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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Food Network is Getting Tiresome

When will the folks at FN ever learn? We're seeing the same chefs all of the time. I'm getting bored with both their schtick and their food. I can also tell that they are too.

Before I left for my vacation I caught two episodes of Good Eats back to back. The first episode was about cake. Alton baked a cake from scratch. When it was baked he said to the imaginary person in the room that he shouldn't want frosting since the cake is nice and moist and doesn't need any. He finally capitulated and made a chocolate whipped cream to frost the cake with.

The next episode was all about frosting. He began the show by saying how cake is nothing without frosting. He said that cake is just a delivery system for frosting. Then he proceeded to say that cake made from a mix is superior to homemade cake due to all of the chemicals in cake mix used to improve texture.

Alton, you need better ideas or better schtick. I loved your show and your act, but it's getting old. Fear not, Alton. You're not the only one. Paula Deen's show is getting old too. She has become more over the top over the past couple of seasons of her show in both her presentation and her cooking. She is adding more butter to things just for the sake of adding more butter. "Look everyone! I'm Paula Deen. I make sure everything has extra fat because I'm Paula Deen." Emeril's act was old years ago, which is unfortunate because he is one of the last few trained chefs on the network.

Anyway, the ever-so-overexposed Rachael Ray has taken time out from her god-awful train wreck of a talk show to tape a few new episodes of "30 Minute Meals". I caught an episode right before I left for my trip. I used to think of the opening credits as false advertising since they showed actual fresh food being cooked without gobs of fat. They got rid of those titles and now we just see annoying footage of Ray herself.

Once I passed the opening credits, my first reaction was "OH MY EYES!" Holy crapola the color of her kitchen is awful. It's wall-to-wall orange. If there is any one color I hate, it's orange. How can anyone stand to be in a set like that? Orange seems to be Ray's signature color, although it really doesn't flatter her.

Ray herself seems to be toned down. Her voice has changed over the seasons. Too many shows and too many Marlboros have made her very raspy over the years. She's less excited though. She doesn't wave her hands around anymore. She doesn't pepper her speech with so many catch phrases anymore either. I guess the FN executives are listening to the audiences after all. People have been complaining that she's too spastic and annoying and it appears they are making her tone down her over-the-top perky thing. As for the food, it's not better than it was. She ran out of ideas three seasons ago.

Now that they have eliminated Mario Batali and Sara Moulton, they haven't given us much to work with in exchange. We have the Next Food Network Star, and the contestants were terrible across the board. We have Ingrid Hoffman, whose show I haven't watched yet, but so far what I've heard about her isn't terribly flattering. She's Rachael Ray with an accent.

Can we go back to shows about real cooking sometime in the future?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Adventures off the Beaten Food Path

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a big risk taker. I like novelty and adventure, but only to a point. I'll never travel like Anthony Bourdain. I'll never jump out of a plane. I'm not likely to quit my job and open a bed and breakfast even though I'm often tempted to do so.

Even though I'm not likely to ever eat fresh monkey brains or fried larvae, I do tend to seek out novelty in foods. I don't like going to the same restaurants all of the time (although I like to go to some of them often enough to be recognized as a "regular"). I don't like chain restaurants because I know they will be the same no matter where I go. I love discovering new places, particularly those little out-of-the-way spots.

As I prepare to head for my annual pilgramage to Chincoteauge I find myself recalling one of my favorite memories of a roadside discovery. In the summer of 2003 I traveled to Chincoteague with just my mother. We were on our way, heading down Route 13 in Delaware when we realized we were hungry. We were in a fairly remote area. The road went through more marshes and farms than towns, but we eventually saw a sign that there would be food at the next exit. The sign advertised the Smyrna Diner and a Waffle House, and a pizza place.

