The Tyranny of the Recipe

I once announced in the typically grandiose way I use when I pontificate:

All that is wrong with American food culture can be traced to the recipe. I am suffering under its tyranny.

Rather than eliciting the usual eye-rolling, a vigorous debate ensued. My wife quickly pointed to the glaring weakness of my proposition: Recipes teach you knew ways of cooking. And yes, she is right, if you already know how to cook! She is a master and almost never follows a recipe to the letter. For her, it is a starting point that she’s riffs off of to produce an amazing meal. But therein lies the trap that recipes pose for the rest of us. Allow me to make my case:

  1. Recipes Set Unreasonable Expectations

    Things don’t always work out as planned. Even the best chefs have flops when they try something new, but they learn from their mistakes. That flawless salmon Gordon Ramsay plates on camera is probably the thousandth time he’s done that dish. Give him a recipe that uses an ingredient he’s never seen before in a style that’s new to him and, well, he’s probably got a better than even chance at success. But for the rest of us? I wonder how many potential cooks were turned off by an initial failure?

    I believe the overall quality of food in America would increase with the number of people who cook. I don’t think we need a nation of Michelin starred chefs, just people who know what it takes to make the basics. We’d be less likely to put up with crap from others.

    What can we do to get more people into the kitchen?

  2. Recipes Teach the Wrong Thing

    You cannot learn to cook from a recipe. There are too many variables at play for any one recipe to be the definitive answer: My oven behaves differently than yours. The meat I buy today is different from what I bought last week in size, shape and fat/connective tissue content. Etc., etc., etc… How can I be a success in the kitchen if I don’t understand these fundamentals?

    Rather than learning recipes, I should be learning techniques. How much easier would it be to follow a Coq au Vin recipe if you’ve mastered a basic roast chicken? Sure, they’re not same thing (braising vs. roasting), but you’ll already grok what heat does to connective tissue and the absolute lusciousness that follows.

    Also, if you master a technique, it becomes easier to branch out (for example, making your own stock with the left overs from a roast chicken). You have the building blocks that make good dishes. The more techniques your learn, the easier it is to assemble and reassemble these blocks into different meals.

    Pick a basic technique and a general ingredient, then keep doing it until you feel comfortable.

  3. Recipes Subvert the Shopping Process

    I ideally, you should go to the store with an open mind, to see what’s good today. A recipe driven approach makes this difficult. Unless you’re able to memorize hundreds or thousands of recipes, what are you going to do? Flip through every recipe you have to find a match for what you bought? Sure, the internet and recipe searches make this easier, but how much effort are you willing to put into tracking down something worth cooking? This would be more manageable if you limited the number of items you bought, but you may need to make a second trip.

    It’s more likely, though, that someone is jonesing for a particular dish and goes searching for the ingredients. This is how we’ve ended up with flavorless tomatoes that are available year round. And the meat department? How often do you see something with a bone in it? They’re usually arrayed in ready to use cuts. Please, don’t get me going on boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken.

    If you start with a technique, though, shopping becomes a zen-like journey of discovery. “Oh, look, duck. Hmmm, can’t be that much different to roast compared to a chicken.” You’ll find yourself asking questions of both staff and other customers and actually getting answers you understand.

    When you feel confident enough to take home a new ingredient, you’ll know that you’re beginning to master your craft.

Let me reiterate: There is a place in the world for recipes, but they should not serve as your entry point into the world of cooking. I find it interesting to leaf through Le Guide Culinaire. Most recipes are a few sentences, maybe 2-3 paragraphs. There are no lists or explicit steps. Here’s one selected at random, Sole à la Dieppoise:

Prepare the sole and shallow poach in a buttered dish with 1/2 cup white wine and the same amount of mussel cooking liquor. When cooked, drain and place in a suitable dish, surround with a Dieppoise garnish and coat the whole with Sauce Vin Blanc containing the reduced cooking liquid from the sole.

How many assumptions are built into this recipe? You can’t make money selling a book like this since only trained chefs will buy it. And that’s the answer to my conundrum. Cookbook publishers want you to buy their books. They need to appear to contain doable recipes. I think it would be antithetical to their business model, though, to actually produce a truly useful volume. Most people would then limit their purchases. I’m looking at 6 shelves of cook books and magazines in my study, most of which are pure lists of recipes. I’m guessing that we’ve averaged cooking 2-3 from each book.

