The CHOW Blog rss

Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Growing Flavor

Dan Barber, the chef-owner of NYC restaurant Blue Hill and the creative director of the Rockefeller-funded Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, contributed a passionate op-ed plea in last Sunday’s New York Times.

Titled “Amber Fields of Bland,” Barber’s piece addresses the many issues looming in this year’s Farm Bill, a massive chunk of agricultural policy making and funding that’s voted on by Congress every five years. The Farm Bill has a huge impact on the rules and regulations running every agricultural enterprise in this country, and thus on the food we find in our supermarkets and on our plates.

Echoing the sentiments of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, Barber writes,

Stand in the middle of our farm belt and you’ll see cornfields extending to the horizon, but the harvest won’t be dinner, not until it’s milled and processed into flours or starches, or used to fatten our animals on feedlots. Just four crops—corn, rice, soybeans and wheat—account for the vast majority of our harvested acreage.”

Biodiversity over monoculture, pasturage instead of factory farming, rewards for farmers who boost their farm’s productivity by increasing the health of the soil: These and the other suggestions echoed here are smart and ecologically sound—and therefore facing a uphill battle against the big-agribusiness lobbies in Washington.

But it’s not just about being nice to Mother Nature. That fat, fresh-from-the-muck local carrot will taste better, too. As Barber, a chef specializing in ingredients from the nearby Hudson Valley, writes, “A tomato bursting with flavor, or an impossibly juicy leg of lamb, is no accident. If we’re able to eventually clone that, great, but let’s do it in the name of flavor, not corporate greed.”

But Bacon Is Good!

As vegetarianism gains in popularity (at least in the West), the discourse between those who omni and those who veg grows in volume.

This week’s New Yorker uses its review of Tristram Stuart’s new book, The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, to examine (and gently refute) arguments for herbivorism from the Enlightenment to today. Critic Steven Shapin notes the tangled nature of humankind’s stance on the issue:

There’s no demonstration of the wrongness of eating flesh that hasn’t been countered by equally powerful arguments for its rightness, and different justifications have a way of both supporting and interfering with one another.

Maybe. Except for the majority of carnivores who justify their meat eating with a “powerful argument” that is basically some variation of John Travolta’s immortal line from Pulp Fiction: “But bacon is good.”

From theology to philosophy to environmentalism, Stuart advances the benefits of a vegetarian diet while Shapin bats them back: Livestock causing more global warning than the world’s transportation systems? Shapin counters that “walking to the local supermarket for a nice hanger steak cut from a grass-fed New Zealand steer may be kinder to the planet than getting into your Toyota Prius to drive five miles for some organic Zambian green beans.” Who’s buying Zambian green beans, anyway? And if our local supermarket has New Zealand steer, doesn’t it also have locally grown winter squash?

Perhaps Shapin just wants to be on the winning side. Near the end of his review, he notes a set of chilling statistics that clearly show where the hearts and stomachs of eaters lie:

[T]he world’s per-capita consumption of meat rises relentlessly: in 1981, it was 62 pounds per year; in 2002, the figure stood at 87.5 pounds. In carnivorous America, it increased from 238.1 to 275.1 pounds, and the practice is spreading in traditionally herbivorous Asia. Indians’ meat consumption has risen from 8.4 to 11.5 pounds since 1981; in China, it has increased from 33.1 to an astonishing 115.5 pounds.

A Trip to Goa, Without a Clue

Bon Appétit’s new feature piece on Goa lacks a map, cultural context, or any mention of the less-than-savory aspects that have put the Indian state in the news recently. But it does manage to pay homage to just about every cliché of the “lifestyle magazine goes somewhere ‘exotic’” format of food writing.

DON’T … try the street food, which couldn’t possibly compare to the offerings of the area’s upscale restaurants.

DO … sit by the hotel pool and sip a local wine while watching a “sublime” sunset from your “hilltop aerie.”

DON’T … mention the child prostitution. Those traveling in search of underage companionship will probably have figured this out on their own.

DO… throw in a local greeting or expression, making sure to italicize it. “Nustem kitem aslem?” for example, means “What fish did you have?”

