Sunday, November 18, 2007

De Minimis - Part 1

I like Mark Bittman, I really do. He's the food guy who writes the New York Times column called "The Minimalist," and has written some cookbooks with severely "maximalist" titles, such as How to Cook Everything and The Best Recipes in the World. I like his curmudgeonly Jewish humor. I like his persona somewhere between no-nonsense and impatient. He always seems to be cutting out the clutter, but along the way he cuts out a few very important details, dismissing them as de minimis, if you will. That's where Fooditude comes to the rescue.

In this, the first installment of De Minimis, I am rebutting a point Bittman made last month in an interview on KCRW's Good Food program hosted by Evan Kleiman. He talks about how much better ground meat is when you grind your own. Unless you have a proper butcher to take care of your needs, which few Americans do these days, the only alternative is to buy the ground chuck or ground sirloin bought by supermarkets in huge tubes or slabs and then divvied up.

I agree with him wholeheartedly on this, but then he proceeds to say that he doesn't bother with a meat grinder and for fifteen years has ground his meat quite successfully in a food processor. This is bad advice, Mr. Minimalist. A food processor will certainly chop meat into smaller pieces, but it will render it into dense mush. A real meat grinder, which is not a big deal to use, pushes the meat through a die, like a spaghetti maker, creating the all-important grain of the ground meat.

I believe in a good hot grill. I believe in keeping spices and fancy additives to a minimum. But I believe that the single most important factor in making a good burger is not to over-handle the meat when making it into patties. Why? To preserve the grain, the space in between, the texture of the grinding! This yields a juicier burger, with an almost crumbly texture. And this is only possible, of course, when the meat has been fed through a grinder.

Years ago I bought an old cast iron grinder for five bucks at a flea market, which clamps to any counter or table top. You can buy a new one at for about fifteen.

As I am wont to do, I shall now close by quoting from the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd:
"Three times. That's the secret. Three times through for them to be tender and juicy. Three times through the grinder. Smoothly, smoothly."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Remembrance of Things Fried

Some people's nostalgia has no limits. An article in this weekend's AM New York by David Freedlander entitled, "Is NYC trying to go sin-free?" bemoans the possibly imminent extinction of the city's OTB gambling parlors.

The article begins, "First it was your cigarettes. Then it was your cheeseburgers. Now they want your racing form."

Cheeseburgers? First of all, if billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg is having qualms about bilking the poor souls with too much time on their hands who frequent OTB, one can't really fault his motivation. But what irks me is that this writer is trying to draw a comparison with the landmark 2006 law that made New York the first city to ban artificial trans-fats from restaurants.

Let's get something straight. Nobody has banned cheeseburgers. As unhealthful as they may be in excess, they are still available everywhere. Second, a cheeseburger is a lousy example of a trans fat food anyway. There may be some hydrogenated oil in the bun, if it's crappy, or in the cheese, if it's a fake, processed "cheese food product," but that's it. Deep fried items like french fries and onion rings are the real target of this ban. Or donuts and pastries, etc. And those items are all still available, too, only now they are fried in less processed oil, which makes them somewhat less deadly.

One average local denizen is quoted as saying, "New York is less fun because we can't do anything anymore... we have no liberties." Gimme a break.

Freedlander even goes so far as to consider all this part of the trend that started with Giuliani and the "Disneyfication" of Times Square. But are trans fats really a lost relic of "old New York," poetic symbols of a simpler, lovelier time, a scruffier, more authentic era, a lost innocence?

No, they are a result of the agricultural-industrial complex that produces inert food with a long shelf life, thereby shortening the shelf lives of all who consume it. Good riddance.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Forbidden Taste

Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter. Since Democritus and Aristotle, these have been known as the four tastes a person is capable of experiencing. But a century ago in Japan, a theory emerged about a fifth taste, which has been either unknown or actively denied in the West. It's called umami, and it translates as "savoriness," or "meatiness" or sometimes just "deliciousness." It is written thus:


The Chinese know it as xiānwèi. The glutamates prevalent in protein-rich foods are thought to be the source of umami, which is why the addition of monosodium gluatamate, or ajinomoto, makes things taste more rounded and deeply savory.

