Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cookies only a mother could love

Several weeks ago, I attended an organized cookie decorating event for fifteen 7 year-olds. This may sound harsh, but being with fifteen 7 year-olds is not my idea of a good time. I once taught a gingerbread house class to a bunch of 8 to 10 year-olds and the fact that I had kids after that experience is a small miracle.

I stayed the hell away from all of them and hid at my cookie rolling station for most of the night. I put my head down and rolled dough while other parents told their children how beautiful their cookies looked.

This brought up the whole self-esteem issue, and the real reason why I retreated. I think kids know when their cookies, and drawings and clay figurines, are ugly. And so, when an adult says, "That is so beautiful!" the kid is thinking, what the fuck? It's ugly and misshapen and not at all pleasing to the eye, so why are you telling me it's fabulous? Confusion ensues, children learn not to trust themselves, and also never learn how to deal with the disappointment of not being perfect all the time.

So when my daughter proudly showed me her work of art cookies, I did what I always do when something she does is frankly ugly: I told her that I liked the color she picked, which I did. She chose twinkly blue sugar (as well as 27 other colors). The rest of the cookie was a wretched mess, an overfrosted blob. In fact, the picture above looks like it was created by Picasso compared to what my offspring produced.

As for the cookies, they were delicious - Nancy Silverton's butter cookie recipe, which I must share. It's in her first dessert book from 1986. This is the kind of dough you become infatuated with, like when you were 13 and you thought Leif Garrett was hot, hot, hot. Decorate them any way you want. I like Nancy's idea of an egg glaze and crystallized sugar - very safe.

Nancy calls them Animal Crackers and that's fine with me.

Animal Crackers

8 oz unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 Tbs. cream
1 Tbs. vanilla extract (use the real stuff, not imitation)
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch salt

For basic decoration:
2 egg yolks
crystallized sugar (you can get this at King Arthur's Flour website)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Sift the flour and baking powder together and set aside. In an electric mixer, cream the butter until it holds soft peaks. Slowly add the sugar until it's completely incorporated. Whisk together the eggs, cream, and vanilla and add them to the butter mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and then continue beating until combined.

Add the flour mixture in about three additions to avoid the flour flying all over the place. You can even add it by hand if you want with the spatula. Beat until completely combined, but no more.

Form two disks, and wrap each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
Roll out the dough one disk at a time, keeping the other one refrigerated. It should be about 1/4 inch thick. Use whatever cutters you want, but if Nancy had her way, they'd be animal cutters. For added crunch, beat the egg yolks in a small bowl, then brush the tops with the yolks. Sprinkle the top with crystallized sugar.

Bake for 20 - 25 minutes, rotating the pans in the middle of the bake. The cookies should not color too much. They're done when they've lost their sheen and are completely dry. The bottoms of the cookie will be lightly browned. Cool on a rack and then eat more than one,

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Umami redux

About a year and a half ago, I salivated profusely as I wrote this post. And then I sank into a period of depression that lasted nearly ten minutes because the prospect of actually tasting an Umami burger seemed almost impossible. Most restaurants only stay open a few years, and LA was a distant memory from my advertising past.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have been to the mountain, and the mountain has house-made American cheese and roasted green chilies and is one of the most decadently juicy, umamiest burgers I have ever had the pleasure to ingest. Umami, if you don't remember, is the fifth taste - the savory taste - alongside sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. It's responsible for us craving meat, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and anchovies for reasons both physiological and evolutionary.

Umami Burger is a burger place in LA devoted entirely to satiation on another, more primitive umami level. When I first heard about it a year and a half ago, Umami was a lone wolf on LaBrea. They offered burger after burger with topping combinations that were meant to up the umami ante. One, with beer cheddar cheese, onion strings, smoked salt, and bacon lardons, was called the Manly. The thought of something so testosterone-laden was almost too much to bear and yet so thrilling at the same time. I knew Umami needed to move to the top of my list.

Umami Burger now numbers four. Over the weekend, while in LA for a wedding, I went to the one at Fred Segal in Santa Monica. Fred Segal is a pretentiously hip and laughably overpriced fashionista department store. A friend once spotted Michelle Pfeiffer there trying on $300 jeans and declared her to be a size -2. But now Fred Segal has an Umami Burger, so they're ok by me.

The menu at Umami is confounding, only because there are so many crazy good options (interestingly, each Umami has a slightly different menu, presumably catering to its different neighborhood clientele). I ended up ordering the Hatch burger: house-made American cheese and four different kinds of roasted green chilies. The burger itself is perfectly formed and uniformly thick. It's delivered medium rare and dripping with juice. My husband got the signature Umami burger: same meaty burger, but with a roasted tomato, a shitake mushroom, and a parmesan crisp, or frico. The combination of these ingredients is supposed to elevate the umami experience even further.

After tasting both, I decided that the Hatch (above) was actually umamier than the Umami burger. It had a depth of flavor I can't recall ever having had in a burger. I will forever be haunted by its creamy cheese, hot, biting chilies, and juicy, beefiness.

We also got an order of fries that came with a side of special Umami ketchup. A word about umami and ketchup: while I thought the umami ketchup at UB was delicious, Heinz is still king. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his New Yorker article on the same subject, Heinz ketchup has achieved a level of umami that few products do. So while I appreciated the extra effort on the ketchup front, it ain't Heinz. But they did offer mexican Coke (as in Coca-Cola) which is made with real sugar and not corn syrup. Plus one, Umami Burger.

You're going to love this place.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Anatomy of a Blimpy Burger

If you're one of those people who dislikes yelling out your order in front of a bunch of people only to get called out for it by a skanky short order cook who looks like Ted Nugent, do not go to Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger. During our recent visit, a guy about eight people ahead of us in line had his wife order for him. Having your wife order for you at Blimpy Burgers is like admitting you're a big pussy. The cook - a tough, red-headed Ted Nugent lookalike - called him on it.

"I want to hear it from you!" she yelled, laying him open for all of us to see.

This kind of stuff doesn't unnerve me because I know you have to go into Blimpy Burger prepared. You can't waver or be indecisive or God forbid, hide behind your spouse as she orders for you. You go in ready to kick some ass. You start with your deep fryer order (ours: fried zucchini and fries, SIR!), you then move on to your burger size and bun (doubles on kaisers), you then tell them what grilled items and type of cheese you want (mushrooms, onions, swiss), and then you breathe a huge sigh of relief, like you do at the end of a double root canal. The hard part is over.

Blimpy Burger isn't an ordinary burger place and that's thanks to its sort of unconventional burgers (and, yes, its wet-your-pants ordering system). The burgers are more of a loose meat patty, architecturally built with a multitude of toppings. They start out as golf ball size chunks of ground beef that get whacked down hard with a spatula into very thin, irregularly shaped patties. The advantage of this is irregular shaped patty = little bits of crunchiness (thinner meat chars more quickly) which counter the greasiness/juiciness of the meat. I don't know it this was well thought out or intentional, but it certainly is wondrous.

Before the whacking:

After the whacking:

There also has been much discussion about the number of patties one should order and I've concluded that three gives you the perfect ratio of meat to bun. Four, or a quad, is good for Big and Tall Shop patrons. Five, or a quint, is obscene, and best left to marijuana-fueled post-fraternity party forays or trying to impress your girlfriend. Just a note: for fear of too much meat, I would never order a triple anywhere else. But it just works at Blimpy's.

A word about the griddle: grease. A word about the line: long. A word about the burger: one of the best you'll ever have.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The thing about dinner theater

I'm not going to lie to you. I've never been to dinner theater in the strictest sense of the word. I haven't experienced the magic of the Chanhassen Dinner Theater in the Twin Cities or laughed til I cried into my baked ham at La Comedia Dinner Theater in Springboro, Ohio (touted as "A Taste of Broadway"). I have, however, been to the kind of restaurant where the servers break out in song in the middle of service and I frankly find it embarrassing.

