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

Minestrone Secrets

Chowhounds share their favorite ways to add extra deliciousness to a pot of minestrone:

Barilla brand mini penne are the perfect pasta to use, because if you’ve got leftovers, it doesn’t expand in the soup overnight like most do, says coll.

Jazz up your minestrone by adding crushed red pepper flakes and/or worcestershire sauce. Or drizzle a bit of truffle oil over the individual bowls at serving time.

Save rinds from Parmesan cheese in your freezer and throw them in your pot of minestrone–they add an amazing depth of flavor.

C70 makes a paste of garlic, chopped parsley, parmesan, and olive oil and adds a spoonful to each portion when serving.

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minestrone

Olives from the Deli Bar – Good Tip

Lots of markets have nice selections of olives in brine in the deli area. Since they’re priced by weight, drain off the brine; you can make your own to keep the olives in. A scant tablespoon of non-iodized salt to a pint of water should do the trick. They’ll keep well in the fridge in this solution.

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Storing Olives from a Market’s Olive Bar

Popped Amaranth Seeds

Amaranth seeds can be popped much like popcorn. The seeds are much smaller than popping corn, and make a delightful crunchy topping. It’s highly nutritious, gluten free, and contains lots of protein. Health food stores carry the seeds. grocerytrekker says they taste a bit like Rice Krispies, but more delicious. In Mexico, they make a popped amaranth treat called “alegrias.” The popped seeds are bound together with a sweet solution, like Rice Krispies treats.

All you need to pop your own amaranth seeds is a heavy pan with a tight-fitting lid. Get the pan very hot, add a few tablespoons of seeds, clap the lid on, and keep shaking the pan until the popping stops. Some will be “duds,” but they’re good to eat too.

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popcorn vs. popamaranth

Let’s Get Small

Nanotechnology, the creation of “machines” on a very, very small scale, like the size of a molecule, has ramifications for the foods you eat.

Michael Pollan must be spinning in his … office chair at the thought of some of the enhancements that scientists are coming up with for familiar foods An article titled “Future Foods: Friend or Foe?” on the BBC website quotes researchers who “promise to promote better eating by designing innovative products, such as milk that uses nanoparticles to make it taste just like cola.”

‘By adding these sensations, children will start drinking it who don’t like normal milk,’ he promises.

Other scientists are working on boosting the nutritional value of food ingredients, and on droplets that consist of fat on the outside and water on the inside for making products like mayonnaise lower in fat.

Some researchers are sounding the alarm on nanotech foods, noting that nano-sized chunks of stuff could penetrate human cells. Not surprisingly, the article also notes that foods made with nanoscience are already on sale in the U.S.

A Prize Just for Showing Up

The Chicago Tribune reports on the awesome new trend of restaurants’ giving diners free stuff to take home at the end of their meals (registration required).

The gifts—which range from custom spice blends to fluted rum cakes to chocolate madeleines to sourdough bread—are doled out seemingly at random. That said, seasonality and, no doubt, whatever the bakery happened to overproduce the night before play a role in selecting what gets given away.

Inasmuch as door prizes skim the extra cream off the top of the production cycle, they should be able to delight diners with very little to no additional cost to anyone involved. But when the practice starts getting out of hand, and live lobsters are being pressed into your arms as you try to quietly lumber out of the local Cheesecake Factory, you can say you read it here first.

Bad News for the Chapati Dude

The good old Beeb brings us distressing news from the subcontinent of India. An estimated 300,000 street food vendors in Delhi may have to shut down their carts, shacks, stalls, and other assorted miniature dining facilities in the face of a court order that bans the cooking of food at stalls along the roadside.

The cause of the court order is, on the surface, fairly reasonable—cooking conditions are often, to put it lightly, unhygienic. But this appears to be a case where the solution—damaging or bankrupting hundreds of thousands of small businesspeople—is far worse than the problem (untold thousands of cases of sour stomach and food-borne illness).

If the court order is the sharp end of a wedge of reasonable regulations and inspections designed to bring some sense of hygiene to roadside mini-diners, it might not be an entirely bad thing. But if enforced literally, it threatens to have a catastrophic impact on the cultural flavor of Delhi—and on the livelihoods of thousands of sidewalk vendors.

Snickers “Kiss” Ad Canned

On Tuesday the maker of Snickers said it would discontinue its latest ad, responding to complaints by gay-rights organizations that the commercial was homophobic. The ad, which first aired during the Super Bowl, depicts two auto mechanics “accidentally” kissing as they eat from opposite ends of a Snickers bar; they immediately feel the need to “do something manly,” which of course means each ripping out a handful of their own chest hair (or drinking motor oil, or bashing each other with wrenches, according to the alternate endings that were posted on the Snickers website until Tuesday).