In this illustration of the tongue, orange represents the place that senses bitterness, green sourness, blue saltiness and purple sweetness. At the center of it all is the yellow -- that's right, umami, that elusive, hard-to-define fifth taste. For more about the history of the discovery of umami, check out this recent Food program on NPR.

By the way, this raises all sorts of confusing questions about the art of French kissing. Which part of the tongue is capable of tasting another tongue? Perhaps there's a special French word for that.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Sweetest Thing

My old friend and partner-in-food-crime Leanboy 2000 has made some crazy claims in his day. But one sticks out in my memory. For some reason, he spent most of the early 90s (when "2000" still sounded futuristic) talking about Vidalia onions. He was fond of saying that these rare and pricey onions were so sweet, you could just bite into one and eat it "like an apple." I remember thinking, is he just rattling off the Vidalia ad slogan? Has he been drinking their marketing Kool-Aid, or has he really been eating these things like an apple?

Vidalia, like other "sweet" onions of the world, have less sulfur and more water than the average onion, emphasizing the sugar content. Some alchemy in the local soil down in Georgia makes this possible. They are one of the few onions to have what basically amounts to an appellation d'origine contrôlée. They even have their own official mascot, the Yumion.

Needless to say, curiosity eventually got the better of me and I forked over a fairly ridiculous amount of dollars per pound to buy some Vidalias. I felt pretty foolish as my teeth sank into the flesh and my mouth was filled was the taste of... an onion. A slightly mild onion, perhaps, but certainly not an apple, or an orange, or anything that I would describe as "sweet." In retrospect it seems obvious that Leanboy never even tried to eat a Vidalia "like an apple." He just like the way that sounded.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Persimmons. They're heeeeere.

The persimmon is hard to put your finger on. It's one of those fruits that seems exotic and ordinary at the same time. It's popular in both Asia and Europe. I've seen them eaten both raw and cooked, dried and fresh.

I've noticed them at markets over the years, but I wasn't quite sure what to do with them. On one occasion I went as far as buying one and trying to eat it, but I lived to regret it. Instead of a sweet and tasty fruit, I was greeted with a sharp, almost toxic taste and the sensation that my tongue was covered in hair. That was enough to keep me away for years. But now that it's persimmon season again, I have done a little research, faced my fears and taken the leap. As I write this, I am face to face with a plate of these rather pretty but potentially evil fruits.

One thing that has long confused me is that the persimmon seems to be two fruits, not one. There is the acorn-shaped oblong version and the squat tomato-like version. Turns out there are indeed two distinct types. And to complicate things further, they not only look different, but taste quite different and need to be approached differently.

The oblong fruit are known as the astringent variety, which is obviously the kind I had tried that fateful day. They must be eaten only at the peak of ripeness, when they are nice and soft, or else the high levels of tannins in the flesh will make you sorry and possibly scar you emotionally. To quote John Lennon, "Children, don't do what I have done. I couldn't walk and I tried to run."
The rounder, flatter persimmons are the non-astringent variety and are much lower in tannins. They can be eaten when fully soft and squishy, or when still slightly crispy. I have just tried one, slicing it in half and cutting the flesh away from the rather tough skin. It's crisp but still juicy, fairly sweet and pleasant tasting.

I haven't yet tried one of the astringent fruits. They're probably ripe enough, but one can't be too careful. Fool me once... well, you know the rest.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Stinking Rose

Back in 1995 I was visiting Los Angeles and went with my friend Kirk to a restaurant called "The Stinking Rose." As you can guess, the featured ingredient on the menu was garlic, served every which way. I ordered a sandwich called "40-Clove Chicken" and it lived up to the hype. It was tasty, but so garlicky I couldn't finish it. After the meal, we went to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to watch a wonderful production of Porgy and Bess. About three hours later, with mist still in my eyes from the finale, "Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way," I returned with Kirk to his car and the tears welled up again. But this time it wasn't due to Gershwin's music. It was that leftover half a sandwich in the back seat! The car smelled like it was filled to bursting with toxic gas. Sorry, Kirk.