I'm not sure who I'm more embarrassed for, myself or the servers. When the Fairmont Hotel first opened in Chicago years ago, its flagship restaurant was one of those servers-who-sing kind of places. It was called Pastoral or Symphonie or Chorale or some other music-in-a-country-setting kind of name. The servers all wore dirndls and lederhosen and sang in earnest as they brought out the pasta primavera. Whenever I sensed they were going to break out in song, I would hightail it to the ladies room and stay there until it was over. I was just thankful they weren't wearing roller skates.

I never would have paid to go to a place like Pastoral/Symphonie/Chorale. My sister-in-law's father invited me. If someone else is paying, I'll go just about anywhere once, even Medieval Times, another dinner theater experience, this one with jousting. I might even pay for Medieval Times myself, because the idea of jousting and eating at the same time is just so random, especially when it happens in Schaumburg, that it verges on eccentrically brilliant.

Dinner theater menus and cruise ship menus are apparently written by the same people, with all-you-can-eat Baked Virginia Ham and Roast Beef from the Carving Station playing the starring roles. 'Seasoned' Tilapia is offered on many menus, too, and this likely means a sprinkling of Mrs. Dash. Toby's Dinner Theater in Baltimore serves something called Our Famous Spinach "Phunque" Casserole. "Phunque" has all sorts of unpleasant connotations, starting with aromas that emanate from the nether regions of the body, so I can't even imagine what that might taste like. Toby's also serves Knockwurst with Baked Beans and I have to wonder, is this a wise thing to put on the menu when people are expected to sit still and be quiet for 2 hours?

There was a restaurant in Greenwich Village that took the singing server routine to a whole new place, namely Tuckahoe, New York. Though I can't recall the name, I do remember it catered to a gay clientele. If there was a birthday at the table, the male servers would tartsy out in caftans and turbans, and belt out the theme to the TV show, "Maude." You know, Lady Godiva was a freedom rider, she didn't care if the whole world knew......It came as a complete surprise the first time around and I laughed heartily and thought, this place has mastered it. But by birthday number 9 that night, and the 36th sung chorus of "And then there's Maude!", I had reverted to my former, dinner theater-hating self.

I like music in restaurants. Ambient music is good. A jukebox in the right kind of place is fine, too. Even the Rolling Stones can have a place at the table (like at Mario Batali's Babbo in New York, where Sticky Fingers played in its entirety when we were there a few years ago.) But if I ever see a server wearing a costume again, I'm outta there.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hail the gods of collegiate dining

I have a confession to make: I never ate cafeteria food in college. Occasionally, I might make myself a bologna sandwich at the cafeteria sandwich bar (only one of my dorms even had one), but I never once stood in line with my tray, watching as the lady with the shower cap sadly doled out slop on to my plastic plate.

It wasn't as if I was a food snob. I just owned a really good hot pot, and I happened to like spaghetti with Ragu enough to eat it every night for four years.

But now I'm feeling wistful. I think I may have missed out, and here's why:

The chicken broccoli bake at the University of Michigan.

I can't remember exactly how I stumbled upon this nearly legendary staple of the Residential Dining System, but once I started researching, I discovered it has legions of adoring fans. There are internet forums about which dorm offers a more delicious version and which one handles its rice accompaniment better (separate rice or rice underneath as it bakes). There have been a handful of attempts at recreating the recipe, and scathing rebuttals at those attempts for not doing the dish justice.

Apparently, the chicken broccoli bake is to dorm food what Knute Rockne is to college football. I decided I had to try it.

After much digging (ok, a relatively quick Google search), I found the real deal: the sanctioned recipe with the official Residential Dining Service seal. It even feels presidential.

In case the name doesn't paint a detailed enough picture, chicken broccoli bake is a casserole. It involves chicken, a chickeny cream sauce, and broccoli, plus a crispy bread crumb topping. It is industrial-strength Betty Crocker comfort food served on a pile of rice. In the fall, as the wind gets nippier and the sun just never seems to provide enough warmth, this will hit the spot. Ditto, after a few bong hits.

University of Michigan Chicken Broccoli Bake - Serves 6

1 pound broccoli, chopped fresh or frozen
12 oz. diced chicken breast (leftover cooked chicken would be great in this)
2 Tbs. butter or oil
2 Tbs. diced onions
2 Tbs. flour
1 1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp chicken bouillion granules or 1 bouillion cube
1/2 cup sour cream
3/4 cup whipping or heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbs. grated parmesan cheese
3 Tbs. bread crumbs (I use panko style for extra crunchiness)

Rice for serving

Steam the broccoli for a few minutes - do not overcook. In a saute pan, cook the diced chicken until no longer pink. You may need a little oil to keep the chicken from sticking. Remove the chicken and set aside. Using the same saute pan, heat the butter or oil and saute the onions until translucent. Stir in the flour and cook constantly for 1 - 2 minutes. Adjust the heat if the mixture is browning too quickly.

Combine the water and bouillion and stir until dissolved. Add that to the pan and stir over heat for a few minutes until it is thickened.

In a separate bowl or large mixing cup, combine the sour cream and heavy cream. Add a little of the hot liquid and stir, to temper the cream mixture. Add cream mixture back to the hot liquid and blend thoroughly.

Salt and pepper to taste. Gently simmer for five minutes. Do not bring to a boil or the mixture will separate. Gently fold in cooked chicken and broccoli.

Place mixture in a buttered casserole dish. Combine bread crumbs with parmesan cheese and sprinkle evenly on top of the chicken mixture. Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven until top is lightly brown and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Do not overbake or it will separate.

Serve over rice. Alternately, and this is how I made it, cook the rice first, and then turn it into the buttered casserole dish. Spoon the chicken broccoli mixture over the rice, then the breadcrumb mixture, then bake as directed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hollywood trips up again

If you're like me, you walk into a movie like Eat, Pray, Love with a healthy amount of suspicion. It's about a woman who throws away her perfect life in search of a more perfect one. Exotic locales? Of course. Beautifully shot? Sure. But try to find one character that you'd want to have a sandwich with and you're pretty much out of luck.

Julia Roberts plays the heroine, Elizabeth Gilbert. She has the kind of hair that I covet. It never gets frizzy, even in the tropics. As long as you have hair like that, you need nothing else in your life, except for pictures of the back of your hair, so you can see how perfect that is, too.

But this isn't about Julia Roberts, who I sort of loathe (except for her hair). It's about a food movie getting its food technically wrong. I wanted to scream to the two other people in the theater, "Did you see that? DID YOU SEE THAT?!?"

The egregious scene plays as follows: Julia, aka Elizabeth Gilbert, finally masters ordering an entire meal in Italian. And so, while she orders, the camera cuts away to the various dishes she's ordering as they're plated in the kitchen. I was actually buying into it - beautiful carciofi (artichokes) and melanzane (eggplant) and then, finally, carbonara. And that's when they showed a big plate of spaghetti with red sauce.

Red sauce.

Carbonara isn't red sauce. It isn't even cream sauce, as many Americans believe. It's eggs and bacon, brought together harmoniously by a bit of the pasta cooking water, parmesan cheese, a bit of butter and lots of pepper. CARBONARA, not MARINARA. Fools.

With the exception of Big Night, I don't like food movies. I never saw Julie and Julia for fear that they would get something wrong, like showing Julia stirring unbeaten egg whites into a souffle base or slicing beef tenderloin against the grain.

Then I remembered something - no one really eats in Hollywood. They go to restaurants to preen, gloat, or exult, not to eat. They order salads with no dressing, hamburgers with no meat, desserts with no chocolate, butter, or cream. They subsist on lowfat air.

