Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Kitchen Reader: Hungry Monkey

By the time you read this, I will be at the end of my 10-day trip to Italy, probably returning from the Umbria region back to Rome in order to catch our flight back to the States via Montreal. If you're reading this, then I successfully posted the entry while on the road. I read the book well in advance and wrote the review before I left on vacation since I didn't expect I would have time or the inclination to do it while away.

This month's selection was "Hungry Monkey" by Matthew Amster-Burton, chosen by Meryl of My Bit of Earth.

This was a delightful read, particularly in comparison to the more serious tomes from the past two months. I finished it in a day and found it to be thoroughly amusing. My primary two thoughts were:

  1. Damn you Seattle for being so foodie-friendly as compared to Boston, and
  2. Raising kids is hard.
Not particularly deep thoughts, I realize, but they were the best I could muster on a long weekend lounging in the sun.

More seriously, the book is about a foodie couple (the father Matthew is a professional food writer) raising their daughter and trying to ensure (hoping?) that she'll be an adventurous eater. Not having kids myself, I can't say I have extensive knowledge in this area, but I do have a couple of first-hand experiences. The first is with my now 2 year old nephew, seeing him go from an indiscriminate human vacuum at age 1 to an oddly selective 2 year old who likes things like fried calamari, salmon skin, and noodles so spicy he needed to take sips of milk between each bite. The second and more lasting impression is with the husband's first nephew who came to stay with us for a week a couple of summers ago when he was 9.

The nephew flew clear across the country by himself, and the visit was a first for both him and for us. We'd been warned ahead of time that he was a picky eater, but he seemed more like a typical 9 year old boy - didn't like vegetables, and preferred chips and soda (pop?) to healthier options. He lives in a very small town in interior British Columbia, so we decided we would try to expand his food palate while he stayed with us. We also decided we wouldn't deviate from our normal meals, other than to avoid spicy foods (that would have probably been too much for him), and we asked him up front to try new things that we served him.

Initially that didn't turn out so well - one of the first things we did was take him up to Maine so that he could try a lobster roll. He took a bite with a lot of coaxing and much apprehension, and promptly decided that the shack burger was far better. He got over that quickly because we bribed him with a stop at an ice cream store, which had a make your own sundae bar. At home, he happily ate steak and roast potatoes with a minimal amount of ketchup (we were warned he was a ketchup fiend so we stocked up ahead of time), and did manage to get fresh corn on the cob and beans into him on a few occasions. We took him to a Vietnamese restaurant where he happily ate rice noodles and BBQ pork (and loved boba tea), and he did just fine at a Japanese fast food stall in the Porter Exchange mall (aka Little Tokyo) with the Japanese version of hamburgers and fried chicken with a side of plain rice, though I brought the bottle of ketchup in my purse in preparation for off any meltdowns. By the end of the week, though, we'd gotten a variety of new foods into him so we were satisfied with the outcome.

We're aware that we got off easy - the nephew is a very good-natured, easy going kid who was old enough to reason with. Young kids as in the book (the daughter Iris is 4 at her oldest) aren't in the same category. I will be curious to see how she and other kids of foodies fare as they get older, since this is really the first generation to have hard core foodies as parents. In large numbers, at the least. I know if we were ever to have children, the husband would insist on our child bringing baguettes with brie and ham for lunch. I wonder how they will fare in the face of the food marketers with their incessant lure of packaged foods. A whole chapter on this issue is in Anthony Bourdain's new book Medium Raw, where he and his wife discuss ways to make McDonald's scary and evil for a little three-year old. I did notice that the nephew seemed to have a balanced view on junk food around us - we didn't make the junk food readily available to him at home but if he wanted some, we would give it to him. We noticed he ate what he wanted and then stopped when he had enough. This supported my personal theory that if a food is forbidden (as junk food was in my house growing up), it leads to bingeing behavior, but if it's available without any judgemental connotations attached, then the child will grow up with a healthy attitude towards all foods.

Overall, I commend what the author and his wife are trying to do and hope that his efforts and those of others like him will collectively improve the eating habits of a new generation, leading to an increase in the overall quality of food available to everyone. Hippie wishful thinking? I hope not.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Eating locally

The last two books I've read for the Kitchen Reader has messed me up in a good way, in the sense where I am now hypervigilant in what I buy. The husband started a year or so ago after reading Michael Pollan's In defense of food, where it manifested with him only buying products that had a minimal number of ingredients (preferably under 5). It's manifesting in me trying to buy as many local products as I can.

