Monday, September 24, 2012

TV Takes: The Great Food Truck Race (Spoiler)

Recently I mentioned that I was enjoying Season 3 of the retooled Great Food Truck Race, which pits teams of aspiring food truck entrepreneurs — rather than established trucks, as in the first two seasons — against each other, with the truck itself and startup funding as the prize. The new format retains the best elements of the existing show and adds the element of starting a new career/business that's common in other occupational reality competition shows, including such non-food shows as America's Next Top Model and Project Runway, as well as NBC's one-season America's Next Great Restaurant.

Unlike the latter, Food Truck doesn't attempt to mentor or develop the trucks' concepts: While the precise menu varies from city to city and challenge to challenge, each team came into the competition with its branding, concept, and truck in place... but, of course, they only got to keep the truck as long as they avoided elimination.

Tonight I watched the last episode before the finale, and I'm pleased with the way the competition has progressed. Of the three trucks that made it to this penultimate challenge, two of them — Pop-A-Waffle and Seoul Sausage — have seemed like the most distinctive and sharply defined concepts from Day One, and, along with the early-eliminated Under the Crust, the ones whose food I was most intrigued to try.

Seoul Sausage, in particular, is a favorite of mine for a variety of reasons: First, I just love Korean food, and while their menu doesn't include any strictly traditional Korean dishes, the flavors and techniques are all there. I would travel nontrivial distances to try their deep fried kimchi rice balls, to name just one example. Second, the Seoul Sausage crew strike me as the having the best combination of passion and focus of all the teams. And finally, their success is compensating for the disappointment of last season's Korean team, the similarly impressive Korilla BBQ truck, being disqualified under allegations of stuffing their till.

Pop-A-Waffle is slightly less appealing to me: Despite being a child of the South, I've never quite "gotten" the chicken-and-waffles thing (which was, interestingly, the original concept of what eventually became Soul Daddy, the winning [albeit ultimately unsuccessful] Next Great Restaurant concept). Even so, though, the idea of building a truck around waffles, both savory and sweet, seems appealing.

As it turned out, Pop-A-Waffle was eliminated tonight in third place, with Nonna's Kitchenette advancing to the finale instead. Nonna's has not been one of my favorites, but I confess that's probably just a result of my own personal prejudices: The homestyle Italian comfort food that forms the heart of their menu and concept isn't especially enticing to me, and neither are the team members' self-described Jersey girl (not to say Jersey Shore) personas.

All that said, it looks like they'll be tough competition for the Seoul Sausage guys, and I can't wait to see how the finale comes out. You can count on me commenting here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

TV Quick Takes: Top Chef Masters (Spoilers)

Tonight I watched what the cable guide blurb hypereloquently called the penultimate episode of Top Chef Masters Season 4, featuring an elimination challenge in which the final 3 chefs mentored teams of high school culinary students through the preparation of dishes they themselves couldn't even touch. I've been enjoying this season of Masters, which has finally come into its own and no longer strikes me as a knockoff placeholder for the Top Chef mothership, but since I haven't been blogging here much until recently, I haven't had a chance to express myself about it. Just a few quick observations, as we await the finale:
  • I've liked Chris Cosentino since I first saw him on the first season of The Next Iron Chef, but I have loved him on this show. Tonight's Critics' Table was edited to lead us to believe he was going home, so I was intensely relieved to see him advance to the final. Not only has he consistently put out food I wanted to eat all season, but it was clear he was by far the best, most committed, most caring teacher of the three... which observation matches the judgment of the viewing audience, according to the viewers' poll.
  • The fact that Cosentino obviously liked her was the only reason I was sorry to see Patricia Yeo go last week. Early on, I liked her feistiness and thought her food looked interesting, but in the later episodes, her behavior toward fellow competitor Lorena Garcia increasingly turned me off. I hate the sexist term catty, but it's hard to avoid the word when Yeo actually made aggressive meowing noises at Garcia more than once. These are all high-level professional chefs, and one of the nice things about Masters is that they usually treat each other with respect. Yeo, not so much.
  • Speaking of Garcia... Taco Bell? Seriously?
Well, I'll be looking forward to next week's finale... and to the upcoming new seasons of Top Chef and Next Iron Chef... and to Life After Top Chef... and to  Chef Race: UK vs U.S. ... and to... argh! So much food TV; so little time!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dining Out: Fancy Burgers

The Lovely Bride© texting the
Brilliant Daughter™ from the
patio at Max Burger
It was a gorgeous day today here in southern New England, and the Lovely Bride™ and I took advantage by lunching al fresco at what is fast becoming one of our favorite restaurants, Max Burger in West Hartford. Because my dining partner must avoid gluten, you might think burgers would be a strange choice, but in fact, they're one of our go-to meals: Most places will serve a burger without a bun, or as a lettuce wrap, and increasing numbers of restaurants serve burgers on gluten-free buns.

