Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Are Pastry Chefs Getting Their Just Desserts?

I have a meeting this evening, so I'll probably have to watch tonight's Top Chef: Just Desserts Season 1 finale via the magic of DVR. Before it even starts, though, allow me one small rant?

If I were a pastry chef, I think I'd be more than a little bit ticked off at the way the profession has been represented during the Just Desserts inaugural season: Surely dessert chefs can't really be as petulant, flakey (no pun intended), mentally unstable, and emotionally fragile as this crowd has consistently been, starting with the multi-episode emotional implosion that ended with Seth Caro leaving the show in an ambulance and continuing through various chefs' teary moments, the agonies of the Heathers, and finalist Morgan's spot-on impression of a middle-school bully, which reached its apex last week at Judges' Table when he responded to Zac's admittedly unprovoked attack with borderline homophobic (to this viewer's ears, anyway) comments about Zac "jumping around like a little girl." By contrast, Danielle's face-pulling weirdness and Yigit's buttoned-down snark seem positively refreshing.

I suppose the producers think drama is what the viewers care about, but I don't think so: What I care about is the food, and the craft that goes into making it. There's drama enough anyway; I would've like to see from these dessert chefs the same sort of tough-minded, serious approach to the food that we typically get from their counterparts on the Top Chef mothership.

All that said, though, I will be watching.

Dining Out: Goong Asian Restaurant

I'm pleased to report the discovery of a new Korean restaurant in East Hartford: Goong Asian Restaurant. Long, long ago, my wife and I spent a year in Seoul, where we learned to love Korean cuisine, so finding Goong, which had its Grand Opening Friday night, was a matter of no small joy to us. Finding it, though, was not at all difficult: The new restaurant is in the same Silver Lane location that formerly housed Asiana, Seoul-Tokyo, and (IIRC) several other Korean eateries over the last decade. While Ichiban on Farmington Ave. has a strong Korean selection in addition to its Japanese menu, and Min Ghung Asian Bistro in Glastonbury offers a Korean-leaning array of Asian fusion choices, 798 Silver Lane has for years been our go-to address for straight-ahead Korean dining like we remembered it from Seoul.

I'm delighted to say that, on first visit, Goong has its most recent predecessors beat by a good margin. On Saturday evening the main dining room was packed, almost exclusively with Korean customers (I always take that as a good sign), and the several private rooms along the side seemed to be busy as well. The small side dishes served to start the meal (called panch'an, or paek pahn), especially the kimchi and a steamed egg dish, were fresh and delicious, as were the sushi rolls (spicy salmon and crunch spicy tuna) we shared as an appetizer.

While I look forward to exploring the menu in depth (sadly, there doesn't seem to be a website or online menu I could link to), for main courses on our first visit we chose old favorites: dol-sot bibimbap (rice, vegetables, and beef, served with egg and pepper paste in a hot stone bowl), jeyook bokkum (spicy pork stir fry with onions and green chiles), and the classic Korean grilled beef dish, bulgogi. Both the beef and pork dishes were tender and flavorful, featuring better quality meat than is sometimes used in these highly seasoned dishes. Stone-pot bibimbap is almost always a delight, and Goong's version is no exception: The hot bowl creates a tasty layer of crisp rice that adds texture to the dish, and the heat cooks the egg that traditionally tops the bowl when the contents are stirred, making for a hearty and deeply satisfying dish.

Service at Goong was excellent, especially considering we were there on only its second day of operation. Because it is so new, Goong does not yet have a liquor license, so no OB beer for me... but other than that, between the Korean-language Asian Games coverage showing on the TVs, the pop music leaking from the private rooms, and the happy Korean families all around, I could easily have imagined myself back in Seoul. I can't wait to go back.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Emerging Foodie Wishlist: Cooking for Geeks

I admitted in my last post that sous vide cooking gear isn't "basic equipment," for home cooks, and it really isn't: A quick bit of Googling finds the typical cost of entry to be north of $1000 (e.g., this gear-and-cookbook combo), and even the low end is reportedly close to $500.

But the other day, I happened across (on the Huffington Post food page, IIRC) this blog post about hacking a cheap slow cooker for sous vide (cooking in vacuum sealed bags in a water bath, at relatively low temperatures for long periods of time). It looks like a pretty cool project, appealing to both the tinkerer in me as well as the emerging foodie, and I'll probably try it eventually (cheap slow cookers are common stock in trade at the tag sales that are endemic in my part of the country).

But the really cool thing is that the blog this is posted on is that of Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food... and that led me to the concept of the Emerging Foodie Wishlist.

Have no fear! I'm not actually soliciting gifts from the vanishing fewmassive throngs who read these sterling words: The wishlist is just my way of alerting you to items — books, gear, restaurants, etc. — that I've stumbled across but not yet been able to read/try out/sampled... but which make me say me want!!

So Cooking for Geeks is the inaugural item on the Emerging Foodie Wishlist. It will also go on my actual Christmas wishlist for my family, and once I've had a chance to read it, you can count on hearing about it here. Watch this space!

