Restaurant Re-runs

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When I go out to restaurants and find something I really like, I am often torn— do I have it again, knowing that I just love it, and know I will enjoy every bite, or do I try something new? I am a fairly adventurous eater, though I don’t think I could bring myself to eat an insect, and I am not crazy about very spicy food, I love trying new things. I have wrestled with this question many times. I have a long history of falling in love with a particular dish at a restaurant, and having it every time I go back. When I go out I often order something I am unlikely to make at home, and if its really good…

I can think of several instances of this phenomenon.  I love Rosa Mexicano; the one I frequented was on First Avenue in Manhattan, and almost every time I went I had the shrimp with squid ink rice.  It was sublime!  The last time I went, I can’t recall if it was no longer on the menu, or if I made the decision to try something different, but I do recall leaving feeling unhappy with my choice, and my dinner overall.  I wanted my squid ink rice!! I used to go to a place that made a half grilled chicken wrapped in banana leaves.  I have no idea what magic was performed but it was juicy and tender, the skin crispy and brown, it was all I ever ordered there.  When I go to David’s MAi Lai Wah in Philly, I have to get the dumplings that come with an amazing ginger sauce, and when I go to Manhattan Pizza in Great Barrington, MA I like my white pie with sausage and mushrooms.

So does having favorites mean we’re in some sort of restaurant re-run rut?  We all have our favorite dishes, things we cook at home more often just because we, or someone in our family really like them.  Last Saturday I met a friend for lunch, we got our menus, but we hadn’t seen each other in a while, so of course we were talking up a storm, and not looking at the menus.  When the waiter came to see if we were ready she said ‘I always get the same thing here, so I know what I want’.  I had to laugh, because as usual, I though it was just me.

When my daughter and I spent our vacation in Chincoteague last week, we ate at the same three restaurants over and over.  We liked them, the food was good, we were fine with that, so we had lunch at the Sea Star every day.  Many years ago I traveled through Greece, and on that trip we found that eating at the same restaurant very night was a smart decision. We got to know the owners; they would invite us into the kitchen, and make us special things.  I think we had better food than we would have if we tried a new place each night.

Most of us like a mix of what is comfortable, and good, and expected, mixed in with new and different (maybe even exciting) experiences.  When I go to Chinatown, in Philadelphia I go to a number of places, and try new things, but I also return to David’s for my favorite dumplings.  When it comes to food there are times we crave the familiar from our mom’s chicken soup, to a Hostess Twinkie (if that is your pleasure), and there are enough days to have those things as well as the Kahlua Pork Tacos from the Poi Dog food truck!

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9/11/2013

A brief history of chicken washing

Please stop washing your chicken!

Eatocracy

Home cooks have been all a-cluck over recent guidance not to wash raw chicken before it’s prepared and cooked. While it may seem counterintuitive, food safety resources like the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Ask Karen” website advise:

“Washing poultry before cooking it is not recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. We call this cross-contamination.

Some consumers think they are removing bacteria and making their meat or poultry safe. However, some of the bacteria are so tightly attached that you could not remove them no matter how many times you washed. But there are other types of bacteria that can be easily washed off and splashed on the surfaces of your kitchen. Failure to clean these contaminated areas can lead to foodborne illness. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, and grilling) to the right temperature kills the bacteria, so washing food…

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Wonderful Saffron

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Saffron is one of my favorite spices, it is also the most expensive spice in the world, so I use it sparingly.  You can find recipes using it from across the globe, and amazingly enough despite their reputation for being plain and thrifty, the Pennsylvania Dutch love saffron and use it in both sweet and savory items.  It is often used to flavor rice; Italian Risotto Milanese, Spanish Paella, Bouillabaisse in France, Biryani in India, Thai saffron rice, and on and on.  The flavor is difficult to describe, is is buttery and some say has a honey-like taste, though I don’t think so.  It has a deep and subtle flavor and is best used in mild tasting things, which is why it is so often used to flavor rice, chicken and mild vegetables.

Most Saffron comes from Spain and Iran, though it is indigenous to Asia.  It comes from the stigma of the crocus plant, and needs to be hand harvested.  It takes 14,000 stigma to yield an ounce of saffron which is why it is so costly.  I was sure I would be able to get some at a great bargain last year when I traveled to Indonesia, but I was told that the saffron sold there was poor quality, and often not really saffron, but safflower stigma.  Saffron generally costs between $8.00 and $9.00 per gram (about 1/3 of an ounce).  If you see it much cheaper, beware, it is probably not real saffron, and though it will give your dish the characteristic yellow color, you won’t get the rich distinctive flavor.  Here in the US you will not find Iranian Saffron, make sure to look for Spanish saffron.

