Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Simple Supper

Yeah, that's right, all I had for dinner last night was a bowl of potatoes... better than a bag of chips, right?

They gave me some trouble since they were all different sizes (less than an inch diameter to probably two inches plus)... I tried to fish them out of the simmering water individually, when they were done, but pulled a few out too early. It got me to thinking... as I was eating basically the full range of potato doneness... I like my boiled potatoes kind of mushy. I want pretty much the only resistance to be the potato skin. Is that gross?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pale Ales

The New York times does a rundown of some of the better pale ale choices out there... good selections for July 4th barbecues. Easy drinking, unobtrusive, and goes great with almost any food. I think I've only had 4 on that list (Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, Longtrail, and Sam Adams), but then I can be a big of a beer snob as anybody... assuming pale ales are for plebes. Though I honestly prefer wheat beers for summer easy beer driking... witbeirs specifically... though arguably the spicing might interfere with a meal, I haven't had much of a problem with it... but maybe that's just my unsophisticated palate talking.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Expletive Deleted

I know this is a little unorthodox, but I'm rooting for the Black Stars the rest of the way.

First Trip to the Farmers' Market

Can you tell?

We're going out for USA/Ghana, but plan to have that little package of mozzarella with the bag of greens in the back and the cherry tomatoes for dinner. That should, in no way, make up for the rich and calorie laden food and drinks I will consume in a few hours... but hey.

I'm so excited about the new potatoes, I can't even put it into words.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The $40 Ham Sammich

I give you: The Conquistador.

Japanese Curry fro Scratch

Recipe is from here, from No Recipes, and even comes with a video:

And Serious Eats has some good suggestions for variations.

For some reason... unlike everyone I've ever known... I don't really like Indian food. I've never figured out why, and I wonder if making this would be enlightening? I guess if I liked it, that would just be confusing... since the spicing is similar, but not the same, and the texture is a bit different... and if I didn't like it then that would similarly prove nothing.

I guess I should just try a couple of forkfuls next time Anna makes it (she informed me last night that she not only eats it when we go out, but makes it from the curry roux blocks).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup Food Interlude

To take a break from my World Cup obsession, here is "Peppery Red Wine Capellini" from Herbivoracious... just posted yesterday, in fact, but it looked like a straightforward and delicious dinner preparation so I went to the store on the way home from work. There are two things that are unique about it... one is that you make the noodles by the "absorption method" (which I'll get to in a second), and the other is that the brownish color of the noodles isn't because they're buckwheat or wholewheat or whatever but because they were toasted in the oven. Just regular angel hair pasta broken into three inch lengths and toasted on a cookie sheet. Kind of neat I thought.

The "absorption method" of pasta making is quite popular these days, where it seems to me I've seen numerous interpretations showing up on food blogs these last few months. The first mention of it that I remember, was not directly, but as an aside by Harold McGee in an article last year about cooking pasta in minimal water... but I think it was Bittman's Minimalist column about "cooking pasta like risotto", in the Fall, where the technique was really laid out. It's actually an old Italian technique that, for whatever reason, wasn't particularly popular here and appears to have needed to be rediscovered. The idea is just that you make the pasta and sauce all in one pot... adding liquid for the pasta to absorb as you're cooking (i.e. just like risotto). Though I've made Bittman's recipe, I've never bothered to blog it... but you can see the same idea in the Skillet Mac and Cheese I made in January... though in that case, you're adding all the liquid at once (pasta like pilaf?). It's a fun way to make a one pot dish and it really gives the pasta a different texture that is... more creamy? I'm not sure that's quite right, but it's distinctive and worth trying once at least... it may make you a convert.

As for the dish itself, it is indeed quite flavorful and easy to put together. The prep might be a little involved, depending on your knife skills, since it calls for a lot of 1/2" dicing. Definitely use a big pot for this... I thought I could get away with a 5 quart pot, and while I did, it was definitely more of a hassle tossing than it would have been if I just followed directions. This was the first dish I made from Herbivoracious, though I've been reading it for a while now... and it won't be my last. It's an especially good site for any vegans/vegetarians or people just looking to cook less meat dishes.

Whew, Still Alive!

And by that I don't mean the US soccer team (also true), but myself... managing not to have a heart attack in what was one of the tensest sporting events of my life. A goal in the 91st minute!? Why are you doing this to me? But gratz to the US team for overcoming more terrible officiating(how many red cards did Algeria deserve in the final minutes? 3?), an awful call on another disallowed goal, and their own fairly bad finishing (Dempsey! WTF man?). I do have to say the defense stepped up against Algeria's counters, though in truth, Algeria showed no interest in winning in the second half... even though they needed to win 2-0 to advance. Kind of a shameful performance if you ask me.