These are the types of food books I’d like to see more of:

The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh

The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh

The Tex-Mex Cookbook

by Robb Walsh

Yes, there are recipes here with your lists of ingredients and steps. But that’s only a part of the book. The author goes into the history of Tex-Mex; how it came to be and how it straddles the border between Mexican and Anglo cuisines. Not only do I have a recipe for an excellent chili gravy, but I also have a counter move when someone swings the term “authentic” like a club. This is a cookbook that can be read cover-to-cover.

The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

The Big Oyster

by Mark Kurlanksy

This is not a cookbook, though it does contain recipes (pickled oysters, anyone?). It’s a history of New York City told from the context of this bivalve. It’s a fascinating read (dang, the oysters were the size of dinner plates when Europeans first showed up), but I appreciate the insight it gives me to one of my favorite foods. I understand this shellfish better.

Well, enough of my rant. I need to figure out how to prepare a flatfish.

Advertisements

Monsieur Haeringer, I Will Miss You

Francois Haeringer

Francois Haeringer

I note with sadness the passing of François Haeringer. He introduced me, through his restaurant L’Auberge Chez François, to what a really good meal can mean. There is an obituary in The Washington Post that’s worth reading.

I first ate at his restaurant in the late Eighties, at a time in my life when sitting down to dinner was an event purely about eating. I grumbled when I had to put on a suit and tie, muttered various synonyms for quaint when I first glimpsed the place and panicked when I saw the menu. I don’t remember what I ordered, but I do recall that it had the element of randomness to it. The effect was immediate. I walked in as Saul and left converted to the total experience that a meal should be. The man himself said:

Listen, when people go to the restaurant, what do they want? A good time. A nice atmosphere. A good meal. It’s simple.

Frequently at home, when remembering a place, we’ll recall a great meal we had there or, just as likely, when making a dish at home, we’ll reminisce about eating it on vacation somewhere. The sensual experience that is a meal – flavor, aroma, the sights and sounds, the very feel of it – all work to tightly bind your memories.

I have not dined at L’Auberg Chez François for a while now. Twenty years ago, it was practically the only place of its kind. Now, however, someone looking for a high-end experience has many options. I moved on. I feel really guilty about that. I am happy to see that his sons will continue to run the place. I shall make a reservation soon.

Thank you François Haeringer, you made the world a better place.

Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 2:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

by Michael Pollan

A while back I was having dinner at a new place with colleagues after a particularly grueling week of work. Exhaustion and wine had combined to make me lose my focus in the conversation and I only came to attention when I heard someone say, “They have really good food here, I wonder how you can scale an operation like this to make some serious money.” I smacked my hand down on the table and shouted, “You can’t scale good food.”

Awkward silence, everyone in the restaurant looking at me. My friend asks, “Why not?” If I had read this book, I would have had a good answer, but I would have tempered my opinions somewhat. How food is created in America is a complicated story. There are clearly some bad guys who do not care for good food or the health of those who eat it, but it’s not obvious who wears the white hats.

First of all, this book is a great read and in a format I greatly enjoy: one part a deep dive into an interesting subject and another part travelogue. He breaks it down into four stores: Industrial production with a tour of the Midwest, Industrial Organic on the west coast, a process he calls beyond organic in the Shenandoah Valley and finally an attempt at living the Hunter-Gatherer existence in California. Each one of these stories could stand on its own, but the combination truly brings America’s perplexing relationship with food to light. I took these lessons from the book:

Do Not Look to Corporation for Dietary Advice

Given that eating is something everyone does, the food market can only grow as fast as the population does. This means the only way for a corporation to profit at a Wall Street acceptable rate is some combination of lower cost of production and convincing consumers to spend more for the same thing or to eat more of it. The former means ruthlessly standardizing the production of food. Mr. Pollan ably demonstrates why this is destroying the environment and making us less healthy. As for convincing us to spend or eat more, that’s not hard. We seem to be prey to all kinds of marketing gimmicks and health concerns which Corporate America has no problem stoking as they have just the antidote to sell us.