So the next time a food movie arrives at the local theater, I will not be in line, getting tickets. I will be at home, watching Freaks and Geeks on IFC while eating pasta carbonara with extra bacon.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It's hard to argue with Lenny Kravitz

It's pretty clear to all of us that I have been remiss. I haven't written in - ok, fine, I'll say it - five weeks (I'm cowering right now, ashamed). I blame my children and their summertime demands, since it's just so easy to do that. But now I'm back and I'm ready to talk about Paris.

And when you talk about Paris, what you're really talking about are sandwiches. At least that's what I'm talking about, because more than 50% of our meals in Paris were sandwiches. And by sandwiches, I mean ham, cheese, and butter sandwiches. Butter gets top billing because it's slathered on so thickly, you can measure it in centimeters. You'll get no objection from me. I can think of nothing that isn't improved by the addition of butter.

We ate sandwiches, likes the ones above and below, everywhere. In parks, on benches, listening to an orchestra celebrate Chopin's 200th birthday, while fending off bees and aggressive French pigeons which, by the way, are still pigeons.

But we also ate ice cream. Berthillon ice cream, no less, the pinnacle of French ice cream, which is the pinnacle of world ice cream, or so the French will tell you. The shop itself, on the Isle St. Louis, was closed. In late July. The wisdom of this remains disputable. But other shops up and down the streets of the isle gladly carry it, and so we acquiesced.

I ordered the above cone - vanilla ice cream with cherry sorbet. The vanilla was light brown, the color of coffee ice cream, an indication of just how vanilla-y it was, but still somehow subtle and refined. The cherry was like a powerful kick in the teeth. A freak of nature in a cone. I'm still recovering.

But Paris doesn't just have the best ice cream in the world, it also has the best falafel. Just ask The New York Times and Lenny Kravitz, a sometime patron of L'as du Fallafel, in the Marais. It's a scrubby little joint with either a walk-up window or indoor service. I recommend the window. That way, you can see the official Kravitz endorsement.

The guys who run the joint might also be Israeli jewelry salesmen, and I mean that in the best possible way. The falafel is big and messy and flavorful, with lots of condiments that drip out the side and down your arm. I'm betting Lenny asked for everything. That's what I did, and it's the way to go.

And finally, Poilane. I have no idea if Lenny Kravitz has been here, and if he has, it's not the kind of place to advertise the fact. It's the kind of place where the counter staff dress like obedient laboratory assistants with golden tongs to retrieve your requests. My request was a walnut loaf and two apple tarts. The walnut loaf used to be transformative. Now, it's merely delicious. And the apple tarts disappointed me. Too little apple, too much crust. Monsieur Lionel Poilane, the kooky master behind this empire, died in 2002 or thereabouts, and I'm wondering if the sparkle didn't die with him. Not to deter you from going - it is a stunning shop with great bread. But maybe Marcel Proust was right: Remembrance of things past is not necessarily remembrance of things as they were.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Monsieur Mulot is in the building

I might as well admit to you now that I've always been a groupie. In college, I was a groupie of Robert Palmer. I was addicted to the Addicted to Love guy. After a show at Radio City Music Hall, I managed to sneak backstage for his post-concert party. I sat next to him on a settee for more than half an hour before coming up with something really charming and witty to say ("um, I really liked the show"). I then got up and left. I never said I was a good groupie.

So when I was at Gerard Mulot yesterday, and Gerard Mulot himself emerged from the kitchen, familiar feelings - Robert Palmer feelings - kicked in. Oh my God, there he is! It's him! It's GERARD MULOT!

Gerard Mulot is a very tasteful and expensive patisserie in the 6th. Chocolates cost about $100/kilo (Just for comparison's sake, a pound of Fannie May Mint Meltaways runs you about $22.99). I've had my eye on Mulot for more than 15 years. His is one of about ten standout patisseries in Paris that always get mentioned in New York Times articles about standout patisseries in Paris. And there he was, on a Sunday, tending to things in his shop.

Thankfully, he didn't look like Thierry Lhermitte,

a French comedic actor with devastating blue eyes, or I might have left my husband on the spot. Monsieur Mulot is more of a Tim Kazurinsky type - slight and spectacled and persnickety. He had a discussion with one of the patrons, a well-to-do woman who was asking about a cake. I tried not to stare, and I certainly wasn't going to take a picture, and risk looking like the groupie that I am. Plus, he was no Thierry Lhermitte.

We got a few jambon sandwiches to go, some pate de fruit (fruit jelly candies rolled in sugar), and two gateaux, a delicieux and an opera.

As we spent the day at the Jardin du Luxembourg, doing things French families do, I thought the cakes were safe in their cute, pink Gerard Mulot box. But when we got home, a different story emerged (see sad photo at the top).

The delicieux and the opera had collided. The opera - a classic French pastry with layers of genoise, coffee buttercream, and chocolate ganache - took the brunt of it. My Mulot masterpieces were Mulot-perfect no more. But even in its devastation, it's quite lovely, don't you think?

Thursday, July 22, 2010


On Friday, I'm heading to the pastry motherland, with a quick 6 hour layover in Queens. I haven't been to Paris in 15 years, so I haven't spoken French in as long. The performance anxiety is setting in, the fear of being an ugly American is palpable, and I hope to God we can figure out the metro map. I have places to go and things to do and gateaux to see.

I love Paris in a fawning, slightly embarrassing kind of way. I love how Parisians, and French people as a whole, revere food, and I don't at all mind how arrogant they are about the fact that they revere it (and we don't). I love how important pastry is to them, and bread, and butter, and croissants. I love that there are no Dunkin Donuts in France. And I love that baguettes are regulated by the government. Take that, Tea Party Movement.

I have a list, but by no means an exhaustive one, of places to go, and by places, I mean restaurants, cafes, boulangeries, patisseries, and marches that house fromageries, charcuteries, and chocolatiers. On this trip, I'll have two kids with me, one of whom only eats five things. It's a good thing three of them - bread, chocolate and cake - can be found on every street corner. Is it possible to get juvenile diabetes in a week?

Someone told me there are a lot of museums in Paris. I guess we'll try to fit a few in, between the trips to Berthillon (the best ice cream in Paris) and L'As du Fallafel (the best falafel in Europe, and maybe the world, according to the New York Times) and E. Dehillerin, a venerable cookware store where the salesmen wear long aprons while they fetch your copper sauteuse. The euros are at the ready.

And then there's La Maison du Chocolat, a Willy Wonka-like wonderland where the carpeting, the walls, the perfectly wrapped boxes of cakes, candies, and those macarons - all of it is suave and chocolatey. It is literally breathtaking. Not to brag or anything, but I'll be there next week. I'll also try to stop into Poilane for some apple tarts and walnut bread. Perhaps a little carb heavy, but the two together make a fine lunch.

I will hopefully be posting from France, assuming the technology Gods don't pull a fast one. Of course, if they're French, they just might.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The case for lard

When I think of the word "lard," it's virtually impossible for me not to attach the word "ass" to the end. Nothing says sedentary housewife from Iowa like the word "lard-ass" and nothing contributes more to lard-assism than lard. At least that's what my inner judgmental self says.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a lard-ass is a person who is not only useless but who also weighs a ridiculous amount. So it's pretty clear how lard got its unflattering reputation. Lard is the evil fatty substance that gives women, especially those from the plains states, their big, jiggly butts.

Ironically, nothing makes a better pie crust, and I now know this from experience. Exhibit A: my first pie of the season, above. A beauty, with sour cherries from the sour cherry capital of the world, Michigan, and the best crust I have ever made. That's a pretty ambitious statement, considering how many crusts I've made in my life (I'm counting all the tart and puff pastry shells, too, because crust is crust). Hundreds? Maybe thousands. But never with lard. And I have to attribute that to a fear of lard, and the pronounced dimpled ass that goes along with it.

