Miscellany & Poetry - On food, wine, film, lit & then some.

Cool stuff in my house (Part 8, in praise of La Tienda)

these chicken-legged candleholders (though they might be even cooler if 1 of them was a drumstick)

Candlestix

this Cyberoptix tie I got the Director, depicting a telephone pole whose uprooting seems to have resulted in the electrocution of some bunny rabbits

Tie

my ever-changing food-themed collection of scents

Scents

from L to R: Fig Leaf by Demeter; Marrons Glacés (candied chestnut) by Laura Mercier Eau Gourmande; grapefruit-based Oyedo by Diptyque ; Fresh’s Orange Chocolate

& these quail eggs in olive oil with roasted peppers I ordered through La Tienda,

Quaileggs1

Quaileggs3

which of course just taste like any other hard-cooked birds’ eggs, only cuter. If cute has a flavor it’s quail egg.

Novel Ingredients: What literary works shaped your culinary tastes?

The Director’s brother flipped a cute little switch recently when he told me how he’d cultivated a liking for port in homage to Kerouac upon reading On the Road. Since my own adolescent Beat phase centered largely on Burroughs’ gaping, oozing oeuvre, beginning with Naked Lunch, you can imagine (not too fluorescently, I trust, gentle reader) that it didn’t coincide with my culinary awakening. But his comment got me to thinking about what did:

N54938 ,

wherein Pippi partook of tropical breadfruit—of which I had no inkling but pictured lovingly, not so much like

Medicinal_plants_breadfruit .

as

Countrywhite

split-top, with fresh creamery butter baked right in, as the voice in the ad circa 1978 used to melt out of the TV, & filled in the middle with something like

RichBananaPudding-main_Full .

I’ve since put the question to my writerly pals (& rest assured the comment board is always open to readers writerly or otherwise, as is my e-mailbox!): Which works of fiction/poetry/drama most whetted your appetite &/or wetted your whistle? The answers may surprise you. Or not, I just get a kick out of that phrase.*

Matt Rohrer, author of numerous books of deeply strange & charming poetry, whom you may have met here, whereas I met him when I was 13 & thereafter collaborated with him on what was my 1st restaurant review, about Dairy Queen & its great blazing


Item_blizzard

Blizzards:


I actually have quite bad luck following up on culinary tips from
literature. It started in 4th grade, reading
SRAs or whatever the little
folders were called with different topics & reading levels.** The point was
reading comprehension, but one of them I read was about

Bigcrab_lg

deviled crab.


It
sounded incredible. I’d never heard of anything like it. Of course, crab was
absolutely mysterious to me because I lived in Oklahoma, & I probably
responded to the promise of evil or anticlericalism in the “deviled” part.*** But I just couldn’t shake it, & asked my mother (who is a really excellent
cook) to make it, but crabs weren’t available in Oklahoma in 1979.

About a year later, we took a vacation to Florida & stopped at a
restaurant that served deviled crab. I couldn’t believe it, & waited
impatiently for it to come. When it did, it was terrible. Or at least, I
didn’t like it. I suppose nothing could have lived up to the pressure of
representing everything that I couldn’t have in Oklahoma. But I remember the
texture was just gross.

My-heavenDoesNotEqualSlime-ball_~u12261348


Not long after that, reading The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe, I became
fascinated by what Jadis the White Queen offers Edmund:

Delight_Turkish_Delight_Candy

Turkish Delight.


All
I knew was it was some kind of candy & her version of it also had magical
(& evil, now that I come to think of it) powers. It was several years
(again: Oklahoma****) before I got to try Turkish Delight, & it was almost as
big a disappointment as the deviled crab. It certainly couldn’t compare to a Butterfinger (which is definitely the best candy bar).


As I got older, the same thing happened with drinks. I always felt like the
characters in Hemingway’s
Hills Like White Elephants, complaining that all
the drinks they’ve never had before but have heard of just taste like
licorice. Which, as it turns out, is true. In my junior year abroad, when I
was 20, I tried as many different liquors as I could get my hands on.
Arrack, Sambuca, Pernod…all of them taste like licorice. Which tastes
terrible.


Matt’s opinion on this point does not necessarily reflect that of your insatiable Denveditor—& let’s not forget absinthe!—but it does reflect this:

Arrack .


Recently, however, I read the complete unexpurgated original translation of
The 1000 Nights & 1 Night, which is around 3000 pages long, & realized
that what kept me going had at least as much to do with the descriptions of
the feasts the Djinns were constantly being forced to provide as with
anything else in the stories. But when I got so hungry reading it that I
couldn’t take it anymore, I just got up off the couch and had some peanuts.
Nothing can touch peanuts when it comes to everyday snacking.