Organic Processes Are not a Panacea

The only way large organic concerns such as Whole Foods can work is to scale things up. This, ultimately, requires a standardized (there’s that word again!) distribution network. Small farmers cannot reliably meet their demand, so only the large concerns succeed. Yes, it is true that this is healthier than regular industrial food production, but it is not environmentally sustainable and, arguably, uses more energy than non-organice food production.

Doing the Right Thing is Hard

Part of the reason many farmers have gone industrial despite it being a losing business is that it is extremely easy. You only have to work for a small fraction of the year and you don’t have to think much, industry tells you what to do and when. Sustainable farming that produces healthy food requires a lot effort and thinking in order to balance the diversity of plants and animals that a sustainable concern needs to manage. Those willing to do this deserve our support. I shall seek them out and give them my business. And why not? Sure, it will cost more money, but the food will taste so much better.

A Well Thought Out Animal Rights Philosophy

I love meat. I always will, but that doesn’t mean I condone maltreatment of animals. I have had difficulty arguing against folks such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They seem to provide a good moral argument that’s difficult to contradict. Mr. Pollan, though, does this well. I agree with his statement on page 328 of the paperback version of the book: “What’s wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle.” We can humanely raise and slaughter animals. Moreover, a healthy environment demands that animals are eaten. It’s part of the cycle that we break at our own risk.

A Losing Battle?

The weak arguments that I did make to my workmates as to why good food shouldn’t and can’t be scaled were met with a shrug of their shoulders. “Why bother, then?”

A good meal should be more than just a business proposition, more than just the sum of the ingredients that went into it. It’s the appreciation of the effort, wonder at a magical combination of flavors and the joy of the people you share it with. I hope this wins out.

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 2:43 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Olive Garden with a Side of Proper Expectations

Olive Garden: Not Bad for What It Is

Not Bad for What It Is

I plead guilty to yucking other people’s yums. To wit: I have mercilessly mocked Olive Garden and those who think it fine dining. I realize now that it was wrong of me to do so. I committed the sin of expressing subjective opinion as objective fact. Olive Garden just couldn’t be good food, but who am I to tell you what is or is not good? More to the point, though, how can I pass judgement on the place if I have not eaten there?

Clearly, I have never had the desire to eat at Olive Garden. I like real Italian food and felt that this place would be an abomination. The only reason why I went was the $50 gift card I had won in a raffle and a guilty sense that I should know that of which I rant. Now, any restaurant can be a good restaurant (supposing it’s run with a modicum of skill and a desire to do a good job). The key is to set the right expectations. I prepared myself for this meal by repeating the mantra: “This is not an Italian restaurant, it is Corporate American cuisine made in the Italian idiom.” Oh, and I promised I would not complain about over-cooked pasta.

Long story short, it wasn’t that bad. The four of us ordered:

  • For an appetizer, we chose to create our own sampler and selected stuffed mushrooms, toasted raviolis and the calamari. Surprisingly, the squid was well cooked, with only a hint of rubberiness. The mushrooms were a tad on the greasy side, but edible. Nobody else seemed to like the raviolis, but I noshed big time.
  • We cycled 3 bowls of soup and an overly large serving of salad amongst us. The soups weren’t bad, if a tad salty. The salad was an uninspired assembly of greens headlined by iceberg lettuce.
  • My youngest and I both ordered the special: 4 cheese stuffed pansotti (hers with chicken, mine Italian sausage). The pasta was (tss, tss!), er, um, drenched in a tomato-y cream sauce that actually went well with the sausage. The stuffed pasta seemed almost an afterthought that I wouldn’t have missed.
  • My wife and eldest went with items from the appetizer menu. I questioned their selection of steamed mussels, but was proven wrong. The liquid was half way decent, even if overly salty (alas, this was turning into a theme here). They also ordered the Lasagna fritta, which was a disappointment. It looked nothing like the picture on the menu.

As I waddled out, I felt like we got our money’s worth (the additional $40 it cost us), but don’t think we’ll be coming back. For that amount of money (or just a little more), we can get better food elsewhere. The place is not cheap unless you stick to water and the unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks.