England won the other match 1-0, so we both go through, with US winning the group. We'll find out who we play this afternoon. Any one of Serbia, Germany, or Ghana seems realistic to me... the only real long shot would Australia somehow making it out of Group, but it's certainly possible and would clearly be our best bet at getting another win. For that to happen, you're rooting for Australia and Ghana victories today.

Win and In

The US soccer team has a clear path to the 2nd round of the World Cup today (10 am EST)... win their game against Algeria and they advance... but unfortunately, this isn't the first time they've faced this same scenario, and their record is less than sterling:
Everyone remembers 2002, the high-water mark of U.S. Soccer, when it blew away Mexico in the second round and was unlucky in a quarterfinal loss to Germany. But who remembers the fortuitous way second-round entry unfolded? With a win and a draw in pocket, the Americans needed a result against Poland in the group-play finale to secure passage. They looked rather tame in a 3-1 loss but were rescued by results elsewhere.

Go all the way back to 1994. That team of busy overachievers needed a result against Romania as the first round closed. Tony Meola gave up a goal at the near post, the offense went limp and the side had to be yanked from the breach by other results as well.

Of course, the more recent (and much more similar) scenario comes from Germany four years ago. Ghana was the opponent, and the United States needed nothing less that a win. Fortune abandoned the U.S. camp that day in Nuremberg as captain Claudio Reyna crumbled in an injury-giveaway double whammy, and a dubious penalty kick called on Oguchi Onyewu crushed any U.S. chances.

The Algerian team is not particularly strong, but they do have players on European clubs, so they're not exactly North Korea either. What would be super awesome? Not giving up an early lead for a change. Both teams should be playing to win, since Algeria could advance if they beat the US, so it would be a pretty good game to watch. Hopefully I won't end the first half as disgusted in their effort as I was against Slovenia.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Japanese Curry

Anna orders Japanese curry rice sometimes at the food stalls in Porter Exchange... so I was aware that it existed (though I have never had it myself)... but the Serious Eats article linked above has a pretty good rundown of what it is. I'll try to keep my eye out for the promised "from scratch" recipe.

World Cup Group Stage Scenarios

The final games of the first round start today... with the twist both games in each group play simultaneously so it's more likely that everyone will have something to play for when they kick off. ESPN has a handy guide for figuring out who makes it through under which scenarios so you know what results to root for. Looking at the standings and tie breakers it looks like it'll be Mexico/Uruguay from Group A and Argentina/South Korea from Group B... but of course, you never know.

UPDATE: The "twist" comes from an infamous game in 1982 and is not "new"... I guess maybe I thought it was new because the US always loses on the last day, so the other game doesn't matter. Mea culpa.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Death of the Desktop... Again

Slate beats a familiar drum, about how netbooks and cloud computing will kill the desktop PC:
Indeed, it seems just as likely that desktop sales will drop faster than Forrester projects. In her report, Epps points out that desktops still offer more processing power per dollar than laptops—in other words, for the same amount of money, you can get a faster desktop than a laptop. As a result, Epps says, people with "processor-heavy" needs—people who want to edit high-definition video or play a lot of PC games—will keep the desktop market alive over the next few years.

But I suspect Epps might be overstating the attractiveness of very powerful machines. The rise of netbooks and tablets proves that, for many tasks, consumers are OK with sacrificing power in favor of portability. What's more, in the future much of the "power" in our computers will come from the Internet. You probably won't even need to store or edit your music, movies, and other files locally for long—we're getting better wireless network drives and Internet-based storage systems, and soon all your media will reside in a central location (in your house or some far-off server farm) accessible to all your machines. You might even be playing graphically-rich games over the Internet soon, too.

The thing I've never understood about how cloud computing is supposed to make desktops obsolete is that to me... the only advantage a laptop has over a desktop is that you always have your work (or games or movies or whatever) with you. You never have to worry about having left something crucial on your home or work machine. Doesn't cloud computing completely eliminate that advantage? Meaning that now I don't have to tote around a 15 pound laptop to always have access to my stuff... I can spend less money and have multiple monitors to work on... why would I even want a laptop? I can see the case for a tablet or two for surfing the net or watching movies or whatever, but I can't see why you'd ever want to do serious work on a cramped keyboard and tiny display... but clearly I'm a bit biased, since I've always been pretty anti-laptop. I guess we'll just have to see, but it seems to me the big loser in the rise of the tablet is going to be notebook computers.

That's not going to go over well in Pyongyang

Yikes. In all seriousness, I hope Kim Jong-il is feeling magnanimous for the players' sake.

Friday, June 18, 2010




Still 7 minutes to make a miracle happen.

UPDATE: HOSED... who knows what excuse they can possibly have for disallowing that goal. The only fouls I saw were coming from Slovenia... but it's hard to really complain too much after an improbable comeback and a gift goal from England.

