Posts

Showing posts from 2008

Carcasses and Cranberries

Childhood memories are largely first impressions of a place and time, a new smell, taste, or sound. We have larger tolerances for new things in youth than we might later in life having not yet formed much in the way of opinions; the world is still mostly new.

It must surely be in these formative years that most Americans develop a taste for turkey and all its companion dishes for Thanksgiving. Stuffing, mashed potatoes (and the million variants of it), cranberry sauce (occasionally still in the shape of the can in which it was held), gravy, yams, and on the dark side, Jell-O molds, and the ultimate assault on what never to use as an ingredient - pumpkin pie.

At no other time of year (save for Christmas) do we subject ourselves to the surprisingly-incapable protein of this giant chicken. Yes, the flavor is slightly different, but when would you ever choose to cook and consume 26-pounds of chicken? Do we want that much chicken? Do we want to be stuck with extra chicken when it's ove…

Strategy for The Menu

Sometimes, it's a slam-dunk, and only a quick-parse of the menu is all that's needed for me to make a decision. It might be a dish for which the restaurant is famous, standing out like a sore Zagat guide-flipping-thumb or an ingredient combination so classic, simple, and austere, it beckons like the softness of your own bed after a long business trip.

And then there's the other 98% of the time.

Those other times it takes me several parsings of the menu to even begin to think about what I might want. I mean, we're talking here about the fundamental fuel of life and choosing the substance which will, in a short time, actually "become you" isn't a decision to be made lightly. Your options are handed to you mere moments from a bustling city, often at the end of a work day that confounds (and often annoys) you. You're still a bit rattled from the rattles eminated during the high-speed cab ride, a bit disoriented, and now must quickly transition into “food mo…

Road Warrior 2 - A return to business travel

Business travel, as I've mentioned, is sometimes about brilliant moments when an impossible-to-get-into restaurant becomes available and is paid for with someone else's credit card. At other times – like tonight – every element of time and space conspires against your best intentions of, not just eating well, but of eating at all.

I arrive at my unremarkable hotel in Orlando at 10:50 p.m. on a Sunday; already a bleak scenario in all but the biggest cities. Dining options are looking sparse. Those who are bound to partake in the nearby Magic Kingdom are usually in bed before 9:00 as are their parents as they try to temper the expectations of the kids wanting to go see what’s-his-mouse RIGHT NOW.

I asked about room service. I was handed a stack of menus, 4 from Chinese restaurants (one Chinese and Sushi bar), the other two were pizza. Oh, and most stopped delivering at 11:00; a fact I recognized at 10:56 p.m. Yeah, that’s not room service. Room service is an incredibly predictable…

The word you're looking for is "hungry".

There have been remarkably few times in my life when a source of food was hard to find (though GOOD sources have been elusive plenty of times). Locating the type of cuisine I'm in the mood for may be tricky (without an internet connection or concierge with one), and it may be a longer walk than I'd like or a pricier taxi ride than I can afford, but food has pretty much always been around.

The other day, I had skipped breakfast (as I often do) and zoomed right past lunch (which I do occasionally) and by the time dinner considerations were due, most places were closed and I wasn't really in the mood to cook. I hadn't eaten (other than coffee) in 24 hours and I remember yelling in my car, "I am starving!" Fortunately, such utterances these days appear to be nothing more than a heated conversation on a bluetooth headset.

"Starving". I considered that word more carefully. "Starving"? Well, no, I wasn't "starving." I neglected food t…

Dad 2

He knelt down to check something at work and when he stood up, he nearly fell over. It wasn't a lack of coordination (though he's never exactly been a swan), nor simply "standing up too fast", nor was it fatigue. He took note of this anomaly but largely shrugged it off.

Later, he was writing numbers in a column and was finding it difficult to keep the numbers in a straight line. It was also hard to prevent a "4" from looking like an "X". For 64 years, the same brain had sent the same commands to the same muscles in the same hand, but suddenly it seemed the message was getting garbled on the way. The final straw was a slight slurring in his speech. Having never seen my father drunk, and knowing he wasn't at the time, this was a new experience for me. Clearly, something was wrong.