One conclusion I reached, though, is that it’s no wonder we’re an obese nation:

  1. Portion sizes are gigantic. Those weren’t plates, they were platters!
  2. Everything is drenched in cream and/or cheese. Why? Perhaps to cover up the fact that the pasta is (Dude! NO!), um, not the best.
  3. There is way too much salt. Telling sign that the dishes weren’t made in house, but somewhere else and shipped here.

I felt miserable for the rest of the day, like I had swallowed an indigestible rock. I then made the mistake of looking up the nutritional value of the meal we just ate.

  • We consumed enough calories for the whole day for all four of us.
  • We ingested over 350 grams of fat! The equivalent to 7 Big Macs and 7 large orders of fries.
  • The salt intake was equivalent to the recommend daily amount for nearly 7 people.

I’m still in shock over witnessing a women who had to have been half my size who had ordered something that looked to be twice the size of my meal and she was furiously shaking salt on to it.

Now, I can rationalize crappy nutrition if the food is really good (bypassing for the moment the argument that good food doesn’t need so much salt or fat) and I had a good time. This was not the case for me, yet others seem to truly enjoy the place. I won’t try to talk them out of it. I would suggest, though, that they might try other places.

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

The Curse of Boneless, Skinless, All White Meat Chicken

Coming from the south, I figured I knew fried chicken. Then I had my eyes opened on a visit to Asia. The whole eastern reaches of that continent knows chicken. From a high-end Chinese restaurant in Singapore to a local chain outside of Seoul, I was never disappointed.

I am heartened that this style is making it to the US. The Korean chain Cheogajip Chicken has a location in the Centreville, VA area. There is also BBQ Chicken and Beer, which widens the typically narrow Korean menu with more options. Even the local Grand Mart had an excellent spicy fried chicken.

Note that I used the past tense on that last sentence. Apparently, customers have been complaining about the bones, so the curse that is boneless, skinless, all-white meat (BSAWM) chicken has claimed another victim.

I don’t understand this. When you strip out the skin and bones, and limit yourself to only the breast meat, you’re stripping out all of the flavor. All a whole chicken really needs is salt and pepper. A sauce is never a bad thing, but you don’t need too much. I can no longer eat the spicy fried chicken at Grand Mart. The meat is rather dry and there is way too much sauce which, I assume, is to compensate for the lack of flavor normally supplied by the skin, bones and dark meat.

This is what’s wrong with BSAWM-ness:

  1. First of all, it lack’s flavor. Try eating a chicken breast prepared with nothing but salt and pepper. Sure, if you brine it first, it will be moist, but it will still be flavorless. Look at how this is prepared in most restaurants: This type of dish is usually swimming in sauce or served with a side dish that has an intense flavor.
  2. Because of point 1, it’s not as healthy. What do you think is in that sauce? I’ll bet half a paycheck that it’s loaded in sugar and salt.
  3. It encourages unhealthy eating habits. You eat boneless chicken much faster than a bird with bones. It’s better to eat slowly. Your body will feel full with less food in your belly. I find it interesting that the BSAWM version of Grand Mart’s spicy fried chicken had about twice the meat of the original dish.
  4. BSAWM encourages animal cruelty. A natural chicken does not have enough white meat to make for an economically viable business producing only BSAWM. The factory bird with large breasts cannot move, even if it was given a free range opportunity. It is a freak of the industrial process.

BSAWM is a lie perpetrated on a gullible public. I am angered and saddened that my yum has been yucked.

The Search for Meaningful Words: Baja Fresh Signage

I may be naïve, but is it truly asking too much of restaurants to provide me with information that actually helps in making decisions? Yes, I know the answer to that. They’re out to make money, so why would they risk sending me to somewhere else? This post, then, reflects yet another windmill I’ll charge.

The source of this rant is this sign at my local Baja Fresh:

Baja Fresh Sign

I don’t mean to pick on Baja Fresh. I do like the place (though not as much as Chipotle). It’s just a convenient example of restaurant speak: It’s not meant to provide you with real information in order to make up your mind; but rather to convince you that you’ve made the right decision. Let’s take a look at these statements:

Our salsas are made fresh daily using only top quality produce.

“Made fresh daily,” that’s useful information that differentiates Baja Fresh from others. “Using only top quality produce,” oops, this violates a rule of mine. Descriptions should have plausible alternatives and make a meaningful distinction. Top quality? Would anyone say they are using low quality ingredients? And produce? How else would you make salsa? They should have stuck with just the first half of the sentence.