Still alive, and in a pretty strong position actually.

Stick a fork in them

Glad I didn't stay home from work for this display.

UPDATE: Got one back. Note that if you are looking for a internet feed, Univision is superior to ESPN3.


Starts at 10:30am EST... which is horribly inconvenient. If it was a 7:30 game I'd just come in late... 2:30 I'd leave early... now it's a question of leaving for a really long lunch, or having it on in the background and trying to do other things. Hmmm.

Anyway, this game has me nervous mainly because it's a classic trap game for the US... and in World Cups past... after a strong performance that surprises you... they have traditionally laid an egg against opponents they should beat handily. Now, I watched the Slovenia-Algeria game last weekend, and let me tell you that Slovenia is a team the US should beat handily. They didn't show a lick of offense, against a pretty inept Algerian side, until they were up a man... so I'm not scared of them talent wise, but who knows if the US is going to show up (or manage to make it through the game without a red card). Note that Slovenia already has 3 points while the US only has 1... so while we would probably make it through with a draw here and a win against Algeria (since I'll assume the UK is going to trash both remaining teams on their schedule in righteous fury) the strongest play is just to win.

EDIT: Whoops... started at 10 and I missed Slovenia scoring on us. Sigh.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sausage Party

Michael Ruhlman making 50 pounds(!!!) of sausage with some friends. It definitely doesn't seem too difficult, but the specialized equipment makes it unrealistic for this apartment dweller.

Comic Sans Fights Back

Pretty awesome (WARNING: Profanity). If the idea of a font fighting back against the haters confuses you, go here for back story.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spain, Spain, Spain... sigh

I didn't watch it, and I'm not rooting for them, but since I did root for them during Euro 2008 I'd thought I'd note Spain's shameful and stunning 1-0 loss to Switzerland.

The World Cup has been pretty fun so far... except for the time zone thing being a hassle... but either the top teams are playing mainly not to lose (and sometimes getting stung for it), or they are all seriously off of their games. I can't say anybody has looked particularly dominant that I can think of... honestly South Korea, Mexico, and Ghana have probably looked the best to me (relative to their competition), and none of those is likely to make it to the finals. I hope the quality of play improves as we move in to the second games and teams need some points.

UPDATE: I forgot about Germany, since I didn't watch that game... but maybe they're the playing best of any "power"? Then Argentina I guess?

David Blight Lectures: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

If you read Ta-Nehisi Coates (and if not, why not?) then you probably already know that David Blight's course at Yale on the Civil War and Reconstruction is high on his list of keys to understanding the Civil War:
My sense is that anyone seeking to be an autodidact of the Civil War should take the following steps. 1.) Read James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. 2.) Listen to all David Blight's lectures on the Civil War 3.) Watch Ken Burns epic documentary. 4.) Take a week off and drive through Virginia, visiting everything from the battlefields to the plantations to the Wal-Mart. So much of what happened is still in the people there.

I've been going through these each day on the elliptical, and during my commute, and I'm extraordinarily pleased with them. You can find all 27(!) lectures here at Academic Earth. I've been mainly listening to the audio podcasts (RSS feed for a podcatcher here), but I watched lecture 3 in video format and didn't see much point to it. While I guess he occasionally puts up visual aids, I haven't yet (into lecture 7 now) felt that I needed to see them... if I ever do, I can always go to the video after.

If you're like me and need something interesting to listen to while exercising, these lectures are a godsend. Listening to them on my morning commute has really cut into my reading time, however.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mushroom, Shallot, and Gruyère Quiche

So we had the quiche last night for dinner, and I'd have to say it was an unqualified success. Good flavors and a nice crust... no curdling of the custard... and no holes in the crust for the custard to leak out of. This "deep dish" quiche was fairly time consuming, but no more so than one made in a pie plate, and the results were significantly superior. Anna and I cobbled this together from a multiple sources... it's Cook's Illustrated (sub required) for the dough and filling... Epicurious for the garnish (i.e. non-custard stuff that goes in the filling)... and Thomas Keller/Ruhlman for general instruction and tips. Unfortunately, for anybody without a 9" ring mold (most people I'd guess), you're on your own... Ruhlman suggest putting parchment paper in a 9" cake pan, and the linked (but not free, though also in the July 2010 issue) recipe in Cook's Illustrated has instructions for a foil sling in said cake pan that might work a little better than parchment. Personally, I don't see why you can't just leave the quiche in there... but I guess that's not as aesthetically pleasing or something. Anyway, here's the recipe we worked out:

