good to know

Because Knowledge is Power…

You probably shouldn’t watch this on a full stomach. If you’re squeamish, that is. Personally the visuals here don’t bother me.

The video below shows the digestive process in two subjects, one who ate Top Ramen, Gatorade & Gummi Bears, the other who ate home-prepared versions of the same meal. Watch it and see why you should be eating whole, minimally processed foods:

Stefani Bardin – Whole Food vs. Processed Food

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If You Can’t Stand the Heat

Our second essay assignment: the history of a classic kitchen tool.

Upon penning the first draft of this essay, my computer decided some critical updates were in order. Upon downloading update 3 of 3, my computer decided that an endless loop of rebooting and attempting update 3 of 3 would be tons of fun. It’s being checked out.

In the meantime, I rewrote the essay. I started Classic Kitchen Tool redux at approximately 10pm; it was due the next morning at 9am. Luckily, again, it was only a page. And thus–

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

A cast-iron skillet is the cornerstone of any Southern cook’s arsenal. So too can it prove invaluable in the professional kitchen. With its unparalleled ability to hold and evenly disperse heat, a cast-iron skillet could be a perfect vessel for holding a warm sauce (providing it’s not a gastrique—the high level of acidity could create a toxic reaction) or searing a perfect pork chop. And since a cast iron pan can go straight from the stove top into the oven, if you’re working with an extra-thick specimen, a sear and a quick roast is only a few steps away.

Cast-iron has, of course, been used for centuries—from pagodas in China to cannons in the British Navy—although its turn in the American kitchen is relatively new.  Around 513 BCE, the Chinese invented furnaces hot enough to melt iron; prior to this method, pots had either been made of brass or had been beaten into shape. The casting process—pouring molten iron into sand molds—created a product with a smooth surface and a sturdy structure. Strangely, this process didn’t gain favor in the west until 1100 CE when the benefits of cast-iron finally shone upon the people of Medieval England. Eventually a New World would be established—unfortunately it was a world devoid of cast-iron cookery, as the first ironworks didn’t open in America until 1619.

Cast-iron would prove to be an essential tool for early settlers & frontiersmen alike. Indeed, “in their expedition to the Louisiana territory in 1804, Lewis and Clark indicated that their cast iron Dutch oven was one of their most important pieces of equipment,” (Rayment). And while every serious colonial culinarian surely had a cauldron hanging from the hearth or a spider (a large bowl with a tripod of legs) sitting above their cinders, it was later still before the cast-iron skillet would appear. Those had to wait, first, for another invention to take hold: the stove top.

Certainly I can’t leave off a discussion of the cast-iron skillet without addressing its most intrinsic use. Making a cornbread in any vessel that’s not a cast-iron skillet is an exercise in futility. A Pyrex dish or your grandmother’s ceramic soufflé pan simply won’t impart that delicious, crisp crust necessary at any Southern table. And unlike the Pyrex that exploded when you set it in a bit of water, or your grandmother’s dish that cracked while sitting alone, unused in the china cabinet, your trusty cast-iron will only improve with use— undoubtedly an added benefit when you’re making 200 pork chops a night.

Works Referenced

Rayment, W.J. “History of Cast Iron Cookery.” Cast Iron Cooking, 2012. Web. 15 January 2012. http://www.holidaycook.com/cast-iron/

“Shaping History: Vintage Cast-Iron Baking Pans.” Martha Stewart Living, October 2009. Web. 15 January 2012. http://www.marthastewart.com/272109/shaping-history-vintage-cast-iron-baking

“Equipment and Utensils Required for a Functional Kitchen.” The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine. 2007. Print.

“Cast-Iron Cookware” Wikipedia. Web. 15 January 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cast-iron_cookware

tapped.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: America’s Test Kitchen has a bug in my oven.

I wanted to make an apple pie, the next day’s episode was all about apples. I wondered how to make my pie crust better, Christopher Kimball took time a week later to give me the step-by-steps. The latest not so subtle usurpation of my genius: a sweet cream/cultured butter test.

A few months ago I penned an article for a writing course in which I was enrolled. Shocked though I was that such a test didn’t exist I thought it an appropriate subject for the assignment at hand. I would have loved a wider reaching test, but limits had to be set.

At any rate, you can find ATK’s findings here, and I’ll repost my article below, for comparison’s sake.