I first noticed it a few weeks ago when I picked up organic chicken from Whole Foods. We are unabashedly WF fans - it started when we first moved to the US and saw how readily available organic food is, and how wide a variety of goods that are for sale at very reasonable prices in our opinion. In contrast, Canada at the time and Montreal in particular treated organic food as a precious commodity, resulting in difficulties sourcing products, a limited selection, and often exorbitant prices. This was 5 years ago so I don't know how things have changed, but we became loyal WF shoppers here in the States right from the start.

We've been buying the organic chicken from WF for a while now, but they'd just changed their packaging with a vacuum seal so tight I had to put all my limited strength behind it to get the plastic wrap off the container. As I was fighting with the package, I noticed "Bell and Evans" in the corner. I'd never noticed it before, and that made me sigh - Bell and Evans is an industrial chicken producer, which is why they can offer organic chicken relatively cheaply.  A minimal amount of internet research confirmed that while these chickens were fed an organic diet, they lived a miserable existence.

That didn't sit well with me. I like meat far too much to ever give it up, but I do believe that happy animals taste better - or as the commercial says, "Happy cows come from California!" (perhaps I watch far too much TV). So off I went to find a more humane and hopefully healthier alternative to the WF chicken.

I was pleasantly surprised to find it was fairly easy to get free range alternatives. Savenor's makes a point of selling free range chickens (whole and in pieces) from a farm in Vermont, as well as sustainably raised pork from Vermont. But the first free-range options we tried were procured from the Lexington farmer's market. There are two farms (Chestnut Farms and River Rock Farms) that sell their meat at the market. The first we tried was pork spareribs from Chestnut Farms, which was excellent and I hope to be able to buy more of that soon. River Rock Farms sells dry-aged beef - the ribeye steak and the short ribs were delicious. We've also tried lamb from Signal Rock Farm that was probably the best lamb we've had at home (which technically isn't hard to beat since it's not like we cook lamb often). We finally tried the chicken from Chestnut Farms on the weekend and while I had to pluck a few stray feathers off of the skin, the chicken was probably the best tasting of the bunch (though the others follow very closely behind).

As for the price - well, buying high quality meat is expensive, even directly from the farmers. The steaks were easily $20+ each, as were 3 large shortribs and the rack of ribs. Two pounds of chicken legs was the most reasonable at $12, but that's still 50% more than what I paid at WF. While Barbara Kingsolver's book indicated that her family was able to eat incredibly inexpensively by growing all their food themselves ($0.50 a person a meal, I believe), I don't think she factored in the time for labour - and forget about the feasibility of that approach.

It's a good thing the husband is extremely disciplined at portioning - 1lb of steak is enough for one meal for the two of us. We stretched the rack of ribs into two dinners, and the chicken also made for two meals. So $5-$10 of meat a meal is fine for the two of us, as long as there's plenty of vegetables for accompaniment. It's kinda like what a recent issue of Fine Cooking magazine suggested - "Use meat as a condiment". Despite my meat-loving ways, it hasn't been too painful to cut back - particularly if there's ice cream for dessert.

We're off to Italy for 10 days where we're looking forward to seeing how the Italians put the eating local philosophy into everyday practice. Ciao everyone!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

This is not a doughnut


If it was, it would be a giant doughnut since that's a full-size dinner plate that it's sitting on.

It's my second attempt at an angel food cake. Since I've made four batches of ice cream with 6 egg yolks in each, I've had a lot of egg whites to contend with. First I tried a Martha Stewart recipe that called for 12 egg whites and not a lot of flour and ended up being "really chewy", according to the husband.  I just thought it was dry and tasteless. I had another 6 egg whites to use up from the aftermath of the salted butter caramel ice cream adventure, and I had fully intended to make coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate, when I watched Ming Tsai this afternoon make a Ginger-Thyme Angel Food Cake.

I was intrigued when he used 2 tablespoons of grated ginger in this cake. I'd been lamenting that my attempt at double ginger ice cream wasn't gingery enough for me, so I was excited to see him use 2 tbsp of grated ginger since that's a lot of ginger and should give it a good punch of flavour. I was feeling better after having battled the start of the cold that never progressed past the feeing crummy stage, and was up to the task of grating the large amount of ginger required. Recipe itself was a breeze to assemble and into the oven it went while hubby prepared dinner.

