Saturday, January 26, 2008

Are those chopsticks in your pocket, or...?

Do you ever drop your sushi in the soy sauce dish and make a mess of it all? Well, here's some good news.

In the what-will-they-think-of-next category, this little gizmo functions as chopsticks but also dispenses soy sauce, one drop at a time. These plastic pipettes sell for about $20 a pair and are guaranteed to shift the topic of dinner conversation away from the mercury content of tuna. In fact, each pipette can dispense a different liquid, so one can be designated for soba sauce or hoisin sauce, or even wasabi paste.

Just be careful if using them in a bowl of hot noodles. Above 90 degrees, they start to melt.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Absinthe Candy

Absinthe, the mystical liqueur of the Belle Époque, has certainly been in the news lately. Several recent articles in the New York Times and a memorable feature in the New Yorker two years ago have been following the international trend bringing absinthe back to legal status after a century of being widely banned. I will blog more about this soon, including about how I acquired my own precious bottle.

In the meantime, let me share with you a wonderful gift friends brought back from Germany for me: absinthe chocolates! Who knew the Germans had this technology? Does the CIA know about this?

These bite-size bonbons contain a creamy green center with a wonderful boozy taste and that unmistakable anise flavor. The box has a beautiful illustration in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec with the words "Die Grüne Stunde," meaning the "The Green Hour." For some reason "Absinth 66%" also appears on the box, which is a bit confusing because absinthe is listed in the ingredients at 6%. Either way, it hits the spot (that absinthe candy spot I never knew needed to be hit).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Build a Better Pyramid

I can't remember the last time I was so excited by salt. Salt comes in many forms and from many sources, and I will blog more on that soon. But let me just share with you one salt I have discovered that is a delight to eat and a wonder to behold.

This salt is made with painstaking care on the Indonesian island of Bali and is distributed by Big Tree Farms. I have seen it for sale in such stores as Whole Foods, Dean and Deluca and Kalustyan's. By harnessing sea breezes and tropical sunshine when conditions are just right, Balinese salt farmers create delicate crystals in the shape of hollow pyramids. To achieve this result, the salt must be dissolved and re-crystallized multiple times.

The crystals break crisply in your mouth when you bite down on them, and impart a delicious briny taste. As can be seen clearly in this close-up, geometry can be a thing of beauty. The ancient Egyptians were on to something.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Body Double?

A few weeks ago I spotted famed food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, author of the excellent book, "The Man Who Ate Everything." I was wandering around the Union Square Farmer's Market and I came upon a vendor selling sausages. He was cooking up little samples of his product and giving them away on toothpicks. I couldn't help but notice the man standing behind him was Steingarten.

One of my favorite essays in "The Man Who Ate Everything" is the chapter called "Salad, The Silent Killer." It details how fruits ask to be eaten -- they advertise themselves with beautiful colors, sweet fragrances and sugary tastes. Plants use this method to spread their seeds. Leaves, on the other hand, are necessary for the plant's survival and are often designed to dissuade hungry passersby from eating them. They are in many cases even toxic, hence the essay's title.

I wanted Steingarten to know I was aware of his identity and was a fan. As I reached for a morsel of sausage, I said with a smile, "Sausage, the silent killer!" Both he and the vendor stared at me blankly. Trying to prop up my joke, I said, "Like salad..." They both looked annoyed.

I am left to wonder if:
1) My joke was just lame
2) Sausage really is a silent killer and therefore my joke was perceived as a criticism
3) This man was not in fact Steingarten but a look-alike with an uncanny knack of licking his lips in the same distinctive way as the real Steingarten.

I might have otherwise bought some sausage, but I just walked away as fast as I could.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Food in Film, Part 1

Akanezora, translated as Beyond the Crimson Sky, is a beautiful film produced last year in Japan. I would never have even heard about it if I hadn't been on a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo, during which the film was shown. Imagine, an epic period piece about tofu! How could I not love it? I am not ashamed to admit that I wept (and it wasn't just the jetlag).

