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

The Opposite of Tampopo

If you’re still digesting your Thanksgiving leftovers and vowing never to feast again, check out the list of anti-gourmand documentaries on the cinema blog Cinematical. Some are as familiar as the Golden Arches (Hi, Mr. Spurlock). Others are more obscure, like the doc on Calvin Trillin’s beloved Shopsin’s, I Like Killing Flies, or the world’s first eating-contest documentary, Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating.

Dim the lights and bring on the Pepto!

Survivorchef

Word on the street (OK, on eGullet) has it that the Food Network is readying a new show to be rolled out in January 24, 2007. The new outing is a kind of Iron Chef/Survivor mashup, with chefs dropped off in remote or ill-equipped locations and asked to prepare fancy-schmancy meals, stat.

One ep was filmed on teensy Little Cranberry Island, Maine, where star Robert Irvine (I’ve never heard of the dude, but he’s got a wicked widow’s peak and used to cook for Dubya, the British royal fam, and Donald Trump) had a tall order:

Though it was not yet over, Saturday already had been a long day for Irvine and his two sous chefs, George Gatali and George Krelle, who until that morning had never heard of Little Cranberry Island or of the local village of Islesford. When they met up with [Dinner Impossible’s executive producer Marc] Summers at 7 a.m. at the town pier in Northeast Harbor to find out where they were headed, all they had was their chef’s knives and $3,500 to spend on food.

They had no idea what food they would prepare, where they would get their ingredients, how many people they would be cooking for, what kind of pots and pans would be at their disposal, or what kind of cooking facilities they would have access to. And, with the help of a handful of local residents the Food Network had lined up ahead of time, they had only 12 hours to figure it all out and make it happen.

My first thought is: $3,500? That’s $17.50 a person! If these guys can’t whip out some four-star plates on that budget, they’re not worth their clogs. Of course, not having a kitchen is a tougher hurdle. Reportedly, in the Little Cranberry outing, Irvine and company bought out all the poultry in the small supermarket and scrounged lettuces from a gardener.

Rumor has it that another episode was filmed at Colonial Williamsburg. Rabbit soup and mead, anyone?

Stay Trendy in 2006

Rainforest-juice swillers? Hale-and-hearty boomers? Products tweaked to tempt teens into brand loyalty? Consumer research group Mintel predicts all this and more in a roundup of product previews summarized by Slashfood.

It looks like sustainability isn’t going to be as hot an issue as the local food movement would like it to be—not yet, anyway. It will still gain ground with mainstream consumers, but by and large the focus is not yet on production. People are more focused on personal wellness, getting more specific than last year’s general interest in ‘superfoods.’ Mintel predicts that Amazonian foods—including açaí and other rainforest botanicals that promise over-the-top health benefits—will really hit the mainstream through companies that are known for healthy products, like Odwalla. Other trends that they are forecasting for food processing and sales include an increased targeting of baby boomers and teens; revitalizing interest in traditional, quality (not on-the-go) breakfast foods; more Web-based marketing, including more contests and giveaways; and a simplification of marketing slogans and packaging.

The Mintel report specifically mentions only one product as a forerunner of those to come: Glade PlugIns Scented Oil Light Show, directed toward teens who want a psychedelic light show and for their rooms to reek of spring garden or apples ‘n’ cinnamon. But I’m going to keep an eye out for açaí juice; that doesn’t sound half bad.

Hunkering Down with a Bit of Comfort

December is drawing near, and most of us are watching the temperatures drop. The time is right for cozy, warming dishes, and two bloggers have got it covered. This month they hosted a recipe roundup of Comfort Foods.

These two should know a bit about staying warm and well fed in the winter. Ivonne, of Cream Puffs in Venice, hails from Toronto. Orchidea, of Viaggi e Sapori, is Italian, but these days she cooks her comfort food in Stockholm. Together they’ve rustled up an impressive collection of recipes from fellow food bloggers, all dishes that are bound to make you feel like hunkering down in your kitchen on a long winter’s night.