It was inadvertently an evening of experimenting with new recipes. A couple of weeks ago, I was shopping at the Lexington Farmer's Market and noticed a new vendor selling lamb. I wish I could remember the name of the farm but I'm too full to wander downstairs to check the package, but it's a small farm in the Boston vicinity who only sells lamb - or only had lamb to sell at the market. I decided to buy a very small rack of lamb and a boneless leg of lamb to try at home since we never eat lamb unless we're eating out. Today felt like a good day for lamb so out of the freezer the rack came.

We've never cooked a rack of lamb before, but luckily my book club friends were over last weekend and the topic of Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc cookbook came up. We hadn't used it in a while - it's a very heavy cookbook, and we're scared of getting it dirty since it really is a beautiful book, so it is relegated to the bookshelf and easily overlooked. Sure enough, he has a recipe for rack of lamb. He had the most interesting ingredients out of the few recipes I perused from other sources, in that his recipe uses mustard, honey, parsley and rosemary, bread crumbs and anchovies. We like anchovies, but we didn't have any in hand and we would have seriously needed only 2 little fishies for the size of the meat we were cooking, so we just left them out. His recipe also called for his own garlic confit, which essentially involves poaching garlic in oil for about 45 mins or so, then using that garlic in the paste. Other than this time-consuming step, roasting the rack of lamb was easy.

The husband carved it up before I could snap a picture, but it wasn't that impressive to look at since it was such a small piece (it was under a pound but that's enough for the two of us). The lamb was damn good - tender, not gamey at all, and the herb crust was delicious. Thomas Keller certainly can cook and the recipes we've tried out of his book including this one have rocked.

We ate the yummy lamb with another French wine, this one a Beaujolais again from our friends at Central Bottle for $14. This one will also be a repeat purchase - so easy to drink that I'm amazed that we only quaffed half the bottle.

As for the cake, it was gingery alright. The husband also commented that it was more cakey than the first angel food cake I made, probably since there was more flour in this recipe. But as was the case with the first one, I found it to be dry and unappealing - probably because there's absolutely no fat in the recipe, and I was using a whole wheat pastry flour that made the texture more grainy. We ate the last of the salted butter ice cream with the cake to give it that badly needed fat, and tomorrow night I'll be making the ginger cream that's part of the Ming Tsai recipe. I know I'm supposed to eat less fat, but no fat just doesn't cut it with me.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I'm having a day where I'd rather be drinking at 8am

First off, my allergies continue to drive me crazy - fall is the worst for me in terms of ragweed, and I can't get over how miserable I am. Unlike those stupid ads, I have not become "Claritin clear" and I am now in week 2 of walking around in a fog. It's really not good when a) I have a lot of work to do, and b) we're trying to get ready for our trip to Italy.

So I rush off to work this morning, thinking I'll get in fairly early (for me) and get caught up on a number of things since I was out of the office for training yesterday. It takes me 25 mins to get into work, I trot up to my office with my coffee, and realize I left my laptop at home.

If our IT people were compentent, I would have asked for a spare laptop. Since they're not, I had to turn around and fight traffic to get back home. An hour later, I was back at my desk, unbelievably annoyed even in this unrelenting hazy brain fog I seem to be stuck in. I got on with my day and even forced myself to work out this afternoon which seems to have helped with the haze but now it's pouring rain and I don't have an umbrella with me at work. It's a crappy cap to a crappy day.

I am very much looking forward to drinking as soon as I get home. We opened a bottle of dry riesling last night (Dragonstone is the vineyard, I believe) that went well with spicy tuna burgers - I made these from fresh tuna, and serve them with a vietnamese-style dipping sauce on rice. I was a little enthusiastic with the Thai chilis so the wine helped to quench the fiery taste buds. I find I don't have particularly sophisticated ways of describing wine, other than "This is dry. This one is fuller-bodied. This one is light and fruity". I'm also not sure how wine pairings are supposed to go with food. I like the wine, I like the food. I'm pretty simple that way.

In any case, below is a pic not of the riesling, but a French Sauvignon Blanc that we tried earlier in the week. We're fans of French wines since it seems hard to go wrong with wines from the Loire valley. Especially since this drinkable baby was only $14 from the friendly folks at Central Bottle in Central Square, Cambridge. The camera is so good in my spiffy new iPhone 4 that I am going to try to take more photos for visual interest - it will give you all something else to look at instead of me just droning on.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I've found nirvana in an ice cream

And that ice cream is David Lebovitz's Salted Butter Caramel.

