal and always hard work of getting it there.

Note: the following includes explicit descriptions of meat processing. I don't think there's anything too icky, but I figured a warning was in order.

The first thing you notice upon getting out of the car in the parking lot is the smell. It was earthy and organic, but also unpleasant and pervasive. Fortunately, most of the plant doesn't smell that way. The smell comes from the rendering building, where meat by-products such as bones and blood and tissue are turned into things that can be sold. Thankfully, we did not tour the rendering building, because I expect the smell inside must have been truly oppressive.

We also did not see the part of the facility where the cows are slaughtered. But we did see bits and pieces of nearly everything after that. We started at the end, where boxes of meat are on shelves 10 or 20 stories high, and a robotic system pulls them off the shelves as needed to fill palletes and load them onto trucks. Then on to the boxers, packing various cuts of meat into boxes, and the packagers, loading meat into plastic bags and onto conveyer belts that lead to cryovac machines. Eventually we moved on to the meat cutting floor, where workers cut the larger cuts into smaller pieces. They used meat hooks and sharp knives (proper knife sharpening is one of the most important skills new employees need to learn) and wear chainmail gloves and a tunic to prevent injury.

It was interesting to see the larger pieces being pulled apart into muscle groups for processing. The plant has been paying attention to ergonomics, and there were various tools to reduce the physical labor required - machines that inject air into the meat to reduce the physical effort required to pull apart the muscle groups, for instance. But make no mistake - this is hard, hard work. Our guide said that there are no easy jobs in the company - just ones that are hard and a little less hard.

The further we moved into the plant, the larger the cuts got. We walked through an entire room of sides of cattle, hanging and waiting for their turn to be cut into steaks and roasts. We got to see the USDA graders and inspectors assessing each side of beef and giving it a grade of Prime, Choice or Select (based on the amount of marbeling) and a number from 1 to 5 based on the thickness of the exterior fat. The graders work side by side with a computerized camera that is capable of doing the same grading task, but which is not yet approved for exclusive use by the US government.

Our guide talked about the techniques that they use to track individual cows through the plant, so that they can track them down in case of a recall or other issue. The plant was an interesting mix of old and new technology - there was one spot where we could see all of the conveyor belts going over and under one another across the whole floor, and it was pretty amazing to see. But at the same time, they use really sophisticated computer tracking equipment to track each piece of meat.

Eventually we entered the "kill floor." This is the name for the entire section before the cows become sides of beef, not just the part where they are slaughtered (which we did not see). But it was the part of the plant where the connection of cow to meat is indisputable. And as difficult as it must be to spend your entire work day cutting meat, I can't imagine being the person whose job it is to stand on a moving conveyor belt, gut the cow, and pull out its internal organs, with stomach and small intestines and other organs all piling up around your feet. And then do another one. That's an image that's going to stay with me for a long time.

Further on in the kill floor section, we saw our first significant amount of blood, as cows that have recently been killed hung head down, with blood still dripping as they are washed and then stripped of their hides, heads and hooves. Our group made it through this section (the last thing we saw) without incident, but our guide reported that in a previous tour of cattle ranchers, one of the ranchers nearly fainted.

This is a very large scale processing plant. They process over 4,000 cows every day. These cows show up as some of the best known brands of meat in your supermarket. I rarely buy supermarket meat, preferring to go to a local butcher who gets meat that has been naturally and sustainably raised. I'll continue to do that, but my confidence in the safety (if not taste or quality) of mass market beef was definitely bolstered by my trip to the processing plant. There are numerous safeguards in place All the cows have their teeth inspected, and those over 18 months are pulled out for special processing (cows under 18 months are not susceptible to mad cow disease). USDA inspectors examine the glands of each cow, checking for any abnormality. After being stripped of their hides, the cows are put through a very high-tech piece of equipment where cameras and computers detect the presence of any "vegetable" (aka fecal) matter on the cow, and those that have it are pulled out for additional cleaning.

As I've said already, the work is difficult, even brutal. I can't imagine holding any of these jobs, which pay between $11 and $16 an hour. But nearly every person we saw on the line took the time to turn to look at us and smile. The company does everything they can to make these jobs more tolerable and to support their employees, including offering the really exciting workplace education program we were there to investigate. Many of the employees we'd talked to had been working at the plant for 10 years or more, and they were all really enthusiastic about the opportunity the job presented for them - not only to make a living wage for their families, but also to learn English (85% of the employees are Hispanic), get their GEDs, or go to college.

All in all, it was a really fascinating experience, and I'm really pleased to have had the opportunity.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Wine Club - Cotes du Rhone

Wine Club this week was Cotes du Rhone. We didn't have as good a food pairing as we should have had for this one (I should have saved some of my cassoulet from the week before), so I expect the "with food" scores would have been higher with another pairing. All scores are averages across the group (the scores with the "/" indicate the range across the group). Notes are a compilation of the entire group's comments. Personally, I was at the high end, giving most of these wines a score of 4. The exception for me was the Les Queyrades, which I found absolutely vile. But other people in the group really liked it, so I don't think it was a flawed wine.

