The CHOW Blog rss

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

Homegrown Pure and Simple

Homegrown Pure and Simple

Learn to grow your own. READ MORE

Grub

Grub

Read yourself sustainable. READ MORE

A Real Dive

Are you thrifty enough and environmentally committed enough to shop for food out back of the supermarket? Once thought to be the province of the truly down-on-their-luck and adventurous starving students, Dumpster diving for food has attracted (at least a couple of) people who dive as comment on our wasteful culture.

In an article in the Contra Costa Times, Berkeley, California, residents Cynthia Powell and Stephen Vajda talk about their lifestyle:

There is so much food thrown away and there are so many starving people in the world, it’s shameful to let it go to waste when it’s just as easy for me to eat it. It’s really disgusting when you have an apple (from a grocery store) with a blemish on it and people won’t buy it.

Perhaps what’s really new here is the mainstream-media attention, since groups like the Freegans and Food Not Bombs have long practiced the art of acquiring cast-off food for free to reduce their environmental footprint.

Luckily Vajda and Powell live in Berkeley, where law enforcement has a relaxed attitude toward this type of activity: “The biggest problem we have with people Dumpster-diving is they make a mess,” notes a spokesman for the Berkeley police department.

Instant Entertaining

Instant Entertaining

Low-key holiday hosting. READ MORE

No Ifs, Ands or Big Red Butts

As a holiday gift for pun-loving headline writers everywhere, the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement has decided to ban the distribution of Santa’s Butt Winter Porter. When we first heard this story, we figured the label of the imported British brew would be showing more of Santa than even Mrs. Claus wants to see. However, the illustration is actually Norman Rockwell-cute, featuring a broad-beamed but fully clothed St. Nick seated on a jumbo-sized beer barrel (also known as a butt, hence the name), a loaded stein at the ready while he goes through his list, checking it twice.

And that’s just the problem, says Maine State Police Lt. Patrick Fleming. The ruddy-cheeked guy might appeal to children, setting them up for a lifetime of … buying pricey small-batch microbrews with silly names? Thank goodness some beer-geek lawyers at the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation have a little time on their hands; citing First Amendment rights to artistic expression, they’ll be working overtime this holiday season to put Santa’s Butt where it belongs—right into your hot little hands.

However, it’s not the first time that distributor Daniel Shelton has had trouble with his labels. Both Connecticut and New York have tried to ban their Seriously Bad Elf ale, along with a few of their other holiday-themed brews. Says Shelton from the company’s headquarters in the appropriately named Belchertown, “Last year it was elves. This year it’s Santa. Maybe next year it’ll be reindeer.”

But we’re putting our foot down over offering Comet, Cupid, and Vixen a couple of cold ones—we’d hate to see Lt. Fleming have to arrest the fat guy for flying with intoxicated reindeer.

Blasting Rachael Ray into Space

My God. Even in space, where they can’t hear you say “Yum-o,” you can’t escape from the culinary juggernaut that is Rachael Ray.

According to USA Today, Ray’s personally prepared meals will be winging their way to places dark and cold on the December 7 launch of the space shuttle Discovery. Ray has prepared a Thai chicken dish along with two others, and when Discovery commander Mark Polansky appeared on Ray’s talk show, he opined that the chicken was “great.”

“The meals will make ‘a nice … psychological twist for our crew members,’ says NASA food systems manager Vickie Kloeris.” I would kill to know what exactly was said inside that ellipsis.

For those of you keeping track of all the space food firsts this year, the December 7 trip marks the first time that “food celebrity” meals will fly on the shuttle.

Eh, wake me up when they finally invent a bona fide food replicator.

Your Guac Is a Crock

No wonder store-bought guacamole tastes like glue: It is glue! OK, not really, but it certainly isn’t real avocados, either. As Los Angeles resident Brenda Lifsey discovered, the green glop sold by Kraft Foods is primarily composed of staggering amounts of coconut and soybean oils, corn syrup, modified food starch, and food coloring, with a minuscule amount of avocado thrown in. She was so upset that she took Kraft’s ass to court on Wednesday, and her lawyer says other faux-guac purveyors will soon be targeted as well.

How did she make her discovery? “It just didn’t taste avocadoey,” Lifsey told the L.A. Times. “I looked at the ingredients and found there was almost no avocado in it.”

But Kraft says it wasn’t out to deceive anyone:

‘We think customers understand that it isn’t made from avocado,’ said Claire Regan, Kraft Foods’ vice president of corporate affairs.