Cue the singing angels and let us have a moment to savour just how good this ice cream is.

Why is it so good, you ask? Because it's sweet, salty and buttery - what more could you want? It's by far my favourite that I've made out of the 4 so far, the others being Rocky Road, Double Ginger and Mint Chocolate Chip, but it was also the most challenging since I'd never made caramel before. Caramel likes to seize and seems to take forever to re-melt. A lot more standing over a hot stove than I anticipated. However, the results were worth it. I didn't bother taking any pictures of the process or the eating afterwards, so enjoy the pics on DL's site. Mine would have been much crappier than his.

As much as I've enjoyed my ice cream making experiments thus far, I think I'm going to temporarily stop while I'm on a high note - I need to start preparing for ou trip to Italy and I need to save room for all the gelato I'm going to eat when we're in Rome!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Wearing white and eating ice cream after Labour Day

Labour day may have signalled the changing of the seasons, but I still plan to wear white and I definitely plan to keep making ice cream for the time being.

Since the farmer's markets have so much great produce right now, I'm trying to take advantage of what's available, even for an ice cream flavour. So at the Somerville Farmer's Market (Union Square) on Saturday of the Labour Day weekend, I procured two large bunches of mint to make David Lebovitz's mint chocolate chip ice cream.

I noticed an interesting discrepancy in his recipes - for the piece he did for Fine Cooking magazine last year, he used 1 cup of mint leaves, but a recipe on his website called for 2 cups of packed mint leaves. That made me wonder whether the ginger ice cream recipe from Fine Cooking magazine wouldn't have been gingery enough for our palates because I would need to at least double the amount of ginger called for in the recipe. I'll have to give that a try the next time I circle back to ginger. In any case, the recipe on his website suggested 2 packed cups of mint leaves, so that's what I did.

People, 2 packed cups of mint is a LOT of mint. Cramming two cups of mint into two cups of liquid (one cup whole milk, one cup cream) to steep was a little challenging, but boy was it worth it - when we open the container of ice cream, we're bathed in a waft of mint. It's minty alright, but without the flaming green colour of commercial ice creams. So I've learned my lesson - pack as much flavour into the ice cream base to the point where it's almost two much, and then it'll be perfect. That or else our taste buds are dying - which in that case, don't listen to anything I have to say about flavour because it may blow your head off.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Changing of the seasons

I feel like I've been quiet lately, and I have because I've been busy - much busier than I was when I first started this blog and had plenty of free time on my hands. I'm not going to get any less busy any time soon and I like what I do for work (I get to learn about rare and very weird diseases and they pay me well to do this), but a line from the movie "Julie and Julia" (I FINALLY watched it this weekend) struck me as relevant. In the scene, Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) asks Julia (Meryl Streep) "Well, what do you like to do?", to which her response was "I like to eat!", leading to a career as a culinary icon. Now I love to eat, but I have no visions of making a living as a professional eater, so I think I'll continue to use this blog as an outlet for the (many) times when I would rather be eating but can't.

Thankfully "Julie and Julia" didn't trigger any cravings for French food (I'm highly suggestible) and I liked the movie so much better than the book (Julie as the writer was so whiny I was ready to throttle her). What did trigger a craving though was an episode of America's Test Kitchen. The topic was old fashioned burgers and fries, and the episode started with a trip to NYC's mecca of all things burger, Shake Shack. ATK then demonstrated the method for making griddle burgers at home, using flat sirloin steak or flank steak, short ribs, a freezer, and a food processor. If that already wasn't enough to get me intrigued, they demonstrated a novel method for making crispy fries.

This was also a relevant discovery since the husband attempted to make fries in the oven for poutine. They didn't come out well - soggy and uncooked in spots, though it didn't really matter much when drowning in melted cheese curd and gravy. I'm scared of deep frying on our gas stove and I refuse to buy a deep fryer, but ATK has potentially converted me. Why? Because they put the potatoes in cold oil and heat everything up together to a rollicking boil. Using a large dutch oven where I don't have to introduce cold potatoes to a vat of sizzling oil is just fine by me. According to ATK, it takes about 20-25 mins to make a batch of perfectly crispy fries. They adapted the technique from the renown French chef Joel Robuchon and who am I to argue with him? I imagine the man knows a thing or two about frying. We'll attempt this method on the weekend and will report back if we don't burn the house down!

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