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

Spicy Popcorn

If you enjoy your popcorn with a kick, here are a few ways to do it:

Use some hot chili oil as part of the oil for popping your popcorn, or mix Creole seasoning into the oil.

Stir Tabasco or hot smoked Spanish paprika into melted butter and toss with popped corn. jbyoga likes a combo of curry powder, sriracha sauce, and salt. If you make microwave popcorn, toss it with garlic powder and cayenne, recommends MeowMixx.

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Spicy popcorn

Fondue

Who doesn’t have an old fondue set tucked away in the back of a cupboard? With winter approaching, it’s time to haul that sucker out and have a fondue party.

For a lot of folks, fondue means one thing: melted cheese (often Gruyere and Emmental), combined with white wine, kirsch, and spices. You spear crusty bites of bread on special long-handled forks, and dip them into the cheese, for a communal meal. At the bottom of the pot, the cheese will form a delicious crust; the crust the best part, says Candy.

Fondue bourguignonne is raw beef cooked in a in hot oil in pot a fondue pot, speared on the end of those long-handles forks.

A dessert fondue can be made from melted chocolate, with fruit, marshmallows, or a sturdy chunk of cake for dipping.

The older fondue pots require sterno to keep the ingredients hot. Durm says the little cans of sterno are getting hard to find. But there are now exciting new electric fondue sets.

Here’s one that could double as a little deep fryer.

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Fondue
Fondue Set?

Tomatoes of a Different Color

There’s a new hybrid tomato waiting in the wings; it’s an eggplant color, sort of purple. It’s not yet in the markets, but should be available in the next few years.

See them here.

The dark pigment is said to contain the same phytochemical as blueberries, an excellent antioxidant. Rainey says that, in general, the darker the tomato, the more fabulous the flavor.

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Purple Tomato’s?

Withstand Bland

Withstand Bland

Is it wrong to ask your hostess to pass the salt? READ MORE

The Magic Numbers

The Magic Numbers

One man blends his way to the perfect bottle of wine. READ MORE

Get That Paprika Out of My Maki

The International Herald-Tribune’s Asia-Pacific edition reports that Japanese officials plan to crack down on restaurants abroad that besmirch the Japanese name by selling “inauthentic” fare. A panel of food experts was appointed last week and charged with creating a certification system for sushi sellers and tempura emporia overseas, though it’s unclear at this point when—not to mention how—the government will start enforcing the new rules.

Lauren of the food blog In a Fancy Glass, who lives in Tokyo, calls the move “an act of true hypocrisy.” Why?

Because Japan is FULL of fake or Japanified Italian, French and American restaurants as well as any other cuisine you can name. Food “Adjusted” for Japanese taste.

Perhaps the Japanese government looks at these fake-o places as evidence of the decline of food culture, too: Last year it enacted the Basic Law on Shokuiku, which aims to spread “food education” (shokuiku) to the masses by calling on farmers, food purveyors, schools, workplaces, and parents to “induce people to develop greater appreciation for and understanding of their diets.” The law was enacted in response to food and health issues, including:

[A] lack of proper concern for food; an increase in irregular and nutritionally unbalanced meals; a rise in obesity and lifestyle-related diseases; an excessive desire for being slim especially among young females; outbreak of a series of incidents related to food safety; over-dependency on food from abroad; and, loss of traditional food culture in a globalization movement. Some might criticize that eating is such a personal thing that government shouldn’t regulate by a law. However, Japanese situation over food has already reached to a crisis point, and that a law had to be enacted in order to address these issues.

What do you think—is the new certification idea an important move to preserve the reputation of sushi, or just a way for the government to give a leg up to Japanese companies pimping soy sauce and nori? How important is it to let traditional cuisine evolve?

Does It Matter Which Side of the Foil Goes on the Outside?

Does It Matter Which Side of the Foil Goes on the Outside?