But the nutritional data doesn't support the fear. Butter has more saturated fat and cholesterol than lard, assuming the lard is not hydrogenated (more about that later). Lard, in case you don't know, is pig fat. It's rendered, or melted down, and then strained of the lingering bits. It is then refrigerated to solidify.

When lard is processed, however, evil corporate scientists hydrogenate it (a chemical process that improves shelf life), and this makes it an enemy of your arteries and ostensibly your hiney. But pure, high quality lard is available via mail order. It's generally called leaf lard. If you're at all squeamish, now's the time to skip to the next paragraph. Leaf lard is the fat that accumulates around the kidneys of the pig. Not very appetizing, but surprisingly healthier than its processed cousin. The fat is rendered, strained and then chilled or frozen.

My pie crust was dreamlike in its flakiness with nary a taste of the barn. It stayed flaky for a couple of days, even in the warmer weather. And it was easy to work with. When you have two children, the last thing you need is a pie crust with an attitude.

Lard is also said to reign supreme in the deep fryer, producing a virtually greaseless, crispy crust. I am completely unashamed to admit that I am now lard's number one fan and I will be aggressively pursuing perfect fried chicken in the days ahead, once my $18.00 leaf lard arrives. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Once again, America saves the world

Gosh, I'm proud to be an American. It isn't just that we're clearly better than everyone else. It's the incredible number of useful contributions we've made to society in the past 234 years. Without our homespun American ingenuity, there would be no all-you-can-eat buffets. No loaded potato skins. No cheese that sprays out of an aluminum can, much like another iconic American invention, Silly String.

But in the past few years, there have been murmurs around the globe that maybe, just maybe, we are losing our competitive edge. Well, people of the doubting persuasion, I have two words for you:

Cheese tessallation.

In geometric parlance, tessellation is a collection of plane figures that fill a space so there are no gaps, much like the correct placement of jigsaw puzzle pieces. So when Subway announced this week it would start tessallating the cheese slices on its sandwiches, I was more than just excited. Now, rather than overlapping, the slices will be placed point up, point down, point up, point down (see photo above - an unfortunate example since there are big gaping holes between the slices. But you get the idea).

I am particularly proud of the R & D people who turned this pie-in-the-sky notion into something real we can all experience every time we order a $5 footlong (are they still $5?). I'm so glad we're using our best and brightest for life's important endeavors. I know there are other matters that need tending, but continuously perfecting the Subway sandwich will keep this country a step ahead of the India's and China's of the world who are noisily knocking on progress' door.

So for all of you doubters, we'd like you to meet the tessallated cheese sandwich. It's big, it's bad, it's red, white, and blue, and it's proof that we, the United States of America, aren't going anywhere.

Monday, June 21, 2010

M is for meh

Burger disappointment is hard to take. It's like having a bad cupcake or a bad ice cream cone. It just feels morally wrong, like the perpetrators should have to formally apologize and admit their wrongdoing publicly, in the town square, and perhaps in the most egregious cases, submit to a flogging.

That's how I feel about M Burger. It's a dark little crevice on Huron, just east of Michigan Avenue. There are no seats inside, which is a good thing since there's no ventilation in there, either. But you can sit on the benches on the sidewalk, where you'll likely share a table with a pregnant couple who just visited their OB at Northwestern Memorial. You can watch the woman eat a double with bacon and secret sauce and then finish all the fries and the chocolate shake and remember fondly back to those pregnant days, when you use to eat half a dozen Krispy Kremes at one sitting.

But the thing is, Krispy Kremes are good. The M Burger is not. There's nothing special about it, and once you've had a truly special burger (like at Edzo's), you immediately know after the first bite whether this thing you're eating is stuck in the bottom half of the burger bell curve, a step above a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and even that is debatable.

My issue is with the meat (some would argue the most important part of a hamburger). Normally, I like my burgers to taste like meat. But the M Burger really didn't taste like anything at all. If it had tasted like pistachios or creamed spinach or something else entirely, I might applaud the attempt at avant garde and maybe give a few points for creativity. But when the goal is a conventional fast food burger, it's all about the meat.

There are different versions of the M Burger. I had a single with everything, which includes lettuce, onion, pickles, ketchup, mayo and cheese. There may have been a tomato on it. If so, I couldn't taste it. A signature M Burger has bacon, cheese and secret sauce. All burgers are available single or double. They have fries and shakes, too, and something called the Nurse Betty, which, according to one Yelp reviewer, is a vegetarian burger sans a burger (a bun burger?). It's also a movie with Renee Zellweger, who is thoroughly annoying, too skinny and probably would prefer having a bun with condiments over one with meat. Both she and M Burger need to go away.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Spring cleaning

Today, I just might eat a dog biscuit. Frankly, I'm getting sort of tired of people food and I think it's because we as a family eat in a tiny, palate-deadening box. As a result, my taste buds are slowly being asphyxiated. The week's menu is always the same: pizza, flank steak, mac n cheese, occasionally sloppy joe's, and pizza. Sometimes, it's just pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza, and pizza. I need to find my appetite for eating again.

I'm not 100% sure if eating dog biscuits will do it, but it's worth a try. I used to eat them when I was a kid, and I can't remember if it was a way to become one with my dog, or a response to an anemic after school snack pantry. I just remember opening the box of Milk-Bones and taking a big, crunchy bite. The crumbs would fall on the floor and the dog would vacuum them up. How's that for symbiotic?

The plain Milk-Bones were surprisingly wholesome, like something you might find in the famous and popular Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen. In that multi-volume granola tome, everything is made with whole wheat, even the salads. The goal is to add as much fiber as is medically safe to every dish. Guacamole? Add eight cups of barley and flax. Tomato soup? Throw in a few handfuls of wheat berries and some lima beans. Is that hay in the fruit crumble topping? Well, it sure is.

Milk-Bones are deliciously bland and toothsome, and I'm hoping they'll not only cleanse my palate, but do a full sweep of my digestive tract as well. I had one of those weekends where everything I ate was either a hamburger or a hot dog, and it's taking its toll. So, bring on the melamine-laced biscuits and let's do some spring cleaning.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Doughy redemption

As much as I'm opposed to clever names - and rhyming - I don't really mind Wow Bao. Of course it's a Lettuce Entertain You venture and you know this because marketing-wise, it's tight as a Chinese war drum, with a clean, eye-catching logo and that name. It's just so confident. Not many things are Wow these days, and I don't know if Wow Bao really lives up to its name, but hey, LEYE executive types, props to you for trying.

A bao is a Chinese steamed bun with a filling. Pork is probably the most common, and makes the bao into a kind of Chinese slider. A slider is never a bad thing. The dough is like a fine, soft bread dough without the crust. Put peanut butter and jelly inside, and my daughter would eat these for life. The fillings range from thai curry chicken to spicy mongolian beef to whole wheat edamame. They're soft little savory Chinese treats, and with one of their Asian salads or soup, make a respectable lunch.

They also have dessert and breakfast bao, which I haven't tried but fear are a bad mating experiment between Dunkin' Donuts and Chinese takeout. You could put anything inside that dough, but that doesn't mean you should. With that said, I'll keep an open mind and next time, have a coconut custard bao. It sounds gross - all sweet, starchy mush - but I'm willing to take one for the blog.

Wow Bao also has homemade ginger ale, which shot to super stardom years ago at Big Bowl, another Lettuce concept. I've included a rough recipe at the bottom. Not to sound like a second grader but, it's so easy.

If there was a Wow Bao in Evanston, I would go once a week. I would get a Bao combo: two Bao ( I like the Thai curry chicken and spicy Mongolian beef) and a choice of their Asian salads, which are fresh and appropriately Asian-inspired. I would also get the ginger ale. It sort of completes the picture.