2003 Chateau Suzeau Cotes du Rhone FR
Light garnet, fading to brown on the edge. Pleasant cherry fruit nose. This light bodied wine opens with early fruit which fades quickly to an empty midpoint, but comes back with a strong and long mineral finish. Lots of slate, like "licking rocks." 3.1 food, 2.9 alone. 2/5 food, 1/5
alone. $14.99

2004 Domaine du Vieux Chene "Cuvee Beatrice" Cotes du Rhone Villages FR
Deep ruby, with a big nose. A little stinky, but in a good way, like camembert. Rich blackberry fruit in a full rich wine with pronounced tannins and a mineral finish. 3.2 alone, 3.3 food. 2/4 alone, 2/4 food. $18.99

2003 Les Queyrades Lirac AOC FR
Red with a hint of orange. Complex nose - pomegranate and green notes along with plenty of dark, earthy, fermented notes. Minimal fruit, peppery and mineraly, with high acidity and heavy tannins. 2.1 alone, 2.6 food. 1/4 alone, 1/4 food. $17.99

2004 Domaine Mireille & Vincent Cotes du Rhone
Red with a hint of orange. Lots of sweet red fruit (strawberry candy) on the nose plus fresh mown grass, and a little bit of barnyard. Light bodied, with unexpected citrusy flavors, some minerals, and a long finish. 3.4 alone, 3.7 food. 2/5 alone, 2/5 food. $11.99

To eat, we had a really nice English farmhouse cheese. The Lincolnshire Poacher is an aged cheese similar to a cheddar. It was a good accompaniment to the wines, as it had quite a bit of the "barnyard" stench that shows up in Rhone wines. It was certainly strong enough to stand up to the earthy elements in some of the wines. It had lots of "flavor crystals" - little amino acid crystals that are a sign of a long-aged hard cheese (you see them in the best parmesan as well) and I always love those in a cheese. Nice crumbly texture. Cotes du Rhones are considered classic food wines, so I had hoped to have some more "dinner" like food to show them with, but my food shopper hit some snags, so we just ended up with the cheese.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A dinner at Keyah Grande

I've written here before about Ideas in Food, one of the most exciting and cutting edge food blogs out there. The authors, Chefs Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, cook at a resort/lodge kind of place in the middle of nowhere Colorado. It's so off the beaten track that reviews of the food are almost nonexistent - even the diehardest of culinary tourists haven't made it there. If you've ever checked out the blog, you know that the food looks awesome (their photographic skills are incredible), but you can't help but wonder how it all tastes. Clear buttermilk. Foie gras cotton candy. Black radish chow fun. Some of it sounds good, some of it sounds just plain odd.

Well, finally our curiousity can be satisfied. Dedicated foodie Eliot Wexler took one for the team and made the trek. His extensive write up, with lots of great pictures, is posted on eGullet. In short, the answer is - yes, the food is as good as it looks. Maybe even better.

I doubt I'll ever get to Keyah Grande, but Aki and Alex have been pretty open about their plan to eventually set up shop on one or another coast, and that will be a much liklier prospect for me.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Wish List: Fine Chocolates, Great Experience

The more I learn about chocolate making, the more I realize how little I know. I started this truffle making thing on a whim, and now I'm pretty much hooked. At this point I'm making hand dipped truffles, mostly with ganache centers. I added a caramel to the mix this last batch, spreading my wings a little bit. But there's a whole world of chocolate to explore out there, and from what I've heard, this book is the tour guide to take with me.

In addition to over 100 recipes, Jean-Pierre Wybauw's book features detailed scientific information on things like crystallization and shelf life, which will be particularly important as I start to think about broader distribution of my creations. Candymaking is a very precise art, and getting a deeper understanding of the whys and and wherefores will help me to figure out why something did or didn't work.

But at the price (even heavily discounted at Amazon it's $59.85) it's not something I can just pick up on a whim. So onto the wish list it goes.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The importance of tasting

I named this blog Tammy's Tastings for a couple of reasons. One, I like alliteration. And two, and perhaps more importantly, because I think that consciously tasting is the best way to learn about food.

I've run and attended tastings of a huge variety of foods - olive oil, vinegar, bacon, maple syrup, to name but a few. When my husband bought me a four pack of single origin chocolate bars for Valentines Day, the first thing I did was invite friends over for a side by side compare and contrast.

