Wednesday, July 29, 2009

That's harsh

This is by no means me getting up on a soapbox and declaring the eating of fish a moral outrage. I love fish. I even love Filet O' Fish. I don't much care whether the lobster suffers when it's thrust head first into boiling water. You would feel the same way, too, if you were lucky enough to have partaken of the lobster roll at Pearl Oyster Bar. A crustacean's fleeting pain and suffering is secondary to my love of delicious seafood.

But how's this for a slap in the face: I was at the Shedd Aquarium not long ago, and right next to the Caribbean Reef was a chef doing a cooking demonstration. She had a portable burner set up and was sauteing fish.

Of course, I'm thinking "They can see you!" referring to the angelfish and reef sharks watching as their comrade in arms (perhaps a sea bass?), now just a filet of his former self, sizzled away in a non-stick pan.

I'm fairly sure fish don't have feelings. But it just seemed....callous. Shouldn't an aquarium be a safehouse where we embrace conservation, not tartar sauce? Isn't the appropriate place to eat fish Shaw's Crabhouse or The Lobsterbox or Legal Seafood, and not the John G. Shedd Aquarium?

If a fish and chips place opened up right outside the front doors of the Shedd, I'd be first in line. But when I'm inside the aquarium, I'd like to keep the illusion alive: you're beautiful and amazing, and no, I'd never eat you. Ever.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A day at the beach

I've decided that all I really need in life is a swim in the Mediterranean, a lounge chair, a view of the Li Galli islands where the mythical Sirens are said to have lived, and a bowl of zuppa di cozze (mussel soup). Is that too much to ask?

Fortunately, I found all those things here, at Da Adolfo. If this isn't proof that there's a God, or at least a higher power with a finely honed taste for the good life, then I don't know what is. Da Adolfo is a find, if you can find it. It's tucked into the rocks on the shore of Positano, Italy, and you reach it by boat, which has a charming, red fish "logo" that promises an afternoon of bathing in the Mediterranean and then dinner.

The boat - likely captained by a sweaty guy in a dirty white t-shirt named Ricardo - takes you to a small inlet, where you disembark on a small pier. The beach is waiting for you, along with some lounge chairs, and a canopied platform. Welcome to Da Adolfo.

The menu is written on a chalkboard. Of course.

The signature dish is fresh mozzarella grilled on a lemon leaf, and there's also a squid and potato stew, salt and pepper shrimp (which were caught 50 yards away) and lots of pasta, one in particular with zucchini and cherry tomatoes that may seem awfully mundane except for the fact that vegetables that grow around Mt. Vesuvius reap the benefits of the volcanic soil and taste other worldly.

And then there's the beach. After your meal, you take a beach chair, along with a carafe of the local white wine garnished with chunks of fresh peaches grown in the Vesuvius soil, and become Sophia Loren (or Marcello Mastroianni) for a day. And what could be wrong with that?

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I was thinking about the habanero salsa at Mariscos el Veneno the other day and how it nearly blew a hole through the roof of my mouth. It was the kind of pain that might accompany gum surgery without local anesthesia, like a really pissed off wasp had gotten trapped inside your mouth and was on a very ambitious stinging spree.

The salsa is hailed as their "special" recipe, but really, it's just minced habaneros with a dose of vinegar. If you know anything about habaneros, then you know about pain, and about crying at the table. I did that; I cried. And then I drank a lot of beer, which can also lead to crying, but thankfully, I held my liquor that night. In the case of habanero burn, water does nothing.

Mariscos el Veneno is a brightly colored but shabby Mexican restaurant on Ashland in Ukrainian Village. As is indicated by the name, you go for the seafood. The night we were there - when our tastebud efficacy was reduced by 40% - everyone was Latino in the place except us. And most of them ordered the gargantuan ceviche. It comes in an oversized margarita tumbler, and looks like it feeds 10 - 12.

I don't even remember what I ordered; all I remember is the salsa. I found the above picture on the internet, and it claims to be habanero salsa, but it just looks so innocent and passive. The one at Mariscos el Veneno was the embodiment of pure evil and likely glowed in the dark.

So, I know what's going to happen the next time I go, which will be soon. The server will put that little bowl of orange devil juice on the table and it will call to me, like salsas always do. And I will momentarily forget the pain, like one does after childbirth. I will grab a chip and scoop. And then the tears will flow, the bottle opener will be passed, the beer will be poured, and I will wonder why I never learn.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A steak peep show

Why is it that other food bloggers seem to channel Richard Avedon with their shots of fried green tomatoes and weeknight casseroles, while I seem to channel my Aunt Maxine, whose photographic skills have consistently produced pictures that are so distorted, perfectly normal people look as if they belong in institutions for the criminally insane?