Unreality TV, Take 2

I've commented here before about cooking competition shows that "test" skills chefs don't actually use in their own professional kitchens, but I was reminded of the point again just recently. After having let my volunteer work on the just-completed elections completely swamp pretty much all of the rest of my life for several weeks, I've been burning my DVR at both ends over the last couple days, trying to get caught up on my food TV favorites. I still have a backlog of Iron Chef America and Good Eats, but I've watched the latest two episodes each of Top Chef: Just Desserts and The Next Iron Chef, and I'm reminded all over how artificial these shows are.

This time, the bur under my saddle is the fact that the chefs on these shows have to fight for limited resources, including not only the main ingredients for their challenges, but also staple pantry items such as butter, eggs, herbs, and citrus, not to mention basic equipment like mixers, blenders, and vacuum sealers/immersion circulators (OK, maybe the sous vide gear isn't "basic" for you and me, but it is for these professional chefs). They also compete for space in cramped kitchens. This business of dealing with tight spaces, at least, is something professional chefs have to deal with in Real Life™, but in that case, they're sharing tight space with colleagues, not fighting for it with competitors. In this week's episode of Just Desserts, for instance, Morgan Wilson hit Yigit Pura's pulled-sugar vase with his elbow, setting the stage for Morgan to win the edible-bouquet Quickfire Challenge when Yigit was unable to present his planned display. In his own kitchen, working with his own colleagues, Morgan's elbow could be presumed to be accidental; in the heat of competition, though, who know?

And in last night's episode of Next Iron Chef, Ming Tsai bogarted the limes, and took his sweet time with the vacuum sealer (apparently the only one in the kitchen) before leaving it "destroyed" (really just messy) for Marco Canora, who was sweating bullets waiting for it.

On Next Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters, whose contestants are established, relatively high-profile professional chefs with reputations to protect, the players who've cornered the supply of something will usually (eventually) share... but not always even there, and on the shows whose cheftestants are hungry up-and-comers (e.g., Chopped, Top Chef, and Next Food Network Star), it can get pretty brutal in the trenches.

The thing is, throwing elbows and hoarding butter really have nothing to do with the chefs' ability to cook interesting food... which is what I'm watching for. In the case of Next Iron Chef, this sort of fighting for scarce resources is not only unrelated to working in a restaurant kitchen, it's also unrelated to the fake TV kitchen contestants are trying to get hired for: In Iron Chef America's Kitchen Stadium, both the Iron Chef and the challenger are provided with separate fully equipped workstations, access to fully stocked pantries, and two sous chefs... and with one or two notable exceptions, there's always been plenty of the secret ingredient (in all its provided varieties) for both teams. When they scramble to scoop up all the eggs or clams, the Next Iron Chef competitors are not only doing something they don't do in their "day jobs," they're also doing something they're not going to do in the job they're fighting to get.

Puzzling, no? And yet, I watch!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Emerging Foodie Bookshelf: At Home by Bill Bryson

The latest offering from one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, isn't obviously a foodie book, but you don't have to think to hard about the central conceit of At Home: A Short History of Private Life to realize it has plenty of food-related potential. I'm less than halfway through with it, and already I'm ready to recommend it to anyone who's fascinated by food (well, to anyone, actually; I did say Bryson was one of my favorites, didn't I?).

Bryson's plan is to present the history of "private life" — the roots of how and why people came to live as they do &mdash using the rooms of the 19th-century former rectory he lives in with his family in England as a frame. It may not be immediately obvious that this simple plan would yield such a rich and deep collection of historical narrative and anecdote... not, that is, unless you're familiar with Bryson's earlier works, including A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, which reveal the author's peculiar genius for chasing illuminating tangents from his ostensible subject.

And so it is that throughout Bryson's wanderings — but especially in the chapters on the kitchen and the dining room — we learn again and again how deeply embedded food and food culture is at the heart of how humans live. Though the focus is on Victorian history, as befits the Victorian home that gives the book its structure, Bryson reaches back to neolithic and Roman times, tracing the development of food production, the history of cooking, and the rise of cold food storage, first using natural ice harvested from lakes and then with artificial refrigeration. We learn of the meagerness of early diets and the contrasting staggering excess of the Victorian table, and that some of the seemingly exotic dishes of times past — swan, for instance — were eaten not because they were especially tasty, but simply because they were plentiful when meats more familiar to modern tastes were not. And Bryson traces the development of the familiar cookbook form, with recipes including precisely measured ingredients and detailed procedures, from the much vaguer cooking instructions in the manuals of domestic management that preceded them.

And while the book's focus is on domestic life, it encompasses the more global implications of food, including the extent to which lust for spices drove the Age of Exploration, and then the extent to which exploration spread food, especially in the form of the Columbian Exchange of crops and domesticated animals between the New and Old Worlds. And, of course, it was the extended voyages of the Age of Exploration that began to reveal the connection between disease and shortages of dietary vitamins and minerals.

There's much more to At Home than food-related history (and much more that I haven't yet gotten to), but there's enough that is foodie-ish to recommend it wholeheartedly.

PS: I especially recommend the audiobook edition; Bryson is a Midwest-born American who's lived much of his adult life in England, and his resulting accent is a perfect match to the tone of his prose.

Not Dead Yet!

