Friday, February 27, 2009

Photo of the Day

Photo via Flickr user yongfook.

The Unitasking: Make it Stop!

Ten Things I (and the World) Do Not Need:

1) A portable, handheld nanotech toaster.

(Photo via Daily Mail).

2) A dispenser that makes butter ribbons, saving me the time (and risk!) of cutting butter with a knife.

(Photo via Whatever Works.)

3) A special fork to protect me from the perils, according to the product information, of "squeezing your fingers into a jar trying to grasp a pickle to no avail."
(Photo via Bed, Bath and Beyond.)

4) An apple peeler (which removes the best part)-slash-corer (which duplicates the work of a knife, with more mess and effort!) (See also: The Rotato).

(Photo via Williams-Sonoma)

5) A $30 stainless-steel electrical appliance for cooking eggs. According to the product information, it "cooks up to seven eggs at once!" You know what? So does my four-quart saucepan.

(Photo via

6) A little robot-y looking thing to chop my garlic for me. Cute? Yes. Possible to clean? Probably not!

(Photo via the Kitchen Outlet).

7) A plastic thingiemabob to crack eggs. The thing about eggs? Is that... um... they practically crack themselves. Also, $19.95!!!!! (Image via Heh, heh, heh. I'll show you an easy cracker!)

8) Similarly: An avocado masher? Avocados, like bananas, are naturally mushy. A fork, a spoon, or--if you have neither--your hand would do the job as well. And if you can't afford forks and spoons, I doubt you can spend $12.99 on an avocado destruction device.

(Photo via YumSugar).

9)A shrimp deveiner. Hey! It's a little pointed thing you can use to take the guts out of shrimp! It's called a knife! Or you can buy one of these.

(Photo via Kitchen Haven).

10) ANY device to cook bacon in the microwave other than paper towels, although the WowBacon cooker may be my favorite, for reasons of bulk and counter space.

(Photo via Wow Bacon).

P.S.: Unitaskers I like: Kitchen torches, rice cookers, seltzer makers, dehydrators, ice cream makers, knife honing steels, Microplanes, cookie cutters, waffle irons.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Photo of the Day

Photo of cauliflower cheese soup by Flickr user nettsu.

Photo of the Day, Fantasy Edition

(See below).

Photo by Flickr user joana hard.

The Day Before Payday

No time to cook last night (or money to buy ingredients, for that matter). On my desk:

Frozen lasagna, $1.50.

Russet potato, $0.79

Can low-sodium vegetable soup, $2.00

Hours 'til payday: 12.5.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Things I Want to Try This Year

Yeah, yeah, it's February: So I'm getting off to a slow start. Here's a (noncomprehensive) list of culinary experiments, intimidating projects, and other things I hope to try my hand at in 2009:

1) Baking bread. For all my obsession with cooking, this is one of those things (so simple! other home cooks tell me. Not scary at all!) that I'm just totally intimidated by. Something about working with living organisms that, I'm convinced, will die if you so much as look at them funny freaks me out. Also, I don't trust my oven.

2) Making cheese. Doesn't really matter which kind. One of the ones that's easy to make at home--ricotta, mozzarella, or paneer. When I was a kid, my mom actually went through a kick of making yogurt cheese with a strainer and a cheesecloth; as far as I can remember, the recipe was basically: Dump yogurt into cheesecloth-lined strainer, place over bowl, wait, squeeze. As long as it's that simple, I really have no excuse.

3) Crackers! This is another thing I just haven't gotten around to trying--not because I'm intimidated (see above), but because it's just not one of those things it occurs to me to make. Mark Bittman says they're a snap and better than store-bought; I say I'll probably keep buying them at the store, but I'd love to give it a shot and see if he's right.

4) Rendering fat. Recently, I've developed a habit of stashing cooking fat in glass containers in the freezer because, as mentioned previously, I have a pathological fear of letting anything go to waste. (Moldy cheese? Cheese is made of mold! Sour sour cream? Like there is such a thing!) Additionally, I have a tendency to pick up weird things at the grocery store when they're on sale; recently, I grabbed a big tray of suet (suet? I barely know it!), and I'm not above grabbing packages marked "ends and pieces" for no better reason than that they're so much cheaper than whole cuts of bacon/meat/what-have-you. This has resulted in me having tons of jars half-full of beef fat and bacon grease and chicken schmaltz, and no idea what to do with any of it. This year, I want to learn what to do with all of it: The suet, the beef fat, the duck fat I plan to buy at the Chinese grocery, all of it.