The story takes place in mid-18th century Edo (what is now Tokyo). Only in Japan could such a story be told, a land where tofu is made fresh and consumed the same day, where tofu is not just an art, but a way of life.

The film concerns a young tofu-maker from Kyoto who settles in Edo and is befriended by a young woman whom he eventually marries. Oh, the trouble they get into! Local tofu-makers don't appreciate the competition! The palates of the clientele are both shocked and titillated by the arrival of Kyoto-style tofu (it's subtly different)! The eldest son of the shopkeeper does not want to follow in his father's footsteps! Intrigue ensues and even murder!

Having made soy milk and tofu myself, I enjoyed watching these being made in the traditional manner, using big kettles of hammered metal, and wooden barrels and bamboo tools. The best part was watching the customers taste the tofu - served plain in a carved bowl - and appreciate its delicate flavor. Not one customer uttered that old American trope: "Tofu has no taste and only absorbs the flavor of what it's cooked with."

If you can find this movie on DVD, you'll never think of tofu the same way again.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Not Your Mother's Buckwheat

For a guy who loves to cook, I eat a lot of raw foods. Fruits, vegetables, uncooked seeds and grains, etc. I must confess, I have closely followed the raw food movement the last few years and to a certain degree I have drunk the Kool-Aid (or rather, the carrot juice).

Basically, raw foodists eat mostly or only foods that have not been exposed to high heat. The maximum acceptable temperature is usually around 120 degrees, because that's the point at which most enzymes are killed, not to mention many heat-sensitive vitamins. The rationale, in an untoasted nutshell, is that living foods nourish the body best. Denatured, processed, "dead" foods, including anything cooked, are thought to be inferior and even toxic.

One of the favored grains of many raw foodists is buckwheat. It is highly nutritious and gluten-free. Of course, it's not very tasty raw! But luckily, soaking buckwheat until it sprouts brings the dormant seed to life, increasing its nutritional profile and decreasing enzyme inhibitors.

I recently tried a product called Buckwheaties, which I found in a health food store, made by a company called Mom and Me. To buy this online, click here and scroll down a bit. Buckwheaties are simply raw, sprouted buckwheat that has been dehydrated at a low temperature. The good news: YUM!

Buckwheaties are crispy, light, nutty, and fun to eat. They go great on top of muesli, mixed into yogurt, or in all sorts of raw recipes. They are not to be confused with buckwheat groats, which are hulled, crushed and boiled. That sounds a lot more violent than "sprouted," doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Cookie Taster Wanted: Apply Within

I've dreamed about a lot of dream jobs in my life. For example, I always wanted to be a professional composer, but once I became one, I couldn't help but think it would be more impressive to be a captain of industry. I have also thought it would be fun to earn a living coming up with pleasant names for ugly-sounding new drugs, transforming something like clopidogrel into Plavix. Or better yet, to be the guy who comes up with those punny baseball headlines on the back pages of the New York Post or the Daily News: things like STRAY-ROD, or BERTH DAY, or MELK MONEY, or HENN LAYS EGG. Of course, I have long thought that nothing could be better than being a food writer. But I recently met someone who put all those crazy dreams in a new light.

I met a cookie taster.
I was at a Christmas party, chatting with a young woman who had immigrated from India a few years ago. She mentioned that she lives in Connecticut and works for the Pepperidge Farm company. "I'm in cookies," she said.
"Pepperidge Farm remembers," I said in that rich, nougaty voice from the old TV advertisements.
"Everyone says that when I tell them where I work," she replied, "but I don't even know that ad, because I didn't grow up here."Turns out that being "in cookies," means she actually tastes cookies for a living, testing their flavors, textures and other qualities. Could there possibly be a better job than that? She admits to gaining a few pounds since taking this position, although not too much because, as with wine, the protocol is to spit out the cookie once the taste presents itself.

"So the next time I bite into a Milano cookie," I said, "I will have you to thank for its subtle hint of vanilla and delicate chocolate center?"
"Milanos are my favorite!" she gushed.
Trying to be funny, I said, "I imagine there's a competitive divide between the cookie folks and the bread folks. It must be tense in the Pepperidge Farm lunchroom."
"As a matter of fact, there is a real split in the personnel. Bread people are another species altogether."
"Well, you know how elves can be. So much backbiting."
"No, that's Keebler," she said.