Pastry Dough
  • 8 and 3/4 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour (1 and 3/4 cups), plus more for work surface
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cold, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and frozen 10 minutes
  • 3 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1/4-1/3 cup ice water
  • 1 large egg white , lightly beaten
No, I have no idea what the deal is with the sour cream... one of Cook's Illustrated's super secret ingredients one presumes, but its presence wasn't explained in this particular recipe. I didn't notice it's presence one way or the other in the finished product.
  1. Process flour and salt together in food processor until combined, about 3 seconds. Add butter and pulse until butter is size of large peas, about ten 1-second pulses
  2. Mix sour cream and ¼ cup ice water in small bowl until combined. Add half sour cream mixture to flour mixture; pulse for three 1-second pulses. Repeat with remaining sour cream mixture. Pinch dough with fingers; if dough is floury, dry, and does not hold together, add 1 to 2 tablespoons ice water and process until dough forms large clumps and no dry flour remains, three to five 1-second pulses.
  3. Turn dough out onto work surface and flatten into 6-inch disk; cover disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm but not hard, 1 to 2 hours, before rolling. (Dough can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours. Let thoroughly chilled dough stand at room temperature 15 minutes before rolling.)
  4. Lightly oil ring mold with cooking spray. Place ring mold on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roll out disk of dough on generously floured work surface to 15-inch circle (about 1/4 inch thick). Roll dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll into ring mold. Working around circumference, ease dough into pan by gently lifting edge of dough with 1 hand while pressing into pan bottom with other. Make sure you have plenty of overhang, to help keep the crust from falling, but trim some excess to save for hole patching. Patch any cracks or holes with dough scraps as needed. Refrigerate any remaining dough scraps. Refrigerate dough-lined pan until firm, about 30 minutes, and then freeze for 20 minutes. [Note that I just stuck it directly into the freezer for 30-45 minutes and noticed no ill effects]
  5. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line dough with parchment or foil and fill completely with pie weights or dried beans (or loose change!), gently pressing weights into corners of shell. Bake on rimmed baking sheet until exposed edges of dough are beginning to brown but bottom is still light in color, 30 to 40 minutes. Carefully remove parchment and pie weights. If any new holes or cracks have formed in dough, patch with reserved scraps. Return shell to oven and bake until bottom is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Remove shell from oven and brush interior with egg white. Set aside while preparing filling. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 large shallots, diced
  • 12-14 ounces sliced mushrooms (we used one 3.5 ounce package of oyster and one of shiitakes and made up the difference with cremini)
  • 5 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced
  • 7 ounces Gruyère, shredded (roughly 1 and 1/2 cups)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 8 large eggs plus 1 large yolk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  1. Melt butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add shallots; sauté until soft, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Increase heat to high and sauté until liquid is absorbed and mushrooms are tender, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with 2 1/2 teaspoons thyme and cook 1 minute. Transfer mixture to plate. Cool mushrooms completely.
  2. Place cornstarch in large bowl; add 3 tablespoons milk and whisk to dissolve cornstarch. Whisk in remaining milk, eggs, yolk, cream, salt, pepper, and nutmeg until mixture is smooth.
  3. Sprinkle blind baked crust with remaining 2 1/2 teaspoons thyme. Scatter mushrooms and Gruyère evenly over thyme. Gently pour custard mixture over filling. Using fork, push filling ingredients down into custard and drag gently through custard to dislodge air bubbles. Gently tap pan on countertop to dislodge any remaining air bubbles.
  4. Bake until top of quiche is lightly browned, toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, and center registers 170 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 1¼ to 1½ hours. Transfer to wire rack and let stand until cool to touch, about 2 hours.
  5. When ready to serve, use sharp paring knife to remove any crust that extends beyond edge of ring. Remove ring, then slide quiche onto serving plate. Cut into wedges and serve.
Our quiche was actually done before 1 and 1/4 hours... cresting well over 170 when we first checked... but luckily it didn't curdle. I guess maybe the cornstarch did the trick? But you might want to check on it a little early. While it took a long time to prepare, a lot of that time is just waiting around, and other than rolling the pie crust (a task I still farm out to Anna) nothing about it is particularly hard. You can use pretty much anything as a garnish according to Ruhlman, but make sure you don't use so much that it overwhelms the custard... since more of that texture is the whole reason for doing the "deep dish" version in the first place. Since I was picking my garnish from recipes based on a pie plate, I was reasonably certain it wouldn't have any problem with too much... but I honestly don't think there is anything I would do differently with this recipe (except keeping a closer eye on it in the oven).

Totally worth making in my opinion.

Eating Sustainably != Eating Healthy

James McWilliams makes what should be an obvious point, but one that I fear is routinely glossed over:
The culinary domain where I really see the rhetoric of sustainability obscuring heroic amounts of fat, cholesterol, and salt is gourmet dining. One can hardly enter an upscale restaurant these days without being lectured about the locally sourced, sustainably raised, and eco-friendly items on the menu.