5) On a related note: Making confit. Not necessarily duck confit--although I'm both intrigued and totally freaked out by that prospect--but perhaps garlic confit, Meyer lemon confit, or this incredible-looking tomato confit that's been kicking around my recipe file for a couple of years now. Confit is basically just stuff preserved in oil, so I shouldn't be intimidated... perhaps the fact that I'm lousy at French pronunciation has something to do with it?

6) Homemade mayonnaise. I make homemade salad dressing all the time, so why not mayonnaise? My guess is that it has something to do with the sheer amount of stirring that's required; I know you can make it in a blender, but I'm also told the texture's not the same... and my blender's on the fritz anyway.

7) More pickles, more freezing, more preserving. This isn't really a new thing, but given my success pickling and preserving foods in the past, I'd really like to ramp production up this year. Especially if my summer harvest this year is as pitiful as last year's (the temperature hardly touched 80 in all of July and August), I may just buy bushels of Eastern Washington peppers and tomatoes at the farmer's market and figure out a way to make them keep until the dead of winter... An August tomato, even preserved or cooked and defrosted, could really transform a dreary, wet February day like this one.

8) Growing tomatoes from seed. According to the woman at the Tilth hotline, this is probably a quixotic mission, but my success with tomatillos last summer (the only vegetable to really go nuts in my garden, and the one almost everyone warned me not to try) has made me cocky. I planted the seeds last week and am keeping them over the heater vent; time will tell if my confidence was misplaced.

You'll notice that nowhere on this list is anything about "baking the perfect seven-layer cake" or "making croissants from scratch." That's no accident. I'm just not a "sweets" person... and when I do want something sweet, I'm happy to let the bakery/grocery store/Ben and Jerry's make it for me.

Photo of the Day

Photo by Flickr user hackett.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Photo of the Day

Photo by Flickr user GucciBeaR.

Sustainable-Ag Proponent to Fill Second Spot at USDA

Sustainable agriculture fans are excited about the appointment of Kathleen Merrigan, director of of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts University, to be the deputy secretary of the US Department of Agriculture. I haven't read up much on Merrigan, but I the Ethicurean calls her a "thrillingly unexpected pick," and I consider their endorsement golden.

Obama Foodarama has a slightly more expansive take on Merrigan's appointment, noting that she is both a "well known speaker and researcher on sustainable agriculture" and "credited with creating the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which mandated national organic standards and a program of federal accreditation." Merrigan was also one of the "sustainable dozen"--a list of potential appointees compiled by the group Food Democracy Now!, which has urged President Obama to rethink the way agriculture is conducted in the United States. Chewswise, meanwhile, has called Merrigan "someone who has pursued the change mantra in agriculture for nearly two decades."

Interestingly, Obama Foodarama also notes that USDA director Tom Vilsack has vowed to increase the agency's focus on civil rights issues within the department, which has a long history of discriminating against women and non-white populations who receive its aid. They speculate, convincingly, that Merrigan's appointment may be a symbolic step in that direction.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Culinary Revelations

Mark Bittman is (as usual) right: Nothing beats a breakfast of hot whole grains mixed with sesame oil and soy sauce and topped with scallions and peanuts.

Photo of the Day

Photo by Flickr user Gee I Jane.

Tomatoes and Slavery

Photo by Flickr user fensterbme.

Yet another reason to avoid those mushy, out-of-season, pale orbs grocery stores pass off as tomatoes: According to a story by Barry Eastabrook in this month's Gourmet (long may it live!), slavery is alive and well in Florida's tomato industry. Crew bosses routinely offer immigrants jobs picking tomatoes, then hold them against their will, often under horrific conditions. Eastabrook describes one case in which a tomato worker was locked in the bed of a box truck in a junk-strewn yard, beaten when he was unable to work, and charged exorbitant prices for "rent" ($20 a week to share the truck bed with two or three other workers) and cold showers from a garden hose ($5 a pop).

The worker's situation, Eastabrook reports, was hardly an isolated incident:

Since 1997, law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women in seven different cases. And those are only the instances that resulted in convictions. Frightened, undocumented, mistrustful of the police, and speaking little or no English, most slaves refuse to testify, which means their captors cannot be tried. “Unlike victims of other crimes, slaves don’t report themselves,” said Molloy, who was one of the prosecutors on the Navarrete case. “They hide from us in plain sight.”

And for what? Supermarket produce sections overflow with bins of perfect red-orange tomatoes even during the coldest months—never mind that they are all but tasteless. Large packers, which ship nearly $500 million worth of tomatoes annually to major restaurants and grocery retailers nationwide, own or lease the land upon which the workers toil. But the harvesting is often done by independent contractors called crew bosses, who bear responsibility for hiring and overseeing pickers. Said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, "We abhor slavery and do everything we can to prevent it. We want to make sure that we always foster a work environment free from hazard, intimidation, harassment, and violence." Growers, he said, cooperated with law-enforcement officers in the Navarette case.