Homemade Ginger Ale

1 knob of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced (about the size of a small finger)
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1 1/2 cups water
Seltzer water or Club Soda

First, blanch the ginger by placing it in boiling water for about a minute, then drain. This mellows out the burn of the ginger. Rinse the pot, then put the sugar and cup of water in it along with the drained ginger. Bring to a boil, and boil for a couple of minutes. You're doing this to dissolve the sugar, so only boil it long enough to achieve that. You have now made a ginger simple syrup. Let cool, and store overnight in your fridge, covered.

To make the ginger ale, just add some ginger simple syrup to some seltzer or club soda. Start by adding a Tbs and keep adding until it tastes right to you. Other things you can add to the simple syrup when you add the ginger: citrus zest (just the colored part) or a split vanilla bean. If you want more syrup to make a big batch, just multiply up. The ratio of sugar to water is always 1:1. Assuming your fridge's temp is constant, the syrup should keep for two weeks.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Life, death, and food courts

I had a weak moment the other day and went to a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant. I've always felt that Lettuce Entertain You has singlehandedly made Chicago a B+ restaurant town by marginalizing the dining experience with cutesy tongue-in-cheek themes and even cuter names (Lawrence of Oregano and Johnathan Livingston Seafood tie for Most Heinous).

Shouldn't the theme of a restaurant be good food? I know that sounds completely crazy, but why not? A small neighborhood restaurant where the chef reports to no one, least of all a board of directors, might actually do well. I know we'd be giving up waitresses disguised as wiseass bobby soxers and menus rife with clever lines from the clever in-house ad agency, but it just might work.

We ended up going to Foodlife which, at its inception a dozen or so years ago, was an interesting idea that took on traditional food courts. It offered a multitude of stations, each with a different type of food. Mexican, Italian, BBQ, two types of was pretty much all there, along with the requisite salad and dessert stations. Foodlife promised to be a United Nations kind of food experience, even if it was dumbed down by corporate culture.

In the beginning, the food was well-prepared. The vegetables were colorful, the meat was fresh, and sometimes, the choices were even a little inspired. But last week, sad, pathetic salmon filets sat in pools of cloudy oil and old pasta curled at the edges waiting to be sauced and plated. I was witnessing the slow death of Foodlife.

It's not as if I feel any outrage. I mean, when was the last time you ate at a Lettuce restaurant that wasn't completely rote? Caesar or bibb lettuce salad to start, plainly prepared meat and a small selection of predictable vegetables for the main, and Boston cream pie for dessert. It's like eating at an expensive nursing home for well-to-do Gold Coasters.

I must confess there was another reason I ate there: I found an eight year-old $100 Lettuce Entertain You gift card in a drawer and it was still valid. I now have $53 left on the card. That's enough for two lobster rolls and two diet cokes at Shaw's, the semi-precious jewel in the LEYE crown. It's no Pearl Oyster Bar, but it'll do.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The year of the meatball

I'm adding The Meatball Shop in New York to my to do list and here's why: the build your own meatball dinner. I happen to love all meatballs regardless of size and ethnic origin, so a place that stars different flavors of meatballs partnered with my choice of sauce and carb is not just a restaurant, it's a place of worship.

I have no meatball heritage. Unlike my Italian friends, I didn't have a Nonna with a secret recipe; I had Chef Boyardee Spaghetti-O's and meatballs, the word "meat" here a loose interpretation of its usual meaning, that which comes from a farm animal. Despite this, I have an undeniable emotional attachment, Nonna or no.

The Meatball Shop is a cool little nook on the lower east side. And even though the menu is "build your own," the food looks to be a caliber above that. There are meat options (beef, spicy pork, chicken, and a weekly special, which on one occasion included chopped liver and matzoh meal - the Passover version), a variety of gravies, and a handful of interesting carborific sides. The thin slice of bubbly focaccia is a nice, nice touch.

Conventional wisdom might tell you to choose the beef meatballs with classic tomato sauce and rigatoni, but I would find it especially difficult to turn my back on chicken meatballs with parmesan cream and mashed potatoes, especially at 2 AM, after a night of carousing. The laundry list of green vegetables, from the daily roasted offering to the daily greens, might just assuage my guilt over the parmesan cream. Then again, it might not.

A few of the sides at The Meatball Shop.

If a big plate of meat and carbs doesn't do it for you, they also have sliders (a single meatball of your choice on a cute bun), a hero on a baguette (pork with mushroom sauce and provolone sounds good right about now), or a meatball smash, which is a gimmicky name for a two meatball sub on a brioche bun.

A meatball hero. Love the greens.

Everything from cupcakes to burgers to pizza have had their 15 minutes. Isn't it time we elevate the meatball? I'm thinking a week-long feature on Good Morning America, and a White House photo op where Obama has the prudent chicken meatballs with the sauce on the side and an arugula salad, while Joe Biden proves once again he'll take one for his country by ordering spicy pork meatballs with buttery mashed potatoes and an extra large ladle of spicy meat sauce. Oh, and the bromo? Make that to go.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Playing catch-up

I've been really lax about writing lately, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thoroughly immersed in the wonderful world of food. In the past several weeks,

I ate a bunch of conch in Florida. As it turns out, raw conch bears a very strong resemblance to boogers. I guess I'm not really surprised. I wonder what would happen if you cooked boogers. Would they turn opaque and chewy, like conch? Food for thought.

I also engaged in a cupcake taste-off with the cupcakes at More in Chicago. Sorry, I'm just not that into them. Art direction-wise, they're lovely. But the flavor is eh. My family and I sat down one night and through a highly scientific scoring system, elected a winner. Cupcakes could garner a score of 1 through 4. Individual comments ranged from "I heart chocolate!" to "This one blows." What can I say? We're simpletons. Only one, the Valrhona, a chocolate-glazed chocolate cupcake with chocolate mousse filling, scored marginally above a 3. We also tried the Cookies and Cream (conceptually interesting with crushed chocolate cookie on the bottom, but the frosting was overwrought and greasy), the Salted Caramel (caramel was good, cake was dry), and the Chocolate Chocolate (bland chocolate frosting - what a travesty). I'm sticking with Sweet Mandy B's.

And if you read this blog, you know I made desserts for 60 the other weekend. Here's what I learned:

I'm too old for this.

Caramel is really fucking hot.

And finally, when the cheesecake falls out of the pan and on to the counter the morning of the party, do not panic. Casually run to the store as soon as it opens, buy the ingredients all over again (you can panic a little when you think you can't find the mascarpone), and then break a Patrick Ewing-like sweat as you shift into hyper baking speed, hoping to God that the new, improved cheesecake sets by 4 PM so you can cut it into 60 neat pieces and then caramelize them with your rickety 20 year-old propane torch. It'll work out just fine.

I also set out to eat a Blimpy Burger at the eponymous restaurant in Ann Arbor this past weekend, but went for Mongolian barbecue instead. bd's Mongolian Grill was like a giant stir-fry frat party, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially after a football game. The griddlemen tended my Asian vegetables while they sang along to the restaurant's soundtrack like a group of drunken sailors/engineering majors. They all agreed that Sowing the Seeds of Love by Tears for Fears was completely lame, but sang it anyway. Next time, a few drinking games might be in order. It's just that kind of place.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Back in the saddle again, part 1

Those French, they have a different word for everything. - Steve Martin

In this case, the word is mignardise. Tiny tasty things served at the end of a meal. This week, I'm making Asian-inspired mignardise for an event at an art gallery. After exactly zero seconds of contemplation, I jumped at it. Why torture yourself with self-doubt? How hard can it be? The menu is as follows:

Roasted pineapple financier
Chocolate marquise
Ginger plum cheesecake
Green tea shortbreads

At the top of my grocery list is 5 Hour Energy Drink. I'm not young anymore, and these things have a way of making you curl up in a corner and cry because you've just gotten your ass kicked by a bunch of petit fours.