I am so not a photographer. Which is why I had my husband take these pictures. During the life of this blog, my attempts at producing even vaguely serviceable food shots have been lame. Not that these are that great, either. But that steak does look mighty good.

It's bul go gi - Korean barbecue - and you should make it this weekend. It's not totally authentic - I think boneless ribeye is normally used, and this is flank. But the idea is there.

The marinade is easy: put 1 peeled kiwi, 1 chopped onion, a dousing each of soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine, and sesame oil, a couple of cloves of garlic, a spoonful of sugar and salt and pepper into a blender and press "go." I marinated the raw meat for about an hour (next time, I'll add a couple of hours to that), and then tossed it on the grill. Two pounds of meat fed four of us, which is like Refrigerator Perry portions. As Homer would say, Mmmmm, steak.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

When the novelty wears off

I'm a little hung over this morning. Last night, I had Donut and Beer ice cream at Ben & Jerry's. It was sort of like having a Krispy Kreme with a Schlitz chaser. And not in a good way.

They weren't promoting it like they were promoting Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road, the Elton John flavor. That one got its own poster and tag line: "The batch is back." Boy, I'm glad I'm not in advertising anymore. When you read a line like that and you're in advertising, you try to reassure yourself that you'd never write anything like that - that punny - and then you realize that you have written stuff like that. Of course, you've written stuff like that. You sell crap for a living, and you'll pretty much write anything to sell the crap, even though you lie to yourself and tell yourself you're above that.

Anyway, the Donut and Beer ice cream is a holdover from the Simpson's Movie, circa 2007. In our local Ben & Jerry's, it was at the very top of the flavor menu, barely visible, a little white slip of paper with the name sloppily handwritten in black pen. Talk about lack of excitement in the presentation. When I tasted it, I understood why. It was annoyingly sweet, with a barely detectable, stale beer-y taste at the back end. And that's being generous.

I checked out the history of the flavor, and apparently it was a one night only deal, making an appearance in Springfield, Vermont for the Simpson's Movie premiere in 2007. It was originally called Duff 'n D'ohnuts (the name of which can only be bested by Chocolate Chip Cookie D'oh, another B & J flavor tribute to the Simpson's), and it was chocolate ice cream whirled together with a cream stout-flavored ice cream, with chunks of chocolate glazed donuts mixed in. My version was the wan color of vanilla with nothing mixed in.

So I'm wondering this: what exactly is this incarnation of Donut and Beer ice cream? The backwash from the original incarnation of Duff 'n D'ohnuts that has been relegated to the corporate freezer for the past two years, and is now being brought out because Ben and Jerry are on vacation in Maine, and the second in command has lost his mind and is now releasing all the failed flavors, and has also procured a giant ray gun to destroy the Cold Stone Creamery headquarters in Scottsdale?

I've never been a big fan of fanfare ice cream. When the novelty wears off, you're left with a bunch of stuff that doesn't go together. And I know I'm in the vast minority on this. So I'll stick to my chocolate chip, and you can have your twisted pretzel chunky cherry garcia monkey moussetracks phish food with ribbons of liquid nitrogen white chocolate lime curd, and we'll all be happy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Getting creative

There are some people who should just stay far, far away from food preparation. Here, I'm thinking "Rupert." Rupert is an enthusiastic and willing direction taker, but when you let him pursue his own ideas, prepare to run for the nearest Shakey's and call it a day.

We were having a communal meal with Rupert, his wife, and several other people, where everyone contributes a dish. Rupert announced that he wanted to make something fantastically creative. Beware of anything "fantastically creative." When I was 8, I used to get fantastically creative in the kitchen by mixing oatmeal, ketchup, mustard, and worcestershire sauce in a big bowl. Had I poured it into the toilet, I could have convinced my mother I had a serious digestive disorder.

Rupert proposed making Campfire Eggs, which sounded ok, until he told us what they were: scrambled eggs cooked in a ziploc bag in boiling water. Then, as if he needed a visual aid to alarm us further, he held up a baggie with raw eggs and assorted chopped vegetables sloshing around inside. It disgusted me the way dog poop might on a warm, humid day. But I held my tongue. No one likes a know-it-all, and maybe I didn't know it all. Maybe these would be the best scrambled eggs in a ziploc bag ever.