But when asked if it is reasonable to assume that an American who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or food-service company during the winter has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave, Molloy said, “It is not an assumption. It is a fact.”

Although Eastabrook's conclusion--buy local in the summer, and avoid tomatoes from Mexico and Florida in the winter--doesn't go far enough for me, his story does provide yet another reason to think twice before throwing a rock-hard Florida tomato in the cart. However, I wish he'd taken it one step further and suggested that Gourmet readers (come on, we can take it!) avoid out-of-season produce altogether. We don't expect to go skiing in the summer or go to the beach in January--why should we demand summer produce in the dead of winter?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Photo of the Day

Italian baked stuffed arthichoke by Flickr user egseah.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Photo of the Day

Pesto, artichoke, proscuitto and asiago panini by Flickr user creampuffsinvenice.

Culinary Revelations

Photo by Flickr user lamentables.

"Duh" Edition:

1) Although I hatehatehate the texture of egg whites when the eggs are fried (I don't care how capably they're done, I find them rubbery and squeaky and just overall YUCK), I lovelovelove them when they're poached. Fluffy, cloudlike, utterly ephemeral. WHO KNEW? (Well, other than everybody except me.)

2) Mashed potatoes are incredibly easy to make. Really. So easy that there's no excuse not to make them RIGHT NOW. I used the recipe from the Joy of Cooking (adding a little garlic, celery, and half an onion to the cooking water), and they were to die for.

3) There really is a difference between a $10 steak and a $20 steak. For Valentine's Day, we went to Fero's and picked up two inch-and-a-half-thick New York steaks, the cost of which we justified by noting (out loud, repeatedly) that these steaks may be expensive, but we'd sure have spent lot more going out! Whatever: Seared first in a hot pan, then slipped under the broiler for five or six minutes, they were extraordinary. To gild the lily, I made a modified version of the sauce for steak Diane (Bittman has an authentic recipe here)--a rich, mustardy cream sauce that seeped into the rare meat in the most decadent way imaginable. Not the kind of thing I'd eat on a weeknight, but a perfect special-occasion indulgence.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Photo of the Day

Quick pea and proscuitto pasta by Flickr user you can count on me.

The Food Splurges I Still Make

At the Stranger, we're working on a group piece about the places we still go out to eat. For me, the list is pretty short--primarily Afrikando Afrikando, a terrific Senegalese place down the street from my house, but also Ali Baba, a falafel-and-shwarma joint on Capitol Hill, Green Leaf, a tiny Vietnamese place in the International District, and the taco bus by my house. I still splurge on food; it's just that my splurges these days consist of the things I bring home, not the places I eat away from home. Here are a few:

• Fresh oysters, served freezing cold with lemon and horseradish, about $7 a dozen at the farmer's market.

• Locally produced, free-range chicken (the anonymous chicken "parts" at the supermarket scare me).

• Fancy sodas, like Dry Soda or Dad's Root Beer.

• Organic almost-everything--especially root vegetables, which absorb everything that's put into the ground they grow in.

• High-quality spices (I make my own spice blends, like curry powder, but I buy the best spices I can find.)

• Fancy pasta. I'm convinced that certain pasta shapes--like pappardelle--just taste better than the ones you more commonly find mass-produced, like fusilli and spaghetti. I don't know where I got this, but I'll frequently spring for hand-cut pasta in interesting shapes.

• Bottled salsa. Yes, I could make my own (and frequently do, in the summer). But after spending most of my life in Texas, I can't go more than a day or two without indulging my salsa craving. Emerald Valley's organic hot salsa is the closest approximation I've found in the Northwest of hot Texas red sauce.

A lot of people are trying to cut their food budgets these days--hardly a day goes by the the New York Times doesn't make some mention of saving money by eating in. (For example.) And while I know I'm far from the only serious home cook turning to convenience foods to save time and money, I was pleased to see Kathleen Flinn's recipe today for doctored instant ramen. By tossing the MSG spice pack, adding some nutritious stuff like tofu and green onions, and ramping up the flavor with miso, sricha, and cilantro, she elevates a 33-cent packet of ramen into something that sounds not just edible but actually delicious.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Photo of the Day

Avocado salsa by Flickr user lighto.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Photo of the Day

Photo of tapas at Barcelona's El Xampanyet by Flickr user Dotorious; licensed under a Creative Commons license.