Notwithstanding the silence here for the last several weeks, I can confidently report that neither I nor this blog has expired:

I should've known how insane it was to start an enterprise like this during election season, given that my other avocation is as a political volunteer. In any case, the elections are over now, and I'll be back to posting here, starting with at least one new post later this evening.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mixed Results

Well, the double batch (10 half-pints and 4 quarter-pints!) of red pepper jelly I spent much of Monday making... isn't.

Isn't jelly, that is: It doesn't seem to have set up the way my several batches of jalapeno jelly did. At first I didn't worry: The green stuff took almost a full day to set up and stop sloshing around in the jars... but by now it's been 3 days, and it's still not set.

It's tasty enough, though, and it'll still be useful, as a sauce or glaze, or even in many of the same applications as proper jelly... but the fact remains it's more of a viscous, semi-liquid goop than it is jelly.

I don't rightly know why, either: I used a tried-and-true recipe as my base, and the substitutions — red bell peppers for green ones, and red (cayenne and hot Portugal) peppers for jalapenos — seemed straightforward. I used the same amount of sugar and liquid and pectin, and while I did make a double batch, all the ratios stayed the same. Maybe there's something different about the chemistry of the peppers (less natural pectin in the skins? Alton Brown would know). Maybe the amount of pepper solids wasn't right (the recipe specifies number of peppers rather than weight, and that's not too precise). Maybe I just wasn't holding my mouth right as I stirred the pot.

In any case, I've got red pepper glaze for anyone who wants some. Once I figure out ways to use it, you can be sure you'll see it here.

In other, better news, I've committed something vaguely similar to actual cooking: On another recent visit to IndiGo, I tried the Kerala Fish Curry, and as sometimes happens with Indian food, there was a nontrivial amount of sauce left over after I'd finished eating the fish and other solid bits. So I asked them to pack up the sauce for me, and they happily did, throwing in a serving of basmati rice for good measure. So on Tuesday, fresh off the dawning realization that the jelly wasn't happening, I stopped by my local megamart for a few ounces of fresh cod loin and sauteed it with a little minced ginger (an element in the original dish) and some chopped scallions. When the fish was almost done, I added the sauce, which I'd reheated separately, to the pan and cooked for another couple minutes... just winging it... and then dished the resulting reconstituted (refishified?) curry up over the basmati rice.

I can't take credit for how tasty it was — that was all the sauce, attributable to the chefs at IndiGo — but the fact that I'd actually cooked the fish somehow made it far more satisfying than simple leftovers. Small victories, but victories nonetheless, eh?

Monday, October 11, 2010

The End of the Canning Season

Well, today I probably finished my canning for the year: The yield from my pepper plants is winding down (the tomatoes are pretty much already done, except for onesy-twosies), and what I'm getting now is mostly the long red peppers (cayenne and hot Portugals) and habaneros (they're always the last to come in and the last to give up). So I made a double batch of red pepper jelly, using the same recipe I posted previously for jalapeno jelly, with the following modifications:
  • In place of the 4 green bell peppers, I used 3 red bell peppers (3 instead of 4 because, at least at my market, the red bells run significantly bigger)
  • In place of the 4-6 jalapenos, I used 4 long red peppers (and as with the jalapeno jelly, I added some habanero for extra heat).
The jars are still cooling and setting, of course, but based on a lick-the-spoon test, I have high hopes for this counterpoint to the green jelly I've so enjoyed making over the years.

Interestingly enough, while I was busy chopping peppers this afternoon, regular Emerging Foodie commenter JackC and his wife stopped by on their way home from a holiday weekend at the shore. Canning has this interesting dynamic: You spend all this time putting up jellies and pickled peppers and relishes, and yet, until you have a chance to open the jars and use what you've made, you never really know if it's any good. Unlike a dish prepared to be eaten right away, there's no immediate feedback; even the lick-the-spoon test only provides a rough approximation of what jellies will be like once they've set, and pickles and preserves that get processed in a boiling-water canner are even harder to guess at.

So Jack's visit put me in the odd position of giving food gifts — one jar each of jalapeno jelly, sweet-hot relish, and pickled habaneros and reds — without actually knowing how they would taste.

Well, lovely fellow that he is, Jack apparently sampled everything as soon as he got home and sent me a generally positive review: The relish is apparently not as hot as I'd intended (it's easy to get gun-shy with the habaneros, given how pungent they smell when you're cutting them), but the flavor is reportedly good; the jelly is "wondrous"; and the pickled peppers "awesome."

Even if he's just being kind, it's good to know I didn't kill him! ;^)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Non-Foodie Food Day

Arrgh! I actually ate out twice today, and owing to the preferences of my companions (and the fact that I'm a pushover!), neither meal was at a blogworthy restaurant. I picked my Brilliant Daughter© up in one town full of interesting restaurants — New Haven — and drove with her to meet my Lovely Bride™ in another town full of interesting restaurants — Hartford — and where did we eat? Arby's for lunch and Outback for dinner!

Actually, I enjoyed trying Arby's again after I-don't-know-how-many years, and I generally enjoy Outback; they just don't represent much to blog about. I did note a couple items relevant to yesterday's rant about the general non-spiciness of "spicy" items at chain restaurants:

At Arby's there's a (new to me) 3-pepper spicy sauce, and it clearly follows the rule: Aside from a vinegary tang that's reminiscent of bad French dressing, there was certainly not 3 peppers's worth — nor even 1 pepper's worth — of heat there. And let us not even mention the Jalapeno Bites poppers, shall we?