It was our intention to aim for the Waffle House because it was the first place we saw when we turned off the exit. The problem was that it was set back from the main road and its entrance was not clearly marked. We could not find our way in. I saw a cluster of buildings, one of which might have been the diner, in the other direction, but we were already headed the other way. Our only hope for lunch was to find a way to turn ourselves around and either try to find the Waffle House entrace again, or head towards town and find another place to eat.

Once we passed the Waffle House we were headed down a country road with no outlets in site. We were back to endless stretches of marsh and farmland. Suddenly I spotted something. I told my mother, "I just saw where we're having lunch. Turn this car around as soon as you can."

We did find a road to turn around on and I guided my mother to the place I spotted and she had missed - Wally's BBQ Shack. Wally's was the kind of authentic barbecue joint that most of us northerners rarely have the pleasure of experiencing. It was an open-air building with a huge smoker out in the back. You could smell this place from a mile away. The menu was simple. You could have a chopped chicken sandwich, a chopped pork sandwich, barbecued chicken or ribs. The sides included the traditional accompaniments like cole slaw and baked beans. My mother and I opted for the chopped chicken and chopped pork sandwiches respectively with the provided sides. It was mighty tempting watching some of the diners at the other tables chow down on large, sloppy chicken quarters and slabs of ribs, but I knew I'd be having a big dinner that night and didn't want to be spending the day stuffing myself. Still my lunch was homemade and tasted great and was far better than anything I could have purchased from a rest stop chain.

I have always longed to go back there, but so far it has not been meant to be. The following year my husband and I headed to Chincoteague together and stopped at the same exit in Smyrna, DE for lunch. He was not feeling particularly patient, so searching for Wally's was not on the agenda. He managed to find the entrance to the Waffle House and that's where we had lunch. I can't complain too much. The Waffle House may be a chain, but at least the food is freshly cooked to order there. I did still find myself thinking about the lunch I wasn't having.

These days I know even know if Wally's still exists. Their website seems to be down. The URL is still active, but the site itself says "Out of Service". I can only hope that while the site is down Wallys still lives on.

It certainly lives on in my heart.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Do We Serve a Purpose - Or Are We a Pox on the Food World?

A fellow food blogger turned me on to this piece recently.

Chefs and restaurant owners do not like food bloggers. One would think that people in the restaurant industry would not have the time to waste reading the blogs of ordinary schmoes. If I were Mario Batali, I don't even think a food blog would be a blip on my radar screen. It seems that I was wrong. These people are reading our blogs, and they aren't enjoying them.

They have some very legitimate reasons for not enjoying our blogs. I will admit that. I do also think that their criticisms of food bloggers are often too harsh. I want to go over some of these points and what I agree with and disagree with.

Point #1: Food Blogs are bad writing

One of my favorite quotes about blogging is that "Blogsites are just ego trips for people who can't get their material published elsewhere." Most bloggers aren't professional writers. Many would like to be. I think many people believe that if you are a good writer, you would be published. Writing can be bad because bloggers have no editorial restraint. No one is going to clean up the grammar and spelling errors.

I will admit that this blog is hardly brilliant. I'll read through some of my posts and think to myself, "I can write better than that." If critics only read my blog and none of my other writing, they would probably think I was a terrible writer. I write this blog for my own pleasure, not to report important things to the world. I'm not expecting anyone to come on here and criticize my writing. I don't think I'm alone in that sentiment.

In bloggers' defense, I don't think most of the writing is that bad. Sure I see a lot of misuse of "lie" and "lay" (although Alton Brown is guilty of the same crime in his show), confusion of when to use "me myself and I", and confusion of when to use "less" and when to use "fewer," but bloggers as a whole are fairly literate people. Just because you do not choose to make a career out of writing, doesn't mean you can't write. People generally enjoy doing things they are good at. If someone fails high school English class, chances are he's not going to make a hobby out of writing.