Besides, anyone who's worked an event knows that events are fraught with mishaps. The first event I ever did was a grand, multi-day gig at a fancy hotel in Maui. It involved making desserts for three different meals over the course of three days in an enormous, unfamiliar hotel kitchen. It also involved making ice cream for 150 as part of the first night's dessert. If anything can kick your ass and make you feel like a complete moron, it's ice cream. But making it isn't the issue. Serving it is.

When it came time for dessert, my chef asked me if the ice cream was broken down. I had no idea what he was talking about, and when he realized I had no idea what he was talking about, the look in his eyes was panic of an order I had never seen.

"You didn't break down the ice cream?" he shrieked.

Breaking down the ice cream is softening it and then dividing it up into three or four containers so that several people can scoop it at one time. If only one person scooped from a giant tub, it would take 2 hours to serve 150 people.

At the time, I didn't know this. Now, I do. It took two large polynesian cooks to whittle away at the huge block of super frozen ice cream. I think they used machetes.

I moved on, thinking how many moments of stupidity can one person have during a three-day event on Maui? But the next night, when it was time to unmold the pineapple financiers for 150 (yes, the same thing I'm making this weekend, only a mini version), those sadistic little almond cakes refused to come out of their molds in one piece. I tried paring knives, tiny offset spatulas, a scalpel. I was terrified. I imagined myself bringing the trays of shredded little financiers to the chef and pleading, Please don't throw a sheet pan at me, an act of pastry retribution by many pastry chefs, mostly French.

It took me over an hour to get them out, just in time for dessert service. A few of them looked like they had been in a dog fight. But the great thing about dessert is that it comes last, after many glasses of wine. No one noticed.

So here I am, anticipating any mishaps, hedging my bets, making my grocery list. Like Tiger Woods, I feel confident. I feel like I'm going to win this one. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Too much of anything

I would so eat this. It's called The Garbage Plate, and it lives at Nick Tahou Hots, a joint in Rochester, New York. Nick Tahou, himself, was the man behind this over-achieving combo platter. You start with your choice of cheeseburger, hamburger, red hots, white hots, italian sausage, chicken tender, haddock, fried ham, grilled cheese, or eggs. Then you add two of the following: home fries, french fries, baked beans or macaroni salad, plus the options of mustard and onions, ketchup, and Nick's proprietary hot sauce, a greasy concoction with spices and ground beef. It's served with rolls or Italian toast, because potatoes, baked beans, and macaroni salad apparently don't provide enough carbs.

I found this while reading a blog post about the food one eats while drunk. I'm one of those people who eats sober what others will only eat after they've had a 12 pack. White Castle, chili cheese dogs and chili cheese fries together, those elaborate layered taco compositions at Taco Bell, a cold, multi ethnic smorgasbord of takeout leftovers for breakfast. And I'm now adding to the list the Garbage Plate.

The Garbage Plate is one of those dishes, like poutine or an Italian beef and sausage combo where the sausage is nestled discreetly in the sliced beef, that could either be quite sickening or something so awe-inspiring, reality falls away as you're eating it, leaving only it and you, a love story.

My ideal Garbage Plate would be very similar to what you see in the picture: an Italian Sausage with Nick's Special hot sauce, mustard and onions, home fries and macaroni salad, along with some Italian toast dripping with cheap bulk olive oil. I'd chase it down with an extra large, super fizzy diet coke and then lay down on the couch to watch some wrestling. Now that's a day.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What would Brian Boitano make?

Sometimes I can't believe my good fortune. Moments after I learned that Brian Boitano, winsome boy wonder of the 1988 Winter Olympics, has a new show on the Food Network, I stumbled upon this picture. If that isn't some kind of karmic alignment of the planets, I don't what is.

Brian has reemerged, reconstituted with Botox, as a cheeky, down-to-earth celebrity chef with his own show called What Would Brian Boitano Make? The producers at the Food Network have an uncanny feel for what this country wants now; that's exactly what I ask myself every time I step foot in the kitchen.

I tuned into the episode where he was making bacon cups filled with sweet potato hash for a group of roller derby girls dropping by. Completely relatable. His enthusiasm was contagious, but his bacon cups looked like flattened dog poop. He obviously has some work to do.

But the big question is this: if Brian Boitano can have a cooking show, why not Mary Lou Retton? I'd like to see her do 100 things with Wheaties. Marion Jones could strut her bad ass on What are the Inmates Eating? I wouldn't mind getting Olga Korbut's take on borscht, or Bruce Jenner's tips for throwing a fabulous Botox party, complete with out-patient tummy tucks, nose jobs, and a full low-carb Mexican buffet.

Over fifteen years ago, I learned how to properly cut an onion, not in cooking school, but by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken - the Two Hot Tamales. But that was when the Food Network was actually about food. Alan Richman, food critic for GQ magazine, and Nina Griscom, annoying socialite, had a great Siskel & Ebert type show, reviewing restaurants. She thought he was an idiot, and he mostly played along. There was Ming Tsai cutting octopus with a Chinese cleaver, Mario Batali making risotto, and Bobby Flay, before he became Bobby Flay. These were people who actually cooked for a living.

And here we are today. Brian Boitano is making bacon cups for roller derby girls, Giada DeLaurentiis' bosom is heaving on the chicken cacciatore, and Rachel Ray could really use a Quaalude. I think it's time to change the channel.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Where are my f*&%ing hush puppies?

The things we do for our children.

Last night, I went to Red Lobster for my daughter's 7th birthday. Red Lobster, to her, is the creme de la creme of restaurants, a nautical wonderland of bite-sized fried seafood. To the rest of us, it's a soulless wasteland of third rate shellfish and overworked food photography gracing the menu (It's Lobsterfest right now, and lobster has never looked made).

My parents took me to Red Lobster as a kid, but the thing I remember most isn't the lobster. It's the hush puppies. After my first bite, it became clear my gustatory life had been incomplete without them. They had all the qualities a perfect food has - crispness, tenderness, saltiness, and a touch of sweetness. Plus, they were super cute. To an 8 year-old girl, super cuteness trumps everything else.

The hush puppies were so transformative, I feel I owe a giant debt of gratitude to whoever deep fried corn meal dough in the first place. I'd like to thank him, the inventor of the chocolate layer cake and the guy who put the first slice of cheese on a hamburger patty. You, my friends, changed my life forever, even more than Farrah Fawcett's hairdo.

So there I sat at Red Lobster, an authentic replica of a Clipper ship lantern hanging overhead, awaiting the one thing that would make this trip bearable. When the bread basket arrived with cheesey biscuits - and no hush puppies - you can imagine my upset. And, to add iodized table salt to my gaping wound, the biscuits were dry and flavorless. As was my lobster. How can you fuck up lobster? How can you take a succulent gift from the sea and transform it into a chew toy?

My daughter had popcorn shrimp. With all the breading, it was impossible to tell whether it really was shrimp, or something made in India. I would imagine the Red Lobster kitchen is a storehouse of food chemistry success stories: butter-flavored gels in five pound cans, powdered vegetables that magically reconstitute with a dribble of tap water, and seafood alternatives with names like Sea Legs and Ocean Bites.

Staying true to the nautical theme, we ended the meal with The Chocolate Wave. I was still reeling from the hush puppy debacle, and was appropriately despondent. Even reasonably good chocolate cake studded with mini chocolate chips and served with a scoop of chocolate-drizzled vanilla ice cream couldn't bring me back from the dead.