Garlic is supposed to be very healthful, but it does have this one drawback. There's no such thing as anti-oxidant breath, or anti-bacterial breath, or anti-viral breath, but there sure is garlic breath. So how can we get the flavor and health benefits without the stench?

I recently came across an interview with noted raw food guru, David Wolfe. I generally approach his advice with skepticism, but he comes up with some gems now and then. In the interview, Wolfe said that by chopping up cloves of garlic and soaking them in something acidic like vinegar or lemon juice, the smell will be greatly reduced. He suggested that heat/cooking damages the medicinal properties of garlic (what he calls the "immune system chemicals"), but this soaking does not. I have tested his theory and it really works.

So now when I make hummus, for example, I chop and soak a couple of cloves of garlic overnight in the juice of half a lemon, which is also part of the recipe anyway. The result is a hummus that is nicely garlicky but not stinky. Praise de Lawd!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Frogs in a Pond

Did you ever have an outstanding meal in which one dish gone awry almost (I say, almost) spoils the whole experience? That happened to me earlier this year at, of all places, the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami.

It was a very special occasion, namely the wedding of two of my oldest friends. Actually, it was the night before the wedding, with just the groom and intimes (a "Last Supper" of sorts). First of all, I should have noticed the ominous sign of starting with a wine, Chateau des Tourrettes, named after a cursing disease.

I hasten to add that the wine was excellent, as was a parade of interesting dishes that came to the table.
There was seafood-mango salad,

and goat cheese in a bird's nest,

and truffled risotto,

and blackened duck,

and lamb with whipped potatoes,

and yellowtail snapper with tropical fruit relish.

But the dish I almost didn't recover from was called "Frogs in a Pond." I felt I had to order it because it was so original and so different from anything I'd ever seen: frog meat and marinated seaweed in a broth -- a playful reflection of the dish's name. It's the Four Seasons, right? I'm sure it will be superb! Well, I was very surprised that when the dish arrived, it tasted exactly like a frog.

In a pond.

The frog meat was fishy and the seaweed was stringy like genuine pond scum. The basil seeds were supposed to represent little frog eggs waiting to hatch into tadpoles. Not only is the very thought of this unappetizing, but the seeds were slimy. And the broth tasted precisely like pond water. The miniature lily pads were actually not bad, but I wondered if they were genuine lily pads from a puddle out back. It was all a bit too literal.

Fortunately, my entrée made up for it. It was called "Fisherman's Catch" and had a little of everything. Snapper. Crab. Lobster. It even had popcorn shrimp topped with actual popcorn. Brilliant touch. Trouble is, it kept reminding me of that merry song about cannibalism from the musical Sweeney Todd, called "A Little Priest," in which they sing of eating "shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd on top." But if I didn't let a spawning frog ruin my appetite, a little cannibalism certainly wasn't going to stand in my way.

The Original Pepper

The pepper that sits on your table next to your salt shaker was not the first to be loved by the Western world. As I discovered on various trips to Indonesia, there is another type of pepper that was the first to bear the name. In Sanskrit it is called pippali, and its fame was widespread before those little peppercorns we now know managed to steal all the thunder as well as the name.

The original version is now referred to as "long pepper" and is unfortunately hard to find in these parts. The photo above includes specimens I found in local markets on the Indonesian islands of Sumbawa, Lombok and Bali. Each little rod-like catkin is technically made of up many tiny fruits embedded in a flower spike. The taste is much warmer than common peppercorns, with a complex sweet overtone.

The only people I know marketing long pepper in this country are my American friends who founded Big Tree Farms, based in Bali. They wildcraft these peppers, which they describe on their website as having "an earthy pungency, a sweet hint of cardamom and nutmeg and the spicy heat of chili." Sounds about right. If you're curious, click on their link to find out if a store near you might carry their products. I believe you can also order it online. It will save you a very long flight.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

With Liberty And Mustard For All

When I was a kid I used play the board game Clue. "Professor Plum in the conservatory with the candle stick," and all that. I never really liked board games much, but something about that photo of all the odd characters on the cover of the box captured my imagination. So I was awfully thrilled when it turned out that my next door neighbor's grandfather was actually the model for Colonel Mustard, the colonial blowhard with the monocle. One time he even rode the school bus with all us kids.