On Poverty Tourism

Didn't Barbara Ehrenreich teach us anything? The "Nickel and Dimed" author went undercover as a low-wage worker in several US cities to find out just how people survive on wages of $6 or $7 an hour. The trouble was, Ehrenreich didn't start from scratch--she had a private safety net consisting of rental cars, "just-in-case" credit cards, a college education, a savings account and--most importantly--the knowledge that she was just play-acting at being poor. You can't know what it's like to survive minimum wage until it's actually a matter of survival, any more than you can learn what it's like to be homeless by spending a night in a homeless shelter.

Well, here we are again: A CNN reporter named Sean Callebs (left) is attempting to live on a food stamp budget for a whole! month! Since he couldn't actually get food stamps (that would be fraud), he put $176 on a debit card--the maximum amount a single person can get for food stamps in Louisiana, where he lives.

His lessons so far:

Don't buy brand names.

Eating out is expensive.

No more bottled water, sob!

OK, I'm being a little unfair; he's also learned that it's actually really tough to get by on just over six bucks a day. And he's an empathetic guy, if not particularly self-aware (he really does seem baffled by the prospect of life without Diet Coke and bottled water, and he treats the news that he can buy stuff and freeze it like a major revelation).

But I can't help noticing that despite his painstaking efforts to describe every last meal ("peanut butter sandwiches, a banana, and some left over rice"), he neglects to mention the many little comforts and privileges that differentiate him from people who actually live on food stamps. I'm speculating, but here are a few things I'm guessing distinguish him from a typical food stamp recipient:

• Reliable transportation. I'm guessing Callebs doesn't get around on public transportation. In fact, I'm guessing he drives to the grocery store to get what he needs--and that he's able to comparison shop if his neighborhood supermarket doesn't have the best prices. That's not something you can do very easily on the bus, especially if you're working more than one job to make ends meet.

• A decent grocery store. In most cities, the number of grocery stores in a neighborhood correlates directly with income. In poor neighborhoods, the only option within easy walking or busing distance is often the local convenience store--where the markups are guaranteed to be high, and the food to be packaged and unhealthy. Callebs describes going to "health food stores" as well as a regular grocery store. Show me a health food store, and I'll show you a middle-class neighborhood with plenty of fresh, affordable options.

• A well-equipped kitchen and plenty of access to information about how to stretch a small food budget. Callebs repeatedly mentions having readers (and his mom) email him recipes, and he mentions making broth with chicken bones, a stir-fry, beans, and mac and cheese. Those are all great, thrifty ideas, but they assume a fair amount of culinary knowledge--or, in Callebs's case, the wherewithal to make up for lack of cooking skills with extensive research on the Internet. I'm not saying poor people can't look up recipes and make food from scratch, just that it's less likely they'll have the time, energy, Web access, and resources to do so.

• Most importantly: The knowledge that eating on a food-stamp budget is a temporary "lifestyle," not a way of life. At one point, Callebs mentions that he's on vacation--a luxury that, needless to say, isn't part of the typical food-stamp lifestyle. And he's only doing it for four weeks, not months, years, or a lifetime. That makes a big difference, both in terms of the day-to-day experience of eating on a budget (if peanut butter sandwiches get old after a month, imagine how they'd taste after several years?) and in terms of what it does to your long-term outlook. Knowing you're going to be able to eat out again on your CNN salary in two weeks is much different than not knowing whether you'll have enough money to make it to the end of next month.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Photo of the Day

East-West Eggs Benedict, via Flickr user Michele Humes.

Desperation Food

Photo--including actual garlic chips!--via Smitten Kitchen.
You know those days when you leave the gym with just enough money to take the bus home and you have a huge load of produce in your bag because you just picked up the CSA box but you forgot to bring extra bags so it's all on your back and you also happen to have your bike and you're STARVING. TO. DEATH. because all you've eaten all day is a lousy frozen dinner but you don't want to pull out an apple to eat on the bus because it's gross and all you want is a warm meal and a bath NOW?

You don't?

Trust me, it isn't nearly as awesome as it sounds.

It's days like this that I turn to what I think of as desperation food--quick meals that don't take a lot of thought and can be made with whatever I have on hand. Last night, it was a modification of Gourmet's spaghetti and Swiss chard with garlic chips (and by modification, I mean that I didn't have most of the ingredients in my pantry).