I’ve got your number, Christopher Kimball–and apparently, you’ve got my address…
_______________________________________________________________

A Little Butter Now & Then

Pie. It’s currently all the rage. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s delicious, its flavors are myriad and, as the saying goes, there’s nothing quite as easy.  A dessert so versatile—fruity, creamy, nutty, even meaty—what truly gives a pie its identity is the crust. A buttery, flaky vehicle for goodness, crust will make or break a perfect pie. And butter will make or break a perfect crust.

While some believe that using only the best ingredients will result in success, my Southern grandmother often used the cheapest. When I’ve tried to improve upon her recipes, employing fancier alternatives, my results have been anything but successful. So, I started to wonder about the butter I use in my pie crust—with European-styles increasingly available, would using this fancier fat improve my pastry? A taste test was in order.

 I set up just two ground rules: any butter included in my test must be widely available and of the unsalted variety. I’ve stayed true to Land O’Lakes for years; now, whenever I went into a store, I bee-lined to the dairy case to see what brands were carried. A very informal poll of friends and relatives in remote locations helped to set focus on the top three contenders: Land O’Lakes, Breakstone’s and Kerrygold (one of those aforementioned Euro-styles). To give each a fair chance, I decided to experiment with more than just pie crust. And so it was that the great butter tasting of 2011 began.

 A troupe of butter enthusiasts settled in for a blind tasting of three preparations. To begin, unadorned, spread on white toast. Immediately I noticed the golden hue of Kerrygold (KG), more vivid than the pallid Breakstone’s (BR) and Land O’Lakes (LOL)—a feature I thought exuded richness yet made one of my tasters exclaim, “This one definitely looks the scariest…” The winner here was clearly LOL. Its flavor was more pungent than the others and left a lingering aroma in the mouth. BR meanwhile had a pleasant mouth feel but left some thinking its taste synthetic, almost like margarine. As a cultured butter one would expect KG to be the most pungent of the three—not so. Wrapped in foil, the only real comment on flavor was that, “It tastes like a wrapper.” Another comment, likely due to the higher butterfat content of Euro butters: “I feel like it’s waxing my mouth.” Unless you’ve run out of lip balm, not a pleasant sensation.

 My second test was from Bon Appétit Sept. 2007: “Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter.” Again, KG was “greasy” and unpleasant on the lips. Seemingly the saltiest, it lacked a complexity and roundness that one expects from butter. BR, while oiler in appearance, fared much better for taste with a sweetness not present in the others. As for my old stand-by, LOL gave one of my tasters, “a delayed butter reaction,” reiterating the lingering aroma from the toast competition. While the LOL sauce was the most homogenous, BR landed on top due to a better marriage of flavors between earthy sage and bright lemon.

My third, and final test: “Best-Ever Pie Crust” (Bon Appétit July 2007). A blind-baked, empty shell would serve focus to the flavor and texture of our star. LOL went first eliciting a strong butter flavor—and a markedly strong salt flavor. The crust however was more crumbly than flaky and overly greasy, leaving fingertips slick and a noticeable smudge on the plate. My beloved had failed me. On to the BR, which provided better flavor: a tangy bite without the overpowering salt of LOL. Greasiness wasn’t a problem either, the pastry felt soft and delicate, still crumbly, but less so. Finally KG. With low hopes due to its previous performances I sliced the crust. It held together! Though crumblage was minimal, reactions were evenly split. Some thought it “cakey” and that it tasted like a croissant. I found it doughy, raw tasting. Each crust prepared the same, the higher butterfat surely slowed the browning process, resulting in a less toasty crust.

 In the end, there was no clear champion. My suggestion: keep a stick of each for their varying strengths—or go for the BR as it, at least, was never offensive. As for me, a passion for pure butter goodness continues. Although maybe I’ll put the butter aside and work on a filling for that leftover crust—did someone say coconut cream?

the dregs

So, I really think you should follow my advice and pipe any leftover meringue straight into your mouth.

It’s delicious.

However, if you’re not so inclined, you can make meringues.

Throw all your leftover meringue in a ziplock, snip the tip, and pipe into rosettes or crosses or whatever shape you want. Get creative. I wish I’d thought to be more creative, but I just did rosettes.

Of course you can just dollop them straight from the bowl if you don’t feel like ziplocking it. You can also add more flavor. For mine, I sifted in a tablespoon of cocoa and a teaspoon of real cinnamon.

A note about real cinnamon: my mother found it at The Spice House in Chicago. Most of the cinnamon we get in America is cassia, which is fine; but, true cinnamon, aka ceylon, is like cinnamon but with more depth and a slightly smoky essence. It’s really fantastic in all of cinnamon’s savory turns, and it adds a bit of ‘hey, what’s that extra oomph!?’ to the sweets. You can buy some Ceylon here.