OK, putting aside for a moment the clear gay-bashing overtones and heinous violence here, can we just talk about how much the candy bar looks like poop? The lighting is all wrong, people! That, combined with the images of ripped-out chest hair, makes me not want to eat anything at all (let alone a Snickers) for a long time. Totally the opposite of food porn.

Fast-food commercials in general seem to have been going in this unappetizing direction for a while now (at least since Carl’s Jr. began its “slobvertising” back in 2000). Perhaps it’s a reaction to all the gorgeous foodie photography in magazines and on TV and blogs these days—just like the recent wave of calorie-bomb burgers is a big eff-you to nutrition-conscious eaters.

Have you seen any totally nasty food ads lately?

What’s in Your Junk Drawer?

There are tools in my kitchen so useful that I reach for them every day: wooden spoons, Microplanes, my divinely easy-to-use Oxo vegetable peeler. And then there’s the stuff that migrates to the bottom of my kitchen junk drawer: terra cotta roasted-garlic cookers, citrus zesters that rip off big hunks of fruit along with the zest, the whisk with a handle that gets red-hot when used at the stove.

Erica Marcus, a food writer for Newsday, apparently has her own junk drawer. She contributes a pert little post for her “Burning Questions” column (reprinted here by the Baltimore Sun) in which she takes salt grinders, bagel slicers, and electric hot-chocolate makers to task.

It makes me wonder—who buys this stuff? My theory: They’re all Christmas presents. “Jane likes to cook!” thinks your poor desperate Christmas-shopping aunt. “Surely she’d like an iced tea maker!”

Or an avocado slicer. Or an electric wine-bottle opener. Or the Hot Dogger.

What’s rusting away in your junk drawer?

Montreal: The Chowhound’s Promised Land

Montreal, Quebec

I intend to finish off this leg of the tour with several days in Montreal, one of the world’s best food cities. Here’s what I wrote about Montreal a few years ago:

Montreal’s food scene is guileless. If you see a charming-looking restaurant, it’s likely charming tasting, as well. This is a strange land in which the inhabitants have never caught on to the smoke-and-mirrors trick; no Montrealer would ever think to open a pretty restaurant serving lousy food. Needless to say, serious recalibration was required. I mistrust atmospheric places not because I’m a vulgar hawg who’d just as soon eat from a trough, but because such places have so often fed me poorly. Hip vibey places rarely cook worth a damn because they know they can lure the unsavvy via ambience alone.

Montreal’s different, and the effect is pure liberation. I drop layers of cynicism as I keep stumbling into devastatingly inviting places, yet never find myself duped. Montreal restaurateurs believe in deliciousness, and they feel obliged to develop all aspects of their enterprises. The notion of lackluster food is simply unthinkable. I can only pray that none of these folks ever visits Soho.

In Montreal, you can just go somewhere—anywhere!—and eat. It’s like the promised land. I love walking around and choosing venues only the most callow New Yorker would pick. Dramatic little cafés where patrons sit with good posture and waiters speak in that intense hush. Cavernous candle-lit joints. Too-slick-to-be-true fast food places. Let me put it this way: The best bread I’ve found in Montreal came from a chain with almost a dozen outlets. They bake not just good bread, but heartfelt good bread; bread with character!

It’s like a dream. One wonders whether one’s chowhounding skills are peaking (am I like Superman off Krypton?), or whether Montreal is a city in which one simply can’t go wrong. Whatever the reason, I’ve never had a disappointing bite here. Even the humblest places have pizzazz and good food.

It’s a luxury to be in a place with virtually no bad restaurants. If you were to select an eatery by throwing darts at the Montreal Yellow Pages, you’d enjoy at least a satisfactory meal, and perhaps a great one. For non-hounds, who haven’t developed their ability to differentiate, this is heady comfort—an impenetrable dining safety net. For the savvy, it’s a vacation, a carnival ride, a delirious opportunity to turn off the chow-dar and just eat.

... and, after 8,000 miles and several hundred restaurant meals, I could use that! For the first couple of days, I’ll be joined by food-loving friends from New York City, Barry and Joel, who work in the film industry and will gladly go anywhere there’s free food.


That’s Joel on the left and Barry on the right.

Today we’ve mostly recapped my previous finds. We started out at a place I’ve been dreaming about since my last visit: Frite Alors (3497 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal, Quebec; 514-840-9000), where the pommes frites are fried, properly, in horse fat. They’re as good as anything in Belgium.