Now there's a new Colonel Mustard on the block. I have a friend who has become a collector of fine mustards, mostly French but also some English varieties and other miscellany. He refers to his collection as his cellar, or his mustard cave (French pronunciation de rigeur), and it is pretty impressive to see. On Saturday night, he was kind enough to open his beloved cave to Fooditude and offer a guided tasting. It was an education in just how many surprising varieties are available, although a number of them are not commonly sold in this country.

These jars represent a small sample from his groaning shelves, replete with such offerings as moutarde aux baies roses (with pink peppercorns), au piment d'espelette (Basque chili), au curry and aromatisée à l'orange. One of the prettiest was the bright pink moutarde au cassis de dijon (blackcurrant), although the taste was too sweet for me.

The stone-ground moutarde aromatisée à la noix (nut flavor) was a great accompaniment to the chicken sausages and oven-fried potatoes Colonel Mustard served up during the tour. I also had high hopes for the jar with girolles, echalotes et cerfeuil (chanterelles, shallots and chervil), but it had an unpleasant undertaste.

One of my favorites of the evening was the Moutarde aux algues (Saveur de l'Ocean) (with algae – flavor of the ocean). It contained bits of seaweed that complemented the mustard surprisingly well. It was also among the hottest mustards in the collection, which Colonel Mustard suggested might be due to the fact that it was the most recently acquired.

Turns out mustard loses its spiciness significantly over time, so for those of you currently shuttling back and forth to France in order to grow your own collection, take note. Don't let your jars languish at the back of the fridge. Eat up and restock regularly. And if you ever run out of room, have a mustard party!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Things Best Done Naked. Number 476.

November is National Pomegranate Month, according to beverage manufacturer PomWonderful. That's just a marketer's way of saying they're in season. You may have noticed that these sensual scarlet fruits are suddenly prevalent at your local market. They have been appreciated for millenia, and for all these years one question has persisted: How best to open a pomegranate?

I have a friend who cuts it in half with a butcher knife, then uses an empty wine bottle to smash the seeds loose into a bowl of water. It works, I suppose, but his kitchen looks like a crime scene by the end. Another friend of mine forcefully massages the fruit until most of the seeds have burst, then tries to drink the juice through a small hole in the rind.

As for me, I'm a lover, not a fighter. I try not to break a single fragile, beautiful seed. I use a sharp knife to cut it into quadrants, but I cut only as far as the tough skin. Then I pry the fruit open and gently coax out the seeds. Some come tumbling out easily, others cling to bits of pith.

Inevitably, the translucent skin around some of the juicy seeds is bound to break. And when it does, the juice squirts high and far. I ruined several nice shirts and a pair of pants before I realized that the red stains can never (never!) be washed clean. The only thing I have noticed is not stained by pomegranates is human skin. So now I strip down completely before attempting this procedure. (Socks are allowed.)

It's practical, it's painless, it's fun. But unless you have a lock on your kitchen door, it's safest to take care of this before the dinner guests arrive.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


How often do you get to try a new vegetable for the first time? Not too often, so this was fun. It's called mizuna, which is, according to Whole Foods, a Japanese salad green. Worked for me. It's a little like dandelion greens, but not as bitter. Very light and a bit juicy. I recommend it. What's more, "mizuna" is a pretty word. Better than "chard," anyway.

Greek To Me

Many times I have come across a product in a specialty store with labels written only in Chinese, or Arabic, or Russian, or some other language I can't read. Sometimes friends will bring me an exotic, edible souvenir from their world travels and, although I can pretty much figure things out by tasting, I always wonder what else the label has to tell me.

So in this first installment of "Greek To Me," I have an item from -- where else? -- Greece. It's some kind of honey or honey product and is one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. It tastes almost like a cross between honey and caramel. I know the first word means "honey," but that's as far as my knowledge takes me.