Next year, we're going to the Rainforest Cafe. I know I said never again to the pumped-in subtropical humidity that makes my hair look like Roseanne Rosannadanna's, and the guy in the benign-looking frog suit who - come on, just admit it, Rainforest Cafe corporate offices - is really a Poison Dart Frog, but anything's better than this.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The city of light and crazy bread laws

I love Paris, and everything about it, except for the fact that they speak French and expect me to, as well, and then arrogantly scoff when I sound like Inspector Clouseau. But I love it anyway. And it has little to do with the light, and much to do with the bread.

Man might not be able to live on bread alone, but I can, when I'm in Paris. In that, I include croissants plain, chocolat, and especially almond, various bread-like pastries including but not limited to cannelles and baba au rhum, the vast array of baguettes, batards, fougasse, and boules, and the sandwiches and tartines which are borne out of them. Give me a good French loaf and I will never, ever need therapy.

Of course, it helps that Parisians put as much money and research into bread as the US does into its space program. There's new science on how best to leaven the dough, hundred year-old sourdough starters with royal lineage, and of course, the Grand Prix de Baguette to determine the best loaf in the city. This year's winner: Le Grenier de Felix. By all means, go there.

Paris is probably the only major city that has laws governing how baguettes are made. A baguette traditionelle can have only four ingredients - flour, water, salt, and leaven or yeast - and it must be baked on premise, and kneaded by hand. Our prisons are filled with soulless murderers and greedy embezzlers; theirs with bakers suffering from severe carpal tunnel syndrome who secretly pulled out their Kitchenaid mixers in the wee hours to knead the baguette dough and got caught.

One of my favorite boulangeries is Poilane, on the Rue de Cherche-Midi, and I swear it has nothing to do with the fact that the bakers, faced with Hades-like heat given off by the basement ovens, have been known to shed their uniforms and perform their duties in just underpants, although a nearly nude, sweaty Frenchman stoking the fire does hold a randy appeal. It was at Poilane that I discovered the walnut boule - the walnuttiest thing I have ever tasted. I consumed an entire loaf on the trip back to my hotel, a feat of which I am extremely proud. Gluttony in Paris is so much more attractive than it is here in the States, probably because special sauce is not involved.

In five months, I'm heading back to the fatherland (in Paris, the kitchen is a man's world) to partake of as much bread as my system will allow. And I will happily slather every piece with butter because as great as the bread is, have you ever tasted the butter?

Friday, February 19, 2010

I'm in love

I have a new reason for living. Garlic fries at Edzo's. This is how strongly I feel: I would take a hollow-tipped bullet in my left eye socket for my kid, but he can kiss my mommy ass if he thinks he's getting any of my garlic fries.

I was there last Saturday, waiting in line with the rest of Evanston. It wasn't a Hot Doug's type of ritualistic experience, where you need to block out five hours, 20 minutes of which is for the actual eating. At most, it was 30 minutes from end of line to burger in hand.

Edzo's opened a few months ago in the spot that used to be Pita Pete's. I had a hate/love relationship with Pete's, but with Edzo's, it's definitely a groovy kind of love. The guy who runs the place - I'm guessing Ed to his parents - gets burgers. He gets the bun (soft yet supportive, and egg-glazed), he gets the toppings (everything includes pickles, onions, ketchup and mustard; stuff like sauteed mushrooms, a fried egg or giardiniera are extra), and he especially gets the meat, which is perfectly juicy and tasty, with just the right fat content and thickness for a fast food burger. They grind it in house everyday, and even offer an organic blend. If we all pay a mere two bucks extra for the good meat, we just might save the world.

Edzo's also offers 8 ounce charburgers, hot dogs in a variety of dress, a few appropriate sandwiches, and a tantalizing array of fries. I was intrigued by the Taylor Street version (Italian beef gravy and sweet and hot peppers), but the garlic ones called to me in a voice oddly reminiscent of a mellower Russell Crowe. The garlic is substantial yet sweet with no burning edge. It lives in a parsley butter that is judiciously ladled on, leaving nothing but crisp. I loved the burger, but I'll never forget the fries.

As for the milkshakes, they're real, too, and more than I could handle with a meal, but a perfect afternoon pick-me-up after a 12 mile run and 45 minute weight lifting session with Mr. T.

Ed didn't change the place much. The paint job looks like it's from 1974, as does the brand new 70's style supergraphic with Bozo type. He also didn't change the soda fountain - my only gripe - because Pepsi with burgers this good is a crime.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Actually, this is why we're stupid

These are Deep-Fried Manicotti Dogs. I found them on They're "chopped and fried hot dogs, sauteed onions, slopped with super cheesy rice and stuffed into manicotti tubes, then breaded and deep fried." I never could have come up with the word "slopped" in that context.

At gun point, I might serve these with a spicy ketchup (Heinz + canned jalapenos) at a Superbowl party, alongside Seven Layer Dip (heavy on the sour cream) and Stuffalo pizza. For dessert, Ambrosia in Dixie cups. is one of those high concept/low content websites that has somehow managed to generate enough material and interest to produce a book. Even though I'm embarrassed - for the creator, the publisher, and our country at large for so easily coming up with the menu - I'm also filled with the sour juice of envy. Apparently, decent writing and a butter knife-sharp wit doesn't hold a candle to boston cream pie wrapped in a basketweave of bacon.

As over-the-top as some of this stuff seems (The Meta Meat Cake should be detonated), we both know this is what Americans really eat. They laugh at the frightening absurdity of it, and then grab a fork. Afterward, they retire to the couch with a large bowl of Raisinets to watch The Biggest Loser while scrolling through to unwittingly snicker at themselves.

If you offered the average American a choice between a large tossed salad and a beer-battered bologna and cheez whiz sandwich, we all know which one would win. And I don't think I'm being cynical when I presume there's a persuasive correlation between intellectual capacity and ounces of Bugles and Bagel Dogs consumed.

So, in the spirit of activism, I'm starting a movement. I'm calling it "Up with Cruciferous Vegetables!!" Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale - if it's gas-producing, it's in the manifesto. I'll start a website, make t-shirts, write a book with profanity-laden, veggie-focused one-liners. Alice Waters will host a book signing at Chez Panisse and then cook a six-course meal centered around broccoflower. It's time to take back America, people! Who's in??

Saturday, February 6, 2010

P-I-G, pig

Anyone who knows me can glean from my musical taste - and choice of shoes, for that matter - that I don't give a monkey's rear what's "in." The sentiment extends to pretty much everything, but especially food. When it was "in" to risk your life eating blowfish, I happily nibbled on my spicy tuna roll, eagerly anticipating death at the next table. When eating raw food was the next big/silly thing, I was braising a brisket for six hours. When chocolate makers likened the complexities of chocolate to those of wine, I tossed it off as nonsense and took a big bite of my Dove bar.

Now, there's pig. It's everywhere, in every form, from charcuterie to popcorn seasoning to sundae topping. Restaurants are designing whole menus around the whole pig, trying to feature as many parts as possible (Paul Kahan loves fried pork rinds and pig's ears). Salumerias are opening up all over (Mario Batali's dad, Armando, has a good one in Seattle) and there are blogs with large readerships devoted entirely to bacon. Pig is in, and this time, so am I.

It's pretty hard to deny the sheer gastronomic pleasure of pig. The other day, I bought a package of speck, which is a tissue-thin cured, smoked ham traditionally from Austria. It was a revelation - salty, tart, slightly sweet, lusciously fatty, and somehow in all that big flavor, delicate, too. I ate half the package. Chicken will never be pig.

Restaurants like The Publican and the shiny, new Purple Pig are pork wonderlands. Platters of thinly sliced cured ham, fried pork rinds, pig ears and trotters - it's a total body experience. The Purple Pig offers an appetizer of pork fried almonds, and numerous incarnations of pig parts, notably pork neck bone rillette with mostarda, a more down home take on pate.