So into the boiling water they went. The rest of us were cooking other things. Good things. Pasta. Spinach salad. Garlic bread. Rupert tended to the eggs, which meant poking and prodding the bag with the handle of a wooden spoon as it bobbed up and down in the water. We all pretended to take his efforts seriously, but were secretly coming up with our own excuses for not eating the Campfire Eggs: allergies, satiation, or in my case, a secret aversion to eggs since childhood thanks to a little girl named Hillary, who threw up her egg breakfast on the camp bus, and we had to ride with it rolling up and down the aisle, in 85 degree heat, the entire way to camp. It was a 45 minute ride.

As we passed around the pasta and bread, Rupert appeared with his bag of eggs, the contents of which looked like this.

Rupert held the bag over each plate and the runny eggs slid out. It was a sickening sight. When it was my turn, I immediately eased them away from my spinach salad - God forbid they grazed even a leaf.

We all stared at the eggs. They looked more congealed than cooked. Rupert seemed truly pleased with his creation, though he did acknowledge they might not be "completely done."

If you're going to get creative with anything, it should be how you arrange Campfire Eggs on your plate to make it look like you've eaten them when in truth, you haven't. That's what we did.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cuisine envy

Have you ever heard of kishkes? They're a sausage-like thing, made from kosher beef casings, filled with a delectable combination of matzo meal, rendered chicken fat, and spices. Or what about gefilte fish? Ground up fish, usually carp, pike, or mullet (the fishiest of the fishy) that's formed into balls. In their most common form, the mealy fish balls end up in glass jars with a lightly jellied fish broth and a Manischevitz label. They're usually served with a horseradish vinegar, and why not? Why wouldn't you serve fishy fish balls with a palate numbing liquid that could disguise the taste of stagnant pond water?

Why couldn't I have been Italian?

Italians have pasta. Has there ever been a disgusting pasta dish? I pulled out my old cookbook, "The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces" to find out. Bucatini con i Funghi sounds gross, but it's just mushrooms, my favorite fungus in the whole world. Pasta chi Vrocculi Arriminati sounds vaguely criminal, and being from Sicily probably is, but it's just cauliflower sauce, and the only objectionable addition might be a few anchovies. I happen to appreciate the judicious use of anchovies, so I'm square with this.

Even shellfish has the lyrical name "Frutti di Mare." Observant Jews aren't even allowed to eat shellfish (thanks a lot, archaic dietary laws), so they're left with lots of smoked fish and the ugly-girl-with-mannish-eyebrows term "gefilte fish." Fortunately, I am not observant and eat shrimp and other shellfish aggressively.

The Italian table is colorful: red tomatoes and peppers, green basil, vegetables, interesting shellfish, fruit. The Jewish table is brown, and often covered in burlap. The Italian fat of choice: golden olive oil. The fat of choice at the Jewish table: schmaltz. Chicken fat.

The Italians have Mario Batali. Who do the Jews have? Joan Nathan. She's like your college roommate's mom from Long Island. She's really knowledgeable, and a great cook, but the chances of her playing the Rolling Stones over Klezmer music at one of her many restaurants is close to nil.

So, it's great to be a Jew. But when there's a family get-together where food is being served, I'm sneaking off to my Italian friend, Bob's, house for some lasagna al forno and a nice Barolo. Salud!

Friday, July 17, 2009

It's a wonderful life

I know this is going to sound like sour grapes, but, boy, am I sick of reading Ruth Reichl's Twitter posts. Or tweets. Or whatever they're called. Here's the latest:

Watching rough cut of Seattle episode of new TV show. Fishing with Tom Skerritt - such a wonderful guy. Salmon, seafood, fiddleheads.......

In case you're not familiar with Ruth, she has led a gustatory life extraordinaire. Currently the editor of Gourmet Magazine, she's the former food critic for The New York Times, a memoirist, food writer, one-time chef, etc, etc. I would cut her some slack as a fellow University of Michigan alum if it weren't for that nauseating Tom Skerritt remark.....

Most of her tweets are like that. "Had sushi with Harry Connick Jr. today. Nobu has never been better. And so nice!" "Rome is beautiful at sunset. Off to Venice tomorrow for the film festival and cuttlefish risotto with Brangelina. Tired!" "Greek Islands. Olives, oregano, ouzo, Oprah!"

I intentionally posted an unflattering picture of her battling an oyster, above. She and I have the same hair, but I have discovered tweezers, and she apparently has not.

I like to think that if I had her life, I wouldn't brag so much. I wouldn't feel the need to tell you about the bottle of Antico Balsamico I just shared with Francis Ford Coppola at his vineyard or the gorgeous new Illy espresso machine I just received as a gift from PBS or the cooking show I'm about to do where I travel the world with fabulous celebrities looking for the most interesting cooking schools. Or how I come home to my perfect cat and husband and then make perfect meals from the farmer's market in the 2 hours I have before I have to get back on a plane and go to Morocco for couscous and Medjool date cake with the King Mohammed VI.