Better luck, though, at Outback: The soup of the day was advertised as a spicy tortilla soup, and it actually lived up to its billing. Not viciously hot, of course, but you wouldn't want that in a soup. It was tasty, with nicely cooked strips of chicken, bits of corn tortilla, and just the right amount of botanochemical heat.

And speaking of tortilla soup... is it just me, or is this one of those dishes that's almost entirely different in each new restaurant? Since my first (and still best) experience of it at the Alamo Cafe in San Antonio, Texas, I must've had tortilla soup at a half-dozen different places. While there's always chicken and tortillas, it's been otherwise virtually unrecognizable as the same dish on every single occasion.

Always good, though; go figure!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Where Have All the Peppers Gone?

Just a brief rant about a food pet peeve of mine that I was reminded of the other night: In the middle of an otherwise hectic evening of errands, my Lovely Bride® and I stopped off at the local iteration of Wood 'n' Tap, a small Connecticut chain of bar-and-grill restaurants featuring nice pub food and a pretty decent selection of import and craft beers. I'll likely have more to say about W-n-T in a future post, but on this occasion I was seduced away from trying anything new by my favorite dish there, their four-cheese Mac-n-Cheese.

Now, it's a perfectly fine mac and cheese, but the main reason I like it so much is that it's spicy. Except the other night it... wasn't. Still tasty; the same cheesy crust, creamy sauce, perfectly cooked short tubes of pasta... but no bite. Something tickled at the back of my mind, and I rechecked the menu description. Hmmm... I don't recall it saying "a hint of chipotle..." before. Sure enough, our server confirmed that the recipe had recently been changed to make it less spicy, because customers had complained about the pepper.

Damn! Now, I don't want anyone else to have a (by their lights) bad meal, but... this is why we can't have nice things! Time after time I've seen chain restaurants — whether fast food or table service — introduce tasty spicy dishes, only to immediately start blanding them down for the masses. Back in the day, the original Popeyes Chicken spicy recipe was really spicy, and their Cajun rice would blow the top of your head off; nowadays... meh, not so much.

I recognize businesses have to cater to their customers, but we pepperheads (say that carefully if you're reading aloud!) are customers, too! Can't we have just one spicy dish on the menu? Can't the people who think it's too spicy just order something else?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Recipes: Sardonic Buddha Cocktail

OK, this post is a bit of a cheat, because I've posted it previously on my now-mostly-dormant general interest blog, but I want to post a recipe here that's actually my own creation, and this is the best I got!

After I caught the cocktail bug, from listening to Rachel Maddow, I went on a bit of a buying spree, snapping up all sorts of ingredients simply because they looked or sounded interesting. Among other things, I bought Zen green tea liqueur because it looked exotic (plus I'd had a Zen mojito at a restaurant, and really liked it), green Chartreuse because it sounded exotic (and, as a bonus, was hard to find at first), and rye whiskey because... well because Rachel likes it... and besides, my mother drinks Manhattans but makes them with <shudder> bourbon, and I wanted to make a proper one for her.

So eventually it was time cook something up with these goodies. Flipping through my books, the first drink I hit upon using any of them was called Everybody's Irish, made with Irish whiskey, green creme de menthe, and the green Chartreuse. It was a good drink but the creme de menthe made it too sweet for my taste (ironically, since I love mint, and it was the creme de menthe that initially drew me to the recipe), so I tried a version replacing the creme de menthe with Zen, which tasted much better.

That version, which I called an Irish Buddha, turned out to be a transitional form, though: No sooner had I finished the first one than I started to think it might be even better if I made it with rye (I like Michter's Single Barrel), and finally the Sardonic Buddha was born:

  • 2 oz Rye Whiskey
  • 2 tsp Zen Green Tea Liqueur
  • 1 tsp Green Chartreuse
The mossy green color of the final drink may take some getting used to, but the earthy rye blends exceedingly well with the green tea liqueur, and the herbal Chartreuse adds just the right amount of complexity and bite. I thought at the time that the right garnish would turn out to be a bit of sushi-style pickled ginger on a decorative toothpick, but even after all this time, I haven't gotten around to trying that yet; so far the drink remains ungarnished... but it tastes great just the same.


Lost Weekend? Lost Week!

Arrgh! After I incautiously blurted out that I would attempt to average at least one post a day, I've let a whole week go by between posts! In my defense, my whole family has been ill (nothing serious; don't worry), and one should always stay out of the kitchen when one is sick (not sure if that really applies to the metaphorical kitchen, but that's what I'm going with).

But I really do mean to be serious about this, so starting tomorrow, I promise: An average of at least one real post per day, all the time!

See you then.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sun and the Yardarm

One of my major foodie-ish interests is cocktails, and while I've always enjoyed a wee tipple, my specific interest came about through a somewhat unusual activity: Listening to liberal talk radio. You see, former Air America radio host and current MSNBC TV personality Rachel Maddow is, aside from being both the brightest and funniest voice in contemporary political commentary, a serious cocktail geek. I can't say for sure whether it was a natural evolution of my interests, or just a manifestation of my fanboy crush, but once I heard Rachel talking cocktails, I knew I had to learn more.