Atheism25qdProduct-ezr440Toasted_Peanut_in_Shell

Speaking of Hemingway, says Joey Porcelli, author of Rise & Dine: Breakfast in Denver & Boulder & coauthor of The Gyros Journey: Affordable Ethnic Eateries along the Front Range:


After reading
The Old Man and the Sea, I wanted to eat a big fish. After Eat, Pray, Love, I wanted to to eat pizza in Naples. After reading The Geography of Bliss’s chapter on Iceland, I didn’t want to eat anything ugly ever again, except lobster. After reading Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, I wanted to drink a mint julep. After reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I wanted to grow my own food. After reading The Secret Life of Bees, I craved honey. After reading The Jungle, I never ate cow again. After reading Kitchen Confidential, I wanted to snort cocaine in the kitchen. After reading Alive, I wanted to eat my neighbors. Should I quit reading? (Au contraire: I think you should reread the latter pair, then invite the Director & me over to join you. That fundamentalist next door looks ripe.—Denved.)



Michael Brodeur, music editor for The Boston Phoenix & fellow former food (& music) editor for the Weekly Dig:

There was a part in Johnny Got His Gun where I have a distinct memory of a description of a sandwich that was nothing but bread & a thick
slice of (Bermuda?) onion. That hung around a bit.


I trust that comes before the hero’s face gets blown off. Googling “onion sandwich” yields a number of recipes, like James Beard’s, that are nearly quelle simple as Brodeur recollects, adding only a little butter & mayo, a sprinkle of sea salt & minced parsley or chives:

OnionSandwich1

Warning: requires lips & teeth. Do not insert in face crater.

More specifically, I’ve always loved the indulgent little books of Italian
writer Aldo Buzzi, whose A Weakness For Almost Everything is one of the
best-fed books ever.


Having been meaning to read him forever, I’ve just been inspired to order both the aforementioned & The Perfect Egg & Other Secrets—in which, per 1 online description, Buzzi “writes about how to make lime soup, what goes into an olla podrida, varieties of futurist cuisine, the difference between edible & inedible pigeons, & the emotional resonance of overcooked pasta.” Sweet—to be con’t.

Beth Partin, author of Living the Mile-High Life, a just plain smart collection of observations about this wacky Rocky Mtn. valley in which we live (whose twin emphases on food & literature prompted me to prompt her in turn for her thoughts):

I confess I can’t think of a story that actually compelled me to eat or drink something, but there are many stories that have made me long for food: I always wanted to have a meal at 

250px-J.R.R._Tolkien_-_Beorn's_Hall_(Colored_by_H._E._Riddett)

Beorn’s table,


or try

180px-John_Howe_-_Lembas

lembas,


the waybread of the elves, for instance. No doubt someone, somewhere, has come up with a recipe for it. (‘Fraid so—make that Frodo so, heh. See also below.) Also, this passage from Election Eve by Evan S. Connell made me wish I could go to the Wibbles’ buffet:


However, the Wibble buffet was sumptuous, imperial, a whopping tribute to an exemplary bourgeois life. Mr. Bemis gazed with satisfaction at the roast beef, sliced breast of duck, venison, platoons of shrimp, a giant salmon, lamb chops sprinkled with herbs, prosciutto, crisp little sausages & more. Rosy red tomatoes stuffed with something creamy. Butterfly pasta. Mushrooms. Mr. Bemis gazed at the beautiful mushrooms. Asparagus points, juicy pickles, Gargantuan black olives. Nor was that all, oh no. Desserts. A perfect regiment of seductive desserts. Lemon tart. Mince pie topped with hard sauce. Blue & white cheeses. Chocolate mousse. Peaches. Pears. Melons. Petits fours. Nuts. Strawberries. A silver compote of mints. Fancy bonbons individually wrapped in gold foil. Nor was that all. Mr. Bemis clasped his hands.*****


Maybe for my fiftieth birthday I’ll throw a party like that. (I’m available 24/7.)

Last but never least, MC Slim JB, acclaimed food-writer-about-Boston:

There are many times—most often early in the morning, or at around 3pm when my concentration and energy are flagging—when I wish I had some lembas, the revivifying elven hardtack from The Lord of the
Rings
, in my pocket. (You can!—see above.) But Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe made me want to drink rye.
Consequently, I became a rye drinker years ahead of
the current rye
revival
& was inspired to write a piece about it for the Weekly Dig
in early 2007.