DON’T … bring up the fact that the place you traveled to was under a credible terror threat.

DO … include photos of the lovely new boutique hotel! All scathing criticism aside, writers assigned fluffy food pieces about interesting parts of the world run an interesting gambit. If you were writing a piece about New York’s upscale diner restaurants, you wouldn’t be compelled to mention organized crime, 9/11, and giant rats, would you? At the same time, you can reasonably assume your readers already know something about the big (sometimes unpleasant)
picture of the city.

The beauty of traveling to a place like Goa is that there’s a lot of grit, history, and cultural folkways to explore in between your visits to the best-regarded local eateries. Bon Appétit missed the boat this month, but there’s still lots of crazy Goan food and culture to be explored in future trips. Maybe Saveur can handle it.

Pour Some Sugar on Me

The line between what we put in our bodies and what we put on our bodies continues to be muddied.

Witness chocolate perfume, as pimped in this month’s Intermezzo magazine. According to a little blurb therein, Boston-based chocolatier Temper Chocolates has joined forces with smelly San Francisco perfumer Yosh Han.

Some of you might run screaming from the room, bellowing, “Hey, you got your perfume in my chocolate!” Others will surely insist, “You got your chocolate in my perfume!” However, the fact remains that three kinds of chocolate perfume will be emanating soon from a body near you. Intermezzo describes the three varieties:

01’s inspiration is a chocolate-dipped, ginger-encrusted Asian pear; 02 fuses the mystery of jasmine with the sumptuousness of dark chocolate; 03 is reminiscent of sensual Bordeaux with cocoa undertones.

“Encrusted”? “Mystery”? “Sensual”? Are they perfumes or Danielle Steele novels?

Next up is the caffeinated bar of soap on the ever-fabulous and fascinating Think Geek, the e-retail site that sells all you ever need to dress, think, play, and live like a geek. The idea of caffeinated soap calls to mind those old Zest commercials where just ripping open a bar of blue soap is enough to send the Average Joe or Jill into a sudsy frenzy of work-happy wakefulness.

Think Geek always has a sense of humor about their products, which has the effect of really making you believe them. Check out their description of ShowerShock:

Scented with peppermint oil and infused with caffeine anhydrous, each bar of Shower Shock contains approximately 12 servings/showers per 4 ounce bar with 200 milligrams of caffeine per serving. No, we’re not kidding and no you don’t eat it. The caffeine is absorbed through the skin.

Now I have to go on a run, so I’m off to rub a Mr. Goodbar under my armpits.

Oh, My Darling Clementine

“Getting to Know Citrus Fruits” is the sawdust-dry headline for an explainer in the January/February edition of Cook’s Country. But there’s something oddly compelling about this collection of tasting notes on everything from the semi-exotic Ugli Fruit to workaday Persian limes.

Like picking up an old hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica and just plowing through the data, reading this periodic table of citrus fruit has a certain kind of wonky sex appeal—it’s nerd catnip.

Blood oranges? “Winy and complex.” Meyer lemons? “Assertively acidic.” Key limes? “Earthy-floral.” The tasting notes are brief, but accompanied by the full-color fruit photos (whole and sliced), they pack a relatively hefty informational wallop.

And if you ever happen to need to know the difference between the taste profiles of tangelos and pummelos, Cook’s Country has you covered.

Crossing the Mars Bar

To follow up one bit of tastelessness with even more tastelessness, I can now update my previous post in which I wondered about Saddam Hussein’s last meal.

Ynetnews.com is the English-language sister site to Ynet, Israel’s leading news site, and they reported that Saddam liked to eat hamburgers and fries, and deliberately chose Western fare during his last days.

However, the site Dead Man Eating had a different menu recorded:

Hussein had a final meal request of boiled chicken and rice. With the food he drank several cups of hot water laced with honey. It was a drink which dated back to his childhood.

Slight difference of opinion between those two.