Blind tasting in particular is important. Every month I learn something new from the blind tastings we use in my wine club. Whenever we eat or drink something, we bring to it a lifetime's worth of experience and emotion and knowledge. I "know" that I like French wines better than domestic. So hand me a glass of California Chardonnay and a glass of White Burgundy, and I'm going to look for things I like in the Burgundy, and things I don't like in the California Chard. It's human nature. Hiding all the identifying features of a wine, or a food, or whatever it is, really lets you taste it on its own terms.

I was inspired to write this post by a recent experience with apples. I grew up eating Macintosh apples. That's what my family bought, and I barely knew that other kinds of apples existed! (Okay, I knew about Red Delicious, but even then I recognized that they were a triumph of appearance over flavor.) When I grew older and more worldly, I started eating other kinds of apples. Jonagolds, Empire, Pink Lady, Granny Smith. I found a couple that I particularly liked - Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp - but for the most part I wasn't an apple fan. But I never bought Macintosh. Those were the "average" apples. The "regular" apples. I was a gourmet. I was too sophisticated for the simple Mac.

A couple weeks ago, someone put some apples out for dessert. The package just said "apples." I took one, and it was the best apple I'd tasted in years. And - as I'm sure you've guessed - it turned out to be a Mac.

Tasting is important.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Things to do with duck fat, part two in a series

The duck fat roasted pumpkin seeds were a success, but I still had most of a container of duck fat sitting in my fridge. When I needed a quick and easy dinner on Friday, I decided to make breakfast for dinner. Scrambled eggs, sauteed mushrooms, some home-cured maple bacon from my friend in Chicago, and potatoes pan fried in duck fat.

Duck Fat Potatoes
1 lb potatoes
3 tbsp duck fat
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the potatoes into smallish pieces - maybe 3/4 inch? You can peel them if you like - I was using some new red potatoes, so I just left the skins on. Melt the duck fat in a pan, add the potatoes, and season with salt and pepper. Put a loosely fitting lid on the pan and let cook 10 minutes over medium to medium-high heat before stirring - you want the potatoes to get nice and crusty. Stir, and continue to cook loosely covered for about 15-20 minutes, stirring very occasionally, until the potatoes are browned and crispy on the outside and cooked through. Serve hot.
There are a couple things about duck fat that make it superior to oil or other fats for this application. One is flavor - the duck fat has a lot of flavor compared to something like canola oil, and a more savory flavor profile than olive oil. So it imparts a lot of flavor to the potatoes. The day I cooked these, I was suffering from a recurring sodium sensitivity that I have. Salt-less potatoes are usually less interesting than library paste, but these were actually pretty good (although the ones my husband sprinkled salt on were even better).

The second thing is crispiness. I'm not sure the mechanism behind it (smoke point? saturated vs. non-saturated?) but I found that - as compared to oil fried potatoes - these potatoes got crispier and browner without getting greasy.

I still have about half the container in the fridge, so stay tuned for part three.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Now *that's* style

Alain Ducasse's publicist contacted the Amateur Gourmet, asking him to plug their $320 white truffle tasting menu. Sure, said the Amateur Gourmet, buy me dinner, and I'd love to. Never hurts to ask, right?

Especially not when the answer is yes. Read all about it in this restaurant review a la web comic.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Wish List: Thermapen

I keep coming across culinary-related items that I covet, and thought I would start sharing the list here. Not because I'm looking for readers to buy me anything (although I certainly wouldn't complain), but I figure that if I think something is cool, the rest of you might too.

I've been coveting this Thermapen digital thermometer ever since I first saw it on America's Test Kitchen. It's got an ultra-thin probe, which allows it to give ultra-fast temperature readings. Most inexpensive digital thermometers take 20 seconds or longer to give an accurate temperature reading. The Super-Fast version of the Thermapen takes just 4 seconds (the "standard" with a slightly thicker and sturdier tip, takes 8-10 seconds).

At $85, it's not cheap. But it's right at the top of my wish list anyway!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"Guilt-Free Gluttony"

It has long been suspected that drinking red wine confers some health benefits, but researchers have recently pinpointed a molecule found in red grapes or wine that might be responsible. This BBC report entitled "Wine Allows Guilt-Free Gluttony," describes the role that resveratrol was found to play in the health of mice eating a high fat diet.

To investigate the effects of the molecule on mammals, the researchers looked at middle-aged mice fed on a high-calorie diet, with 60% of the calories coming from fat.

These mice shared many of the problems of humans on an equivalent diet, including obesity, insulin resistance and heart disease.

They discovered the mice given resveratrol alongside their food did not lose weight but they showed decreased glucose levels, healthier hearts and liver tissue, and better motor function compared with the mice on the same diet but without the supplement.
So, the article seems to be saying, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too. As long as we eat it with a big glass of red wine.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Everything is better with duck fat

We carved our Jack-o-lantern last night, and as I was getting ready to roast the resulting pumpkin seeds, I realized that I had leftover duck fat in the fridge from the great cassoulet adventure. Since duck fat is the king of fats, I couldn't resist trying it. My husband wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about the possibilities (it was him saying "don't do anything weird or French to them" that made me remember the duck fat), so I did a batch with butter as well, for a compare and contrast.