I would just tell you how my feet are killing me from standing all day. Or maybe I would tell you that I'm about to have lunch in Positano with Russell Crowe at a place accessible only by boat, that I've just tasted the most amazing lemons ever thanks to the volcanic Mt. Vesuvius ash in the soil, and that Pompeii is especially beautiful on the arm of a movie star.

And then you could be the one who tastes the sour grapes.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It's a meal

Let's just get this on the table right now: I opened a can of Manwich tonight. And it wasn't the first time.

I think Manwich is a work of high culinary genius, even if it is made by some sort of automated cooking system using an impersonal corporate recipe borne out of an ignorant bureaucracy. It's sort of like Heinz ketchup in that the flavors have melded together to become something else altogether, a higher order of loose meat sandwich.

I've made sloppy joes from scratch before but it made me feel pretentious. This is one thing that's just better out of a can, and you can't say that about a lot of things. You can't say spaghetti is better out of a can, or chicken noodle soup is served well by being in a can, or chili or beef stew or vegetables, for that matter. But Manwich is.

I once made sloppy joes for family meal at the last restaurant I worked in. I chopped - and cried over - 12 onions, minced 7 green peppers, measured out the tomatoes, brown sugar and vinegar. I seasoned it properly, lovingly, obsessively with a secret blend of 6 spices, and spent an absurd amount of time picking the right kind of bun. Some women spend a ridiculous amount of time picking out shoes. I spend an equally absurd amount of time picking out buns. Sesame seeded would be the correct choice here.

All my efforts were scoffed at. Dismissed. Those ungrateful low-lifes - especially that one cook with the prison record and foot odor that was so bad, you could smell it through his shoes - condescended to my meal. But maybe I should have made it with Manwich. Not only because these people (and I use that term loosely) didn't deserve my time. But also because sloppy joes are can food.

(It is now Wednesday morning, and I'm discovering that sloppy joes are also really delicious breakfast food)

Monday, July 13, 2009


I had lunch with one of my old college roommates last week. We went to Shaw's Oyster Bar (formerly the Blue Crab Lounge) and both ordered lobster rolls and fries. When the food came, she picked up the Heinz bottle, turned it upside down, and gave it a series of hi-karate chops just above the neck of the bottle. They were quick, maniacal whacks, and I was just glad she didn't accompany the display with energetic martial arts vocalizations. I think you know the kind I'm talking about.

That's when I decided whoever came up with the "Anticipation" spot for Heinz ketchup is a genius of the highest order, and should arguably be president of the country, if not the world. Not only did that campaign make waiting for something preferable to immediate gratification, it also established a long term mindset about the product. Forty years later, we can get the ketchup immediately thanks to plastic squeeze bottles. But we still opt for glass. We still choose to wait. Companies have erotic dreams about marketing stories like that.

Maybe it has something to do with developing our own ways to get the ketchup out faster. Maybe my karate-chopping friend is proud of her own quirky method, and has worked on it for years: hitting the bottle in just the right place, with just the right number of whacks. Maybe she practices at home, after the kids leave for school, utilizing Monica Seles-like grunts to get the most power out of her chops.

Another college friend of mine is a bottom slapper (as far as the Heinz ketchup bottle is concerned). I know this because he was once at a breakfast place in Ann Arbor where the tables sit very close together. He was holding his bottle upside down at an almost 90 degree angle, slapping the bottom, when the ketchup spurted out with such velocity that it traveled across the table and landed on the blond head of the woman at the next table. I don't know what happened next, but I'm pretty sure he laughed inappropriately, which probably made the situation even more awkward than it already was. I don't think the police were called, as was widely rumored.

I've seen people stick knives into the open bottle, which works pretty well. I've also seen people roll the upended bottle between their palms. How this is an effective strategy, I just don't know. I turn the bottle upside down and shake it, sometimes for a good 30 - 45 seconds before the ketchup dribbles out. But I don't mind. It's my Heinz ritual and I've been working on it for years.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Chinese in a previous life

9000 pounds of Chinese food fell off a truck yesterday and onto the Tri-State tollway. I immediately wondered whether bystanders were looting the stuff, because that's what I would do if I saw a bunch of bamboo steamers rolling down the highway, carrying dim sum. I'd yell, "Jesus, everybody, grab an egg roll!" and then grab as many as I could for myself. Chinese food splattered all over the street is still Chinese food, as far as I'm concerned.