First, I heated a good amount of olive oil in a nonstick pan (about three tablespoons, since the oil was going to be the only liquid in the sauce), sliced the red onion from my CSA (the recipe calls for dicing a yellow onion, but red was all I had, and I didn't want to lose the sweet taste of the onion by chopping it too finely), and threw it in the pan. Meanwhile, I boiled a pot of (generously salted) water for pasta and cleaned and roughly chopped up a couple pounds of chard (also from the CSA) and sliced the stems. When the onions were soft (about 10 minutes), I added the chard stems--such pretty shades of red, yellow, and green!--and let them soften, adding salt and pepper when they were nearly done. I took a big scoop of the weird prepackaged garlic Alex likes to buy (waste of money, say I! but, last night, welcome), and threw that in too. After everything simmered a few minutes, I added the chopped chard leaves, gave it all a stir, and put a lid on it. Then I threw the spaghetti in the pot of water and let it cook about 10 minutes; by the time the spaghetti was done, the sauce was, too. I added a splash of balsamic vinegar (the recipe calls for Kalamata olives, but that sounded gross for some reason) and served the pasta with a generous grating of Romano cheese. Not the most amazing thing I've ever made, by any means--but on a miserable wet night, after an hourlong bus ride and a cold ride up the hill with a 40-pound bag on my back, exactly what I needed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Photo of the Day

Photo via Flickr user MadMan the Mighty, licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Animal Wrongs

It isn't often that food and news collide at the Stranger, but this week, they did. Bethany Clement and I have a story in the Stranger's news section about a local chef who's been targeted by anti-foie gras activists. However, as we report, they're missing the real story: Despite his stated commitment to local, artisanal, and heritage foods, he recently signed on as a spokesman for the National Pork Board--a group whose name is synonymous with factory farming, "lagoons" of pig poo, and CAFOs.

[Lark chef John] Sundstrom disputes the notion that taking money from the Pork Board means shilling for Big Pork. The group, he told The Stranger, "represents anything from Big Pork, which I would not really support... all the way to artisanal pork," like the Carlton Farms, Lilly Pig, and Mangalitsa products on previous Lark menus.

Sundstrom compares working with the Pork Board to his experience as executive chef at Earth & Ocean, the restaurant of the downtown branch of the W Hotel, a chain. Noting that the Pork Board has programs that support heritage breeds, he says, "I'm really comfortable working with them."

While it's true that the Pork Board does have a "niche" division dedicated to promoting heritage pork—the website is, literally,— the group's work on behalf of factory farms, which most small-farm proponents believe displace and destroy smaller producers, belies their "all pork is welcome" claim. (Small Washington State pork producer Heath Putnam, who raises Mangalitsa "wooly pigs" near Spokane, says he has never had any contact with the group.) And a Pork Board spokeswoman—asked why the group chose Sundstrom as one of its celebrity chefs—said only, "he was interested in pork" and "he does a nice job with pork and has pork on the menu."

The spokeswoman said the goal of the celebrity-chef program was to "promote the product of pork. We don't care where [that promotion is] coming from. We want consumers to know what pork is, about how good it is, and nutritious, and useful." Meanwhile, the Pork Board's website features gushing testimonials from previous celebrity chefs, calling pork "versatile so your family won't get bored with the same old dish," "family-friendly," and a meat that "can really stretch your budget." Pork raised with the aid of hormones under factory-farm conditions can be had at bargain prices; heritage pork can cost upward of $30 a pound.

Photo of the Day

Local, schmocal: This is what I'm craving.

Photo by Flickr user smcgee; licensed under Creative Commons.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Eating Local: UR DOIN IT RONG

Not that I want to give any more press to a person who's undoubtedly had more than his 15 minutes' worth already, but I do want to comment briefly on the "Salem Diet" guy, Justin Rothboeck. Rothboeck is a law student in Salem, OR who decided he would eat only foods grown locally for a year; this Monday, with four months to go, he called off his effort because he had gained weight and found he was driving all over the Willamette Valley to find local food, producing more carbon than he was saving.

Now, I get the appeal of gimmicks like this. They're great for launching book deals, as "No Impact Man" is well aware. But if you really have to drive everywhere to eat local--where "eating local" is defined as "within the two adjoining states of Washington and Oregon"--you're doing something horribly, horribly wrong. Either that, or failure is part of your gimmick.

Let's look at Salem Diet guy's rules. First, everything in his diet had to be produced, packaged, and processed in Oregon or Washington. So far so good. But wait: That includes everything--meaning, no salt, pepper or other spices unless they're produced locally. That's the gimmick part. He also ruled out shopping at chains--a somewhat arbitrary decision that eliminated lots of supermarket chains that sell a wider selection of products than your typical natural co-op, including stuff that's local. Bizarrely in light of all those rules, he still "allowed" himself to still eat out, although he restricted himself to restaurants that make an effort to serve local products. He also made an exception for eating at friends' houses.