Throw them in a 200 degree oven for about 3 hours then leave them in the oven until they’re cool. If they soften up, you can just throw them back in a low oven for several minutes. If you have some leftover icing lying around, or even some Nutella, you can spread it on, make sandwiches and then, BOOM, you have macarons–the chi chi sweet snack of the moment.

You’re welcome.

a parade of monkeys.

Le Cirque: Episode Deux.

So, we figured that the wait staff would be entirely too eager to please us and that our meals would be extraordinary as we were no longer incognito.

Too bad we were wrong.

Not that the wait staff was unpleasant. On the contrary, they were quite amicable. The host greeted us knowingly, the reservationist came to our table to welcome us, our main waiter was attentive, but not overbearing. Still, it took too long for someone to bring our menus.

Because we’re not advantage takers, we felt compelled to stick to the Restaurant Week menu. Luckily there were a few options that we hadn’t tried & since one of our previous party couldn’t join, our newest companion was happy to order the dreaded skate. Even the presentation of it was more elegant than the last time–a definite improvement.

However, I didn’t bother to taste it, because I didn’t care. And here’s why: for my second meal at one of New York’s foremost French establishments, I opted for the Saffron Linguine starter. The accompanying sardines, seared and set atop a zucchini/caper relish were delightful–umami and tangy, salty and light, dare I say there were perfect. Unfortunately the dish is called Saffron Linguine & the linguine was possibly the worst pasta I have ever had. Ever. No vibrancy of color one might expect from a saffron dish served at a place with a chi chi circus theme and what’s more, the pasta tasted like nothing more than dirty water and clumped together as if it’d been sitting around since the last time we were there, waiting for some poor soul to order it. Absolutely disgusting. I would have sent it back, but I was already eating for free and I didn’t want to jeopardize the sanitation of my forthcoming courses.

My main: Chicken Ballantine with corn, arugula and maitake salad. The corn was super sweet, too sweet really. I’ll assume it was because of the dressing in which it had been tossed, though I can’t be sure–it is the height of corn season, so maybe Chef just got the bestest of the freshest that day. The chicken was weird. For the most part it was dry, yet occasionally, I bit into a moist, flavorful, delectable bite. How one cooks a roulade unevenly is beyond me. I’m pretty sure the lamest of home-cooks couldn’t manage it.

For dessert: Rocky Road. A caramel panna cotta, topped with chocolate cookie crumbles, chocolate sorbet and toasted marshmallows. Decadent & honestly, pretty good.

The wine was delicious, but I didn’t bother to write it down, something comparable to what we’d had before. All in all, my ultimate review of Le Cirque can be summed up in a single aphorism: meh.

It really was one of the most disappointing dining experiences I’ve ever known. For a place to invite our party back to show they could do better–I simply expected better.

top that.

So I had a free meal at Le Cirque.

But I guess I should back up. First, I paid for a meal at Le Cirque. A writer friend of mine decided to organize an outing to one of New York’s fanciest eateries during the extension of Summer Restaurant Week. After several flake outs and suddenly can’t go’s, we became a group of four. The idea was to enjoy our meal (or not enjoy our meal) then to each blog about our collective experience.

I arrived early, so decided to wait at the bar. Underwhelmed by the cocktail menu, I opted for the least expensive whiskey on the menu, at $14, a Crown on the rocks. Which, after tax and tip cost $20. Lame.

Upon the arrival of the rest of my group, we were told that–although we’d made reservations several weeks ahead–there would be a wait for the dining room; however we were welcome to sit in the cafe (i.e. the less formal room) if we’d like to be seated right away. Lame, but we did it anyway.

In retrospect we should have waited. Not just for the experience of dining in the main room, but because it took at least 20 minutes for the waiter to bring our menus and offer drinks. The surprisingly poor service would continue for the evening; by night’s end we’d been “enjoying our dinner” for upwards of 3 hours.

As for the food: total time warp. The consensus was that we’d just had a meal in 1972. I will be generous and say that my starter, White Gazpacho with Rock Shrimp, was delicious. Sweet cucumber, cut by vinegar and bolstered with a creamy, nutty essence. Peppered with finely diced cucumbers and paprika shrimp, the occasional crunch or tender chew was as welcome as the surprise kick of heat on the back of the tounge.

I took the Skate a la Grenobloise for my main course. I’d say the cauliflower puree was nice, but the effort to say such would lend too much praise to such an awful dish. An uber traditional French preparation, the butter wasn’t properly toasted. As a result the entire dish felt oily and lackluster. And though I’m not a capers biggest fan, the dish desperately needed more of that brininess to cut the grease.