It's no secret that I am deeply in love with the stuff, so much so that I wonder sometimes if I wasn't Chinese in a former life. There is nothing Chinese I don't like, with the exception of congee and chicken's feet. Congee is nothing more than gruel. And chicken's feet are feet. Enough said.

I've had some great Chinese food in the past 40 plus years. The Mandarette in Los Angeles stands out, and not just because I saw Lisa Bonet there with her nose pierced, saying grace with her cute, dread-locked family before digging in to their scallion pancakes. The food there is fresh, and not too oily and not too brown, and tastes of ginger, garlic and scallions, the holy trinity of Chinese cuisine. And celebrities eat there on occasion, which never hurts.

But the best Chinese I ever had was at a place called China Moon Cafe in San Francisco, about thirteen years ago. The chef was not Chinese, but Jewish, and a woman, and a Mandarin-speaking Chinese scholar, and about three feet tall, which makes her Chinese-like, at least in the height department. Her name was Barbara Tropp, and she was a trip.

Her food was authentic Chinese with a bubbly California sensibility. She gave dishes fun names, like Cosmic Chaos soup, but was pretty strict about adhering to the yin and yang principles of cooking, and keeping flavors Chinese (no crossing borders), but infinitely more interesting. I know one purist who turned up his nose at China Moon, and then after going there, caved. You couldn't not like how inventive, yet completely true to the cuisine, Barbara was.

Her China Moon Cookbook is by far my favorite (non-pastry) cookbook, as much for the witty and brilliant writing as for the recipes. Thanks to Barbara, I've pickled ginger and made ma-la oil, which, translated, means "mouth numbing" oil. I now make close-to-perfect steamed rice, and a pretty good fried rice, and I've made Chinese steamed buns with zippy dipping sauces, and cold tomato ginger noodles, which - at the risk of sounding nauseatingly corny - are the embodiment of the word "delightful."

So here I sit in Chicago, with 9000 pounds of bamboo shoots on the Tri-State, a handful of carryout menus from the old stand-by's, and no sign of the midwestern Barbara Tropp. So if you know her or have met her, please let me know. In the meantime, I'll just consult the cookbook.

(On a sad note, Barbara died in 2001 of cancer, at the age of 53. China Moon died with her.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Are burgers getting too serious?

I had the best burger of my life on Saturday. I know; that's a pretty grand statement coming from someone who started a Burger of the Month Club to find the best burger in Chicago. If this burger hadn't been at Redamak's in New Buffalo, Michigan, I would have just completed the mission.

The great thing about a Redamak's burger is that it's an unserious burger. It comes to your formica table wrapped in greasy deli paper, with some big, black letters written on the top to indicate the specifics of the order, in my case CNM (cheeseburger, no mustard).

Those letters make me feel like a number, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's an ordinariness in the burger experience that I want. And Redamak's is pretty ordinary (in a good way). The meat isn't special. It's just really good meat, with lots of meat flavor. The cheese is good, too - American that melts exceedingly well. A thick slice of onion, some pickle slices, and a good squirt of ketchup finish the thing off.

But Redamak's isn't a temple. It's more like camp, and what could be better than having a really good burger at camp. It's built to look like a log cabin, with cabin-y accoutrement inside (plus local college football memorabilia, which ends up to be a three-way war between Notre Dame, Michigan, and Michigan State). They added a large screened-in porch several years ago, which is loud and breezy, and where we like to sit. All the servers (an odd group of happy, middle-aged Moms) wear Redamak's t-shirts and seem to love their jobs.

There was a recent article in the New York Times about how some top chefs have undertaken the endeavor of creating the perfect burger. A disturbing development. I don't know about you, but I don't want my burger made by a top chef. I'd rather have a top short order cook do it. Which goes back to the ordinariness of the experience. A burger shouldn't be scientifically reduced down to a percentage of cuts (20% brisket, 60% sirloin, 20% Kobe) and an elaborate cooking method.

A great burger isn't perfect. It's spontanteous, in the moment. And it's certainly not labored over. One of the top top chefs, Daniel Boulud, who is highly respected and very talented, assembled a team - a team - to create a burger for his restaurant, DB Bistro Moderne. Another New York restaurant, Minetta Tavern, has a $26 burger, priced that way because of the "special grind" of the meat. Please.

The guy cooking your burger at Redamak's isn't French, never went to cooking school, and may have no front teeth. But that's why his is the best burger you'll ever have. Because it's not precious, it's not intellectualized, and New York food critics will never write an article about it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I'm heading up North for a burger. See you after the 4th.