Despite all his exceptions (and in part because of his arbitrary refusal to shop at Safeway or Fred Meyer), Salem Diet guy couldn't do it. In the end, he writes, he found that eating local took too much time, was too expensive (he seems particularly exercised at the idea of a $6 loaf of bread), "took the fun out of cooking," and made him fat, in part because he started eating too much meat.

Leaving aside the fact you can't say "I'll only eat local" and then get pissed that you can't find fresh bananas, I don't buy that he "had" to drive everywhere and eat tons of meat. This week, my CSA box from Full Circle Farm--which I'm picking up on foot and carrying home on the bus tomorrow--includes locally grown beets, parsnips, carrots, red onions, sunchokes, lettuce, and apples. You can't tell me I can't make a meal out of all that--and Salem has plenty of CSA options to choose from. Many will deliver right to your door -- no driving necessary! I also wouldn't consider a local-only diet without starting a garden first. In fact, the more I look at Rothboeck's diet, the more I realize how much it resembles my own.

In fairness, Rothboeck's absolutely right that the seasonality issue is a tough one. However, it's one that many, many locavores have learned to deal with. Eating locally in the winter does mean you'll be eating lots of roots and leaves. You can see that as a burden, or a challenge. When the alternative is eating out-of-season tomatoes and broccoli (both on Rothboeck's post-locavore grocery list for this week), it shouldn't be that tough a call. The fact that Rothboeck's "experiment" failed is due more to culinary dogmatism, pickiness, and an unwillingness to embrace what's available in one of the most productive regions of America than it is to the inherent shortfalls of eating local.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

So Many Potatoes!

To amend something I alluded to below: It's not that I don't like potatoes, exactly. It's just that I don't really know what to do with them. Mashing, boiling, roasting--all are possibilities, but none really present much challenge or excitement. Consequently, my response to potatoes is a little 'meh.' So when I recently found myself with a literal breadbox full of fingerlings--a combination of French red fingerlings Alex picked up at the PCC and four pounds courtesy of my Full Circle Farm CSA--I was a bit bewildered.

Far be it from me, however, to let this questionable bounty go to waste. Here's what I did with them.

First, I made a roasted chicken. I halved the red fingerlings, which were shaped more like new potatoes, and --after boiling them briefly to make sure they'd cook through by the time the chicken was finished roasting--used them as the "rack" for a brined four-pound chicken, which I'd stuffed with rosemary, a lemon, and half a head of garlic. (My method for making roast chicken--the only method you'll ever need--is described in excruciating detail here.) Although this was kind of a standard preparation for me (and thus a bit of a cop-out on the challenge and excitement fronts), it was, as usual, awesome: The potatoes cooked up creamy inside and lightly browned on the outside, and the chicken was superb. I know it sounds like I'm bragging, but my recipe--more a method than a hard-and-fast list of instructions--is the result of years of experimentation, and I've found it to be nearly infallible in producing the crisp skin and juicy interior (including the white meat) that are the marks of a good roasted chicken.

That was all well and good, but I still had a good three pounds of potatoes staring me in the face. This time, as I often do in such situations, I turned to Bittman. Eschewing all the braised-potato recipes as insuffiently exotic, I decided to make the chicken variation of his stuck-pot rice--a dieter's nightmare that includes two kinds of simple carbs (white rice and the potatoes) and dark-meat chicken whose fat gets absorbed into the rice. The preparation is incredibly simple--you brown the meat and remove it, pouring the fat into the jar where you're reserving chicken fat for later uses. While that's going, thinly slice enough potates to cover the bottom of your pot and boil a cup or two of rice in a large pot of water for about five minutes. Drain the rice, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter, add a pinch of saffron, and put the potatoes in a thin layer on top of that. Add half the rice, the chicken, and the other half of the rice; place a clean kitchen towel on the top of the pot, add the lid, and walk away. Don't come back, Bittman admonishes, until "the potatoes smell toasty"--adding, encouragingly, "you'll know." After about 45 minutes, when the potatoes are toasty, dump the whole thing out onto a big plate; if you've done everything right and haven't fallen prey to the temptation to mess with it, the potatoes will have formed a beautiful crust on top of the rice. I listened to Bittman and it was a total success. But unless you actually burn the potatoes (unlikely, especially if you're making it with chicken), I can't imagine this tasting anything less than delicious--rich and comforting, with just a hint of mysterious saffron warmth.