Point #2: Bloggers Don't Know What They Are Talking About

No one is going to fact check. Bloggers often write on topics they have little knowledge of, and unlike professional writers, do not bother to research. I think this is a valid point. I'm not going to rewrite a chef's biography or spread rumors just because I don't like a particular chef or Food Network personality. But many people do. I don't think that's right or it's fair. Blogs are ripe for slander at worst and at best can spread a lot of misinformation.

I still defend the cluelessness of bloggers somewhat. I'm not going to tell Bobby Flay the right way to grill a salmon and I'm not going to tell Emeril Lagasse how to make the perfect gumbo. I'm not a chef. I'm not a professional food writer or food anything. However, that doesn't mean that I don't know what I like or what I enjoy. I talk about what tastes good to me and what tastes bad to me. I write about experiences I enjoy and don't enjoy. My opinions on these things might differ from true food professionals from time to time, but I think we can all agree that well-prepared, high-quality food served promptly with a smile is a universal pleasure.

Point #3: Bloggers Are Mean

When a blogger doesn't like something, she really doesn't like it. We bloggers have no restraint when it comes to discussing the negatvies. There are no editors or legal departments telling us what we can and can't say.

The lack of restraint can be harsh. It's one thing to criticize Rachael Ray's sloppy kitchen habits and poorly-executed recipes. It's another thing to rail on her because of her bad fashion sense or because she's short and funny-shaped. (I'm short and funny-shaped. There is nothing I can do about it and it has little to do with how well I can cook, so I don't see why someone has to criticize Rachael Ray for those things she can't control.) The anonymity of blogs means we can say all kinds of horrible things we would never say to anyone's face. I'd imagine if you are a chef who reads food blogs, you would have to have a very thick skin because bloggers can say some pretty horrible things.

Despite the meanness, I think these amateur criticisms should exist. Chefs and restaurant critics know how to deal with each other. Politics can be involved. Restaurant critics may focus on different aspects of a meal than a blogger would. If restaurant owners and chefs are really reading these blogs, I think that they can be a real eye opener.

For example, I read this piece, which mentions how a blogger trashed Le Cirque. The owner was very hurt by the critique, but ended up making up for the diner's bad experience by offering a free meal with a premium table and excellent service. Restaurants sometimes need to learn that they need to treat all customers equally, and not just kiss up to the wealthy regulars. They also need to know they can't coast by on their reputations. The word will eventually circulate among the masses that dining at the finest restaurant in the city is not all it's cracked up to be and the next thing that restaurant knows, it's out of business.

I feel that if one has a legitimate beef with a restaurant, it ought to be aired publicly, and done in a way that is different from how a restaurant reviewer would do it. Professional critics have a format to follow and are likely to be treated differently in restaurants. Bloggers will talk about their experiences frankly, and discuss the things that are specifically important to them personally. A good chef should read a few blogs to understand what the average person considers important to a meal.

A few years ago I had a very bad experience at the prestigious San Domenico in New York City. I wanted to shout from the rooftops just how unpleasant the experience was. The food was underwhelming and overpriced and the service was abysmal. I posted my review of Epinions.com and was highly criticized by their obnoxious senior members because my review didn't fit specific parameters and was more of a rant. Well, I'm not a professional reviewer. I don't follow anyone's format but my own. I merely wanted to warn others away from this restaurant so that no one else would have such a horrible experience. I could only comment on the things that made an impression on me personally (how can I evaluate the wine if I didn't drink any?)

In the end, my rant wasn't meant to personally insult the owner or chef of San Domenico. It was to help correct the mistakes the place made. If Tony May were to read any of my online reviews of the place, I would not want him taking it personally. I would want him to use them constructively. If people are being that negative about your restaurant, then maybe it's time to start thinking about making some changes. One of the most disappointing things about San Domenico is that I know Tony May can do better. Several years ago he owned a restaurant in Port Chester called Tony May's Hostaria. The food and the service were excellent and priced accordingly. Plenty of restaurants could be wonderful almost every time, but aren't. A good shove in the right direction from people who have been disappointed can help them maintain a consistent level of excellence.