Since the Dig ransacked its own online archives & stashed the loot—& there was once some precious loot—shortly thereafter, Slim sent me the text of said piece; here’s a learned & suave excerpt:


SQUEEGEE YOUR ANOMIE WITH RYE WHISKEY

It’s a film noir world: drop that Technicolor cocktail

by MC Slim JB

Rye commands reverence among booze historians as America’s oldest whiskey, the original base of ancient cocktails like the Manhattan. Yet despite cultish adherents & growing press attention, rye cruises in the blind spot of most Boston bartenders. Order it & you’re liable to get a blank stare, or an unassuming blended Canadian whisky like Crown Royal, the kind that Americans had to settle for during Prohibition. Repeal came too late to restore rye’s fortunes: bourbon had usurped the American whiskey throne, relegating the impoverished surviving ryes to the plebian front-end of Boilermakers.

Philip Marlowe, the archetypal private detective of 1940s hardboiled crime fiction, slugged rye from bottles stashed in his desk & glove box. Preferring brash rye to sweeter, mellower bourbon flagged Raymond Chandler’s protagonist as an old-school hard guy. The assertive bite Marlowe favored is distilled from a mash of at least 51% rye grain (where bourbon uses sugar-rich corn) & aged in charred-oak barrels. Respectable ryes under $40 are still produced by venerable brands like Van Winkle & Sazerac, but this roughneck is also getting the super-premium makeover: you can now drop $100 or more on 21-year-old ryes from boutique producers like The Classic Cask.

As for cocktails, rye’s emphatic character is ill-suited to the sickly-sweet concoctions that rookies order when they graduate from Goldschläger shots. Crafting a well-balanced rye cocktail demands a certain scholarly, 19th-century rigor and inventiveness. Such precise bartending chops are cultivated at only a handful of…elite establishments, [where] rye is one tool in the campaign to hoist drinkers out of the dark age of chocolate “martinis”. When you’re ready for a grown-up drink with some grizzled authenticity, try curling your lip like Bogart and ordering a rye cocktail….[You’ll] feel virtuous, vigorous, like a star in [your] own black-and-white movie. While I agree with Chandler that “It is not a fragrant world,” the right rye cocktail can certainly refresh it for a moment.


Especially if you’ve also got lembas in your pocket.

———

*Come to think of it, so does the protagonist of Delillo’s White Noise, who repeats it over & over in the throes of a particularly pomo meltdown, largely foreshadowed by harrowing trips to the supermarket. Thus we come full circle.

**I remember those. The levels were represented by colors, probably to spare remedial readers from the more direct/explicit embarrassment numerical ratings yield. Relatedly, I rarely cared what level the color I was at represented, so long as it was a pleasing hue—violet, turquoise, old gold…

***Matt had to go to catechism classes & shit, not that he wound up minding as he got kissed by many a Norman High School cheerleader in nursing homes during the volunteer part or whatever.

****If you do a Google image search for Oklahoma, you get: 3 movie posters; 1 picture of the bombed-out Federal Building & another of that firefighter holding that baby; 1 age-progression photo of a missing child, whom agents at the SBI are apparently convinced has had more than his or her share of gender-reassignment surgery since he or she went missing; & 1 picture of an all-out Sooners fan whose plains the wind comes sweeping down. Doin’ fine!

*****Suddenly I’m reminded of 1 of my own literary nearest & dearest, Italo Calvino, whose Mr. Palomar didn’t make me want to eat or drink this or that particular thing so much as to just generally inhabit the body & world of the ever-hyperstimulated titular character. From the section titled “Mr. Palomar Does the Shopping”:

The cheese shop appears to Mr. Palomar the way an encyclopedia looks to an autodidact: he could memorize all the names, venture a classification according to the form—bar of soap, cylinder, dome, ball—according to the consistency—dry, buttery, creamy, veined, firm—according to the alien materials involved in the crust or in the heart—raisins, pepper, walnuts, sesame seeds, herbs, molds—but this would not bring him a step closer to true knowledge, which lies in the experience of the flavors, composed of memory & imagination at once….

Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky: meadows caked with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening; meadows scented with aromas in the windy sunlight of Provence; there are different flocks, with their stablings & their transhumances; there are secret processes handed down over the centuries. This shop is a museum: Mr. Palomar, visiting it, feels as he does in the Louvre, behind every displayed object the presence of the civilization that has given it form & takes form from it.