Ridiculous as this reasoning may be, the company hasn’t technically done anything illegal. While the FDA mandates that anything labeled “peanut butter” must contain at least 90 percent peanuts, anything goes when it comes to guacamole. Still, Regan said Kraft is even now in the process of changing its label to clarify that the dip is merely “guacamole flavor.”

Some Chowhounders argued that suing Kraft, the king of fake food, for this kind of thing was ridiculous; but as one user pointed out, often legal action is the only way to incite change when it comes to food regulation (or really any kind of regulation) in this country.

Good for What Ales Ya

As winter settles in and we need to pack on pounds for warmth, it’s time to head for the nearest brewpub or beer store to try out the season’s winter beers and ales.

The problem (well, not really a problem, it’s more of an issue) is that there are just so dang many of them that you could never hope to sample them all—although it would certainly be a lot of fun to try. Especially since even the names of these beers can lead to a warm, fuzzy feeling of seasonal happiness: Sled Crasher, Ho Ho Homo Erectus, Blitzen.

Happily, everyone from newspaper columnists to bloggers to our own Chowhound community is posting their impressions to help quaffers separate the unpalatable chaff from the delicious wheat.

Curry by the Book

Curry by the Book

In search of a true spice education from a new Indian cookbook. READ MORE

Body by Jim, Plus Astounding Ecuadorian Railroad Pizza

Wallingford, Connecticut

I’m at T-minus 24 hours to winetasting. Oh, I didn’t tell you: Tomorrow I’ll be drinking glass after glass of priceless Bordeaux atop a mountain in New Hampshire. I explain how the hell I ever came to be invited in this podcast, titled “The Tale of Jack and Thelma”: MP3.

Here are the port wine tasting notes mentioned in the podcast.

My friend Jim (who’s also attending) helps explain exactly what we’ll be tasting in this podcast: MP3.

I’m facing a massive ingestion of foie gras and buttery food—plus all that alcohol (we’ll only be spitting merely wonderful wines; the rest will go down the hatch … after much swirling, swooshing, and furrowed eyebrows). Looking ahead to an umpteen-zillion-calorie weekend, I clearly need a vigorous workout, and Jim has agreed to whup my chow-touring butt into shape. We met at his gym, where he put me through a series of tortures specifically tailored to the rigors to come. We did exercises to firm me up for cork pulling, glass hoisting, etc.

Click on the photos and video (below) of Jim demonstrating the “wine-lover’s workout” while you listen to this podcast (MP3), a pastiche of treasured moments from my pathetic follow-through (yes, that’s me howling like a wolverine):

In this short video, Jim works “to failure”: Movie file.

I tortured Jim back by making him try some yoga:

+ + +

Armed with a cardio mandate from my triumphant workout, I’d earned some capital and intended to spend it. My thoughts turned to pizza.

Wallingford, Connecticut, just north of New Haven, is an interesting area I’d been wanting to check out. I got incredibly lucky, stumbling upon Trackside Pizza (118 Dudley Avenue, Wallingford, Connecticut; 203-697-1081). It’s invisible from the main road (Route 5), hidden in a ravine down next to the railroad tracks.

Trackside has it all. You dine in a real railroad car, alongside the tracks …

... and the pizza is superb—the equal of any in New Haven (I had the seafood combo, brimming with impeccably fresh shellfish) ...

... and the owners, sweet folks from Ecuador, are very friendly and genuine. The sheer unique coolness of eating phenomenal pizza in a charming, tidy railroad car staffed by Ecuadorans stuns customers out of their dining glaze. Strangers talk to each other. A couple of chowhoundish truckers even let me take a photo of their pie:

Here’s my theory (to be verified on some future visit): I think the owners worked at top pizzerias in New Haven, saved up, and have applied their pizza know-how here in their own place. And I’m thrilled. It’s dismaying that so many Mexican, Central American, and South American chefs cook so much of the most highly regarded food in this country with nary a speck of credit. How fantastic to see a few breaking out.

Whatever their origins, this much is clear: These guys are preserving the New Haven pizza tradition far more diligently than the present regimes at Sally’s, Pepe’s, or Modern (the Big Three), all of which are shadows of their former selves.

I also quickly sampled Louie’s Pizza (552 North Colony Road, Wallingford, Connecticut; 203-265-0161), which has been baking pies since 1960. Like Tony’s Baltimore Grill of Atlantic City (see report #6), it makes lived-in pizza. You can really taste the tradition. But it’s no match for the riveting grandeur of Trackside.

Grand Apizza North (448 Washington Avenue, North Haven, Connecticut; 203-239-5786) looked good but was closed when I passed it.

There’s so much good pizza around here. South-central Connecticut is like a ride—one ought to be charged just to enter the region. Why don’t more New Yorkers ply through here to recontact with the sort of proud pizza heritage we’ve so utterly lost?