We use only boneless, skinless chicken breast marinated and charbroiled.

Boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken is evidence of the depths to which American cuisine has sunk. And these guys are bragging about it! Of course you’re going to have to marinate the stuff; otherwise, there would be no flavor in the meat. You might was well be using cardboard. At least then you could brag about the fiber. And that’s just the point. They’re trying to convince you of how healthy their food is in a way that’s easy to demonstrate, but then they overcompensate in other areas they don’t tell you about, like the fact that any entree with that chicken has nearly a whole day’s recommended allowance of sodium. Just what is in that marinade?

Our lean steak is trimmed and charbroiled.

Again with bragging about the removal of the flavorful parts of the meat. Maybe if you left the fat in, you wouldn’t have to load your burrito up with cheese, sour cream and guacamole. I’d be that you’d wind up consuming less fat that way. Go to any street food vendor in Mexico and order a taco. All you’ll get, in general, is nicely cooked meat in a tortilla. No toppings are needed.

Our special recipe beans are made fresh daily using no lard.

OK, we have something moderately useful here. It’s good to know they make the beans daily. I’d like to know more about their special recipe, but that’s probably too much information for a sign. However, the “using no lard” is a non sequitur since lard would only be used in making refried beans, which Baja Fresh does not do. Now, I could get into an argument with you about why you should use lard in that case (dang, they taste so much better that way), but that’s not the point. Again, they’re trying to make you feel good about your choice for lunch regardless of how healthy the meal actually is.

Our fresh chips are made in 100% cholesterol free canola oil.

This sentence seems to have the highest density of helpful data: fresh chips, cholesterol free and canola oil. OK, that last might not be a meaningful distinction since I’m not sure why canola would be better than any other vegetable oil. However, what is important here is the word that they do not use. How are chips made? They fry those suckers! Can’t have that word up there, I guess, since it would shoot to hell any health credibility they might have garnered in the 4 previous sentences.

Don’t let this stop you, though, from enjoying their fried fish taco. They’re quite tasty. And 3 of them have fewer calories, less sodium and about as much fat as any of their burritos. This is the point I’m making: If you’re primary concern when eating is health, then you shouldn’t be relying on the health claims made by the person selling you the food.

Published in: on November 26, 2009 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

The Old School Big 3

Escoffier, Larousse & Julia Child

Back in the day, Fine Dining and French Food were synonyms. There’s a reason why they called it haute cuisine. I’m agnostic when it comes to food trends and am willing to try – and usually enjoy – anything, but I do like the classics. Dressing up to go out to an ornately furnished, ever so slightly stuffy restaurant with the frightening maître d’, 500 piece place setting and a tab equal to your paycheck.

Alas, there’s not many places like that left. I have to satisfy my jones by reading about such experiences. And when I do, I will tell you about them. My experience, though, is not that deep, so I have to rely on experts to help me fill in the details and provide the backstory. This is what I mean when I make references to Old School Big 3.

Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier

Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier

Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier

M. Escoffier is the founding deity of what we now think of as the fancy restaurant. At the time of his death, in 1935 at the age of 88, he was called the King of Cooks and the Cook of Kings. The GC (pronounce it “Zhay Say” if you like putting on airs) was his effort to systematize restaurant cooking. This was not written for the home chef. In fact, it assumes that the reader has a fair amount of knowledge and skills. It has to, there’s over 5000 recipes and 68 menus packed into only 600 or so pages!

It’s a fascinating read, though. You’ll run across tid-bits like this one, early in the book, for Sauce Currie à l’Indienne:

In India, there are innumerable variations of this sauce but the basis of its preparation always remains the same. It may be of interest to note that the authentic type of Indian curry is not suitable for European tastes, but the flavour of of the above sauce is generally acceptable.

I also like the suggested wines in the menus, like the Perrier Jouet, extra dry, 1898. I bet, even if I could find and afford one, it ain’t tasting too great any more.

If you’re looking for your own copy, be aware that there is a recently published abridged version with only 2300 recipes in it. You can still find the original, if you look on eBay, Amazon or a good used book dealer, but it’s not cheap. I consider myself lucky that mine was just under $50, shipped, but it is a former library book that’s been well loved.