But how much do these virtuous environmental decisions matter when you savor an appetizer of foie gras, a mere bite which has 85 percent of your daily cholesterol allowance? Does your body care that the chef personally bought the sweetbreads from a local farmer when it's absorbing 30 grams of fat per serving? Or what about that free-range pork tenderloin, a serving of which—although butchered in-house—has 90 percent of your daily cholesterol and 40 percent of your saturated fat? These foods might be produced in a way that's better for the environment or (with the exception of foie gras) better for the animal, but that doesn't mean that, eaten with any sort of regularity, they're not going to make your next physical a nightmare.
This a little bit of a strawman, since I doubt there are any people watching what they eat (for whatever reason), who think that eating tons of calories is "O.K.", simply because it was at a fancy restaurant with a "farm to fork" philosophy... but there is an element of Michael Pollan's argument that says you can basically ignore nutrition... and any macronutrient that is currently in (or out of) favor... as long as you stick to "real food" and mimic the diet of cultures of people who are still as skinny and healthy as they have been for centuries (i.e. French people). While being ultimately accurate in my opinion, it's a little problematic because it so conveniently congratulates the foodie elites for their choices. As long as you appropriately sneer at McDonald's and processed foods your diet is perfect! Of course, that completely ignores that portion sizes are overall meat consumption are so much higher in our country... so simply taking French (or Mediterranean or whatever) dishes over here... and not paying attention to any other aspect of their food culture... is not going to solve any obesity/nutrition problems. This, of course, is completely separate from any "sustainability" argument... which should be completely obvious... a pound of cheese from a farmer down the street isn't any better for my arteries than a pound flown in from England (but one is clearly better from an environmental perspective).

So, yeah, if you think that they key to alleviating obesity is to get people to eat at fancier restaurants then... you're wrong... but hopefully nobody actually thinks that.

EDIT: Whoops, Sustainability also != Sustainably

Monday, June 14, 2010


I actually haven't tasted this yet... it got done so late and had to cool for two hours that it just made sense to save it for dinner tonight. I'm pretty excited to try it, and will put up a more in depth post once I do.

Winter is Coming

This is so short I don't even know if it qualifies as a "teaser"... but I thought I'd highlight it since I didn't even know they were working on a mini-series for Game of Thrones.

I was just talking to Anna this weekend about how, as much as I've liked the series, for whatever reason I've never been able to go back and read them again... which is pretty unusual for me... maybe it will be different with HBO.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Anything Happened

A 1-1 Draw.

Landon Donovan looked great... the only truly dangerous player on the US side... and while the defense continued to look horrid, Gooch looked better and better as the game went on, which was a relief. And, of course, Tim Howard is the reason the US didn't lose.

Poor Robert Green. Do you think Calamity James was quietly celebrating on the bench after, probably, the worst goalkeeping gaffe in World Cup history? Green took the torch from him with authority.

USA vs. England

I have a bad feeling about this game... England is astronomically more talented than our side is... having one of the top 3 players in the world... while we have a really shaky defense. Could be a blood bath. On the other hand England has terrible World Cup luck, and you never know. Presumably the US will be playing extremely defensively and hoping to get lucky on a counterattack... but I guess we'll see.

Off to a bar for a late lunch and to watch the game.

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Game On!

World Cup 2010 has begun.

New Look

I had come to think that the blog's old look was pretty lame and hard to read, but I had made some custom edits and was just too lazy to figure out how to do a custom template that would look a little more professional and... a bit less like your little sister's blog about her turtle. Well, Blogger has introduced a new template editor that has knobs to change pretty much everything I had manually changed in the HTML code, so I figure there is no reason not to give the site a face lift.

This will probably be changing a bit over the next week as I fuss with it.

Note that I have finally admitted that this is a food blog with occasional digressions.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Some advice to the would be Blue Crab steamer

