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.