Sigh.

———

ADDENDUM: Speaking of hyperconsciousness, the virtual ink on this blogpost wasn’t yet dry when MC Slim JB came up with another good one; if he sends a photo of the recipe herein at some point, I’ll post that as well:

Haruki Murakami‘s characters spend a lot of time eating & drinking, much of it pretty ordinary , everyday food—canned beers, instant noodles, spaghetti with jarred sauce, frozen prepared foods. It serves to reinforce his wonderful, quiet documentation of the quotidian rhythms of uneventful lives. Few people seem to enjoy lush banquets in his work. There’s one dish he describes, not sure where now, either in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or maybe Hardboiled Wonderland & the End of the World, where his protagonist makes a rice omelet. I’m not sure if a rough recipe is included or not, but mine now follows a formula that I tacitly, perhaps unfairly, attribute to Murakami: a bit of leftover rice stirfried with a bit of soy sauce, some minced garlic, maybe some pepper flakes & a dusting of five-spice powder, with a couple of beaten eggs poured on top & cooked until barely set. I love this as breakfast food, & I’m certain the only time I ever otherwise seen it is in Murakami’s fiction.

How to pass the time between meals

1. Play Cooking Mama Cook Off on Wii.***

CMhome

If you can chop all the bacon

Baconchop

or peel the potato as it hovers over the edge of the table like it thinks it’s in a still life by Cezanne

Potatopeel

cf.

Cezanne.peppermint

or stir the soup pot

Stirpot

or layer the lasagna in the baking dish

Lasagnalayer2

before the buzzer, then Mama, who doesn’t look a day past puberty, will give you props in her adorable Japanese-accented sing-song.

Wonderful

But if you can’t, her eyes start shooting fireballs because you’ve ruined dinner. Nice going, butterfingers.

2. Read Man Eating Bugs again.

MEB

Subtitled The Art & Science of Eating Insects, it’s a stellar piece of reportage by photographer Peter Menzel & news producer Faith D’Alusio; though the images, by average American standards, are jaw-dropping indeed

MEB2

Roasted stinkbugs, Indonesia

the essays accompanying them are highly engaging & rich enough in sociocultural observation that even the most squeamish reader can begin to recognize the insect as just another source of protein, & a versatile one at that, at least theoretically, while the hardier reader might actually be inspired to whip up, say, Li Shuiqi’s Simple Scorpion Soup, provided he/she could get his/her hands on 30-40 live arachnida scorpionidea & a handful of red box berries, which I don’t even know what those are.

3. Play poker with with Red (or White) Wine Cards.

Having shown these the love before in passing, I should add that, appealing to multitasking oenophilic gambling types as they may rightly be, they may or may not be true. The claim that 1 Austrian Dr. Zweigelt engendered a hybrid of Blaufrankisch whose juice could well enhance a dish of roast pheasant with sauce Smitane sounds less like fact than like some exquisite corpse composed fireside by Mary Shelley & Ogden Nash, no?

Card

4. Smoke Prime Time Happy Hour cocktail-inspired cigarillos.

Cigars1

I don’t smoke, mind you. Puffing now & again on these little flavor–tipped cuties—

Cigars2

appletini, cosmo, bellini & piña colada—isn’t really smoking, it’s just playing with your mouth before the real happy hour starts.

***Not to be confused with PETA’s version, Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals.

The Holy Trinity of Frightening Cookbooks: special holiday guest post by MO

You may have noticed my friend MO & I are kinda cranky (e.g. here, here). We’re also loquacious. It’s a classic combination. For instance, I might wax apoplectic about Spicy Pickle’s audacious ignorance of &/or disrespect toward Italian culture as illustrated by its signage—

SPKL-S1

pizza being a feminine, not masculine, noun; therefore, in the diminutive, it’s pizzetta; therefore, in the diminutive plural, it’s pizzette; & as if that weren’t annoying enough to a logophile (never mind Italophile) who believes that no less than the nightmare of doublespeak begins in linguistic irresponsibilitysaid pizzetti are collectively described as being “Neapolitan-style” in gross contradiction to the description of each pizzetto (to deduce the singular from the Italian masculine plural): there’s the Sicilian with sopressata—a salame that originates in the Veneto, a northernmost region, hence as far as it could be from Sicilia, an island off the southern coast of Italy, where Campagna, home to Napoli (as in Neapolitan), is actually located; the Sonoma with mozzarella, the most famous type of which actually does hail from Campagna, which is not California; the Aztec, which at least boasts chipotles, though they’re blended into a pesto—the claim to fame of a region well north of Campagna called Liguria; & so on through the shadows of a corporate world wherein the only recognized birthplace of anything is the boardroom—while I might natter on about that, MO might be recounting the nightmares she apparently actually has about her beloved Frasca jumping the shark upon its upcoming move, from which she wakes up to go to work in “Saudi Aurora,” a routine she compares to getting a barium enema.

