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

The Awkward Recipe Files: Denveater’s eggplant casserole

Berenjena, melanzana, auberginethe world’s names for the eggplant are as gorgeously curvaceous as the veggie itself in all its bruise-hued heft & pulp, rich & soft. Of course, that the American English word constitutes a pun on female fertility only enhances one’s sense of its sensuousness. So to say it’s my favorite veggie doesn’t cut it—it’s the veggie I’ve long been most inspired by, have long aspired most to somehow resemble, embody.

Which is why I’ll try anything it’s in, even this.

EggplantdipB

Of the eggplant spillage I’ve been pillaging the shelves of East Europe Market to slurp up (see here, here), this Bulgarian muck was the least appealing—a little too problematically brown,

EggplantdipA

a little too smooth on top of that, & all too sickly in its sweetness, being heavy on tomatoes & carrots as well as eggplant. I’ll be skipping the ikra henceforth & sticking with the malidjano.

I’ll also be returning, as I always do, to my favorite eggplant dishes from around the globe—Punjabi baigan bharta (plump purple thumbs up to India’s Pearl’s version), Szechuan Yu Hsiang eggplant, Sicilian caponata, also Sicilian chocolate eggplant, Turkish imam bayildiGeorgian eggplant salad with walnuts & pomegranate seeds, Greek moussaka, obviously Middle Eastern baba ghanoush,*** etc. etc., as well as to my favorite eggplant dish from mine own little world: behold the ugly, crap-splattered eggplant casserole.

Eggplantcasserole

It all started with a recipe I came across several years back from, if I recall correctly, Cooking Light, but don’t quote me on that, which I’ll provide here & either get slapped with something legal or other or not:

Horseradish Cheese Bake

Serves 2
Prep time: 15 min.
Cooking time: 30 min.

1 1/2 cups finely chopped zucchini or yellow squash
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
6 oz. flake-style imitation crabmeat, lobster or scallops
4 oz. fat-free or reduced-fat cream cheese
1 T prepared horseradish
2 T shredded parmigiano-reggiano, plus extra for topping
1 1/2 t. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 t. bottled hot pepper sauce

Preheat oven to 400°. Lightly coat 2 1-c. ramekins or 2 10 oz. custard cups & a small skillet with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

Heat prepared small skillet over medium heat. Add squash, onion & garlic. Cook & stir for 2-3 min. or until tender. Transfer squash mixture to a bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients, plus 1/4 t. pepper Spoon mixture into prepared cups. Sprinkle each with additional cheese, if desired. Place cups on a baking sheet.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 min. or until tops are golden & mixture is bubbly.

For various reasons that include but aren’t limited to the facts that 1) summer squash proved, at least IMO, too mild & watery to serve as a base for all that other stuff; 2) nothing has ever been served in a ramekin that I couldn’t polish off a whole baking dish of; & 3) while I don’t mind ingesting krabstick now & again, I stop short at purchasing my own stash, I began altering the recipe until it reached its current, barely recognizable form. It has since become a staple in my weight-watching phases, i.e. every other hungover, bloated, self-incriminating week.

Eggplant Casserole

Serves 1 as a main dish for a shoveler such as myself (come on, the whole thing’s all of 500 calories), 2 as a main dish for normal people, 3-4 as a side dish for normal people
Prep time: 20 min.
Cooking time: 30 min.

1 unpeeled eggplant, roughly 1 lb., cubed small (diced would be even better if you’ve got the patience)
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
cooking spray
few dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 can minced clams, drained
4 oz. fat-free cream cheese, cut into small pieces (brick-type) or spooned in small dollops (tub-type)
1 T. chili sauce
1 T. mustard, any type
1 T. prepared horseradish
ca. 1/4 c. shredded low-fat cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, what have you—they all work, being same product, different artificial coloring)
curry powder, cumin, salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400°. Spray a 9x5x3 loaf pan with cooking spray.

In a cooking-sprayed skillet over med-hi heat, saute the eggplant & garlic about 10 min. until soft & cooked through, stirring occasionally & adding Worcestershire sauce midway, when they may start to stick.

Put remaining ingredients in a medium bowl & add the eggplant-garlic mixture; mix well, until cheeses are evenly distributed throughout.

Bake for 20-30 min., until nicely browned on top.

But here’s the kicker, the sweet spot, the-gift-that-keeps-on-giving part: You can substitute real, regular cream cheese & shredded cheese of any type for an even harder rockin’ weeknight casserole or decadent holiday side dish! In fact, you can mess with the recipe in all kinds of ways, just as I did & still do, 1-pot bakes lending themselves with ease to the old switcheroo; if, for instance, you’re not cool with canned clams, try canned tuna (water- or oil-packed, drained) or chopped ham. I’ve never tried fresh shucked clams, suspecting they’d be a little too juicy, but I could suspect wrong. Knock yourself out if you’re so inclined.

***I’ve yet to find fabulous renditions of either Baba G (to use its rapper name) or the aforementioned Szechuan dish here in Denver & am wide open to suggestions.