The recipes range from classic Americana comfort such as mac and cheese, tuna noodle casserole, and chicken pot pie to Asian noodles—Thai Rad Nah, Iron Lady’s Rice Noodles, and Chinese Vegetable Noodles. There are favorite family recipes like Mom’s Roasted Chicken and Grandma’s Meatballs. Then there are the desserts (‘cause what else comforts like chocolate?), including New York Style Cheesecake, delicious-looking Millionaire’s Shortbread, and Walnut Chocolate Cake. There’s even a collection of pudding-like dishes—Tapioca Pudding, Chocolate Mousse (en français), and Baked Rice Pudding.

If this collection of cold-weather comfort food fails to hit the spot, head on over to Matt Bites for a collection of hot cocktail recipes (‘cause when carbs and chocolate fail to comfort, there’s always booze).

See, aren’t you liking winter now?

Turkey Trauma

I’ve found my new dream job: Butterball Turkey Hotline phone operator. The simple act of picking up a phone seems to be more rife with hysterical moments than a wedding planner’s entire June, and you’re actually helping these poor desperate people.

Last week, NPR was running example catastrophes between show segments, and the best one was a call from a guy who decided to brine his turkey in his front-loading washer. All was well until his roommate decided to do laundry in the middle of the night and dumped bleach and dirty clothes all over the brining bird. The briner wanted to know if the turkey would still be OK if they washed all the bleach off. If you don’t know the operator’s answer to that, you might want to keep that hotline phone number on you speed dial tomorrow (1-800-BUTTERBALL).

The November issue of Saveur relates a few more choice stories from Mary Clingman, a “turkey talker.” She related:

One lady was bragging that she kept her turkey in a snowbank, but it dawned on her that it had snowed again the night before and she had no clue where her turkey was. She hung up on us.

Do you think the hotline operators have a “laugh” button the way radio shows have a “cough” button?

I had my own Butterball Hotline moment the first time I made Thanksgiving dinner for my new husband and some of his displaced graduate school friends. At the time, my hotline was my mother, so my shame was confined to my family. Until I wrote about it publicly. It’s embarrassing to think about now that I’m a culinary-school grad, but the memory keeps me humble.

What turkey or Thanksgiving disasters have you experienced?

Eat Local? In Cleveland? In Winter? Ha!

Eat local? Easy for a Californian to say. Michael Ruhlman responds to Kim Severson’s New York Times piece (registration required) about the increasing demand for locally grown food. “Kim! No one tells me what I’m supposed to do in Cleveland in December.”

While Ruhlman acknowledges that “eating locally is nevertheless important for numerous reasons—from the quality of the food to broader issues such as a sustainable food supply,” he wonders how feasible it is for those outside of California’s balmy climes. “Am I supposed to live on root vegetables and pork confit ALL winter? ... How does the Eat Local mandate work in the wintertime heartland?”

Not surprisingly, his blog post has elicited a good amount of feedback—from those in favor of local eating and from those who think the idea is a nonstarter, at least in the winter. “I think it’s telling that the movement to promote the consumption of local in-season foods got its start in a state with a 365 day/year growing season,” observed one reader. “If it had started in Lapland I’d say shoot, I need to take this seriously. But dude, the ground’s frozen here in the winter.”

And there are those who are a bit more (ahem) pointed in their criticism of the ideals. “It’s only a small and vocal minority of unbalanced nuts and shameless panderers to the confused, who fret about where their food comes from while refusing to acknowledge that what most people need, and deserve, is something affordable and good to eat every day,” writes another reader.

Others had suggestions for how to navigate the Midwestern winter question. “How does the Eat Local mandate work in the wintertime heartland? One word: Canning.” This suggestion, however, met with resistance from some readers. “I live in a 750 square foot apartment with a very small freezer … there’s no place for anything else, literally.”

But those who support the Eat Local mandate recommend moderation over full rejection. “Please don’t toss the eat-local baby out with the short-growing-season bathwater!” one of them pleads. Proponents point out that everyone can make some effort without hardship. “Luckily it’s not an all-or-nothing situation,” writes one reader. “Buying locally when you can (during the growing season) and then going to the supermarket when you can’t is a lot better than shopping at the megamart all year long.”

“It is fine to eat oranges in winter,” another reader explains. “For me the idea is to make sure I’m not buying something from afar that is being produced locally—this means in winter (and year round) I buy most of my dairy and meat locally. Prosciutto and French cheeses and other specialty things that aren’t produced locally I buy from independent, locally-owned retailers.”