They say the sun is always over the yardarm somewhere in the world, and cocktails — including recipes, recipe reviews, and bar reviews — will be a regular feature here, but I'll start with a couple cool places I went in Alexandria on the trip I mentioned in my last post: First was the Columbia Firehouse Restaurant and Barroom, which featured a great menu of the very classic cocktails I'd heard Ms. Maddow wax rhapsodic about. I selected a Sazerac (one of Rachel's faves, and the first thing I've ever had with absinthe in it) and then, just because the name is irresistible, a Moneky Gland. Later in the week, I came back for a Moscow Mule, a favorite of an old friend of mine. (I also ate there, but that's for another post.)

But further down King Street was the real find: A shop called The Hour, which features true vintage and vintage-style barware and bar furniture, along with artwork, books, jewelry, and all things related to cocktail culture. I wasn't in a position to invest in any vintage glassware (it wouldn't have done well in my suitcase!), but I had a lovely time wandering around the shop, taking pictures, and chatting with owner Victoria Vergason. I wish I were local, as they apparently host tastings and other events. You can bet that The Hour will be the first place I look when it comes time for me to outfit a proper home bar. In the meantime, I settled for enjoying the ambiance, along with treating myself to a copy of Dale Degroff's The Craft of the Cocktail as a souvenir of my visit.

Not Dormant!

No, I haven't gone silent, despite only one post in the last three days. Some days are just not going to be foodie days, emerging or otherwise... and in any case, I've been slightly under the weather for the last few.

That said, my goal is to try to average at least one new post per day. For at least a while, when I don't have anything new to talk about, I can regale you with some past adventures, owing to a business trip I took to Alexandria, Virginia, back in early August. After a week on my own, on expense account, in a town chock full of restaurants, I have a backlog of reviews (even some pictures) and other emerging-foodie-related fun to relate.

Starting with the next post... see you then.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lost Weekend

Well, yesterday was the first day since I started this blog that I didn't post anything at all. I spent the whole day volunteering at the local Democrats' booth at Rockville Fest, and essentially didn't eat anything at all 'til mid evening, when I threw together some makeshift jalapeno-cheddar hot dogs wrapped in store-bought crescent roll dough.

Not exactly a foodie day!

Today wasn't much of a foodie day, either, though I did have lunch at a favorite local hot dog/burger joint — City Joe's — which I'll probably review in the not-too-distant future.

I did upon coming home hot and sweaty yesterday, try that Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA I mentioned earlier. Meh.... It was bitterer than I usually like, and lacked the round, floral hoppy notes I enjoy in other IPAs. Not bad — I assure you I finished it! — but not something I'll be hunting for in the future.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dining Out: Missed It by That Much!

So I was out volunteering for my State Senate candidate tonight (Susan Eastwood for the 35th District of CT, for those in the area), and my family called to ask for directions to IndiGo (my daughter is home this weekend, and she still hasn't been). Immediately my mouth began to water, and I imagined expanding my experience of the menu there. I gave them the directions and said "I'm almost done here; I'll meet you there."

Even though I'd had a dinner's worth of pizza at campaign HQ, I thought I could at least try one of the appetizers I'd mentally bookmarked on the menu, and sample small tastes of whatever the family ordered.

The bad news — which is actually great news, really — came as I was driving on I-84: IndiGo was booked solid, and turning people away, when my wife and daughter arrived. I've thrilled they're doing so well, of course, but I couldn't help but be disappointed.

All's well that ends well, though: We ended up at another favorite, Sukhothai in downtown Manchester. I'll no doubt be reviewing Sukhothai here in the future, but tonight all I had room for was the Tod Man (spicy fish cake) appetizer and a spoonful of leftover sauce from my wife's beef red curry. Delicious, but not enough for a review; watch this space!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Unreality TV

Last night I watched the reunion show for the recently completed 7th season of Top Chef, and a point was brought up that has occurred to me often while watching the various cooking competition shows: After a montage of his numerous failed dishes, cheftestant Stephen Hopcraft said (with what I considered startling clarity) that he didn’t disagree with any of the criticisms. He pointed out that his method of working, when he develops new dishes for his restaurant, involves a lot of trial and error, and that didn’t fit well with the format of the competition. Chief Judge Tom Colicchio quickly agreed that there are chefs whose creative process just doesn’t work for Top Chef’s particular type of competition.

Why Stephen didn’t realize this before he signed up to appear on the show — which has broadcast 6 previous seasons, after all — is a separate question, but the exchange brings up a point I’ve long thought bore mentioning: What the chefs do on shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef America, and Chopped isn’t really much like what professional chefs do in their actual working life.

If I might digress... I have a Master's degree in English/Creative Writing. Happily, I was able to do a collection of short stories as my thesis project, to complete the degree, but my fellow MA candidates who were studying literature had to do something called a set text examination, in which they were given a short list of literary texts, expected to study the texts and critical work about them on their own for several months, and then take a (IIRC) 4 hour closed-book essay exam on the works, citing specific sources for critical commentary. It occurred to me, as I watched them prepare, that they were being tested on something nobody actually does in the academic world: Students would have the benefit of a whole semester of class discussion and lecture before taking such an exam; working scholars would never be expected to write from memory, nor in such a constrained time period.