Larousse Gastronimique by Prosper Montagné

Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne

Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne

This encyclopedia of French cuisine was originally published in 1938. Each succeeding edition expanded the coverage to include some elements other cuisines, but it still remained primarily French. As with the GC, Larousse is not a cook book. It’s a source of information that the classically trained French chef of old could consult when preparing a menu. True, there are entries for specific dishes, but also included are descriptions of equipment, ingredients and methods. A typical entry reads:

Dieppoise (A LA) — A method of preparation special to sea water fish. Fish à la Dieppoise is cooked in white wine, garnished with mussels and shelled fresh-water crayfish tails, and masked with a wite wine sauce made with the cooking stock of the fish and mussels. See Brill à la Dieppoise.

The Brill entry he refers to (there are 54 of them for this Flounder-like fish) pretty much repeats the above with the suggestion to serve as is or after glazing it in a very hot oven. As for the white wine sauce, there are three versions listed in a more recipe-like manner that a modern reader may recognize. So, you can track down what you need, but you’ll be flipping back and forth to gather all of your data. Painful, yes, but then you’ll run into the odd entry such as the one for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. I know him as one of the architects of post-Napoleon Europe, but his contemporaries thought of him as the greatest of French gastronomes. This makes it the effort worthwhile.

This book is easier to track down than the GC, but it’s big, so you will still pay about $60 for a copy. I inherited mine, 1965 printing, from my mother, who seems to have bought hers new. Can’t recall her ever consulting it, though, but then, the copy is as old as me.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Yes, I realize that three people contributed to this book. There’s a fascinating story in The United States of Arugula that recounts why Julia is the only one remembered today by most. So forgive me if I refer only to her. You must love a woman who, in supposedly prudish mid-20th century America, blurts out, “Wow! These damn things are as hot as a stiff cock.” I’ll tip my hat to Simone and Luisette, but I’ll invite Julia to my party.

Unlike the other two, this book (or two, depending on which version you have) is written for the home chef. It is organized roughly by main ingredient / course and presents the information in the now standard recipe format of ingredients and steps (I do like how these are displayed in parallel columns, at least in my edition). The authors assume nothing on the part of the reader, so this is not just a straight list of recipes. Terms, equipment and techniques are described so that anyone can prepare the dishes in the book. The recently released movie, Julie & Julia appears completely plausible once you’ve leafed through this.

You should have no problems tracking this book down. In fact, they are selling more now, after the release of the movie, than ever. I also inherited this from my mother and it looks well used, though I cannot tell the source of the food stains. Was it a Bourguignon or just a little bit of the cooking Sherry?

Published in: on September 3, 2009 at 7:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cook’s Illustrated, Number 100 (Grade: B)

Cook's Illustrated, Issue 100

Cook's Illustrated, Issue 100

If you like to cook, you must subscribe to this magazine. It is always packed with useful tips and helpful step-by-step instructions. While it will never stir my emotions to a fever pitch, I still find that I learn something new every time I read it. But it’s like a well written text book: no matter its quality, it’s still just a text book.

Content: 58/60

I like the fact that there is so much content here, yet it doesn’t feel crammed in. Although articles are never more than 2 pages and usually include a side bar or two, they remain tightly focused on the topic and convey the right amount of information.

My favorites in this issue are the articles on Steak Tips with Mushroom Gravy, Rethinking Sunday Gravy and the Foolproof Vinaigrette. I skipped over the Secrets to a Perfect Cup of Coffee, Mexican Grilled Corn and discussion on “Green” Skillets, but only because they didn’t interest me. My favorite tip this issue was to not use extra virgin olive oil when cooking, rather stick with the regular stuff since what you pay for in the good stuff – the unique flavors and aromas – dissipate with the heat.

Quality: 17/20

It used to irk me that, within the covers, this is a black and white magazine. It’s not so much an issue, any more, but still rankles me a bit. Would be nice to see what the food is supposed to look like. My other beef is that the writing style is uniformly written in the first person, this grates on my inner blue pencil. This might work if there was only one author throughout the whole magazine, but that’s not the case here.

