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

The Machine Age

Barry Sonnenfeld directed Get Shorty. He directed both Men in Black films as well as the Addams Family movies. In short, he’s a player, Hollywoodwise. So why is he writing espresso-machine reviews in the pages of a men’s magazine? Does he need the cash that badly?! Does everyone want to be a food writer now?

No. Sonnenfeld is Esquire’s gadget columnist, sharing his thoughts each month on toys from laptops to vacuums. In this issue Sonnenfeld uses the excuse of having to motivate a crew to work faster, so he treats them (and himself) to delicious shots of espresso every two hours during the filming of his television show, Notes from the Underbelly.

In the process, he gets to try out four high-end espresso machines, along with the Aeroccino, a $90 device that foams milk without steam.

His favorite is the Jura-Capresso Impressa Z6, a machine so high-tech that it does everything short of actually drinking the shot itself:

The Jura-Capresso also has a truly unique separate thermos that stores the milk and sends it through a tube into the frother, allowing you to create one-step lattes and cappuccinos. The steamed, foamed milk is sent through one nozzle while the freshly brewed espresso is sent through another—all ending up in a perfectly foamed cappuccino.

Gadgetlicious! Sadly, you practically have to be a Hollywood filmmaker to afford one: The cost is $3,600.

Raw Sugar, Meet Fancy Butter

The holiday baking days are upon us, and, ever helpful, the dailies are getting down to the basics of baking. Forget Gourmet’s fiddly geometric Christmas cookies: The food sections of the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times talk butter and sugar this week.

The Chron’s wish-we’d-been-a-judge taste-off features European-style butters, those high-priced, high-butterfat charmers whose ranks are ever swelling in the dairy case. The lucky tasters assessed each butter (some domestic, some imported) straight up and baked in shortbread. Surprisingly, Plugra, the butter whose high-fat plasticity started the whole Euro-butter craze, came in third in the combined scores and fourth in baking, beaten by the American Challenge and Danish Lurpak butters.

Over at the Times, life is sweet as writer Kim Severson continues her culinary romance with Louisiana, this time focusing on the state’s cane sugar industry, with recipes for cane-syrup popcorn balls, gingerbread slabs, and gâteau de sirop—along with a description of a local snack of white bread folded over a brown ripple of cane syrup and called, memorably, a “diaper sandwich.”

According to fans of unrefined products like raw sugar and cane syrup, the cane solids in the rough stuff add a smoothness that’s lacking in whiter-than-white processed sugar. As Charley Steen of longtime family business Steen’s Cane Syrup says, “For lack of a better word, the cane flavor just butters it out.”

“Top Chef” Curdled

“Top Chef” Curdled

Mia throws in the towel after throwing up her sushi. READ MORE

Theft, Love, and Menu Consultation

The awesomely named Ethel Hammer of The National Culinary Review—who really needs to begin starring in a detective series tout de suite—has penned a piece examining the role of menu consultants in the modern restaurant environment.

The piece does a solid job of elaborating on what consultants do at their finest: sorting through menus to identify clinkers, moneymakers, and sentimental anchors, or adapting a restaurant’s beloved standards to non–totally bastardized airplane-food equivalents. But it does little to explore the inevitable darker side of the profession. Good consultants in any field can bring powerful positive change to a business, but bad consultants can bury a struggling business or simply act as a cosmetic mask for an owner’s harebrained ideas.

The story also looks at a consultant technique that’s euphemistically called “the trickle-down effect.” This is also known as “eating at wd-50 and selling their ideas to restaurants in Cleveland.”

A Memo to My Employer

Boston, Massachusetts

To: Mike Tatum, CNET Networks
From: Jim Leff

Dear Mike,

It is with a heavy heart that I send you this.

As you know, I’ve taken quite seriously my position as Chowhound-at-Large with CNET Networks, and have done my utmost to maintain my reputation by making frequent finds and generally reinforcing my reputation as a Food Expert™. Furthermore, I’m proud to state that my expenditure of company funds over the course of this CHOW Tour has been prudent.

Today, however, I let everyone down: you, the Chowhound and CHOW brands, and the entire CNET family. I have not just eaten badly, which would be forgivable, but I allowed myself to be sucked into a bad eating experience with eyes wide open. I failed to remove myself from an eatery unbecoming of a chowhound. I ordered against intuition. I frittered away a great big wad of company money. And I kept throwing good money after bad.