By this time, it was the work week again, and I had little time or patience for kitchen experiments. So the rest of the potatoes--a good-sized bagful--came with me to work, destined to be microwaved and doused in butter and sour cream. Sometimes, when you're hungry and broke and have no time to cook, a bowlful of microwave-"baked" potatoes is the most comforting food in the world.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tilikum Place Cafe

It goes without saying--or, at the very least, it's said below--that I don't have much opportunity to eat out these days. My idea of a big night out, in these New Economic Times, is a trip down Rainier to Afrikando Afrikando--a warm, always packed little two-room restaurant serving outstanding Senegalese food in huge portions (the leftovers justify the $12-and-up prices). Other than that, it's pho or home cooking. But last night, a friend treated me to dinner at Tilikum Place Cafe (online menu not current)--a cute, tastefully decorated little place in an unfortunate corner of Belltown (underneath the monorail tracks and right by Zeek's Pizza and the Five Point bar).

It wasn't surprising, then, that the place was far from full--only about two tables were filled when we arrived around 6:30, and even when we left two hours later, the bar half of the restaurant was as lifeless as a mausoleum. The division of the restaurant, however, made this relative emptiness immaterial--the half of the room we were sitting in, separated from the bar by a sturdy wall, felt like a cozy cafe. And the waitstaff were attentive without seeming desperate--water was refilled promptly, bread appeared on cue, and the only misstep--a lack of spoons for the soup--was corrected immediately.

The food itself was (mostly) stellar. A bitter-greens and date salad was tossed with just the right amount of sweet-salty bacon dressing, accented perfectly with crisp-tender lardons of thick-sliced bacon and supremed minature tangerines. The carrot soup (a dish I usually hate--too vegetal and, often, fibrous) was just shy of decadent, with creme fraiche, cilantro and a dollop of (chile?) oil adding richness to the sweet, smooth puree. Mashed potatoes, ordered a la carte, were (what I think of as) the Platonic ideal--whipped smooth with cream and butter and topped with parsley, with no caramalized-shallots-fried-sage-roasted-garlic-crushed-peppercorn nonsense to mess with the silky perfection of the potatoes.

And then, the exception--glaring mostly because of the contrast: Housemade fettucine in cream sauce with greens (kale, I think), walnuts and cubes of celery root. Although the combination of elements could have been superb--the celery root, in particular, was both meaty and ethereal, and I kept having to remind myself what it was--the sauce was (there's no better way to put this) strangely sandy. Not chalky, mind you, but sandy--like a roux that had broken. I don't know exactly what gave it this texture, but it distracted me enough that I couldn't really enjoy the dish. It also could have used a bit more something--a dash more lemon, perhaps, to cut into the richness and blandness of the other elements.

The bummer about my experience with Tilikum's pasta is that, except for the carrot soup, it was one of the only vegetarian items on the menu; and although I'm not a vegetarian, I get the frustration herbivores have when restaurants treat non-meat items as an afterthought. I don't know that that's what was happening at Tilikum Place --for all I know, the owners like their pasta sandy (my dining partner didn't mind it), or the kitchen was just having an off night--but I hate ordering pasta and having it turn out less than extraordinary. Maybe I'm extra picky, but it seems to me that it's just not that hard.

That said, I'll be back. The prices are reasonable (between 6 and 10 bucks for appetizers, and 12 to 18 for entrees) and the short menu changes frequently. I've heard great things about their meat dishes (particularly the milk-braised pork), so I'd like to give those a shot. And any place that can make a salad exciting--bacon, bacon vinaigrette, and dates?--has my vote of confidence.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Choice Couldn't Be More Stark

USDA chief Tom Vilsacks's top picks to head the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service have been narrowed to two: The food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest ... and a top lobbyist at Big Ag's largest lobbying firm, Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is "the organized voice of the American public on nutrition, food safety, health and other issues during a boom of consumer and environmental protection awareness in." Olsson Frank is a lobbying firm that provides "regulatory council" to agribusiness, with the goal of "limit[ing] costs and get[ting] plants back up and running as soon as possible." In other words, they work with companies that commit health and safety violations and lobby against more stringent standards for food safety. As Obama Foodarama notes, "It's appalling, and reprehensible, that a lobbyist is being considered for a top position in an agency that's already fraught with accusations of being 'in the pocket' of Big Ag."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Semi-Homemade, All-Atrocious

I'm not as worked up as some about the advertorial aspects of Sandra Lee's new magazine, a spinoff of her "Semi-Homemade" show on the Food Network. Back in the day, the Joy of Cooking's Irma Rombauer recommended that housewives use specific brands in her recipes, even gushing about the virtues of canned soup: "Never before has so nutritious a product been available at so low a price!"