Aurora_CO_04_Rw14H9991105

Or, for instance, she might be thumbing through cookbooks in preparation for the holidays only to conclude she’d best prepare for the apocalypse instead. The sort of rant that results follows:

The Holy Trinity of Frightening Cookbooks

1. Tastes for All Seasons is prepared by a small-town church in Oklahoma. The main reason I know it’s completely devoid of any artistic merit is that the church is my parents’ church, & it includes a “recipe” from my DAD—who claims to hate any kind of pasta dish even though he has mainly eaten boxed spaghetti with Ragù & pseudo-parm from a green shaker can, believes his ashen-gray chewy slabs of steak are delicious & describes sushi as “bait.”

His recipe is called “Tater Stuff” & calls for bacon, potatoes, onions & eggs fried together with a whole stick of butter (since the bacon fat apparently doesn’t grease the skillet sufficiently). This tricky combination was screaming out for print, no? I further find it amusing that this concoction is listed under the “Vegetables” section (which includes other healthy fare that will impress your vegetarian dream date all the way from Tater Tot Casserole chock full o’ ground beef to Cabbage Rolls laden with ground beef to Old Settlers Baked Beans filled with ground beef and canned pork & beans). One of the non-beef vegetable recipes is Fresh Frozen Country Creamed Style Corn, which calls for a box of frozen corn & a cup of coffee creamer. ACK.

Denveditor’s note: Um, actually, I’d eat some tater stuff. Just saying.

Other delights include Mexican Salad (which includes the authentic, ancient Mayan twin favorites of Doritos & Catalina dressing), Oriental Slaw (which consists of throwing some almonds & sunflower seeds into a package of ramen), Sausage Balls (Bisquick, Jimmy Dean sausage & grated cheese), a chicken enchilada preparation where every ingredient is canned or processed & topped off with a river of melted Cheez Whiz), a Butterfinger Banana Cake with purchased frosting and crumbled Butterfingers “sprinkled” on top, & Quick & Easy Rubber Cake (which is disappointingly not decorated with prophylactics).

MO’s grocery list so far:

IdoritosCatalina_salad_dressingBisquick, JD_sma_pdt_SauReg, 41QjyEAYSFL._SL500_AA280_PIbundle-12,TopRight,0,0_AA280_SH20_,Butterfinger_cta2Enhance-creamer17082

There is also a bevy of dreadful salad recipes, including one called Pink Party Salad which is straight from my culinary nightmares. Perhaps it is an Okie thing, but my hubby and I both marvel at how every family gathering we attended with our respective families (weddings, funerals, reunions, holidays, tractor pulls) included a bowl of pink shit & another of green, reportedly salads that included marshmallows, Jello, cottage cheese, Cool Whip, mandarin oranges, pecans, mayonnaise, celery & other items that should never, ever be mixed together lest they set off a fatal nuclear chain reaction.

Pinksalad-large + 103-204872_t150
Chainreaction

2. Taste of Home: Mom’s Best Meals. I swear you would string up even the most beloved mother and leave her for dead if she ever fed you anything from this book.


Taste of Home
craps out recipes submitted by country cooks (accompanied by color pictures of the kitchen mavens showing off their 70s-era glasses frames & stylish Midwestern ‘dos). In this collection, one lady curiously presents an “Italian-style” dinner with a centerpiece of sweet & sour BBQ ribs with ketchup. Just like mama made in Old Sicily, I’m sure.

Orange_Barbecued_Ribs1357_IMG_PIG, she’s sure

The book is full of fun and engaging facts. For instance, did you know that you can buy a loaf of bread, top it with melted butter & minced garlic, & present it to your guests as Garlic Bread? Did you know that after frying potatoes, you can drain them on paper towels? & when buying lettuce, it would behoove you to try to find some that is still crisp? Did you know that A Thanksgiving to Remember always includes a gelatin ring & that processed food is more appetizing when layered?*** Or that “timeless” & “special” recipes always include breaded meat? Who knew?