+ + +

As mentioned in podcast #1, here are my

Grahams Port Wine Tasting Notes

Please bear in mind that the tasting described below took place in 1995, so significant changes have occurred with all the more recent vintages. In other words, these notes are for entertainment purposes only!

I started with the ‘77. Very young, syrupy, and grapey, the fruity taste about a mile away from the alcoholic kick. A good port to chat over (which people did quite a bit of, although they inexplicably were able to keep up their patter even over the older, more artistic ports. I don’t understand how—I retreated to a corner as I reached older vintages, my ecstatic grin reassuring the concerned hosts that all was well).

The ‘70 was a bit drier and cleaner tasting, though the alcoholic kick was still somewhat crude and unbalanced. The port hadn’t found itself yet, though there was a bit of a story in the finish, which receded with a plum taste.

The ‘66 made one nod one’s head: OK, here we go. This is port. An incredible aroma, the mouthfeel all silky and subtle. The alcohol played games—pulling and retracting throughout the story like a crazed taffy-pulling machine. Finish was elegant and left no fruitiness, although like the other young ports, there was a bit of cloying cotton candy hovering over everything.

My host Eugene seemed excited about this one, and I understand why. Fine port, though not so venerable as to be exorbitantly expensive. Much better, also, than the two older ports that followed.

‘63 was cagey, overly subtle. You had to find the port yourself, but with effort you could uncover virtually anything you sought inside the guarded flavor. Sipped absentmindedly, it had as much interest as the cardiogram of a corpse. Dig down for alcohol, and a cannon shoots straight for your nose. Look for a finish and ye shall find. I managed to deeply concentrate on about 2 of my 20 or so sips, and found a delicate, rippling effect in the finish that was quite beautiful; it lasted far longer than the in-mouth flavor. The only word for this port is Japanese—it was as elusive, delicate, provocative, and fleetingly beautiful as any Japanese brush painting.

But I didn’t want to work so hard. I wanted waves of cresting flavor to knock me over. I’m American, not Japanese.

Weird note: I’m a musician, and I find that when port is good, it has a tempo. I can nod my head to it; I can almost dance to it. The pace at which the flavors crest and fall in a great port is very rhythmic to me. The ‘66 was bopping, but the ‘63 didn’t swing at all.

‘55 had a big wallop of cotton candy, and I found it listless and inelegant.

‘48 was bliss. I poured myself into my glass and swallowed. Smoky, buttery, huge landscapes of crazy sensual flavors, some big, some almost subliminal, all changing and switching around. Still the cotton candy, but that was just the outside layer of a hugely complex petticoat. I noticed the stuff was rather brown, so it may be that I just LIKE oxidation (hey, I’ve enjoyed some infected beers as well), but great cheese ain’t so pure and sterile either, folks. My only complaint: The finish was a bit sudden. The show’s over before you expect, but it’s cool because you WANT to be left alone to work through your feelings about this sublime stuff.

Eugene seemed amused—and understanding—of my happiness at this point, and was excited for me to try the ‘45 (I was anxious to get some before it was all gone; wine honcho after wine honcho had gone straight for the good stuff, which they drank in a blasé fashion—do wine people always condescend to ports like this?).

I was amazed to find no brown in the color of the ‘45. As purple as last year’s batch. The aroma was stately, and the flavor described a straight line to me: no fireworks and digressions like the ‘48, just a controlled, direct path, shimmering with refined, bristling energy. Strange thing: This was one of the only drinks I’ve tried where I could send the alcohol up to my nose and then rein it back in in full bloom. Response like a Ferrari’s. The finish, like the ‘48, went thud, but then further waves came, so subtle as to call into question whether they were drink based or psyche based.

What a difference three years makes! The ‘45 and ‘48 were utterly different. The ‘45 was incredibly strong in its statement, never wavering, never yielding. While the ‘48 seemed capable of being experienced in subjectively different ways by different people (though not so much as the mirrorlike ‘63), the ‘45 took you on its trip and planted you firmly on the ground. The kind of thing that wins contests and earns the praise of experts.

I liked the ‘48 better.

After all this, I returned to the ‘66, which Eugene was touting as the poor man’s ‘45 (with talk going on like “If I spend less than a thousand on a bottle, I have no problem just drinking it,” I figured this vintage had my name on it). Revisited after the good stuff, the ‘66 seemed crude. All the elements were all there, but nothing had come together yet. Sort of like a country street lined with not-quite-mature trees, their branches struggling to touch, to provide a canopy, but not quite making it yet.

A snob for the evening, I discarded my 1/4 glassful and called it a night.