They're both good, but there are definitely some subtle differences. The ones with butter taste a little popcorny in a way the duck fat ones do not. The duck fat ones have a little hint of meatiness or umami.

Duck Fat Roasted Pumpkin Seeds
1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds
2 tsp melted duck fat
kosher salt to taste

Toss washed pumpkin seeds with melted duck fat and sprinkle with kosher salt. Roast in a single layer at 300 degrees for 45 minutes or until as brown as you like them, stirring at the halfway point and later if necessary.
Mmm. Duck fat.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hot Chocolate

My last night in Chicago, I went out for dinner with 10 people from eGullet to Hot Chocolate. Hot Chocolate is the restaurant of well known Chicago pastry chef Mindy Segal (pictured at left, whipping us up some milkshakes). I first had her desserts at an otherwise disappointing meal at MK, and not wanting to go back to MK, I was thrilled to hear she'd opened her own restaurant.

Thanks to Ronnie's previous visits to the restaurant for dessert, he was able to talk directly to Mindy and let her know we'd be coming in. They set us up at the kitchen table - just outside of the kitchen, actually, but with a good view of the pass and the activity going on.

The menu is pretty relaxed - five or six starters, four salads, a few sandwiches, and a handful of entrees. With such a large group, we managed to try nearly everything on the starters and entrees lists. The starters were mostly pretty good - with my brandade ("a classic French dish of salt cod, potato and garlic puree") being a highlight. The entrees, on the other hand, were nearly all disappointing - some oversalted, some underseasoned, some cold, some overcooked. Which was too bad. I'm not sure if the kitchen just wasn't used to serving that number of people at once, or if this is a more general problem (I have heard the accusations of oversalting in other forums).

But then there were the desserts. When it came time for dessert, Ronnie asked Mindy to just take care of us. And that's how I managed to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams - tasting every dessert on the menu. I'll admit to being a dessert junky, and I find it so hard to pick just one! This was one night that I didn't have to. Mindy sent out 11 desserts - one per person - and we passed them around in a hilarious frenzy of chocolate and sugar. We were all laughing from the sheer extravagence of so much dessert excess. It was truly awesome.

The desserts (descriptions are from the menu):

Apples - warm heirloom apple turnovers, roasted apple ice cream and brown butter-cider "buerre blanc"

Raspberry Preserve - house-made brioche pudding with raspberry preserve, fresh whipped cream, and vanilla bean clementine orange sorbet

Pear - roasted bartlett pear "cobbler," ginger snap ice cream, port wine and tapioca broth

Pumpkin/Pecan - "Cinderella pumpkin" pie in a graham cracker crust with maple-pecan ice cream and toffee sauce

Banana (Volume VII) - "banana split": chocolate brownie, caramelized bananas, banana sherbet, cocoa nib chocolate chip ice cream, chocolate sorbet, chocolate sauce and butterscotch

Mocha Milk Chocolate 38% - Mocha mousse "dome" with a dulce de leche caramel espresso shortbread and tiramisu creme

Chocolate (64%) - A warm souffle tart, salted caramel ice cream and pretzels

Chocolate (72%) Cake and Shake - "all American chocolate cake." Layers of chocolate buttermilk cake, bittersweet chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache butter cream and served with a vanilla bean milk shake

Creme Brulee - A classic custard infused with vanilla bean and a caramelized crust served with fresh figs

Warm Brioche Donuts - Warm and delicious, served with hot fudge (thanks to Ronnie for the picture - I managed to miss this one)

Cookies and Vanilla Bean Milkshakes - An assortment of cookies, and a little shotglass sized milkshake for each of us.

Living in a town with a sad lack of restaurants doing interesting *plated* desserts, this was like heaven for me. Everything was great, and in the flurry of eating it was hard to take notes or remember details. Some of my favorites were the seasonal desserts - the pumpkin/pecan, apples, and pear. Of the "signatures" the mocha milk dome and the chocolate (64%) were slightly more awesome than the rest. All of the ice creams and sorbets were great, and if I go back, I'll certainly be tempted to just go for a flight of those.

If I lived in Chicago, I'd probably go for dessert here once a week. (Although maybe on a weekday - we were there on a Friday night, and the music was louder and the atmosphere more "clubby" than we would have liked.) Given our dissappointing entrees, however, I'd probably get dinner elsewhere. Or better yet - just grab a salad or starter (all of which were good) and maybe a cheese course (the cheese list looks great) before heading into dessert, which is where the star of Hot Chocolate shines most brightly.

Hot Chocolate
1747 Damen Ave
Chicago, IL 60647