For your internal corporate use, I’ve provided the following disclosures on the meal (at B&G Oysters, 550 Tremont Street, Boston, Massachusetts; 617-423-0550). There were witnesses, both of whom refused to sign NDAs (believe me, I tried).

Disclosure 1: The Suffocatingly Self-Conscious Bohemian Vibe

Disclosure 2: The Bread

As soon as I confronted the small, pretentious brick of bread, which seemed to not only lack flavor, but to possess a sort of negative flavor that actually draws quality OUT of the eater, I should have run like the wind. Instead, I stubbornly continued the meal.

Disclosure 3: Oyster Overconsumption

My first misappropriation of company funds was in ordering a large plate of overpriced raw oysters that seemed to brim not with oyster liquor but with salted water—a cynical brine that scorched the tongue and diluted the flavor.

And I exercised poor judgment and weak discipline in allowing myself to be persuaded by my tasting colleagues to order yet another oyster sampler plate. Make no mistake about it, Mike. I blame only myself. I am, for purposes of ordering, “The Decider,” and I decided incompetently. I deemed the funky, spoiled Pepperell Cove oysters in the first platter an aberration (the Island Creeks, Salutations, Cuttyhunks, and, especially, Marin Bays were quite good). But the second platter (of different varieties) had some off ones, too. There should not have been a second platter.

Disclosure 4: The Spicy Clam Stew

Clam stew with a cloying, annoying sauce. I should have known better than to order this here.

Disclosure 5: The New England Clam Chowder Avec Lardons

A $10 cup of cream and black pepper. No worked-in essences. No discernable clams, no oceanic brine.

Disclosure 6: The $24 Maine Lobster Roll

The meat was a bit rubbery, and the whole was bland and sweet (cole slaw was sweet, and the roll itself was sweet). French fries were soggy and tasted as if they’d sat for ages in water before frying, all spudly goodness leached out.

I should also mention that most everything here is splashed with inappropriately showy aromatic olive oil that dominates the subtle seafood flavors.

Disclosure 7: Banana Split with Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream and Candied Walnuts

This slop didn’t know if it wanted to be “real” or impressive or yuppie or gourmet. Just a bunch of fancy ingredients that didn’t work together at all … a mess. For nine bucks.

A decent Trimbach Riesling was way overpriced at $64.

Disclosure 8: The Bill

The bill was $190.31 for the three of us before tip. That’s $75/person (with tip) for a not-very-good lunch that left none of us satisfied.

Mike, I can only fall on my sword and assure you that if you wish to cancel the CHOW Tour at this point, I’d be completely amenable to fulfilling my employment via some light typing or steno work, peeling vegetables, parking cars, or otherwise filling in wherever my feeble talents (which sure as hell don’t include savvy dining) might contribute.



The Future of Food (The Immediate Future, That Is)

What will we be eating in 2007? Personally, I hope to subsist primarily on incendiary moong dal and freshly made banh mi.

As luck would have it, the latter is one of the hot “buzzwords” for 2007, according to restaurant consultants Joseph Baum and Michael Whiteman. They’ve put out a white paper that forecasts the top ten food trends and buzzwords for the coming year. Here’s a sneak preview of your dining life in the coming 12 months: pork belly to finishing salt to pastel-hued cauliflower to chef-driven steakhouses to chocolate (sample wisdom: “America’s going nuts for

Although many items in their crystal ball seem right-on, their anointing of Peruvian cuisine as “the next big thing” while dissing Indian cuisine for being “too complicated for the home chef” rings false, despite the presence of cuy in Houston’s ethnic markets.

Predictably, bloggers are having a field day.

What Do Buffaloes Have to Do with Mozzarella?

What Do Buffaloes Have to Do with Mozzarella?

We're talking water buffaloes, not bison. READ MORE

The Art of Bitching About Everything

The Art of Eating 20th-anniversary double issue is out, and it’s fat-packed with exactly what you’d expect: creator Edward Behr fussing about the advent of big-box stores while contributors file 4,000-word dispatches on California olive oil and the continuing existence of mead.

Behr’s opening essay is a cantankerous self-authored Q & A that sounds off against ads in food magazines, all things digital, and the decline of proper English. It lacks only an announcement that the neighborhood children should immediately get the hell off his lawn.