Maybe chefs and restaurant owners and bloggers need to make a pact. Bloggers need to promise to show some restraint, be specific with the things they are complaining about without making personal attacks, and make sure they have their facts straight. In return, restaurant owners should promise to read the blogs and take legitimate criticisms to heart. If too many bloggers have a bad experience at your restaurant, then it's time to rethink your operations.

Remember, food bloggers who have a good experience are going to talk about that too. See my previous blog for proof.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Best Restaurant Ever

This weekend in celebration of my birthday, I spent some time with a man who makes me incredibly happy.

In other words, I spent a few minutes with Eric Johanssen, head chef of the Iron Forge Inn in Bellvale, NY.

The Iron Forge Inn is my favorite restaurant. Everything about it is just wonderful. It's set on a little country road in a historic building. The decor is utterly lovely and cozy. There are several beautiful rooms to choose from including an enclosed porch and rooms with fireplaces. Service is attentive and always friendly. But the food is really the outstanding star here. The chef is attentive to every detail and just incredibly creative. I don't think there is anything he can't make taste good. I keep saying he should go on Iron Chef America because no matter what the secret ingredient of the day is, I know he'd cook the heck out of it and he'd plate it beautifully.

So what did I eat Saturday night?

The complimentary amuse bouche was a potato cake topped with a cucumber salad and some micro greens. The bread was fresh and warm.

Next I had a bowl of "White Gazpacho". The best way to describe it would be a chilled cream of root vegetable soup. Parsnip was the main attraction, but there were other vegetables in the background. There were little crunchy smoky bits of bacon and grilled parsnip on top and there was also a drizzle of paprika-flavored oil. The soup was just outstanding. It was definitely among the best soups I ever had. Johansson is brilliant with soup. A few years ago I had a cider soup that was too divine to even describe.

My main course was a NY strip steak. It was served over a bed of warm polenta and topped with greens braised with bacon. I thought the steak was cooked a little past medium rare (which is the suggested serving temperature and also the way I generally order steak), but it hardly mattered as it was tender, juicy, and flavorful. The only complaint I had was that the steak and polenta sat on a pool of horseradish and potato puree that was a bit too strong for my liking. However, I'm not a huge fan of horseradish, so I don't blame the chef.

Dessert was a banana fritter. It's bananas fried into a crispy cake. It was served in a pool of warm chocolate ganache with a scoop of Bellvale Creamery ice cream on top. It was the perfect ending to a delicious meal.

I can't recommend this place enough. If you're ever in the Orange County NY/Sussex County NJ area, you must try this place. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Time is Money

When it comes to cooking, convenience really is expensive. I discovered just how much timesavers cost when shopping on a budget this week. I really learned a lot about costs and smart shopping last night.

Think of how certain Food Network hosts will tell you to use things like pre-cut vegetables and bagged salads. They are indeed quite easy and convenient, but they do come with a price. They like to tell you how these things make your life easier, but neglect to mention how much they cost.

I went to the supermarket yesterday and purchased celery and spinach. I bought the full stalks of celery and leaf spinach by the bunch. I save a good three dollars doing this. Those savings cost me maybe 10 minutes of my time at most. I chopped the bottom and the leaves off of the celery and tossed them into the stock I was making. The hearts I trimmed up for snacks during the week. I haven't used the spinach yet, but it's not big deal to cut off the stems and toss the leaves in water to get rid of the dirt. I can give them a rough chop. The process keeps me acquainted with my knife.

I can go to the organic grocery store and buy pre-chopped fruits and vegetables that are organic and grown in South America, or I can go to the local farmer's market and support local agriculture, save on fossil fuels, and maybe work a tiny bit harder to prep my produce. Yet I've saved a buttload of money.

I have really begun to notice just how much things cost these days. For example I love bacon, but bacon is full of fat and calories. I started buying soy bacon, which isn't quite the same thing, but it gives me a similar texture to real bacon and has that salty flavor. I discovered last night that turkey bacon has less fat and fewer calories per slice and is two dollars cheaper. I think I'm buying turkey bacon from now on.