Only if you're using nonstick foil. READ MORE

Five Loaves Worth Crossing the Atlantic For

This month, Budget Travel features a short story on the best baguettes in Paris. While the idea is slightly goofy (is it possible for an observant person to buy a bad baguette in Paris?), the finalists are intriguing.

Like a guide to getting a killer slice of pizza in New York or a great bratwurst in Milwaukee, the story packs a certain duh factor—is it even possible to screw up this kind of mission?

Well, yes—of course it is. Mediocre food exists everywhere, even when high community standards for particular local favorites beat it into the shadowy underworld where it belongs.

Besides, the Budget Travel piece is less a celebration of the platonically ideal baguette than a broader survey of some of the more imaginative yet respectful efforts to bring bread into l’ère nouvelle.

One of the most intriguing is the Puissance Dix baguette from fancypants hotspot Bread & Roses:

Literally translated, the name means ‘the power of 10,’ a reference to the 10 flours—including chestnut, buckwheat, corn, and rye—incorporated into the dough.

But for my Euro, I’d take the Baguette Tzara at Au Duc de la Chapelle. It’s free of sourdough starter (resulting in a sweet flavor); made from dough that’s hand kneaded for a light, airy, moist texture; and surrounded by a slightly caramel-tasting crust. And it’s even named after one of the 20th century’s coolest dadaists.

Star Search

Does the word healthy actually mean anything when it’s on the label of a processed food?

Athough the federal government may set up guidelines for its use, those guidelines can be somewhat, shall we say, unstringent. But there are organizations that are taking the matter into their own hands. In New England, the Hannaford Brothers grocery chain has, with the assistance of nutritionists and a physician, developed a star system, doling out one, two, or three stars to products on their shelves from soup to nuts.

Bad-for-you products get no stars, and surprisingly it’s not just bags of Ruffles in that club, but also items like V8 vegetable juice, Lean Cuisine frozen dinners, and Healthy Request soups from Campbell’s. In fact, 77 percent of products evaluated got no stars at all.

In this story from The New York Times (requires registration), there are some enlightening quotes from food manufacturers about the grocery chain’s star system:

‘We don’t like the idea that there are good and bad foods out there, and these sort of arbitrary rating systems,’ said John Faulkner, director of brand communication at the Campbell Soup Company. The Healthy Request line of soup, he said, was ‘aligned with the government definition of what healthy is.’

Hannaford isn’t pulling unhealthy products from its shelves, or even telling people not to buy cookies or chips. They’ve just spent their own money to create a panel to evaluate nutritional content and help consumers make choices. Props to them. With so many packaged food and health claims out there, it would be great to shop in a store that simplified things.

And as for all the no-stars products out there, nutrition guru Marion Nestle is quoted in the Times article:

The poor marks doled out by Hannaford show ‘what happens when an independent group sets the criteria.’

Take that, FDA.

Eating Grass

Your heart goes out to those poor feedlot cows, it does. You want them to be happy and healthy, romping merrily through the pasture, rather than, say, standing knee-deep in manure with their rumens distended by too much government-subsidized cheap corn as they await their next round of antibiotics and weight-boosting hormones.

Then again, we’re talking about meat here, and you do like a fine, juicy steak. Does a steer raised the way nature intended taste better than USDA prime? Last week, online magazine Slate put its budget to work, letting lucky writer Mark Schatzker and pals taste-test five different slabs of beef. Conventionally raised Angus, both wet and dry aged, went up against Wagyu (the same strain of steer used for Japan’s famous Kobe beef), grass-raised but grain-finished beef from Niman Ranch, and all-grass steaks from Alderspring Ranch.

Think you can guess the winner? Yep, it’s grass fed by a mile. And surprisingly, the dry-aged, grass-fed steaks, at $21.50 a pound, turn out to be the most affordable, significantly cheaper than the $40/pound Wagyu and $35/pound dry-aged prime. Sometimes eating well is its own reward.