Many years ago I was attending the Fancy Food Show in NYC.  As I walked by an empty, unused booth I saw a small box of saffron (about an ounce of it) sitting on the counter with nothing else there.  I was really tempted to take it, I knew it was worth a lot of money.  I stood next to it for a while, and no one came by to retrieve it.  I decided I would take a lap around the entire show, and if I came back and it was still there I would claim it.  When I returned about forty minutes later it was still there, and so I took it home and enjoyed it for many months.  If it was yours, and you came back for it, I apologize, but I did really treasure it.

Saffron cauliflower is a particular favorite of mine.  The flavors go so well together, and the cauliflower turns a beautiful golden color. It also makes a lovely äioli to put on fish or vegetables, or even a sandwich.  If you are going to use it in something cold you need to steep the saffron, then cool that infusion before mixing the sauce.  It isn’t difficult to find recipes using saffron, when I checked on Epicurious I found 275!

If you enjoy saffron I hope I’ve reminded you how wonderful it is, and inspired you to make something with it.  If you’ve never had it, I urge you to try it!  It is not hard to come by, most grocery store have it in the spice aisle.  It is often in narrow glass vials, or tiny bubble packages.  Do yourself a favor, and don’t look at the price.  Make yourself a dinner of Risotto Milanese, and a salad of bitter greens and think about how inexpensive this dinner is compared to any meat centered meal.

I’d love to hear about your favorite uses of saffron, and if you’re trying it for the first time, please let me know if you like it!

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9/9/2013 (Happy Birthday to my brother John!)

What Does Homemade Really Mean?

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“Would you like a homemade waffle? ”  This is what I was asked every other morning at the Inn where I spent the last week of my vacation.  Hmmm, homemade?   Well within seconds—and I mean seconds, a steaming, perfect waffle would appear!  Maybe they meant ‘freshly made?’   It turned out that they were making them to order, from a commercial mix.  They were cake-y and dense, though the spread offered wasn’t butter, and the syrup was the usual thick corn syrup.  I had one with jam, but after that passed on the ‘homemade’ waffles.

What does homemade even mean anymore?  So much of what we see advertised, or called out by local places are phrases like ‘baked on premises’ and ‘baked daily’.  Even places that sell artisan bread often bring it in par-baked, then finish it off in the store. Shows like Sandra Lee’s ‘Almost Homemade’ annoy me!  How hard is it to cook your own chicken for Pete’s sake?  I guess if you heated it up on your premises it’s homemade.

For the past few generations cooking and food have gotten complicated and please excuse me for using this word—fancy.  People think they need to be turning out restaurant quality food from their kitchens, after a long day of work, and if faced with the choice of that daunting task, or frozen tortellini with jarred sauce, most would go for the tortellini!  But it’s all a lie! You don’t need to create a masterpiece of culinary extravaganza to do some fine home cooking!

If you want real homemade food though, you’re probably going to have to make it yourself! Steer clear of any box or jar that claims it tastes homemade, because it’s a big fat lie!  I bet you’ve forgotten what homemade sauce tastes like, or how much better your own roasted chicken tastes than that over-salted, over-cooked rotisserie chicken from your local supermarket.  This isn’t about fat and calories, it’s about real food, made in your house with the ingredients you added, not the flavor enhancers, and texturizers added by some food factory cranking out tons of food a day.

Did you see your mom (or dad) cook?  If you watched them cook you learned how to do things in the kitchen.  Your children may not know to ask, but you owe it to them to be able to watch you cook.  They need to see you make simple easy stuff that your family can eat.  They need to see what homemade looks like.  Knowing how to make a meal for yourself and your friends and family is an important life skill, and unlike the dying art of cursive handwriting, eating real food made by real hands in a real kitchen is important.  Knowing how to do that is important.

Commercial food producers, and chain restaurants have made a mockery of the word homemade, and it’s time to take it back!  Progresso used to have an ad that proclaimed “Make it Progresso, or make it yourself!”  I say we take them up on that!  Bring back the true meaning of homemade!