I ask you, dear reader, for help in getting to the bottom of this. Here is the back label for your perusal. You can click on the image to enlarge it. If you can read it, we'd all like to hear about it.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Fruitful Day

Shopping in Chinatown is never dull. Today I picked up three fruits: a durian, a pomegranate and a dragon fruit. The durian, thorny on the outside and creamy on the inside, has long been an object of my desire (as I have mentioned before), and I feel fortunate to have it readily available, albeit frozen. The pomegranate, a favorite of the ancient world, is of course all the rage at the moment because of its high anti-oxidant content. The dragon fruit is less commonly seen and is particularly beautiful to behold.

Also known as the pitaya, the dragon fruit is actually the fruit of a cactus that is native to Central and South America, although I have encountered it frequently in South East Asia. Its appearance, like a hot pink egg with green scales, turns out to be the most exciting thing about it. The flesh is firm and juicy with a slight crispness. It's speckled with seeds, not unlike a kiwi, but the taste is very mild and not as exciting as the exterior promises. If it really were a dragon's egg, I probably wouldn't fight a dragon to purloin one, but it's nice to know I can get one for 5 bucks just south of Canal Street.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Alone. Together. Tomatoes.

The other night I was making dinner with my friend Amy Burton (yes, the famous soprano). As we were debating the fine points of how exactly to "encrust" chicken thighs with black sesame seeds, I noticed that she had earlier begun to prepare an interesting salad. It was interesting because it contained no lettuce. No lettuce of any kind.

I wondered if she was planning to add some leafy greens, but she said she had the notion to make a salad consisting only of tomatoes. Together we proceeded to chop tomatoes of various sizes and colors, trying to keep the resulting pieces to a more or less uniform size. The result was a delightfully fresh, simple and juicy accompaniment to the chicken. Great idea, Amy.

Full disclosure: in the end, we did add just a touch of leafy greens. It wasn't lettuce, but some wonderfully complementary coriander leaves (or cilantro, as Amy calls it, but that's a debate for another day).

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween in Ethiopia

Last night I went out to an Ethiopian restaurant named Meskel on East 3rd Street near Avenue B. There I met my faithful dining partner Felix Hunger, who was dressed up for Halloween as a persnickety, fastidious foodie. I just wore my normal clothes, although we looked oddly similar. We've both been meaning to go to Meskel ever since we read the glowing New York Times review about a year ago, and neither of us was disappointed.

As you can see by clicking on and enlarging the image to the right, the menu is straightforward, listing several meat dishes and several veggie dishes, each richly spiced and served by the dollop. For the sake of variety, Felix and I shared two combo platters, one with meat and the other vegetarian.

My main attraction to Ethiopian food, besides the interesting spices, is the opportunity to eat with my hands. And that's where injera comes in, the spongy, slightly sour rolled bread that serves perfectly to pick up the food and to soak up the buttery sauces. During our meal, Felix asked me, "What is this made of? Is it wheat? Whole wheat? Buckwheat?" Turns out it's not made of wheat at all, but an ancient grain called teff. Teff is actually the tiny seed of a grass called Eragrostis tef and is an important staple in northeastern Africa.

According to the Times review, the cook at Merkel makes the teff dough by hand, letting it sit for a time to ferment slightly, giving it that sour edge. The dough is then cooked like a pancake on a grill.

The meal was brought out very quickly and served on a single platter. We ate by the window as Halloween revelers passed by in groups, each more outlandish than the last. As you can see, there was a little of everything on the plate, but the stand-out favorite was the Tibs Wat, at the bottom right of the photo. Tibs Wat is prime beef pan-cooked with berbere, the essential Ethiopian spice paste consisting of things like chili, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, coriander, cloves, allspice, fenugreek, ajowan and God knows what else.

The other dishes weren't bad either, especially the lentil purée called Miser Alecha. The collard greens, called Gomen, were the weak link and far too salty.

It didn't look like much food when we started, but we were certainly stuffed by the end. Must be that injera bread, which we finished to the last morsel.

On the way home, I saw more Halloween costumes on the subway. I struck up a conversation with two kids who had gone to considerable trouble making their outfits. I asked them if they were meant to be dressed up as Banquo and Lucia di Lammermoor, but all I got were these blank expressions.