Perhaps the final word comes from an intrepid Local Eater in Maine, not a state known for a long growing season. “My personal motto is ‘do the best you can’ …. Support local farmers during the growing season, buy storage crops (like potatoes, winter squash, onions, carrots, etc.) in the fall to take you through at least part of the winter … buy local meat and dairy…. If we can source at least some of our vegetables year-round in Maine, I truly don’t understand how the rest of the country finds it such a hardship.”

Black Fades to Black

Black Fades to Black

Hipper-than-thou waiter attire is replaced by humble aprons. READ MORE

Fast Food’s Far-Reaching Tentacles

In a bid to control emerging fast-food markets abroad, U.S. restaurant chains are making changes to their foreign menus in hopes of appealing to local tastes. As Reuters reported November 21, the increase of chain restaurants in China (which comes at a time when citizens are experiencing increased spending power) has led to such innovations as octopus-topped wasabi-and-salmon Pizza Hut pies and McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with cucumber and spicy sauce. Chains are also tweaking their prices in the hopes of inspiring Chinese folks to make fast-food consumption more of an everyday affair.

To hear Reuters tell it, the tactics are working—some customers even like the chains more than local restaurants:

‘Workers here are well-behaved, and they are always pleased to help you,’ said beauty products saleswoman Li Yan, 36, while on a recent visit to a Beijing McDonald’s. ‘Moreover, it’s much cleaner than some traditional Chinese restaurants.’

Yikes. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is putting the full-court press on cosmopolitan foodies in Australia and New Zealand, offering a range of “Deli Choice” sandwiches, including tandoori chicken and Thai chicken. (If you have broadband access, you’re in for a real treat with the crazy new floating-in-space theme of McDo’s Australia site.) And 7-Eleven—which is weirdly ubiquitous in Melbourne—is obviously marketing its new line of to-go items to food-obsessed types.

One new addition to Australia’s fast-food scene is causing a bit of a stir, though: Mickey D’s is now offering halal meats at two of its Melbourne shops. Sales are reportedly booming at those stores, but some non-Muslim customers were furious to find out that their burgers came from animals slaughtered facing Mecca and blessed in the name of Allah. As one woman told the Australian newspaper the Herald Sun, “Just as a Muslim would not want to eat anything that isn’t halal … I should have my rights to eat normal, ordinary food that hasn’t been blessed.”

At least she still has the right to eat normal, ordinary food that’s full of trans fats.

Gifting 2006: New York Reprazent!

Chocolate and pork are what New York magazine is fronting in terms of foodie-friendly holiday gifts. Chocolate’s a safe bet, and it’s pretty much unofficially the Year of the Pig, so the obvious bases are covered.

The chocolate sampler ranges from the familiar and indulgent (Scharffen Berger dark chocolate–covered champagne grapes) to the less familiar and indulgent (CocoaVino fig caramels), but generally does an excellent job of picking out sophisticated offerings perfect for gifting the fussy Upper East Sider in your life.

The award for ballsiest chocolate gift idea goes to Vosges Haut-Chocolat, whose $75 holiday assortment “commemorates the African-American influence on music through bonbons like the ‘blues,’ which melds hickory-smoked bacon and milk chocolate.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, when Robert Johnson sang

Every time I’m walkin’ down the streets

Some pretty mama start breakin’ down on me

Stop breakin’ down, yes stop breakin’ down

The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby

Ooh, it’ll make you lose your mind. I can’t walk the streets…

he was probably secretly hoping that 75 years later, white people would spend the equivalent of a week of his wages to exchange bacon-flavored chocolates with one another.

The Joyous Leaping of Uncanned Pumpkin

Melanie Wong loves the made-from-scratch pumpkin pie at Water Street Bistro. It’s coarse in texture with some pumpkin fiber and barely sweet, with a deep roasted squash flavor, and a hint of brown spices in the background. The filling is nicely set without being too firm or too wet, and the crust is beautifully flaky. Even the bottom crust has flaky layers; the touch of a fork breaks off a shard of crust and a blizzard of short, buttery crumbs.

Water Street Bistro [Sonoma County]
100 Petaluma Blvd. N # 106, Petaluma
707-763-9563
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Pumpkin Pie Tour de Force @ Water Street Bistro (Petaluma)