Sam Sifton's latest "The Cheat" column discusses steaming some blue crabs (as well as some uses for the crustacean) as a nice thing to do this summer... something to which I can agree fully... but while it is nicely written (as always), and the recipe seems fine enough in most respects... I have visions of Manhattanites standing on chairs screaming as irate crabs chase their pets around the apartment. Now, I'm no expert on steaming crabs... I left Maryland long before I had any desire to be involved in the kitchen, and even now, when I go to the Eastern shore to visit my Dad, he's most definitely in charge of the steamer pot... but I have at least seen a lot of crab steaming in my day, and heard enough apocryphal stories over the years, that it seems to me there was some important advice left out. It's advice that's similar for steaming lobsters... and maybe nobody without that kind of experience would try to steam crabs on their own the first time... but just in case:
  • You only want to cook live crabs.
  • If you try to put a live room temperature crab in a pot full of boiling hot steam... now, this may surprise you... it's not going to want to go in there. Emphatically.
  • So one option is a pair of gloves and tongs and just gladiator them all in (grab them from behind so they can't pinch you). Pretty exciting stuff, but presumably not for everybody.
  • I would suggest as an alternative: chilling them down a bit in the fridge, or directly in an ice bath, for a bit. This will make them extremely lethargic.
Now, the easiest way from then on is to have a pot with a steamer insert, since you can put your anesthetized crabs into the insert, season them, and then put them whole hog into your steaming pot... without worrying about layering them and seasoning them onto a rack inside a boiling hot pot... but assuming you don't have one, I saw a recipe or two that called for putting the crabs onto said makeshift rack before bringing it up to steam. It's an alternative, though I'm not sure how well that's going to work. Seems like they're going to wake up while the pot is coming up to steam and be a little pissed... but at least they'll already be in the pot at that point (remember kids, tight fitting lid)... I'd suspect they might lose a few more claws in their "excitement" than the first option, but that's not a huge deal.

Good luck to anyone who it going to try it!

The Economics of OpenTable

A New York Times article about some high end New York City restaurants not offering reservations had this intriguing nugget:
The easy button for many restaurateurs is, which allows diners to make reservations 24/7 online. “The average restaurant spends $1,500 to $2,000 a month on OpenTable,” said Mr. Brown, of Ed’s Chowder House, adding that restaurants like his pay a setup fee, monthly fees and a fee for every reservation.

In addition, a serious fine-dining experience requires reservationists “12 hours a day, seven days a week,” Mr. Brown said, “a minimum of three people making $30,000 apiece per year plus benefits.”
“Add to that yearly payments of $20,000 in OpenTable fees,” he said. “So by having no reservations, that restaurant saves $125,000 a year.”

Furthermore, while no-reservations restaurants can reach as many as four table turns a night, two may be the maximum for restaurants that take reservations, Mr. Brown said. “So for them, often the only way to cope with increasing costs is to keep charging more money.” That, in turn, can price a restaurant out of its market.

I figured it must cost something, but had never really thought about how much. The middle part about needing three full time people on top of OpenTable seems a little much, but what do I know about running a restaurant... especially one that provides "a serious fine dinning experience"? But it seems OpenTable isn't providing a lot of value on top of three full time employees to me.

Though I guess it's value might simply be access to the people who use OpenTable? I never used OpenTable before I got a smart phone... only rarely making reservations at all. For whatever reason, I have generally been either willing to wait or willing to find someplace down the street to eat if a place is packed. But ever since I started using OpenTable on my phone, I have indeed started to nearly ignore restaurants that aren't on it. Hell, I'll make reservations for 2 for 5:30 on a Tuesday at a restaurant that is never crowded... because... well... why not? On weekends especially, we use it to decide where we might go based on who has a table when... even if we know we could get in (nearly) wherever we want if we're just willing to wait. There are a lot of choices as to where to dine, and unless someplace is burning up Chowhound, it's hard to see the point of standing around in a crowded doorway for an hour to get a table. I guess OpenTable's runaway success suggests I'm not the only person who is beginning to think this way.

While I imagine ultra-hip places are always going to be able to do a brisk business by expecting people to wait, I wonder how viable it is to stay off it for other restaurants? Surely this indicates there's a lot of room for a competing service?

photo by Flickr user Steve Rhodes used under a Creative Commons license

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Negotiating the Menu

Jay Rayner, priceless as always:
I've always regarded the tendency of American diners to view a menu as merely an opening document in a prolonged negotiation – "I'll have the hollandaise on the side, and can you take the skin off the chicken, and how about we substitute an arugula salad for the dauphinoise" – as profoundly bloody irritating. If you don't like the menu, if this is not the food you want to eat, why the hell did you come here?
If you read the whole thing... which you should... you'll see he's not so hard as all that. He does admit that restaurants are businesses about customers, and some allowances need to be made... but ultimately he is saying that you need to make sure there is something you want to eat on the menu, before you choose to go to the restaurant.

As a reforming picky eater, I can see how it might seem unfair to say that you shouldn't be able to eat out because you want sauces on the side and absolutely hate whatever the vegetable is... and certainly while I think it's really a good idea to try to break out of the box that is "picky eating"... I don't imagine in your average restaurant it's that big of a deal. What would be fairly insane, on the other hand, is going out to some restaurant you need to make reservations weeks or months in advance... where you're going to drop a substantial amount of money... and then not even have any interest in the reason why you need to make reservations and spend all that money in the first place. Few people will probably find that last idea very controversial... you don't need to go to Per Se to get a plain broiled chicken breast. Certainly you are entitled to spend your money however you want, but that's pretty crazy. That is ultimately all Jay Rayner is talking about... there is no reason to eat the food of a Top Chef(TM) if you are going to tell them how to cook it... and what should be in it... and how it should be presented. It just makes no sense.