Speaking of Dead Man Eating, back in December, Mike Randleman, the creator of the last-meals site, came on KCRW’s radio show Good Food to talk about his website. During the interview, Mike revealed an intensely poignant last-meal request he discovered in his research. Ohio inmate Robert Buell’s only request for food on his last night on this earth was a single black olive with the pit intact. Upon further research, Randleman discovered that Buell was honoring Victor Ferguer, the last person executed by the federal government until Timothy McViegh. Ferguer had requested an unpitted olive before his execution in 1963 because, as Ferguer told prison officials, it was his hope that when his body decomposed, an olive tree would sprout and grow as a sign of peace.

Halal à Go-Go

Fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, Subway, and Kentucky Fried Chicken are customizing their menus to target a new kind of customer: Islamic individuals looking for a meal on the go.

As reported in the Chicago Tribune (requires registration) and the National Restaurant News blog, several chain restaurants are revamping their menus to include dishes that follow Islamic dietary rules. This means that meat must be halal—slaughtered according to certain rules. Thus far the experiment has been limited to a few outlets located near large Muslim populations in New Jersey, Chicago, and Dearborn, Michigan.

But the combination of halal and large-scale fast food has run into problems. For meat to be truly halal, it must be slaughtered by hand and prayed over, something that is difficult to do in the quantity needed. As the Chicago Tribune article reports, “Muslims are divided about whether that can be reconciled with poultry-plant practices of machine-slaughter and stunning the animal before slaughter.”

Some companies claim that, while machine slaughtered, their meat is halal, but Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed, founder and president of the Muslim Consumer Group, doesn’t believe it. “The machine slaughters 142 chickens per minute,” Ahmed said. “He cannot say ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great] for each one.”

Some chains, such as Brown’s Chicken, are going out of their way to uphold the strictest halal standards when it comes to meat (called zabihah), since it is in their interest to do so. “The Muslim community is growing, and they’re looking to eat American-type food,” said Frank Portillo, president of Brown’s. “It’s just a real growth market.” The chickens that Brown’s buys for their halal outlets are grain fed and hand slaughtered.

But don’t look for halal meals at your neighborhood McDonald’s just yet. For a restaurant to be considered halal, it must not serve pork, and I can’t see Mickey D’s taking those Egg McMuffins off the menu any time soon.

Simmer, Don’t Shiver

January has brought a chill to lots of the country—even California!—and newspapers are breaking out the warming winter-soup recipes.

The Seattle Times takes classic chicken soup around the world with variations like Peruvian chicken soup with cashews and Burmese chicken-coconut soup.

In the upper Midwest, where the dark and cold are extreme, they don’t fool around. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune goes straight for the comfort-carbs jugular with recipes for a bacon-laced “Good Ole Potato Soup.” Meanwhile, even single diners need some warmth, so Detroit’s “Cooking for One” columnist, Curtrise Garner, whips up a batch of corn chowder that “allows [her] to snuggle on the couch, eat this simple but filling dish and fall fast asleep while watching reruns.” Sounds like a perfect way to hibernate the winter blues away.

And then there’s Florida. It may occasionally get cold enough to break out the smudge pots there, but judging from the Miami Herald’s recipe for an abomination called pizza soup, they don’t quite have the soup thing down yet.

Mmmm, More Stamps, Please!

The arrival of 4705, the Year of the Pig, is on its way, and China is celebrating with mouth-watering scratch-’n’-sniff postage stamps. Scratch the cute, chubby pig on the front, and you’ll get a wave of sweet-and-sour pork aroma.

OK, that’s tasty, but not exactly news; Britain’s Royal Mail introduced a eucalyptus-scented stamp way back in 2001. Last year, Australia offered a rose-scented stamp for Valentine’s Day, while Switzerland did chocolate and Hong Kong green tea.

What’s truly brilliant about the Chinese promotion comes on the flip side. Lick the stamp to stick it, and you’ll actually taste that same sweet-and-sour pork—or a chemical facsimile thereof, since gluing an actual piece of pork to each stamp would be, you know, messy. Not to mention lumpy.

Alas, the stamps are only available in China, where they’ll be for sale starting on February 18 to herald the arrival of the Lunar New Year. If you’re heading to China soon, enjoy them; we don’t think 4706, the Year of the Rat, will get the same treatment.

You’re Mispronouncing “Achatz”

Play Video

A cheat sheet on the topic of molecular gastronomy. ... WATCH THE VIDEO