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?

Feasting on paste, or what Thanksgiving means to me

I enjoy sea urchin any of 3 ways: 1) tossed with spaghetti & topped with bottarga, the way the awesome José Duarte used to serve it at my dear old Southern Italian–Peruvian haunt in Boston’s North End, Taranta; 2) tossed with ditalini & topped with bread crumbs, the way the awesome (since departed) David Nevins used to serve it at my dear old seafood haunt in Boston’s North End, Neptune Oyster; 3) toasted. Me, I mean—my stomach for stinking, shuddering blobs of hellfire-orange echinoderm expanding according to my liquor intake so that, say, the more sake I drink, the more uni maki seems to rock.

2145921299_5c0aa19bdbGrant

images stolen from this guy’s Flickr photostream & this blogger paying due homage to Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart

Likewise, with every glass of wine poured during our 3-hour round of Thanksgiving*** hors d’oeuvres did every bite of pâté de erizo de mar purchased from the fine online Spanish market La Tienda taste less like the rotting maw of a terrible vivisected sea monster & more like the rich creamy jelly (de)composed of oceanic-cum-bodily fluids the promo copy claims it is, containing as well hake (a codlike whitefish), margarine, milk, eggs & salt. Still, automatically easier for me to swallow was the mellow pâté de bonito del norte studded with bits of red bell pepper.

Pates

Stiller still, funny how a table set with a gourmet spread & the kitchen floor where the cat’s bowls are can begin to blur—not least when the products lining the 1 are called Cata Gourmet & the other

50000-57498-1
50000-57498 .

***At the table in Albuquerque with the Director & me: the 20-year divorcees that are my folks; their old friend the UNM Spanish lit professor and rumored former gulag prisoner from Kiev; my mother’s Mexican penpal since her teens, a recovering alcoholic up from the Yucatan Peninsula for no apparent reason with her constant (to insinuate) traveling companion, a raging alcoholic, both of whose grasp on spoken English is shakier than, say, that of a recovering alcoholic whose constant traveling companion through foreign lands is a raging alcoholic on sobriety; & my mother’s ever-intimidatingly quiet & wise-looking, polio-hobbled Tibetan Buddhist nun of a cousin in her orange robes. Couldn’t be truer.

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.

The Scoop Series: Interview with an America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Country senior editor

At a wedding last summer on the lawn of this crazy historical Newport mansion (a rental, of course, not owned by anyone I know or would ever have occasion to associate with)

P1010518

I ran an into an old friend & former editor of mine from Boston, who’s now a senior editor at America’s Test Kitchen.

His specific duties as “de facto managing editor” for Cook’s Country magazine are, & I quote:

—Steering copy through the various stages of editing, from story conception to sending files to the printer, & making sure the trains all run on time

—Editing copy for readability & “cooking/food plausibility” (his punctuation)

—Working with the design team to make sure we’re presenting a unified & brand-consistent front

—Producing & writing tasting features, in which we taste, say, 8 supermarket peanut butters & determine a winner

—Helping guide the recipe development process by serving as a taster & giving feedback

Goddamn dream job, right? In goddamn dreamland where all the colors are like a Delaunay painting & you drink champagne all day?

1_1954_CCCRChampagne_narrowweb__300x467,0 = 9 to 5

Months after asking him to spread the wealth of his knowledge around this here blog, I finally got over the fear of breaking out into a jealous rage & committing mayhem upon learning just what it is he does all day, bucked up & grilled him:

How’d you get the gig, guy?

It requires a strong background in food. My own background is split between restaurant journalism, bakery and catering work as a pup, and an intense passion for home cooking and cookbooks. While I was being interviewed, I spoke with one person for 30 minutes about competition barbecue, with another for 20 minutes about Marcella Hazan, and with yet another about the mechanics of peeling and prepping butternut squash.

Butternut_Squash_candle

serving suggestion courtesy of Denveater

Walk us through a typical day. (Note: Having literally walked through the offices of ATK in Brookline, MA, a couple of times before to write a profile on Christopher Kimball, i.e. the founder of Cook’s Illustrated, I can tell you up front they’re super-cool. Unless they’ve since been remodeled, they’re painted in all these happy colors (see Delaunay above) & covered with floor-length blackboards for chalking ideas on. & of course there’s the sweet kitchen, which you can catch a glimpse of here. Plus there’s lots of bustling about with utensils & such past endless shelves full of cookbooks).

A typical day entails 1 or 2 editorial meetings: these can focus on recipes, scheduling, photography, or writing. I work on 2 or 3 issues of the magazine concurrently.

10 to 15 times a day my phone rings with a message to come down to the test kitchen to taste food a Cook’s Country test cook is developing. We taste as many as 6 iterations of the same dish blind & in silence, filling out a tasting sheet with our comments & preferences. Another senior editor is in charge of recipe development, so he’ll then assess all feedback & give direction for the the next set of tests: try swapping the cream for half-&-half; up the salt by 1/8 teaspoon; try adding dried mushrooms to the slow cooker; take the skin off the chicken thighs before searing; etc. Very rarely does anyone at ATK eat a proper lunch–we’re eating all day.