Even though she was right, of course, I still considered making another joke about living in a big tree, or about green felt. But frankly, her appearance happened to be quite elfin, so I didn't dare draw any more attention to the topic.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
--Dylan Thomas, "Fern Hill"
I need you babe,
To put through the shredder
In front of my friends
-- Pink Floyd, "Don't Leave Me Now"
Childhood is complicated. It's a time of unalloyed pleasures and cruel betrayals. This picture gives new meaning to the phrase "salad days."

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Love For Three Oranges

"My father was a fisherman,
My mamma was a fisherman's friend,
And I was born in the boredom and the chowder."
--Paul Simon, "Duncan"
We never ate chowder in my family, but I did go fishing with my dad off the north shore of Long Island, where we'd catch flounder. I can't remember who actually cleaned the fish, but Mom would bread and fry the fillets, which I proceeded to drown in Heinz ketchup. Not exactly a fine education in the art of preparing seafood.

So the other night when I was asked to make a dish of striped bass, I had to improvise. My friend Amy Burton (yes, the famous soprano) had just bought a beautiful fillet of bass at a farmer's market, which the vendor promised was caught that morning. On the subway ride up to her apartment, I had a flash of inspiration: The Love For Three Oranges, Prokofiev's aburdist opera, came into my mind. Citrus would be the theme for this meal.

I bought three oranges, brought them to Amy's table and meditated upon them. I decided to grate the rinds using the roughest plane of a grater, usually used for grating hard cheese. I was careful not to penetrate the white pith, which would lend a bitter taste. I grated the orange rind so finely, it became a rich paste. I mixed this paste with a generous splash of olive oil and massaged it into both sides of the fillet. I added salt and pepper, a bit more olive oil, some white wine, and let the fish marinate, covered in plastic wrap, for an hour or two.

Meanwhile, continuing the citrus theme (ever the composer), I boiled some wild rice using 1/3 water, 1/3 broth and 1/3 orange juice, squeezed fresh from the three oranges.Amy also made her well-loved side dish, asparagus broiled for a long time in a toaster until they caramelize and almost melt. I added a new detail this time, cooking diced red onion in a frying pan with olive oil and herbes de Provence, and sprinkling it over the asparagus at the end.

When everything else was ready, I broiled the fish, just four minutes on each side under a very hot burner. Any more time in the heat would be a crime.

Using scissors, I roughly cut up plentiful amounts of fresh cilantro and scattered it over the fish. If I had one more orange, I would have used a few pretty slices as a garnish.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Et Voila!

As the first of January dawned this morning and the new year was unveiled before my eyes, I thought of the one time I visited Lutèce.

Lutèce was, of course, the famous restaurant founded in New York by Alsatian super-chef André Soltner. It opened in 1961 and was in operation until Valentine's Day of 2004. The restaurant didn't so much go out of business as go extinct.

This was a quintessential old school French restaurant, staffed by knowledgeable and prickly French waiters with serious attitude, or perhaps one could say fooditude.

I will always remember when our waiter brought the food on a silver platter, under a silver dome called a cloche. Just like in the old movies. He was a short, compact man with impeccably white hair. He wore impeccably white gloves and an impeccably white jacket. He carefully placed the silver platter on our table and lifted the silver dome toward the ceiling, revealing a gorgeous, fragrant meal. With eagerness and perceptible pride, he said, "Et voila!" I had to stifle a chuckle.

He had even addressed us in French when asking for our order. If my dining companion and I hadn't happened to understand French, we would have been intimidated and probably humiliated, which I suppose was the point. That, in a nutshell, was why Lutèce went extinct.

But as the new year dawned this morning, I eased myself out of my dreaming and, for some reason, remembered that little waiter. It was as if he was presenting me with a delicious new year, lifting a silver cloche and whispering, "Et voila!"