Max Burger, part of the Hartford/Springfield area Max Restaurant Group empire, is one such place. The menu includes non-burger entrees, entree salads, and sandwiches, as well as a number of "burgers" that stretch the definition of the term, but the stars of the show are just what you'd expect: 8 oz. patties of ground sustainably raised Angus beef topped with a variety of cheeses, bacons, onions, greens, and condiments. Over a number of recent visits, we've sampled the Alfred, Inside Out, Blackjack, and Miss Daisy burgers, as well as several of the rotating list of daily "Chalkboard Burgers," and have never been disappointed.

One of my pet peeves about gourmet burgers has to do with the tendency to so load them with toppings, condiments, and sauces that it becomes impossible to actually eat them as burgers. That has never happened to me at Max: The burgers are a real handful, and each mouthful is a real mouthful, but I've never had to resort to knife and fork. Burger, handcut fries, house-made pickle slices... if I didn't need the napkin, I'd never have to unwrap the flatware setup. And that, friends, is how it should be, no matter how fancy your burger gets.

Aside from the whole eating with your hands thing, Max Burger is in all other respects a true fine dining experience, offering appetizers and desserts and a full bar, including signature cocktails and a nice (and ever changing) list of craft and local beers. Rumor has it they also serve wine, though you couldn't prove it by me, philistine that I am.

Another recent fancy burger experience was distinctly different: While moving the Brilliant Daughter into her new grad school digs, we had occasion to check out Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn's burger joint, Good Stuff Eatery, in its Crystal City, Virginia, incarnation. Where Max Burger's model is fine dining, Good Stuff's is pure burger joint: Order at the counter; pick up your burger and fries in a paper bag; stop off to serve your own fountain drink, condiments, and dipping sauces; and find your own damn table. You might as well be at Arby's... and that goes for the prices, too.

Prez Obama Burger cooking at
Good Stuff Eatery
Except... that the food is spectacular. Not better than at Max, necessarily, but every bit as good, and possibly even a bit more sophisticated: With only one visit, I haven't been about to sample the menu extensively, but the Prez Obama Burger I had was to die for. I think it was the combination of Roquefort cheese and onion marmalade... but the horseradish mayo surely didn't hurt. But as good as my burger was, the real magic was the handcut Village Fries, made with rosemary, thyme, and sea salt. They're so deliciously fragrant that you almost don't need to eat them: Just stick your nose in the top of the bag and breathe! Ever since I've been home, I keep looking at the pots of rosemary and thyme on my deck and thinking I have to learn how to make those. Foolishly, I failed to buy a copy of Mendelsohn's cookbook at the restaurant, but it's on my list.

I'll let you know what I learn.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Emerging Foodie, the Next Generation

Tonight news comes from the graduate school hinterlands, through the magic of cellphone text and picture messages, of the Brilliant Daughter®'s explorations of cooking: She reports that tonight she fried up some chorizo, and then sauteed green and yellow squash in the rendered chorizo fat.

Sadly, the picture that looked so tasty on my eensy-teensy cellphone screen didn't scale up well, but trust me, it looked delicious... and by all reports, it was!

Her mother and I are incredibly proud, though not in exactly the same ways: I'm jazzed about the chorizo; mom is pleased as punch that her daughter is voluntarily cooking herself veggies!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Taste Test... Success!

On Wednesday I posted about my forays into ice cream making, including my first attempt to make a sorbet, using this lemongrass ginger recipe from the web, modified to use fresh rather than prepared ingredients.

Well, as I also mentioned, the typical batch yield from the ice cream maker is 2 1/2 pints; tonight, I fished the extra half pint out of the freezer so the Lovely Bride® and I could subject it to Rigorous Quality Control Testing©, as is our wont.

I'm delighted report total mission success. I was worried about the substitutions, since I had to just guess at the right quantities of fresh lemongrass and ginger, but the flavor was spot on: Light and bright, but not too aggressively gingery. I probably should've let it soften just a bit before serving — it came out of the freezer just a bit too hard to make nice scoops — but I'm well pleased with both the taste and texture once it was in the bowl.

And I needed something light and bright tonight, to lighten my mood in the face of the news from around the world....

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Frozen Delights

Last week I commented on Facebook that of all the food-related gadgets and tools I've put on my gift wish lists over the last few years, the ice cream maker is the one I've used - and enjoyed - the most. The occasion for that burst of enthusiasm was a batch of peach ice cream I had made using Connecticut-grown peaches sourced from (as folks must be tired of me mentioning) Coventry Regional Farmers' Market, using a recipe from Marilyn and Tanya Linton's The Ice Cream Bible.

Peach isn't actually one of my favorite flavors, but the Brilliant Daughter™ likes it. We'd hoped to make it together during her last visit home, but... "the best laid plans of mice and men," eh? At least now it'll be waiting in the freezer for her at Thanksgiving time. And since the typical batch yield is 2 1/2 pints, the Lovely Bride™ and I had a half pint on which to perform quality control testing. Favorite or no, it was yummy.