Food Porn: 8/20

If it wasn’t for the wonderful illustration that they always have on the back cover, this would be a zero. This gets back to the lack of color in the magazine. But even the cover shots, in this case of Swiss Chard, rarely get a rise out of me.

Recipes: 10/10

Yes, yes, yes, I have claimed that recipes are not so important to me. Tell me the how and I’ll figure out the what. But these guys really pull this off well. For example, after a detailed discussion of what it takes to make a good Apple Upside-Down Cake, they offer variants with almonds or lemon and thyme, along with what needs to be adapted in the original recipe. Excellent.

Final Score: 93/110 (B)

Published in: on August 20, 2009 at 10:58 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Cerrito’s Pupuseria: A Quick Bite (4½ Stars)

Cerritos Pupuseria

Just a non-desrcript build on the side of the road

I drive by this place frequently, every time thinking I should give it a shot. I finally got around to it and am kicking myself for not doing so sooner.

This place is small, no more than 4 or 5 tables. Folks looked at me like I was lost. No, truly, I want to eat here! At first I was disheartened by the menu, which is populated with typical Mexican/Salvadoran fare that you’ll see in any number of places through out DC, none of which is particularly adventurous. Then I noticed the white board. That’s where the real food is listed.

Taco, Tamale and Pupusa

Taco, Tamale and Pupusa

I ordered a pork pupusa, beef tongue taco and a chicken tamale. This is, by far, the best pupusa I have ever had: lightly crispy on the outside while the contents had a creamy consistency. The flavors worked well with the slaw and salsa to make the sum of the whole greater than the parts. This alone was worth the trip.

When I mention tongue tacos to most people, they recoil in horror. They should not. There’s nothing funky in the taste like, say, liver. It’s just a lean piece of beef. And this taco is an excellent example of what can be done. With the pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime, I was in heaven. Yet again, this alone was worth the trip.

As for the tamale, I admit to some trepidation. It is really hard to find a well made tamale. Cerrito’s does theirs well. The filing was more than just the single note of chicken, it included chunks of potato and green beans. One was just enough, any more and I would have been filled to bursting.

I will definitely make a return visit, and so should you. They are on Rt. 50, about 4 miles west of the intersection with Rt. 28.

Cerrito’s Pupuseria
43137 John Mosby Hwy
Chantilly, VA 20152
(703) 327-0052

Published in: on August 10, 2009 at 11:23 am  Comments (6)  
Tags: , , , ,

Meatpaper, Issue 8 (Grade: A-)

Meatpaper Issue 8

Meatpaper Issue 8

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: I love Meatpaper! I’ve been a subscriber since the beginning and read every issue cover to cover. The latest edition is another example of high quality writing and excellent photography.

Content: 55/60

There are a few articles here that really made me think. In particular, I enjoyed Heather Smith’s discussion in A Modest Proposal: A Selective History of Telling People What to Eat. This delves into the essence of Don’t Yuck My Yum: How meat eaters and vegetarians feel threatened by each other. Her article on hot dogs is also worth a read.

Meatpaper is not just about the consumption of meat, but rather fleischgeist:

Fleisch•geist (flish’gist’) n. From the German, Fleisch “meat” + Geist “spirit.” Spirit of the meat. From Zeitgeist, “spirit of the times.”

This spirit includes articles on how bulls are enticed into participating in artificial insemination, hunting with eskimos and taxidermy. This issue misses the perfect mark for the article on the shock value of certain food TV shows. I feel the author really stretches to make the facts fit the theory. Oh, and my usual complaint about Meatpaper: It’s too short!

Quality: 18/20

As usual, this is a well crafted publication that is artfully assembled. Given the wide range of styles, this could easily have been garish and jarring. But they pull it off well. My only complaint is the lack of captions on nearly all photos. Sure, I can infer meaning from the accompanying copy, but I’d like some specifics.

Food Porn: 18/20

There is always some seriously good photos in this magazine, but this issue does not have as many good money shots. About the only one is on the end papers. Mmmm, pancetta. The carving up of the whale blubber kind of killed my appetite, though.

Recipes: 0/0

No recipes, but that’s OK. Meatpaper isn’t a cooking magazine.

Final Score: 91/100 (A-)

Published in: on August 2, 2009 at 2:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,