9/05/2013

Fall is in the Air

chairs in autumn

Fall is in the air.  When I wake up in the morning it’s still dark, and the air is getting cooler. There have been days when I turn off my central air, and open my windows and enjoy the cool breeze through my house.  I know that many people say they like fall best, but of all of those people, I think I am/should be the president of the Fall Fan Club!  I am already dreaming of butternut squash bisque, and short ribs cooked for hours—maybe this year in my slow cooker.  I am dreaming of teaching  pie classes, and putting an extra blanket back on my bed.

As much as I love summer food like peaches and watermelon, corn and tomatoes, I am willing to bid them farewell in exchange for the relief from oppressive humidity and sticky skin.  I know my energy will be renewed, and even though it has been about one hundred years since I started school in September, I still get that excited, new shoes feeling as I turn over the August page of my calendar.

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Soup is one of my favorite things to cook, and quite honestly I consider myself a bit of a soup savant.  As the weather cools I will delve into soups of all sorts.  Soup nourishes and comforts, warms and sustains us.  It is basic and primal and as many people get ready for football season, I am gearing up for soup season!  I will make sure my fridge is stocked with celery, onions and carrots,  I will search out bones, and this year with my new smoker, will try smoking some of my own bones for soup.  I plan to do some experimenting, and some old favorites, and I promise to share them all with you.

I was always surprised that the most popular soups I sold when I was working in food service were chicken (any kind; noodle, rice, barley)  and split pea.  Do you have a special soup you love to make?  Are you willing to try some new ones?  I am still chasing the key to a wonderful yellow lentil soup I had years ago, that blew my mind, and will keep trying this year.

It’s not just soup though that I’m planning on making through the cold months.  I will be braising, stewing and roasting too.  We’ll bake pies, both savory and sweet, and I’ll tackle that slow cooker!  I hope you’re as excited as I am, and that you’ll join me as we rejoice in another turn of season.  Please tell me what, if anything you love about fall!

9/5/2013

Lemon Curd and Pickled Beets

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I don’t know what I was thinking, I probably wasn’t thinking at all, but on Sunday I decided to make my debut in canning by making pickled beets and lemon curd in one afternoon!  I owe this inspiration to my recent meeting with Marisa McClellan author of  the blog and cookbook Food in Jars .  I saw Marisa speak at my local library branch a few weeks ago, and though I wasn’t planning on it, I was so inspired I bought her book, and the supplies I need to start canning.

I have never, ever canned anything, and a wiser person in the same situation might have advised that I start with just one item, but I had all these lemons, and beets, a new cookbook, and no restraint.  The book is extremely well written.  The directions are clear, she indicates what you should expect, and look for and in general guides you through the process with confidence and a comfortable amount of hand holding.

I started with the beets, and prepared a nice one quart jar for canning.  I made my ginger brine, prepped my beets, sliced up some red onions (sorry Marisa) and it was all going just fine until I realized that I didn’t have a pot tall enough to submerge my jar once its lid was on. DRAT!  At that point I was halfway through prepping my lemon curd, the kitchen was a wreck, and I found myself needing to sterilize three smaller jars, transfer the beet mixture to new containers, and then process those jars in boiling water.

beets in jars

Finally I was ready to move ahead with my lemon curd.  The recipe called for Meyer lemons, but I had regular old lemons.  I had grated the peel while waiting to complete one of the steps in the beet preparation, and left the peel in the bowl of my digital scale. I’m not sure, but I believe the acid in the peel did some damage to the plastic of the bowl of the scale.  I tried to soak it with baking soda, thinking that it’s base nature might neutralize the acid, but I think the damage is permanent.  Oh well, no children were harmed, so on we go.

The lemon curd process was simple and easy.  The timing suggested was perfect, and all went smoothly.  I think I may have over-filled the jars a little because after I removed the rings there was some goop on them.  I cleaned it all up, the lids were tight, and the curd delicious (I bet it will be even better when I make it with Meyer lemons which I love).

curd in jars

If you are a friend of mine, and you are reading this, guess what you’re getting this year as a holiday gift!  Next week before school starts my daughter is having a friend spend the day with us, and I’m thinking tomato jam.  The recipes aren’t mine and I haven’t even really adapted them, so I won’t copy them here.  If you want to make these things, and a whole lot more (while summer’s bounty is still around) I suggest you buy this great book!  And let me know how it goes, please.

9/2/2013