***Cf. The Onion, 2/6/08

Statshot_2_6_08

Several recipes attempt to be exotic, enabling the Kansan housewife to feel like she’s taking a walk on the wild side by using words such as “Bavarian” and “kabob” and “Brunswick” (although the latter could just be trying to capture the hearts of bowling league aficionados).

An Olive Lover’s Salad is creative in that it calls for not only canned olives, but jarred olives as well.

OT236187SDa olive alla napoletana450 = practically

Elbulliblobs !
El Bulli’s something or other

The most heartbreaking recipe is from a woman who is not from Poop Chute, Arkansas, but Boulder, reportedly the most educated city in America. She shares her recipes for an “Authentic Austrian Dinner” consisting of a “Colorful Veggie Bake” replete with cubed Velveeta and butter-flavored crackers. I guess if you served a Gruner-Veltliner with it & ate it while watching Terminator 2, that would make the meal sort of Austrian.

VelveetaTerminator_two_judgement_daysort of Austria-Mountains !

It is fitting that the final recipe in the tome is for a Prune Bundt Cake, as it will allow you to easily expel all the other masterpieces from the book.

No images available

3. I wrote about this last one on the “internets” once upon a time. The 4 Ingredients cookbook is written by a couple of home-ec hicks in Kerrville, Texas. Incidentally, I once unfortunately found myself at a dance club called Neighbors in Kerrville where the bouncers wore shirts emblazoned with confederate flags & a cowboy drawled at me, “Well, your husband ain’t here, is he darlin’?” after I declined a dance with his Skoal-encrusted ass.

Ditto

This book does have its fans on Amazon, including one lady who declares that she normally ruins even the easiest things in the kitchen such as instant pudding (WTF?!) but this book apparently makes her look like Brillat-Savarin.

20071227ho_sandypink_500 cf. Brillat-savarin

Perversely, I’m inspired. I say we throw a bad-recipe cooking party. We’ll wear housecoats & swig lots of cream sherry as we go. I’ll bring this:

GWTW2

There’s a fruit salad of prunes, cream cheese watercress & French dressing with my name on it. In congealed blood, perhaps, but on it nonetheless. Who’s with me?

When the reptilian brain goes squirrelly

Dolling up for Opening Night of SDFF 31, the Director & I were rummaging through items we hadn’t donned in ages. He threw on an old suit jacket into the pocket of which I reached at some point in the evening, looking for cash—& came up with the petrified remnants of a napkin-wrapped sparerib.

Doing likewise with a purse I rarely use, I found this:

Photo 21

I guess we’re subconsciously storing up for the winter or something.

Philosophiconundrum 2: Is there really such a thing as ordering wrong?

Since admitting recently I’m not so gaga for Domo, I’ve been thinking back on the sources of my discontent. Desultory service aside, I realized there weren’t as many as I thought—1 to be precise: the soba noodles with shrimp tempura & calamari teriyaki.

Domosoba2

Looks pretty awesome, eh, those big fried spears of shellfish bobbing on the surface of a broth aswirl with buckwheat noodles. But the latter were mush; & so, soon enough, were the former—a mishap I should have foreseen. Batter & water, however flavored, don’t mix.

Thus did the light bulb go on: perhaps I just ordered wrong?

Except it was part of a twin pack: the next one illuminated the problematic nature of the question itself.

As I posed the dilemma to all my favorite food experts:

Sometimes, when we (the general we) are underwhelmed by a restaurant that others have praised, we wonder if we “ordered wrong”—implication being that a kitchen is bound to have strengths and weaknesses and we’ve overlooked the former. There may be truths to that, involving, say, our ignorance of a certain cuisine type or of the restaurant’s SOP. After all, we all have strengths and weaknesses in our professional lives.


But obviously, there are counterarguments: That a chef should recognize his weaknesses and thus shouldn’t put anything on a menu he can’t execute properly. Or that, say, a Chinese restaurant does itself an injustice by catering to the LCAmericanD with moo goo what have you if what it’s really all about is stellar regional fare.


Thoughts?


There were indeed thoughts.


Per Joey Porcelli, author of Rise & Dine: Breakfast in Denver & Boulder, coauthor of The Gyros Journey: Affordable Ethnic Eateries Along the Front Range: 

My initial reaction is to think about how I feel when I’m the only person to order salmon in a steakhouse. Should I expect the fish to be as top quality as the meat? I once ordered sake in a Chinese restaurant in London & was treated with disdain at the bar by our host. This, after all, was a Chinese restaurant, & I should not have expected good sake.