Seriously folks, are we all that lazy that we can't cut our own food? Do we really think we're doing our bodies a favor by spending more money on them?

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And now for something completely different...

I made my first chicken Kiev last night. I mushed up some butter with garlic and whatever herbs looked mature enough in my pots. I cut pockets in two chicken breasts and sealed that up with toothpicks. The breading was a standard flour-milk and egg-bread crumb coating. Next I panfried the cutlets in olive oil. One of the kievs leaked a bit, but the bread crumb coating came out wonderfully crispy and golden. The other breast gave a nice squirt. I was pleased.

Friday, July 6, 2007

What's up with watermelons? (and other thoughts)

I'm a little disturbed by the changing shape of the watermelon.

I like the idea of those little melons. The biggest drawbacks of watermelons is the fact that if you aren't buying one for a large party, you often waste them. Little watermelons are just enough for one or two people.

I'm just a bit weirded out by the big melons. Big melons don't look the way watermelons are supposed to look. They look like over sized little melons. Big melons used to be sort of cylindrical. You could carry a big melon under your arm. You could carry two at a time because you could carry one under each arm.

Now watermelons are very round. They are not narrow enough to carry under one arm (unless you have very long arms). You have to hoist one in front of you with both arms wrapped around it. That can get really heavy. I work out regularly, but I can tell you I was really tired after lugging a watermelon through the grocery store the other day.

Bring back the long, narrow, watermelon!!

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And now for something completely different...

My birthday is coming up. My Amazon wish list is filled with all kinds of cooking implements. I am slowly trying to replace my scratched up nonstick pots with nice All-Clad stainless ones. I still need the 6-quarter, the stock pot, and the 3-quarter. I am also desperate for a good roasting pan. My main concern is Thanksgiving. I am hosting it this year for the first time and I'd like to make sure my kitchen is equipped. I need some extra big pots and I definitely need a roasting pan and roasting rack for the turkey. I could also use a really good meat thermometer, a fat separator, and a baster. All of these things are on my wish list. However, I don't want to be selfish and start insisting people buy me cookware off my wish list.

The problem with Amazon wish lists is that people will buy you the highest priority for the lowest price. This past Christmas I really needed some gym socks. I figured they would make a good stocking stuffer, so I put three packs on my wish list as high priority. I asked for three packs of socks and I got them - from 3 different people. Well, I said I needed socks didn't I? I can't go around telling people what to get from my wish list. Heck, I'm not even comfortable having a wish list sometimes. Who am I to dictate what they should get me as a gift? Still, Thanksgiving will be here eventually and the meal will be expensive enough without having to buy a bunch of new kitchen equipment.

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Still more to come...

What is it about black bottom pie? I can't find a recipe like the one I used to make in high school. I got the recipe out of an old YM magazine (back when it was still in publication and was actually titled Young Miss). It consisted of a basic pastry cream. You flavored half of it with chocolate and spread it on the bottom. Then you flavored the other half with vanilla and covered the chocolate layer with it. Garnish the pie with fresh whipped cream and shaved chocolate. The pie was just basic pastry cream. There was no booze and no gelatin involved. I lost the recipe. I guess as I grew older, I collected cookbooks and internet recipe sites became popular, so I didn't need to keep saving an old magazine full of pie recipes.

My problem is that every black bottom pie recipe I see has things like chiffon toppings and gelatin in them. I can't find a basic pastry cream pie.

However, I'm growing intrigued by some of the possibilities of how I can define black bottom pie. I'm tempted to give up on finding a recipe like the one I used to have and create one of my own.

My own version would have a bottom layer of chocolate pastry cream and then I would top it with rum-flavored panna cotta. Fresh whipped cream with a hint of rum would go on top.

Maybe I'll try baking said pie next week.