I've made fresh strawberry, fresh cherry, and mint chocolate chip ice creams, along with perhaps my favorite recipe, dulce de leche, also from the Linton book. When it was time for my street's annual summer block party this year, my side of the street was assigned desserts, specifically so I would bring ice cream!

Tonight, though, I tried something new: A lemongrass ginger sorbet from a recipe I just stumbled across on the web. Of course, that recipe calls for jarred (dried?) lemongrass and ground ginger... but I wanted to try it with fresh ingredients: I substituted three stalks of fresh lemongrass (my local "megamart" usually has at least a little in stock), minced, and 1/2 teaspoon of minced fresh ginger.

When I say I did this tonight, I really mean I finished it tonight; I cooked the base a couple days ago. This was my first attempt at a sorbet, and honestly, I couldn't imagine how what looked — what was, essentially — a pot of flavored sugar water would turn into anything like a frozen dessert.

O me of little faith, I suppose: It came out looking lovely, and though it's waiting in the freezer for a propitious serving occasion, the in-process testing was extremely promising.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

TV Quick Takes

I haven't been blogging about foodie TV shows much recently... because I haven't been blogging much at all recently... but if I'm going to change the latter — and I am — then I should change the former as well. Foodie TV — specifically, watching a Top Chef (Season 2) marathon while I was laid up with whooping cough — is a big reason I started this blog in the first place.

So I'll start commenting periodically on my favorite food-related TV again. For now, just a few quick takes:
  • I enjoyed the just-completed Season 3 of MasterChef, and I'm more than happy with the selection of Christine Ha as the winner. Not only was she the most likeable contestant and (as far as we could tell without actually tasting her food) the best cook, but her's is the cookbook I most want to read. I had been rooting for single mom Monti Carlo (seriously, did your mom give you that name?) for much of the season, but I think the final two, and the winner, were correct. I almost wish Christine had been on Food Network Star instead of MasterChef, though: It's hard to imagine a blind cook being safe working the line in a busy restaurant, but Christine would be great on TV. And speaking of Food Network Star...
  • I'm happy to see Jeff Mauro's Sandwich King is back for a third season (I'm watching Episode 1 as I type this). Mauro's onscreen persona is a bit goofball-ish for my tastes, but I love the sandwich-focused concept, and his recipes are always both creative and accessible. And with a new show, $24 in 24, set to debut this fall, Mauro might be set to become the first FNS winner since Guy Fieri to become a true star on the network.
  • I'm also enjoying the third season of The Great Food Truck Race. Between this show's switch from having established trucks compete to having novice teams compete to win their truck and FNS's switch to the team/mentor approach, I generally think Food Network has done a good job retooling its competition shows. In both cases, the format changes enhance the entertainment value of the shows and, I think, lead to winners better positioned for future success.
 Did I say quick takes? Oh, well....

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Milestone for a Friend... and a Kick in the Pants

Yesterday, my friend Andy Jackson celebrated the third anniversary of his Disney World themed food blog Eating (and Drinking) around the World. It occurs to me that a week from today will mark 2 years since my own first post here... but I don't think I should be celebrating any anniversaries for my hit-and-miss, stop-and-start performance.

Andy, on the other hand, has been a reliable, and reliably readable, blogger, covering food doin's around Walt Disney World; the annual EPCOT Food and Wine Festival; the celebrity chefs he's met, including Iron Chef Cat Cora and Top Chef Masters alum Suvir Saran; and his own cooking, eating, and drinking inspired by all of the above. Heck, once he even wrote about hanging out with me!

And I have to admit that some of my best moments here at Emerging Foodie (and my best moments in the kitchen) have come in cooking (or mixing) recipes from Andy's blog:
So congratulations, Andy, on 3 great years of blogging, and thanks for all the material...

...and thanks for the kick in the pants. starting this week, I'm going to try to keep up with you! I've already got some recent cooking exploits that I can write up, and some projects in mind, and some goodies in the garden that want cooking or canning. Watch this space!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Do We Really Need Gendered Restaurants?

[I originally posted this at my general-interestbloviation blog, but since it relates to restaurants, I thought it would be worth cross-posting here.]

In the grand scheme of things, restaurant concepts aren't the most consequential of all possible things, so I won't take up too much of your time with it, but this story of a "steakhouse for women" bounced off my head today.

At some level, I get it: The traditional steakhouse ambiance — baked potatoes and great slabs of bloody beef, served up with multiple martinis, cocooned in an environment of dark tones and leather upholstery — is the quintessence of Hollywood masculinity. But does a separate-but-equal feminine counterpart work against that stereotype... or does it simply reinforce it?

Restaurants have all sorts of "hooks," some clever, some silly, and some borderline offensive, and ultimately there are more important things in the world... as hours of watching the Democratic National Convention this evening have driven home for me.

But all things being equal, I think I'd rather live in a world without gendered restaurants.