In the same way, timed cooking competitions, often with arbitrary constraints on ingredients, "test" skills no chef would actually use in a professional kitchen: In conceptualizing a new dish, no chef would serve the very first attempt, without any tweaking or development of the recipe and procedures. And no chef in a working restaurant would serve a dish that failed in execution simply because an arbitrary time limit ran out. And yet, in all these cooking shows, chefs are required to make up dishes on the fly, within an arbitrarily short period of time, and to serve their first attempt, whether it's been successfully executed or not.

Given that on many of these shows, the contestants are high-profile chefs, with real reputations (and restaurants) to protect, I always wondered how it affected them when their work was harshly criticized in front of the TV foodie audience. As the exchange between Colicchio and Hopcraft reminds us, though, what we see them do in TV competition is not what they do in their own restaurants.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Beer Hunter

I love beer.

But I'm not one of those beer lovers who has zeroed in on a brand or a few beloved styles. Instead, I love to range through the (increasingly endless) varieties of beers and beer-like beverages. Often I'll go weeks or months without buying the same beer twice, not because I'm not finding anything I like, but because for me, variety is an end in itself.

When I eat ethnic food, I choose beers from the same country or culture as the food (thus, my mention of Taj Mahal in the IndiGo review), and if there's one I haven't had before, so much the better.

And when I go to the liquor store, I love nothing more than just browsing the specialty/craft/import beer section, looking for something that I haven't tried before, and that looks interesting. From time to time here, I'll tell you about my finds.

Tonight, it's the Espresso Oak Aged Yeti imperial stout from Great Divide Brewing Co. of Denver, Colorado. The suggested food pairings on the bottle menu include eggs Benedict and breakfast burritos, but I haven't yet had the Espresso Yeti for breakfast. Instead, I popped open a 1 pt 6 oz bottle of the espresso-infused stout a couple evenings ago and enjoyed it all on its own.

I lack the full vocabulary of a practiced beer taster, but Espresso Yeti delivered precisely the combination of bitterness and rich, creamy maltiness that I love in good stouts, and the espresso added a sharp, biting note. I couldn't explicitly tease out the vanilla notes the label attributes to the oak aging, but what I could taste was delightful. Since learning to poach an egg is one of the near-term goals of the Emerging Foodie project, perhaps I will try this with (homemade) eggs Benedict sometime soon. (FWIW, Great Divide has a blog that, while apparently not updated all that often, has some interesting-looking beer recipes.)

In the meantime, I've got a bottle of Great Divide's 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA chilling in the fridge... yum!

The Morning... Err, Evening... After

Well, after re-reading yesterday's review of IndiGo, I'm afraid I can give myself no better grade as a restaurant reviewer than Needs Improvement.

The review was essentially nothing but applause... which is fine, as far as it goes: IndiGo and Sheen surely deserve all the applause I can give them. But I fear I didn't give y'all much real sense of what the food was all about... what it tasted like, and looked like, and smelled like. Or, for that matter, what was in it. I should've taken notes; I should've taken pictures.

More than that, I should've said more about how good the service was (and yes, even at a buffet, good service matters). I've come to be so confident that Sheen and his staff will be impeccably friendly, generous, and fast that it almost goes without saying... but I shouldn't have let it actually go without saying.

I'll get better at this... really, I will!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dining Out: IndiGo Indian Bistro

My wife and I pretty much knew we'd like the new IndiGo Indian Bistro on Spencer Street in Manchester, because we already loved Sheen Mathew's previous restaurant, Utsav, in Vernon. Sheen's new venture features a full dinner menu, lunch and weekend buffets, and takeout lunch boxes, along with party platters and catering services.

Sunday night, we went to IndiGo for their weekly Tandoor and Dosa Night buffet, which was excellent. The buffet line — much more convenient and accessible than at Utsav, where the buffet is tucked into an awkward corner — was well stocked with tandoori favorites, including my wife's go-to Indian dish, Chicken Tikka Masala, and the classic standard Tandoori Chicken, both of which were superb. Among my favorites were a cold potato salad with chickpeas, cilantro, and red onions; tandoori-roasted mixed vegetables; and Hariyali Murgh Tikka Kebab, a tandoori grilled chicken marinated in green herbs (cilantro and mint, according to Sheen) and spices. This dish, which appears on the regular menu as an appetizer, is rather alarmingly green (not unlike the color of the Spring Lamb Chops, which I'm eager to try on a future visit), but it was purely delicious. Dosa (filled rice and lentil crepes) and naan bred are served at the table, and were just right: the dosa crisp and delicate, and the naan hot and perfectly cooked.

IndiGo is a new restaurant still waiting for its liquor license, so I was unable to enjoy my favorite Taj Mahal... but the tasty fresh lime soda I had instead almost made the lack of beer A Feature, Not a Bug™.