That’s a switch from your formerly more straightforward editorial position, in which you would just tell me to go out & eat chicken feet or drink espresso martinis & I did. How have you managed to step up to the plate, so to speak?

Many of the cooks & editors at ATK were restaurant cooks before landing here; as much as I like to think I know about food, the one thing I’ve never done is work on the line at a busy restaurant. So in some ways I was behind the 8-ball in terms of my food knowledge & experience when I was hired. I suppose I’m most proud of the way my palate has continued to evolve to the point where I’ve caught up: I can detect minute changes in recipes & contribute intelligent feedback for efficient recipe development. It might sound geeky & precious, but in a way that his how we measure competency.


Give us an example.

ATK uses a statistical data collection process whereby we poll readers as to what they’d be interested in reading about. Potential topics—be they tasting topics, equipment testing topics, or recipes—must achieve a certain score to be placed on an editorial schedule.

When we do large tastings, we use a control; if we’re lining up 8 strawberry jams, the tasting panel tastes 9 samples—1 is repeated so we can make sure it gets similar scores from tasters. If the scores for the control are disparate, we throw out the results and start again. So we always look at the key at the end of a tasting to see if we “got” the control (if we scored it similarly both times). When I started I was often off by 3 or 4 points (out of 10). Gradually, I’ve trained my palate to be more discerning and perceptive, and I rarely boot the control now. My palate is okay now, but there are a few “super palates” or “supertasters” at our company, and it’s pretty interesting how they can detect such minute things as 1/4 teaspoon of sugar in a stew.

One big surprise to me [during the jam tasting] was that Smuckers’ strawberry jam beat out fancy French and boutique brands. One thing I’ve learned from doing this is that often the bigger manufacturers have a better balance of flavors because they can spend more money formulating JUST the right combinations of ingredients–their R&D budgets are huge.

Smuckers-Straw-Presrv#1?!?


What’s most fun about your job?

I have fun every time I walk into the kitchen and talk with the test cooks and eat their food. I have fun when I have to cook and they give me crap about my knife skills, or my (relative) clumsiness with heat management, or how I can’t always tell if a pork chop is done just by touching it. It’s really fun to watch America’s Test Kitchen being filmed in the kitchen–to see recipes that I had a hand in developing coming to life in that way.

***End of interview. Commencement of mayhem.

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.

Soup2nd_squashL

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

Image11

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,

Asper3

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.

Back Hatcha: green chile season in Denver (+ recipe)

Made the annual chile run (something about that phrase makes me snicker) down Federal this weekend. Look at those turtles go, bro:

Chileroasting3

Chileroasting2

With loads more than we needed for The Director’s thrice-yearly green-chile cook-a-thon, I thought I’d take a chance on converting an old recipe I have for poblano cream soup.

I thought wrong, & I suspect the only folks who might think otherwise are the type of freaks who, say, sign release forms before digging (their own graves) into the Pasta from Hell & suchlike that famed flamethrower Chris Schlesinger & co. prepare for every semiannual Hell Night at East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA.

Mind you, swirled with lots & lots & more of cream (as well as onion, roasted garlic, broth & sausage, plus some lime juice, minus cilantro because I was out), my chile soup wasn’t even fractionally as searing as all that. It just made me cry in my mouth a little bit. As does the Director’s green chile, based on that of our friend Larry, who takes brilliant photos of markets around the world when he’s not drying his own peppered venison jerky & so on.

THE DIRECTOR’S GREEN CHILE (serves 6-8 as a stew, many more as a sauce)

1 lb. of pork, shoulder or loin (per the Director: “Larry would disagree, but I still think better meat tastes better in the end, even if you do boil it”)
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 T vegetable oil
3-4 T flour
1 quart roasted green chiles (ca. 12-15), peeled, seeded & sliced
1/2 of 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes, drained (“I don’t like too much tomato in my chile, but you could add more”)
S & P to taste

Place the pork in a large pot with more than enough water to cover. Simmer on low heat until very tender, about an hour & a half.

Remove pork & set aside to cool. Reserve cooking water in a vessel you can hold with one hand.

In another pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic; brown. Add flour, stirring to create a medium-light roux (“a couple of shades lighter than a penny”). Immediately turn the heat down to medium. While continuing to stir constantly with one hand, slowly add the pork water with the other, until the thickening liquid is the consistency of thin gravy.

Add the chiles and tomatoes; shred the pork directly into the pot. Season with salt & pepper; reduce the heat to low & simmer for at least a half-hour, up to an hour.

While it’s hard to resist a few bites as soon as it’s finished, I personally recommend making it the day before you need it, when the flavors have fully developed & melded. I also recommend—besides eating it plain or atop enchiladas, natch—spooning it over cheesy mashed potatoes or polenta.

Google Search Laffy Time: “underripe bananas bowels baby”

Someone arrived at this here blog earlier today via a Google search for just that.

Some words sure do paint 1000 pictures plus.