So, is it up to the patron to follow the menu and avoid pushing its boundaries, or is it up to the restaurant to accommodate our divergent tastes? Last night we went to a French restaurant where I ordered the ravioli stuffed with crab & pea shoots. There were no pea shoots inside the ravioli. I wanted that touch of vegetable to counteract the strong crabby flavor.

–  PeasL

Is ravioli too big a departure for a French restaurant?  Did I order wrong when everyone around me was enjoying the duck? I don’t think so.  The waiter even guided me to this dish instead of another vegetarian entree. I ate it & enjoyed my hard cider, but left feeling a little let down.

From her tongue-clucking host to her misguiding server, Joey raises an interesting point about the role of the floor staff in negotiating between chef & customer to prevent potential disasters—one that her Gyros Journey coauthor, Boulder Weekly critic Clay Fong, addresses:

My expectation is that the probability of “ordering wrong” should decrease relative to the cost of dining at the restaurant. For example, I’m not terribly put off by the fact that lunch at Boulder’s Village Coffee Shop isn’t nearly as good as breakfast. If I have a so-so club sandwich there, I’m only out 6 bucks. On the other hand, if I’m going to a Frasca-level place, I expect that the chef has developed a menu to a uniformly high standard; there shouldn’t be a clunker in the bunch. I also expect that the servers have been trained so as to gently steer diners away from ordering poorly, whether it’s a particular item that’s substandard that night or a combination of items that’s suboptimum.

For MC Slim JB, who writes the Boston Phoenix’s On the Cheap column, Clay’s response brought an adage of longtime Phoenix critic Robert Nadeau to mind:

Nadeau likes to say that there are no great restaurants, only great dishes. My own feeling is that many places have weak dishes amid stellar line-ups, put in place for the inevitable unadventurous beef-and-potatoes diner or as a weak nod to vegetarians (ed: as Joey, a pescetarian, can attest). Can’t be helped.

Scott Kathan, senior editor at America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Country magazine, wonders if—contrary to the Nadeauism—a restaurant can be great, but only as great as its weakest dish, precisely as opposed to its specialties.

I work with a cook who always orders chicken when visiting a new restaurant; to her, it’s a litmus test, as she knows that most chefs hate having to include it on the menu. She also sees chicken as a blank canvas on which chefs can show their true worth.

With respect to contemporary American kitchens especially, I’d agree chicken reveals what Slim calls the “amount of conviction they can bring,” which is why I’ve given both Bistro One & Encore some props lately. My own litmus test for American restaurants—as I’ve said before—is the Caesar salad: no nearly raw egg, no anchovies, no dice, never mind packaged croutons. I’m still looking for an exemplar on the Front Range; Claire Walter of CulinaryColorado has suggested I try The Penrose Room at the Broadmoor, and so I shall if I can ever do it on someone else’s megadime.

Then again, Claire has had her own ill luck with Boulder’s DaGabi Cucina:

I always order wrong at DaGabi, a north Boulder Italian restaurant whose popularity is always a mystery to me. I’ve had stuck-together pasta, hot food that wasn’t, a bizarre dipping sauce that resembles gloppy salad dressing and is an affront their very good bread, flavorless squash soup that was just pureed squash that I likened to baby food, etc., etc., etc.

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from Marin Magazine

See http://culinary-colorado.blogspot.com/2008/09/doing-dagabi.html and http://culinary-colorado.blogspot.com/2008/10/dagabi-redux.html for reports on my two most recent misadventures there.

When I pointed out that sounded less like the gray area that is the concept of ordering wrong & more like the black-&-white one of poor cooking, she demurred:

Those two posts tell it all. Especially at the friend’s birthday fest; with about a dozen women at the table, I ordered flavorless soup and lousy gnocchi, but others who ordered different dishes were not unhappy. The pizza especially has gotten compliments.

I  nonetheless feel duly warned. Meanwhile, my friend MOwho doesn’t write about food professionally but easily could & should, having both the knowledge & the chops—considers the sheer range of contingencies that factor into both chefs’ decisionmaking &  customers’ verdicts thereon:

I think chefs may feel compelled to offer a diverse menu to appeal to different dietary needs and personal preferences. It would be difficult to draw up a menu that is not only luscious and representative of your own overall culinary philosophy but that also contains items appealing to as many people as may walk through your door: carnivores, vegans, the lactose-intolerant, the gluten-sensitive, diabetics, children, disgruntled politicians, people with psychological aversions, etc.

Crying-childJohn_McCainManson1a, etc.