Of course, even with a previous visit for a dinner from the regular menu, we've only scratched the surface of dishes IndiGo has to offer. I love Indian lamb dishes, and the IndiGo Aadu Ularthiyathu (Kerala-style lamb fried) I had on the earlier visit was spicy and delicious; dishes I particularly look forward to trying in the future include the Mirchi Bhaji (hot chilies in chickpea batter), Chili Paneer (spicy cheese stir-fry), and Andhra Chili Chicken appetizers, along with the aforementioned Spring Lamb Chops, the Kerala Fish Curry, the IndiGo Snapper (whole snapper marinated in spiced yoghurt and tandoor roasted), and... because I'm all about the spice... the Chicken Vindaloo. (My only disappointment with IndiGo so far is that there's neither a lamb nor a goat vindaloo on the menu.)

Count on reading much, much more about IndiGo here, as we explore the menu in increasing depth.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Recipes: A Peck of Pickled Peppers

Okay, I promised my friends at Pharyngula that I'd post recipes, and since I've been talking about canning1, I guess that would be as good a place to start as any.

I started growing hot peppers because, well, it seemed like it would be a cool thing to do. Somewhere during my first growing season, it dawned on me that I don't actually have any use for many pounds of jalapenos, red peppers, and habaneros... especially since they all show up within about 6 weeks at the end of the summer, and also especially since I'm the only one in the household who really likes hot stuff.

So naturally, I had to learn to make preserves: I had a cherished Texas cookbook (Texas On the Halfshell: A Cookbook of Tex-Mex, Barbecue, Chili and Lone Star Delights) that had a recipe for jalapeno jelly, and when I went to buy jars and canning supplies, I found the Ball Blue Book guide to home canning, which had a recipe for hot peppers. I was in business.

Here are the recipes, mostly from the above sources, with a few tweaks of my own:

Jalapeno Jelly
4-6 large jalapenos [My peppers are smallish, so I use 6-8.]
4 green bell peppers
1 cup apple cider vinegar
5 cups sugar
6 oz liquid pectin

Procedure: The original recipe says to seed and devein all the peppers, but because I like a little extra heat, I leave in the seeds and veins of the jalapenos; the seeds in the jelly don't bother me. If you like even more heat, you can add a single small habanero. Chop all peppers fine. Liquify peppers in a blender or food processor with the vinegar, dividing into 3 or 4 shifts if necessary. Mix liquified pepper/vinegar mixture with sugar and boil gently for 10 minutes. Add pectin and boil hard for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and skim any foam (if necessary; I usually find there's very little foam). Ladle into hot, sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace and wipe the jar tops clean if necessary. Cap with 2-piece canning lids. Place in a cool place and don't disturb for several hours (preferably overnight). Once the jars have cooled and the jelly set, check the lids for a tight vacuum seal. Yield: About 6 half-pint jars, or twice that many 4 oz jars.

Serving suggestion: The classic application is on Ritz crackers with a smear of cream cheese. The combination of crispy, salty, creamy, sweet, and hot is to die for!

Pickled Hot Peppers
~2-3 lb hot peppers
6 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
3 cloves garlic, crushed

Procedure: The original Blue Book recipe calls for a mix of banana peppers, jalapenos, and serranos, but I simply use whatever I have at hand... mostly jalapenos, supplemented with habaneros, cayennes, and (this year) red Portugals. You can leave small peppers like jalapenos whole for pickling, but I like to cut them into the classic nacho-style rings. Mix the vinegar, water, and garlic in a large saucepot. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Pack peppers, in whatever combinations desired, into hot, sterilized canning jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Ladle in hot pickling liquid, also leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Cap with 2-piece canning lids and process for 10 minutes in a boiling-water canner. Yield: About 5 pint jars, or the equivalent in other sizes (half-pint jars are a convenient size for taking to cookouts or potluck dinners).

Two notes relevant to both these recipes:
  • If you haven't canned before, check the Blue Book for a description of the equipment and general procedures, including especially how to prepare jars and lids.
  • And when working with hot peppers, you might want to consider wearing gloves. I haven't actually received any burns from handling peppers barehanded, but I've heard of others who have... and if you don't wear gloves, your hands will retain some chemical heat for at least a couple days, no matter how much you wash. So be careful where you put them. If you know what I mean... ;^)

1 Fair warning: I'm going to construe cooking broadly to include stuff like canning, ice cream making, mixology, concocting homemade liqueurs, and (if I ever get 'round to it) brewing, in addition to, you know, actual cooking. I fear it's the only way I'll have much to talk about here!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Better Than Sex? My Ingredient Virginities

Well, I've just watched last week's episode of Iron Chef America, "Battle Truffle," and at one point Alton Brown declared to sideline reporter Kevin Brauch that, "white truffles are better than 97 percent of the sex you'll have in your life."


As I think about that, it dawns on me that I've never tasted truffles in my life. That is, it's barely possible that I've had something that had truffles in it... but more likely not, and in any case, I've never tasted them in a situation where I knew what I was tasting. Aside from knowing that they're somehow related, taxonomically, to mushrooms, I have not the first clue what truffles might taste like.

The same is true, it's slowly dawning on me, about more than a few of the ingredients that crop up on the food TV shows I watch: High end ingredients like sea urchin roe (uni), foie gras, and wagyu beef are mysteries to me, but so are more pedestrian things that turn up in the Chopped baskets, like celeriac (celery root), parsnips, and tomatillos.

When I first started watching Chopped, I used to pause the DVR just as each basket was revealed, and try to imagine what I would make with those ingredients... but I had to stop doing that, because far too often there would be at least one ingredient in the basket whose taste I had no clue about.