Obvious symptoms led to an obvious diagnosis by my mother and close friends which led to the emergency room. A test revealed no stroke, but between a CAT scan and an …

What are THEY having?

I'm fascinated by other people's grocery lists. Those brief, informal notes serving to help remember any more than 3-5 things at a time.

By definition, they must be scrawled on a random scrap of paper, and very rarely on actual "note" paper. Once they've served their purpose, they're often dropped in the parking lot while fumbling with groceries and keys, or simply left behind in the cart/hand-baskets. They more than a simple list of items, they are a snapshot into the needs - both common and at times bizarre - of complete strangers; voyeurism at its most obtuse.

The medium of choice is often entertaining. The backs of paycheck envelopes is a popular and rather obvious choice as well as quickly-torn corners of larger sheets of paper. Others have kittens or Ziggy, or Garfield, or a real estate agent's name (and picture) on it somewhere. Whatever the source, these sheets of paper are employed on a whim, used quickly and without much concern for legibility bey…

Quick Food or Fast Food?

Fast food gets a (deservedly) bad rap; a fact I have whined about mightily in this blog and further cemented in my new favorite book entitled “The Ominivore’s Dilemma”. (Yes, I’m a tad late to some parties.) The ingredients in fast food are far from genuine, most are extracts of entirely different and significantly cheaper substances that simulate the taste and/or smell of the intended flavor. For example vanillin is a curious by-product of making paper, spent yeast smells a bit like beef and is a major “flavoring agent” of nearly every canned soup and beef stock on the shelf; a fact about which I have mixed emotions given the apparent environmental impact of real beef.

Fast food aims to be “tasty”, not delicious, engineered by teams of food chemists who have turned to the dark side of “molecular gastronomy”. Fast food is adequate, not wholesome, utterly convenient by requiring zero planning or forethought, and is mindlessly-affordable. “Reasonably-flavored, convenient, cheap food” is …

Outdoor Season

Image
I know, I know. I can do the math. It's been over a month since I published the last blog entry. That's not like me (you know that) and if there's an excuse to be sought, it's all good.

There's been plenty of inspiration, believe me. Dinner at SPQR in San Francisco, lessons in charcoal grilling, preparing my first "perfect" meal of the year, discovery of an amazing Kosher wine(!), and discovery of quite possibly the worst wine bar on earth; and yet, April 15th stands as the last entry. (The devastating effects of April 15th being "tax day" is an obvious buzz-kill to creativity.)
Primarily, I blame the weather. California has a climate envied by many (though others have similar or identical climates without the cost of living that goes with it.) That climate is sneaky... I had my heater on a few times near the beginning of April. Even if it sat idle all night long, it was at-the-ready should the temperature dip low enough.
Out of the blue, middle of…

Mind over Matter

With food, I generally say "bring it on". If I'm in a new place, I want to try the local food. I want to know what's good wherever I am, and I strive to experience new and interesting foods whenever possible.
Now, all of this sounds good on paper, and I'm sure you have a mind as open as I do, but I can assure you that there are foods somewhere in the world that will make you realize you're might not be as prepared for bold experimentation as you thought.
It happened to me on my first trip to Paris. My work colleagues and I had just completed an obligatory day of supporting tourism and were anxious to eat. We were in search of a local place serving the "real stuff" made the "real way".
Fifteen minutes and a restaurant recommendation later, the 10 of us were seated at a long table against a wall; perhaps an effort by the staff to isolate the unmistakable volume of Americans. We didn't care as we were enraptured by such a food adventure.

Pro…

One

Image
I somehow missed the first birthday of my blog, a numerically-significant step going from 0 to 1. Blogs can't drop the usual hints that a gift will soon be in order. In my defense, I didn't forget, I just could have sworn it was April of last year when the whining first began.

To those that read these ramblings and enjoy, I want to thank you for your support, and based on the number of hits to the site, there are more of you than I thought. While I've shared much, and you've tolerated much thus far, I'd like to share a little of what I've learned about food, writing, and myself in the last year.