To take that even further... even if we're not talking about a "special occasion dinner"... if I'm going to a place where I trust the kitchen so little as to execute a dish without my explicit instructions... then why exactly am I eating there? Obviously there are social reasons for dining out, and I've had occasion to order "the least risky looking option" at some terrible places for the sake of friends... but otherwise, if I'm not really interested in the food a place is serving, I feel like I should be making something I actually want... at home.

photo by flickr user niallkennedy used under a Creative Commons license

Unfortunate Timing

The Cook's Illustrated issue that arrived at my door yesterday, had an update (sub required) of their circa 1994 quiche recipe to match Thomas Keller's (via Michael Rulhman) recipe published in Bouchon (but available free at NPR). They basically just adapt it to work without the purchase of a 9 inch ring mold... which was what I was trying to figure out how to do two weeks ago... before I broke down and bought a 9 inch ring mold. Sigh.

Truth be told, I'm not really that chagrined... we (or really I should say Anna, since she bakes all the cakes in the apartment at the moment) don't own a 9 x 2 cake pan anyway, and the 9 x 1.5 one I tried definitely didn't produce a "deep dish" quiche like Keller's... and while part of that is because I didn't have the crust dangle over the edge (to help hold it up) while it blind baked, I still don't think I'd really get that texture Ruhlman raves about in our shorter pan.

The other changes Cook's made is to avoid fully caramelizing the onions for an hour (just browning them) and to use corn starch to help neutralize said onions from causing the custard to curdle. What I'm not entirely clear on is how much choice number one lead to the solution number two... that is, do fully caramelized onions release the same amount of acid during the quiche baking? Unknown, but since I'm the proud owner of a 9 inch ring mold I'm going to try my next quiche Bouchon-style and maybe find out.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Got Nothing

I didn't cook anything this weekend (well, actually I've "half cooked" some enchiladas verdes that I will finish tonight) and I don't have anything on my mind I want to put out there. Obviously the World Cup is coming so that should get me reinvigorated, but there might be continued radio silence for a couple of days.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

How hard is cooking?

There was an interesting discussion started over at Yglesias's place by guest blogger Jamelle Bouie, and continued by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon... regarding a study showing that the more expensive the grocery store is, the skinnier the shopper (Whole Foods 4% obesity vs. Albertsons 38% obesity). And while it's important to note that this is only a study of Seattle area stores, and that Washington State's obesity rate is 24.5% when interpreting those findings... I'm not as concerned about the specifics of the study as I am about one particular idea advanced in these bloggers commentary on it. That is, that one of the reasons access to fresh produce and good ingredients (that every grocery store has) doesn't seem to be enough to combat obesity... is that "cooking is hard."

I think there are two aspects to the question of whether cooking is hard... 1) technical proficiency and learned knowledge required, and 2) the time and/or money commitment necessary to serve a dish. Many people want to make a big deal about the first point... that if you don't grow up in a household that cooks, and never learn how to use anything in the kitchen other than a microwave, it's very hard to know where to start... and thus getting in there and cooking can be very intimidating. As someone who has started to learn to cook, later in life, from virtually no kitchen knowledge... I know this to be true. There's a lot to learn... and, in fact, even though I've been working pretty hard at this for like 5 years now, I still find that I'm always learning new things that cookbook authors and experienced cooks just take for granted. I made some pretty egregious errors in a dish just this past weekend, so I'm not likely to underestimate how difficult cooking can be. Selecting the wrong cut of meat, or substituting the wrong ingredient can lead to a pretty disappointing meal... and knowing when you can and can't worry about such things takes a lot of cooking experience and knowledge. Knowledge that I, even after trying pretty hard these last few years, haven't really developed.

However... and this is a big however... we're not talking about the technical skills and repetition it takes to be able to fix a broken hollandaise while you're in the weeds as a line cook on a Friday night... we're not even talking about the technical skills of an excellent home cook who can amaze their friends at every dinner party and make going out to eat seem a waste of money... we're just talking about cooking food good enough to beat out McDonald's or a microwave dinner. I just don't believe this is very hard in any technical sense. People like Mark Bittman and Rachel Ray have careers oriented around simple and easy ways to make good meals... and there are things like slow cooker recipes that are not very far from just dumping things in and then turning it on. I'm pretty sure even I could have handled that in my burrito filled twenties.