That said, it’s far more compelling than the cut-and-paste banalities that make up the editors’ columns in the food-as-lifestyle-porn magazines, or the New England yuppie romps that are Christopher Kimball’s columns in Cook’s Illustrated.

He writes about old friends (now deceased) who raised and butchered their own chickens and made their own wine. He writes about why his magazine doesn’t have ads, and his dual ideas of “the perfect meal.” He writes about why stories in the magazine sometimes top out at around 13,000 words.

It’s a beautiful read. And at one point, he answers a question (posed by himself) about his ideal reader. He writes that his ideal reader is, in essence, himself. You can’t accuse the dude of being too modest. These days, that’s a refreshing thing. As is The Art of Eating.

Mmmmmm. More Mannix, Please.

Looking for a hunky charmer to flirt with in the kitchen? The search is over with Mannix, a highly charismatic Australian gourmet. We’d be happy to stay home and steam things with this looker.

On his website, The Love Bite, Mannix promotes “dating in”—skipping the overpriced restaurants and snobby attitudes in favor of a night at home with some “cheeky little taste sensations” that you whip up yourself. His menus are organized into “dates,” such as the Dirty Weekend, Breakfast in Bed, Thai Them Up, and Fromage Foreplay. All dates include shopping lists, notes on setting the mood, and fuss factor.

But it is on the website The Whole 9 that Mannix really comes into his own. The site itself is a social network for creatives who can date and check out each other’s portfolios (is that code, or are we really talking artwork here?). In their Stay In section, however, there is a series of cooking videos with Mannix where his charm is undeniable. He makes pumpkin and kaffir lime potstickers, a molten chocolate cake, a limoncello tiramisu (yum), and a grilled chicken and bell pepper frittata, among others.

Who can resist the wit and charm of a guy who, whilst arranging a cheese platter, describes Prosecco as “the flirty Italian cousin that champagne didn’t know she had?”

A note to the Food Network: Snap up this one fast! We want more Mannix.

Santa Claws

Your three-pound Maine lobster has been caught, tried, and found delicious. Sitting on death row in your fridge, fearing its last meal might be a few rubbery carrots accented by that dried-out piece of cheese you left half-wrapped in wax paper, the lobster’s last thoughts might be about family, a cozy sea kelp bed, and the soothing crash of waves at home. However, as judge, jury, and executioner, you are thinking only, “How am I gonna kill the bastard?”

Jasper White showed Julia Child how he favored the draw-and-quartering method. Beheading the big red bug requires a special ax or a Charles Addams-esque doll guillotine. Hanging is difficult, time-consuming, and more than just a bit creepy. And let’s face it, a lethal injection is not the healthiest marinade for you. Luckily, Simon Buckhaven, a British barrister, came to the conclusion that electrocution is the way to go and developed the CrustaStun. Spell it “Crust-a-Stun” and you’d swear you saw Dan Aykroyd hawking it on Saturday Night Live 30 years ago, but this is a very real invention.

Here’s how it works:

The application of a stun (110 Volts–2-5 amps) causes an immediate interruption in the functioning of the nervous system of the shellfish. By interrupting the nerve function, the shellfish (be it Crab. Lobster or other) is unable to receive stimuli and thus by definition, cannot feel pain or suffer distress.

Why would you want it? (I mean, other than the fact that you get to electrocute things in the privacy of your own home.)

To many, present methods of killing (chopping, drowning in freshwater, boiling, frying & basting–alive) are barbaric and the recommended methods (cooling in ice-slurry or spiking the several nerve centres) unproven, difficult and impractical. The CrustaStun applies an instant current which anaesthatises the Crab, Lobster or other shellfish within a fraction of a second and kills within seconds.

It reduces stress & osmotic dilution (effected in freshwater drowning) and thereby enhances texture and flavour.

It applies the humane slaughter principles currently applied to higher food animals such as cows, sheep and pigs to shellfish, and anticipates legislation currently being considered throughout Europe. It is also wholly endorsed by Animal Welfare Organisations throughout the world.

Not just for lobsters, the CrustaStun can also be used for crayfish and Dun-dun-DUNgeness! Time named the CrustaStun one of 2006’s best inventions, and, although it was initially developed for seafood wholesalers, a compact home version is now available for $4,740. It’s a Trumpian stocking stuffer!

I hope it comes with a black hood.