The blog was, I imagined, some small way of reaching out to people. To say, "It's not just you, Starbucks coffee does suck." Restaurants that were doing good should know it and be talked about at length and prodded to keep it up, while the ones that were doing bad needed to know that we noticed the "lack of effort". Whether that has ever made a d…

Fire Alarms and Widespread Calm

I fear several things when venturing into any restaurant for the very first time but "death" isn't normally among them. Obviously, the potential is always there; various choking hazards, icy sidewalks or an odd ingredient on the floor can create a slipping hazard, and the occasional (though rare) food-borne pathogen waiting to catch you off-guard. For the greater part of human existence, eating has been at least a little dangerous, unpredictable in supply, and something which had to earned. After all, food doesn't want to be hunted; in fact, it seems the more delicious an ingredient is, the harder it is to catch. Tonight, for the first time, the very act of dining itself might just kill me and, if it doesn't, I'll have something to blog about.

I took a seat in a large, possibly "over-done" restaurant, the architect for which is clearly and unabashedly in love with concrete and steel. The bar and floor are concrete, the silo-sized cylindrical wine to…

Inspiration

You'd think I'd have no shortage of ideas on what to cook, thanks to the forest-flattening number of magazines that flood my mailbox and cookbooks with far more recipes than I can ever hope to cook. Likewise, there is no shortage of ingredients which California is capable of cultivating even in those months with an "r" (and sometimes "ry"). With the depth and breadth of ingredients for sale at the local farmer's market, Whole Foods within affordable driving distance, Draegars, Andronicos, the Milk Pail, Ditmer's meats, Oakville Grocers, etc., I'd have no problem throwing together even the most obscure ingredients. I have all the cookware I (or any reasonably-equipped resort hotel) could ever need; albeit in an exceedingly small amount of space. This is hardly a valid excuse because I've had brilliantly-created food out of a restaurant kitchen so small as to prevent the staff from taking a deep breath. With all my talk (whining, whatever), yo…

“CLOSED FOR PRIVATE PARTY”

You know the drill.

It's a Tuesday evening and a friend you haven't seen “in forever” is in from out-of-town. You'd like to catch-up and you “know just the place”. You coordinate schedules, taxis, cars, parking spaces, approach the front door to find it bustling inside and as you reach for the door, a piece of paper unceremoniously taped to the door is already mocking you:

“CLOSED FOR PRIVATE PARTY”
Something about the all upper-case type seems to pound the point home even harder. There's a party going on inside and you're not invited. You may have spent thousands of dollars in this restaurant over the years, but tonight, you mean nothing to them.

I completely get the business case here. Tuesdays are an “off” night and while filling the tables is unlikely, breaking even would be nice. From the restaurant's perspective, it's tempting; 30 people - guaranteed - will eat, drink, and be merry (and spend money).

However...

Meanwhile, 12 regulars came by and were …

The Trouble with Truffles

The latest in unfortunate trends seems to be truffle oil. It's everywhere being put on everything both appropriate and bizarre. It is becoming a panacea for an otherwise lack of flavor focus, a singular obscure ingredient (in the palates of most people) that adds that earthy dimension difficult to describe and impossible to emulate. Well, almost impossible.

This sudden trend is no-doubt due to the the introduction and restaurant promotion of artificial truffle oil. "Give your customers the flavor of expensive, exotic truffles - and charge them accordingly - and you pocket the difference." For any restauranteur, the opportunity to bump the price of an appetizer by a buck or two for mere pennies per dish is a no-brainer.

While truffles can range anywhere from $60 to $300 an ounce (depending on who you ask, what time of year, and whether you want black or white truffles), one truffle can make a respectable amount of truffle oil. But it's still pricey. Like any other organ…

Supper Bowl Sunday

At first, the density of people at the grocery store seemed fairly normal. Those of us cursed with a "brief" attention span struggle a bit with simply making sure we get what we came for, so the quantity - high or low - didn't seem out of place; dense without being crowded. And then I began to notice a trend - a preponderance of chips (potato and/or corn), guacamole in plastic containers, and guys wandering around in football jerseys that they clearly didn't wear for work, 12-packs of Budweiser in hand hovering over the meat counter. What in the hell was going on?