There's even pork in desserts now, which I will not endorse until I've had my taste. Just the other day, I was at Belly Shack, a casual offshoot of the Asian place Urban Belly (lots of pork on that menu) and somehow missed the bacon chocolate chip sundae.

Which brings me to the next big thing: real dairy soft serve. Post forthcoming.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Til death do us part

The first wedding cake I ever made nearly killed me. There were others, later in my career, that came close, too. But it was that first sadistic, buttercream-filled bastard that nearly did me in.

When my stepsister told me she was getting married (this was 20 years ago), I thought, Cool, I can make your wedding cake. I had never made a wedding cake before, but I was young, optimistic, and in cooking school. I was so enthusiastic about baking anything and everything, I would get to school at 5 AM, complete my classes, and then run home and bake more.

When I told my chef instructor I wanted to do this - make a wedding cake for an actual wedding and actual people - it was with an incredible amount of idealism. Gee willikers, I thought, I can do this.

The process went something like this.

Step 1: Bake the layers.

Actually, step 1 is to understand how much cake you need. I skipped that step.

Step 2: Bake an indiscriminate amount of cake batter into layers.
This is where the trouble started. I baked the layers as if the cake was being served at the group wedding of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. As soon as I started assembling the thing, I realized that unless we wanted leftovers for the next 6 months, we should probably invite more people. Somewhere in the range of 1000 more.

Step 3: Frost the cake.
I spent an entire day - a humiliating, dispiriting day - frosting this cake. At one point, my chef instructor, Michel, Napoleon incarnate, came into the workroom and took a good long look at the layer I was working on. It was the bottom layer - the biggest - and it sat on the turntable looking horribly misshapen, and not even remotely suitable for a wedding. Michel held up his index finger. I thought he was going to point it at me and say, "Do you know how much you suck?"

Instead, he stuck his finger into the frosted side of the cake. The frosting was so thick, it swallowed up his finger to the juncture where finger met hand. A good three inches thick. He grabbed a spatula, stuck it into the side of the cake, and spun the turntable. The frosting came off - all seven pounds of it - with a thud.

"You do it again," that little Frenchy said.

So I did. Three more times. And it still looked like shit.

In a haze of bad esthetic judgment, I chose to garnish the entire cake with chopped pistachios and chocolate leaves. Green and brown. The very essence of matrimonial purity.

Step 4: Going to the chapel.
In order to transport the cake, I rented a van. The cake had to go in two pieces - the bottom layer and then the top three layers, which were anchored with dowel rods driven through the middle of the stacked layers.

My then-boyfriend drove while I wrangled. I didn't know at the time that a cake this size needed to be secured in some fashion, or it would slide around with every turn of the vehicle. So I spent that hour yelling "Jesus!" while the two parts of the cake played bumper cars in the back of the van.

Upon arrival, and further inspection, the cakes only suffered minor dents, nothing a few strategically placed chocolate leaves couldn't disguise. I managed to get it stacked in one monumental piece. And it was a monument - of ugliness, bad taste, ineptness, and I'll-never-do-this-again.

Step 5: Get the hell out of there.
Most pastry chefs don't have to be at the wedding where their cake is served. Given that it was family, I wasn't so lucky. There was a lot of hand-wringing and worry. There was also a lot of alcohol. So by the time the cake was served, the hard edges of sobriety had softened. The cake was deemed delicious. And beautiful (Thank you, Jagermeister shots). And we all drove off into the sunset, some of us on a fabulous honeymoon, others swearing we'd never do that again.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

One hell of a ham sandwich

It would take a lot for me to say a sandwich was the best I've ever had. The sandwich would either have to change my life in some marked way, like by giving me a great singing voice, or be so delicious that I would keel over from the sheer surprise of it.

I've had a lot of really great sandwiches in my life. And they weren't all $14 masterpieces from that high temple of sandwiches, Zingerman's. I can remember bologna, mayonnaise, and lettuce sandwiches from my youth that were glorious, and grilled cheese sandwiches, the bread slathered with mayonnaise instead of butter, that made the tomato soup seem almost unnecessary. There was even a period in high school when a BLT on a kaiser roll, dripping with the co-mingled juices from the tomatoes and still hot bacon grease, was dinner every single night.

But the best sandwich I've ever had?

Well, Mark Bittman of the New York Times stepped up and named the best sandwich of his life. He found it here, in Barcelona. It only has two ingredients: ham and bread. Not surprising, since Spain is the ham (jamon) capital of the world, and has raised curing pork to an art form. Spanish pigs are delicious pigs.

At first, I thought this sandwich seemed a little austere to qualify as the best sandwich one might ever have. Ham and bread? I started to improvise in my head. A little bit of unsalted butter on the bread might help, as would a thin slice of nutty manchego. Or would it?

The ham in question is called jabugo, which comes from the prized black iberian pig of southern Spain. It lives a comfortable and pampered existence, hand fed barley and maize as a piglet, and then let out to roam in pastures, where it feasts on acorns until its time is up. The meat of this fancy black pig is prized for its rich marbling and distinct, complex flavor.

I'm starting to believe.

The sandwich in question can be found at Cafe Viena in Barcelona, by all accounts an unassuming place (the Panera of Spain?), and certainly not the kind of place one might find such an aspirational sandwich. With the jabugo nestled in what looks like a French ficelle - a personal-sized baguette that has a toothsome crust and a tender crumb inside - I'm imagining a salty, chewy, crunchy, slightly sweet, mildly tangy and entirely satisfying sandwich on every gustatory level.

Perhaps the flauta d'iberic d.o. jabugo is the best sandwich one might ever have. Perhaps I need to go to Barcelona and find out.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Cozying up to vindaloo

I've never been a big fan of Indian food. But after my lunch last week with friends, I seriously wondered why. As it turns out, Indian food is my kind of sustenance in every way - fried appetizers, zippy dipping sauces, tastebud destroying heat, and lots of rice to temper the burn.

I traveled back to childhood, searching for answers. Could it have been my short tenure with our Indian babysitter, Saru, who regularly prepared curried goat for dinner? While she did provide unsurpassed dress-up material with her collection of colorful saris and bindi make-up, the goat stew went down like rocks.

Or maybe it was that time I was taken to Bukhara on a blind date twenty years ago. Bukhara was a somewhat trendy downtown restaurant that served Indian food from the northern provinces (whatever that meant). It was a utensils optional kind of place: you ate with your hands, assisted by the delicious naan that they baked in their tandoor ovens.

My date was a current high-ranking White House official. I won't name names, so let's just call him "Q." Back then, he was a political operative. A mutual friend set us up, presumably because we were both short and Jewish.

"Q" picked me up at my apartment, at which point he threw down the gauntlet and the date turned into a rigorous intellectual obstacle course. Was I tough enough, smart enough, savvy enough.....excellent enough to go on a second date? The night consisted of a question-and-answer period, a pop quiz, and a duel. The choice of restaurant was, in hindsight, a test to see if I was too squirmy to eat with my hands. I wasn't, but there was no second date.

And then came lunch last week. We went to Hema's Kitchen, a place on Devon that was featured on Check, Please!, that annoying yet addictive PBS show hosted by the cutesy Alpana Singh. Since I don't know jack about Indian food, I'm assuming Hema's is a fairly conventional Indian restaurant, with a comprehensive menu that features goat in some form, although I don't recall this with any great certainty.

We ended up ordering several dishes, beginning with samosas, and ending with lamb vindaloo. I'm sure vindaloo is to Indian what Kung Pao is to Chinese - a deliciously spicy concoction that's different at every restaurant, yet consistent in its use of specific spices that make it decidedly vindaloo. What those spices are, I have absolutely no idea. But I like that about Indian. The mystery. The intrigue. The upper lip perspiration and facial flushing that stays with you for the rest of the day. Oh, yeah, and the samosas. I kind of like those, too.