There’s also the issue of the economic realities of running a restaurant, which understandably dictate what pops up on the menu. If I have a bunch of halibut in the walk-in that’s about to go bad, I’m coming up with a special to move it! Moreover, there has to be a balance between the level of deliciousness/opulence and what your market is willing to pay for a given dish. You might want to use prosciutto di Parma and truffles to elevate a dish to the stratosphere, but the paying public (and your accountant) might balk at the cost and you may have to compromise.

While I definitely think every restaurant has both stellar dishes and at least one clunker (and this is true from the low end to the high end) (ed: cf. Clay’s comment above), I also know that the opinions of what constitutes culinary heaven and hell can differ from person to person. My better half and I have remarkably similar tastes, but even we can disagree on the same dish at places we frequent.

Finally, knowing what to order can be key. My friends in Mountain View, CA, ordered dishes at a local Chinese restaurant that did nothing for them on their first trip. Once they were clued in as to the house specialties, they became regulars. I went there and let them order for me and came away satisfied, although if I had gone on my own I may have ordered differently and ended up with a different opinion. Weird, that. But very real.

Slim indirectly concurs.

The authenticity question is another one altogether. But many good Chinese places I know, for example, have two menus: the real one and the idiot’s one. I seek out the ones where the authentic menu is also available in English. It’s easy for the kitchen to dumb it down, so the staff doesn’t have to turn the gwailos away.


Applying that logic to Domo, I have a lot to think about.

Because “deadly fungus” is just another name for “lemon-lime”

According to a segment in yesterday’s episode of Science Friday on NPR, much of the citric acid in your groceries comes not from citrus but Aspergillus niger

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which kinda looks like a citrus fruit, actually, if you squint & also live in the House of 1000 Corpses, & which per Wikipedia is a “common contaminant of food” that “causes a disease called black mold,” whose species can do this to the lung of a deer,

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from the Bristol Biomedical Image Archive

but, to look on the brighter side with the biotechnologist behind this article, is also cheap & produces “high consistent yields.”

One of Ira Flatow’s guests singled out Sprite as a carrier. Mind you, it’s not really deadly; it’s perfectly safe & all. Doesn’t mean the next time I pop open a cold one I won’t be thinking I couldn’t just be licking between my toes or along the baseboard of our basement walls or something.

What America Means to Me by Denveater

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Bingicecream

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(pics taken outside Mystery Night Club & inside Finders Keepers, respectively)

Squishy disquisition on peanut butter (Part 2): The Director’s PB & mustard sandwich

In Part 1 of this in-depth inquiry into the ideal ingredient, I indicated my total commitment to developing a true understanding thereof—to firmly grasping the essence of nut pulp—by vowing to eat the Director’s freaky favorite snack. Behold the peanut butter & mustard sandwich.

Pb&mustard1

Pb&mustard2

Although variations on the theme are likely countless—just because you really, really, really probably shouldn’t combine white-chocolate peanut butter with horseradish dijon on brioche doesn’t mean you can’t—we made our sandwich with Adams organic crunchy peanut butter* and Orowheat Oatnut bread, spreading French’s yellow mustard on one half & Inglehoffer stone-ground mustard on the other.

The verdict: Honesty trumps drama here; the results were inconclusive. Neither revelatory nor repulsive, it just tasted like something you make when you’re drunk enough not to realize you grabbed the wrong jar from the fridge until you take a bite, when you’re hungry (& drunk) enough not to care. And then you do it again the next night, & pretty soon you’re just used to it.

That said, the Inglehoffer half had the edge; though spicier, the mustard was nonetheless subtler somehow, mingling with rather than muscling out the nut flavor the way the French’s tried to.

Meanwhile, speaking of jarring yet potentially juicy, yellow-&-brown, savory-sweet juxtapositions, the Director went to M & D’s for chicken & waffles & all I got was this stupid—OK, mouthwatering—pic.

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*Not the company Scott from Part 1 works for; thought I’d leave the poor guy out of this one.

Cool stuff in my house (Part 5)

the fortune-cookie logo on this tee

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this 80-year-old broken projector the Director adores

Proj

this book of poems, including one titled “Drinking in the Daytime” with the keen line “I’m sucking on the barrel of a crystal pistol / To get a bullet to my brain,” which surprisingly does not rhyme with another ending in “champagne”

Seidel

& this Mexican smoked salt, as black to the palate as it is to the pupil & terrific sprinkled on pan-fried peppers, especially pasillas, but multicolored baby bells are a nice choice too.

Salt