Cooking is hard, though, in the time it takes to pick out recipes for a week of meals, and the time it takes in a crowded grocery store to get everything you need... and what if they don't have something? Do you substitute an item unsure of how it will effect the dish, or go to another store, or do you have another recipe for backup? Even a "thirty minute recipe" with only rough chopping of ingredients is going to take fifteen minutes more (at least) of prep time if you don't know your way around the kitchen... and that's thirty minutes more than it takes to stop at a fast food joint on the way home from work.

In addition, from a dollars/calorie perspective, you'd be quite hard pressed to put together a meal on the fly that was less expensive than your standard fast food Combo Meal. Certainly it can be done, and the more people you're feeding the easier it is, but it still requires significantly more time (looking through supermarket circulars for sales) and cooking expertise (being able to look at items on sale and figure out how to feed your family with those disparate parts). Indeed, as a person who first chooses what they want to make, and then gets everything they need with little regard to price... I've often found myself shocked, when the groceries are rung up, at how expensive cooking can be... and not in just a foodie or gourmet sense, but simply that meat and cheese are expensive... certainly more expensive per serving than some microwave dinner with FSM knows how much actual real food in it. In addition, things you buy will go bad and be wasted, since recipes seldom call for the same quantities sold at the store... so somebody on a budget has to figure out how to use those leftover items well... which is not something that comes naturally to me, and I suspect to many others.

So I guess what it all comes down to is that cooking has to be something that you enjoy for it to be worth all that time and effort. Just saying "it's better for you" is never going to be enough to convince somebody to cook. It's why I think things like getting kids in gardens and having them help cook the bounty, is more important than most people realize... you've got to get them to see cooking as a fun social activity that is more enriching than simply putting good tasting food on the table.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

All Eggs Taste The Same

Farm fresh, organic, factory farmed... or even from your own backyard chickens... it just doesn't matter... they all taste the same.

I guess this shouldn't be surprising... so much of how things taste is dictated by factors outside of your mouth... but surprised I still was. The most shocking assertion was that freshness of the egg also makes little discernible difference:
My chickens' free-roaming ways, their clover and bugs, their psychic well-being, none of it makes a taste bud's worth of difference. Neither, surprisingly, does refrigeration or freshness. "The only flavor difference refrigeration can make is if an egg, with its porous shell, absorbs flavors from foods it's put next to," says Curtis. "And as an egg ages, it loses carbon dioxide and water, but that doesn't really affect the flavor."

But can age affect texture? Eggs straight out of the nest box have stand-up yolks, and whites that hold together and resist beating. Older eggs have flatter yolks and less-viscous whites and are more easily beaten. Although those differences were undetectable in our tasting -- each soft-cooked egg we sampled was described as "creamy" by somebody -- I thought they might be noticeable in other applications.

Curtis confirmed that there can be discernible differences. For starters, a hard-cooked egg is easier to peel if it's over five days old, when the egg has lost its acidity and the membrane releases readily from the white. She also has found that whites from older eggs make for a slightly denser angel food cake, and she suspects that other applications that are heavily dependent on egg whites, such as meringues or souffles, might be affected. The difference, though, is small. "I'm not sure if it's enough that consumers would really notice unless they had a fresh-egg comparison setting beside it," she says.
I guess when you think about the stage of the life cycle an egg is at, there probably aren't a whole lot of variables that could come into play here... but still I would have thought a fresher egg would have tasted better, even if I'm not expecting to detect "hints of clover" from the fact that the mother hen was free range.

photo by Flickr user cobalt123 used under a Creative Commons licesne

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Anthony Bourdain Interview on Slate

Don't have much interesting to say about it, but I thought I'd point it out at least... I assume there will be more of these, since he's promoting a book... but this one seems particularly interesting because of the topic of "wrongness" and cooking. He's clearly mellowed quite a bit as he's gotten older, and consequently gotten a lot more interesting than the Kitchen Confidential caricature he was playing up early in his career... to the point I'm not terrified of the fact that he's apparently become a father.

Hope everyone had a good holiday weekend...

I had a fairly disappointing experience with the indoor pulled pork that I'm not sure I want to get into too deeply... I bought the wrong cut of meat (since I still don't really understand butchery) that wasn't really well marbled enough to work (ended up a little dry but edible)... and then my cobbled together tin foil contraption was too leaky collect any cooking liquid (so weak/insipid bbq sauce). Not my greatest effort in cookery. It happens.

Otherwise the weekend was relaxed and decent. Watched the US's second half comeback against Turkey... so that was encouraging heading into the World Cup. Also watched a bunch of Ken Burns' Civil War episodes on Netflix... which I hadn't seen since I was a teenager, so that was fun. Additionally tried to get into EU III which I picked up on a midweek special off of Steam... a bit of slow going that, since it's a pretty complicated game. So nothing too exciting, but it was nice to vegetate for three days.