What disturbs me is the "recipes"--"Ravioli Lasagna" (which is like saying "viaduct tunnel") with two different types of frozen ravioli; "Cream Cheese Chicken" with two kinds of cream-of soups, an entire package of Italian dressing mix, and a brick of cream cheese; "Artichoke-Garbanzo Dip" with still more Italian seasoning.

Sandra Lee has always seemed--in her sloppy-drunk, desperate-housewife way--less insidious than embodiment-of-pure-evil Rachael Ray. But this magazine, which expands her "70-percent store-bought plus 30 percent fresh" empire into the previously virgin territory of your average grocery store, may have finally pushed me over the edge. So long, Rachael--I think I've met my new nemesis.

The New Economy; Or, Braising!

The New Economy, for me, has meant more crappy frozen dinners (logic tells me I should cook everything at home, but desperation says, sure, it's made of corn syrup and hydrogenated oil, but it only costs $1.59!), fewer meals at restaurants, and stretching my food budget to five or ten bucks a day. In the winter, what that means for me is means braising--searing then slowly stewing tough, cheap cuts of meat in a low oven for several hours until all the fat and connective tissue has melted down into the sauce. Once you get over the fact that you're eating something not ordinarily found in the supermarket meat case (tongue, tail, hoof, whatever)--and embrace the fact that they take an extremely long time to prepare--these fatty, "weird" bits are actually some of the most satisfying cuts of meat you can buy. Especially in winter.

A couple of weeks ago, I headed down to Fero's Meats in Pike Place Market for five pounds of oxtail. The nice man behind the counter (we'll call him Fero) offered to show me what a whole one looked like. Wanna see?

Most everyone I've shown that photo to (or, even better, this one) says it's squicky. But to me, perhaps perversely, a whole tongue or oxtail seems less gross than plastic-wrapped "parts" or ground beef, because at least you know they're not from a dozen anonymous animals on a factory farm somewhere. Ever since I gave up vegetarianism (somewhere between college and old-ladyhood), there's something about whole cuts of meat--pieces of meat that look like the animal parts they actually are--that has fascinated me. Shortly after I started eating meat again, I remember my tablemates watching in mild disgust as I chewed my way through a plate of curried goat meat hacked crosswise into anonymous, unidentifiable chunks; for people who grow up eating nicely differentiated boneless skinless chicken breasts or even ribs, I imagine not knowing just what the hell you're eating comes as a shock. But for me, meat is meat: It may not be my favorite cut, but none of it (OK, maybe sheep eyeballs) is really gross.

So back to braising. Last week, I spent Sunday cooking the oxtails--searing them first, then braising them roughly like this. I didn't have the Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry, so I used rice wine vinegar instead (figuring the long cooking would mellow the vinegar's bite); I sliced the lemongrass up instead of just bruising it; and I didn't have any scallions so I tossed a sliced shallot in instead. Otherwise, I stuck to the recipe. Oh, except for one thing: where the recipe says to "cover oxtails and sauce and refrigerate overnight," I read "spoon the fat off the best you can and eat at once." I can't help it; I'm impatient that way. And damn, it was good.

This past Sunday, I made another trip to Fero's for three pounds of short ribs (Fero, Jr.--much surlier than Senior, but equally efficient--helped me this time), stopping afterward at a market stall to pick up fennel and parsley for Mark Bittman's braised short ribs with mustard and another Bittman recipe I'll make later this week.

This time, I browned the (salted, peppered) ribs on all sides (sneaking outside to thin my lettuce and mustard sprouts while they cooked), then sauteed an onion and some garlic, tossed in a bit of thyme from the herb garden, and added the ribs back to the pot along with a couple cups of homemade beef stock from the freezer. After forgetting about it for about three hours, I came back and halved a pound or so of Russian banana fingerling potatoes (the subject of a forthcoming post tentatively titled What To Do When Your CSA Gives You Five Pounds of Potatoes and You Even Don't Like Potatoes!!) and added them to the pot. After about 20 minutes, a couple tablespoons of Dijon mustard went in, along with a handful of chopped parsley and some more salt and pepper; and that was that. The ribs were meltingly tender and still crisp on the outside from the initial browning, and the mustard cut perfectly through the fatty sauce (again, without refrigerating it overnight).

In my heart, of course, I know I should practice patience, but four hours is about my limit. That said, both these dishes were far better the second time around. And when I took each one out of the refrigerator for reheating, I removed at least a cup of rendered fat--fat that, according to five minutes of rigorous Internet research, I should now flatten in Ziploc bags and freeze. Don't know what I'm going to do with it all yet (sukiyaki? refried beans? meat pies?) but in these economic times, to waste anything, even beef tallow, seems like a sin.