I'm'a hafta' fix that. For the stuff I can just pick up at the megamart, it should be easy to break my ingredient cherry, but it's going to take a bit of figuring to get my truffle on without breaking the bank. I'll let y'all know how it goes....

Emerging Foodie? Emerging Idiot!

So I'm typing this with a rubber glove covering the bandage on the middle finger of my left hand. Remember when I said my one knife skill was not chopping my own self up? Not so much: Today while chopping peppers for another batch of jalapeno jelly, I took a bit of a divot out of my fingertip. It's not serious, but it hurts a bit, and will probably leave a scar.

I watch all these cooking shows and I'm invariably surprised to see chefs cut themselves, but I shouldn't really be surprised that I do. The idiot part of this deal is that sitting on my counter was a perfectly good kevlar cut-resistant glove, which I bought after the last time I cut myself (on a mandolin slicer)... but which I didn't bother to use today! <sigh>

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oy! Hot Stuff

It's the frickin' middle of the night, and my eyelids are suffering from hypergravity, but having just started this blog, I don't want to go to bed without posting. In the coming days, I'll have plenty of stuff to rattle on about, but for now I'll just note, with very little further comment, that it got to be the frickin' middle of the night in the first place because I was busy canning this evening (no, not caning; that's a whole different thing...).

I dunno if folks count home canning as cooking, but regardless, I prepared and pickled 3 pints and 6 half pints of various hot peppers from my garden, including jalapenos, Thai reds, habaneros, and cayenne and Portugal long red peppers. Tonight's work brings the total for the season to 7 pints and 7 half pints of pickled peppers, 6 half pints of jalapeno jelly, 3 pints of fresh salsa (using cherry tomatoes from the garden, too), 2 batches of smoked dried jalapenos (I've been calling them chipotles, but that's not quite right, as these were green when picked, and proper chipotles are made from overripe red jalapenos), and 1 batch of smoked and dried mixed red peppers.

Tomorrow (well, today, actually... Saturday) I hope to make another batch of jelly (6 more half-pints) and some hot relish.

The garden is still putting out produce, but who knows for how long; there's been a bit of a chill in the air recently.

Here's a small sample of my canny masterfulness:

Friday, September 17, 2010

An Epiphany

Welcome. I've been thinking about starting this blog for a while now, but have been dithering because I didn't really know where to start until recently, because I couldn't quite figure out what my food-blogger identity should be.

I had always been interested in food (well, who isn't, right... but I mean beyond the everybody-has-to-eat level), had been a casual fan of Iron Chef, and had puttered about the kitchen at various times in my life, but I wouldn't have described myself as a foodie of any stripe. Then a few years ago I was bedridden for about a week with whooping cough (ask your doctor about updating your vaccination, by the way; you do not want this), and at some point during that week I stumbled onto a season-so-far marathon of Top Chef Season 2 episodes on Bravo.

I was hooked. Before long, I was watching every cooking competition show I could find — Iron Chef America, Next Food Network Star, Next Iron Chef, Top Chef Masters, Chopped, even Worst Cooks in America — along with noncompetition shows like Alton Brown's Good Eats and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. I started putting cookbooks and kitchen gear on my lists for every gift-giving occasion. I bought an ice-cream maker.

For years I'd been growing hot peppers in a tiny garden patch in my yard, and occasionally pickling the meager yield or making jelly; now I added tomatoes and cucumbers, and containers of herbs on my deck. From listening to Rachel Maddow on her old Air America radio show, I'd become fascinated with cocktails, and had acquired bar tools and stocked the liquor cabinet. I'd dabbled in homebrewing decades ago in college, and now I purchased gear to try it again.

But I still wasn't cooking. In theory, I'm an amateur cook and mixologist and brewer and... but it's all just theory; in fact, what I really am, so far at least, is a food voyeur. Not only do I not cook, I don't even really eat: Though my wife and I eat out a lot, we don't manage to go to real fine-dining restaurants very often.

All this crystallized for me a few days ago. I'd been out running errands and listening to the audiobook of Bourdain's Medium Raw, and when I got home, I sat down to prep some of my jalapenos for canning. By chance, I'd just heard Bourdain's paean to the artistry of the fish prep chef at Le Bernardin, and here I was hacking through my peppers with all the subtlety of a weedwhacker. I mean, the closest thing I have to a "knife skill" is the ability to (usually) avoid cutting any part of myself off. I felt silly even trying.

But then it dawned on me: Of course I'm a hacker; what else would I expect to be. The fellow Bourdain so praised was a trained professional, and had been honing his art at one of the best restaurants in the country for a couple decades. It was stupid in the extreme of me to make that comparison at any level, even in a fleeting passing thought.

And it further dawned on me that I haven't been cooking much because, subconsciously, I know I can't cook like the people I watch on TV. And I don't go to fine restaurants because I know I don't have the palate of Bourdain or his friend Eric Ripert or the hosts and judges on the shows I watch.

Well so what? Of course I can't, and don't. It's been silly of me to let that hang me up. So now I'm going to just frickin' cook... or at least I'm going to try to. And I'm going to write about it here, along with anything else that pops into my head that has to do with food and drink. Maybe a few folks will come along for the ride.