Ah. Superbowl Sunday. Save for the fact that it falls on a Sunday (much to the detriment of productivity the following day), it's basically a national holiday. Friends gather 'round the warm glow of an enormous television (purchased primarily for this day) and celebrate the athletic prowess of total strangers while screaming criticisms at the players that will never hear them.

Normal people bet on whi…

Snake Oil, Part 2 - Unfiltered

A few folks have emailed me both in support of, and in strict opposition to, my comments regarding Riedel glassware. However, not one of them was able to explain the following.

Crate and Barrel has several wine glasses that, should you draw an outline of their shadow on a wall (with a piece of paper on it ideally), you'll notice a STARK similarity between them and the shape of Riedel's Vinum series. I'd be surprised if one can copyright (or patent) the shape of a wine glass which explains how C&B was able to source these things.

Which begs the obvious question - if a wine glass made by C&B has the same shape as a Riedel glass, doesn't it do the same thing? While Riedel socks you for $19.00 a glass, C&B can do it for $5.00. (Presumably the latter are glass and not crystal but...)

As many of you know, I'll attempt an authoritative talk about food but, when it comes to wine, I defer to others for true wisdom. Among those who have chimed in is "Krista&quo…

Bucks Stops Here

Image
Sunny Beans Coffee in Alameda seems to have come up with an absolutely brilliant bumper sticker. Just sad that I didn't think of it myself...

Everybody in Alameda, go here instead of Starbucks please (but not all at once...)

Here, taste this

For all of the obvious bad points about business travel (especially when trade shows are involved), there was one perk, one thread of cultural redemption I'll always cherish; for 6.5 years, I ate some amazing food on someone else's dime. (Fortunately, it was a cash-rich multi-billion dollar corporation.) New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, L.A., Paris, London, Stockholm, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney... in each case, I was allowed to explore the local culinary scene in some detail without going bankrupt in the process.

Uunless your job is actually to be a food reviewer, or you're the V.P. of something, you're unlikely to be given an appropriate budget. Inevitably, I or one of my coworkers, would bump into (or shoot right past at high speed) our allotted $75 a day. Ironically, when I did exceed my "per diem" by, say, $15.00, I received a scolding for it despite the fact that every day for the 5 days prior, the only thing I had eaten all da…

New Year, More Resolution

New Year's resolutions remind me a bit of horoscopes; an awkward and unlikely way to bring change about in your life. (Astrology strikes me as being to life planning what lottery tickets are to financial planning.) I only know a handful of (okay, 3) people who stand a chance of adhering to their resolutions rather than see them fizzle by Valentine's day. (I am not among the three.)

One possible ingredient for failure is our choice of resolve. For many, it's to lose weight and /or "get (back) in shape", probably the one-two punch resolution that fails most, sometimes even simultaneously. Other resolutions have more variable odds of success. For example, if you're 35, and you want to learn German, unless you plan to move to Germany (or another country that speaks German), you'll probably never speak German.

I believe that, if you resolve around changing slightly something you do every day - cooking, for example - suddenly your odds of success get much higher.

E.V.S.O. (Extra-Virgin Snake Oil) - A collection of useless crap

Saturday Night Live once featured a skit with Father Guido Sarducci about the latest kitchen gadget called "Mr. Tea"; a natural extension of the then-new and now-famous "Mr. Coffee". To use it, one simply places a tea bag in a cup, places the cup in the device, then pours boiling water (from a kettle) into the top of the unit which, in turn, directs the water into the cup. For $19.99, you could make tea more easily than ever before.

As his demonstration went on, it became clear that it was simply a funnel. While coffee makers do a bit more than a funnel, they don't really do that much more. (Units with timers and grinders are pretty good... having freshly-ground coffee waiting for me when I get up is probably the best use of technology I've found so far.) Such ludicrous devices didn't end with the original brilliance of SNL. In fact, there are plenty of these devices to choose from.

Wandering through The Ferry Building in San Francisco (if there is a heav…