Per classical Belgian protocol, they fry their potatoes twice. These par-fried spuds await their finishing greasy bath:

Poutine (see report #53) here is a profound rendition, eliciting peals of rapture:

We decided to complete the equestrian experience by ordering horse steak. It’s delicious meat—horse was once the meat of choice in Philly cheese steaks, before a newspaper exposé blew the lid off the practice.

As top-notch as the fries are at Frite Alors, their sauces are really the high point. These sauces are not mere afterthoughts; each is made with care and love.

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I’d actually stumbled upon the grand opening of Frite Alors on my previous visit to Montreal, and on that visit, Au Pied de Cochon (536 rue Duluth Est, Montreal, Quebec; 514-281-1114) was also opening, to much fanfare.

Initial buzz focused, as a surprising amount of restaurant buzz seems to, around foie gras. Au Pied de Cochon made foie gras poutine, a conceit that titillated an international cadre of food journalists in town for some conference. Give that publicist a medal for timing things to a T.

I didn’t try Au Pied de Cochon at that time; it was too booked up by imperious pundits. But I gave it a go this time, and ordered the aforementioned foie gras poutine, which was sublimely luxurious:

Blood sausage with mashed potato and roasted apple was all kinds of hearty goodness:

And, for dessert, pouding chômeur, which translates as “poor man’s pudding,” a spongy biscuit afloat in maple-y soup.

Joel went cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs over the pudding, swearing and kvelling dramatically as he scraped persistently at the dish with his spoon:

This place is a carnivore’s bastion; take a look at the entrees:

Our first blessed slice of the astounding bread of Montreal:

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Patati Patata Friterie de Luxe (4177 Boulevard St. Laurent; 514-844-0216) is just a corner coffee shop. Only Montrealers could make it a place with style, verve, and soul. Here’s my original review (which still holds true):

Even the diners in this town kill … and are hip enough to make you feel as if you’re in an indie movie … and are run by people who care a lot about food. What sad world do we inhabit where it’s surprising that a place exists where all restaurants are run by people who care about food!

The menu at this thoroughly warm and inviting little corner luncheonette is posted on a wall board, and it’s uninspiring. Burgers, fries, salads, some crepes, etc. You search for the interesting item, the catchy wrinkle, but there is none. But observe the skinny kids cooking behind the counter. They’re working very fast, but … they’re seriously COOKING. These short order cooks are preparing their food with great pride and also palpable awareness that it will be eaten by someone. Watching them work is intoxicating, not to mention hunger-inducing, and the result is pure culinary warmth.

French fries are done in peanut oil (nice!) and are extraordinarily satisfying and came with good tart dipping mayo. The personable waiter/chef asked how I liked them, and cared about my answer. And he’s proud of the local microbeer (Les Brasseurs du Nord, which makes unexceptional beer which nonetheless has a certain charm, like humble French table wine), and pours it with gusto.

Lots of zip, pride, warmth, and a friendly, intelligent youthful crowd. Salads look awesome. The whole thing is dreamy.

This time I got borscht (simple, good) with more of those terrific fries:

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Coco Rico Rotisserie (3907 Boulevard St. Laurent at Napoleon, Montreal; 514-849-5554) is a cheap late-night joint for rotisserie chicken and potatoes. Plump birds are roasted to a brown, salty, juicy turn, and the potatoes (which sit beneath the spinning poultry, catching the fat) are a megacaloric delight. The place is owned by Portuguese, and they also sell swell egg custard tarts (pasteis de nata).

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Barry eats with me frequently, so he’s learned to pace. Joel, as photos above indicate, made the mistake of eating full-out at each stop (hear the precise moment—after the horse steak, after the foie gras poutine, and after the blood sausage—when he realized what he was in for in this podcast: MP3). He was not a happy camper by the time we came to our final bite of the day—a nightcap of smoked-meat sandwiches from the legendary Schwartz’s Deli (3895 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal, Quebec; 514-842-4813). Smoked beef is sort of halfway between corned beef and pastrami.


The midnight queue at Schwartz’s.


Meaty delights seen through a greasy window.

We smuggled the sandwiches into the hotel and scarfed them in an empty conference room, where Joel was miraculously revived by the magic of Schwartz’s fleshly delights.

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The Chow That Got Away

The following wonderful Chilean alfajor (lardy shortbread cookie stuffed with rich dolce de leche) came from a bakery/cafe whose business card was lost. It’s on a north-south side road not far from Au Pied de Cochon. I won’t forgive myself until I’ve found the place and tried more stuff.

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