The dessert was great–Ricotta Mousse Cake on a graham base with Blueberry Compote and Fresh Watermelon. The cake was a cloud of delicious nothingness and the blueberries provided a great tang, but here’s the thing: at one of the foremost French restaurants in the country, dessert should not be great, it should be transcendent. I mean, give the watermelon a sweet pickle or sous vide treatment. Please, do something impressive. Also, bring my coffee with my dessert and not five minutes after I’ve finished it, thanks.

On another note, I know restaurants mark up wine prices. We had a delicious white bordeaux: Domaine De Gerard Millet 2010, a Sancerre. It was effervescent & slightly crisp but had a buttery, complex body; perfect for our wide array of dishes. It was $60–not bad. Until a Google search revealed that this very bottle retails for around $16. Ridiculous.

My companions all had similar reactions to their respective meals. One of them, trained through FCI, had prepared that skate dish more times than she could recount throughout her training. Expecting Le Cirque’s version to be the epitome of what that dish should be, she especially found it surprisingly and utterly terrible. So much so that when the restaurant FINALLY brought us our bill she took the opportunity to fill out the oh-so-80s comment card they’d brought along with it.

Upon our exit, the maitre d’ sarcastically quipped, “Would you care for anything else, perhaps a cigarette?” Suggesting we’d been the ones lounging about and demanding sub-par service.

Never expecting to step into Le Cirque again, and fully content in that decision, our rag-tag group was all the more surprised when a rep from the restaurant contacted our organizer the next day both by phone and by email and, based on her comment card musings, offered us all a free meal.

Because one doesn’t turn down a free meal at one of New York’s foremost restaurants, we returned the following week. That however, is another story for another day (most likely tomorrow…)

Until then dear reader, fair well and tread lightly. Or, check out the reviews from my fellow bloggers:

http://www.diningwithoutlaws.com/
http://www.carnivoreandvegetarian.com/

pie in your face.

I hope you don’t feel accosted. When I say something like “pie in your face,” I get an actual visual & can almost feel a cream pie smashing into my delicate features…..

At any rate, save the clowning for later and start polishing your recipes. On Saturday, September 24, 2011 from 4:00 PM – 7:00 PM you will be doing one of two things: eating lots of pie OR serving pie you’ve made in hopes of stardom and dreams of grandeur.

As a benefit to Lift Every Voice, their arts education program, the New York Theatre Experiment hosts an annual “Pie-Off.” And you can either make a pie and enter the contest or you can not make a pie, eat lots of pie and vote in the audience favorite catergory (I don’t think there’s an actual audience favorite catergory, but you should feel free to bring a bunch of friends and discuss the pies as if there were.)

Judges for this year’s contest are:
Johnny Iuzzini (Top Chef: Just Desserts & Jean Georges)
Bryan Petroff and Doug Quint (Big Gay Ice Cream Truck)
Jordana Rothman (Food & Drink Editor, Time Out New York)

I’ve entered twice in the past, once for the pie above. I called it the Chekhov Cherry Pie: 3 types of cherries (Ranier, Bing & Sour) in a vodka sauce, with a bottom crust inspired by Russian black bread and a birch forest lattice with a seagull alit on top. My other entry is below, a Macaroon Pie: graham cracker crust, a layer of ganache and coconut macaroon filling. Neither of those pies won, but they were both totally delicious.

Although, the judges made bad decisions when I last entered, I shan’t be detered this round. Join me, won’t you?

All the pertinent deatails are listed below, or you could visit NYTE’s Pie-Off on Facebook.

 Saturday, September 24, 2011 @ 4:00 PM – 7:00 PM
 Reunion Surf Bar
630 9th Ave (entrance on 44th Street)
NYC

Bake a Pie!
Enter a pie individually OR as a group (up to 5 members) and win one of our fabulous prizes!

Register online at PayPal and pay $15, in advance.
Click here now!

Or register on September 24, in person, for $20 (in cash).

For additional baking FAQs, click here!

Also: Bid in our silent auction for stunning prizes!

 
OR, don’t bake a pie!
Admission is only $10 and includes 2 pie-tastings of your choice!*Purchase in advance online and get
2 additional tastings FREE per person!*
Click here now!

Purchase the UNLIMITED package for $20 and sample EVERY pie!
Click here now!

 
Additional Pie Tastings can be added to your regular admission ticket:
$1 per taste or $5 for 8 tastes.
Food and drink will also be available for purchase from the bar.