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

Pumpkin: It’s Not Just for Pie Anymore

Apparently, that slippery, sticky, smelly stuff that we kids so cavalierly referred to as “pumpkin guts” is the gateway to beautiful skin. Alabama’s Times Daily notes:

As a food, pumpkins are full of antioxidants, vitamins and nutrients. Pumpkin also is good for your outside, as well—experts say it moisturizes, exfoliates, conditions, cleanses and repairs the skin.

While it may come as news to me and my dull, dried-out, and rapidly aging dermal layer, the fact that pumpkin contains beta carotene and vitamin A, among other great cosmetic properties, is not new to skin-care professionals. Aloette Costmetics offers a Warming Pumpkin Energizing Mask, and Bath and Body Works has a Pumpkin Skin Renewal Body Butter, which uses “pumpkin’s natural enzymatic action” and “effectively retexturizes and renews skin to reveal the more hydrated, softer skin beneath.”

San Jose–based alt-mag The Wave details a bunch of food-based spa treatments, many of which included pumpkin-y goodness.

So, to keep myself from gaining any more holiday weight, I’ll just take any leftover pie and smear it all over my face.

The Day After

The Day After

What to do with the turkey leftovers? READ MORE

All Cracked Out

Wondering about that moaning sound drifting over the cracker aisle? The keening and wailing can only be a result of Nabisco’s recent decision to stop production of the Royal Lunch Milk Cracker. Born in 1902, the sturdy round biscuit in the big purple box was a longtime staple of the New England pantry, where it often shared shelf space (and chowder bowls) with the equally plain but nostalgically rich Crown Pilot cracker.

In fact, Royal Lunch lovers are already wondering if they can bring the same pressure to bear on Nabisco that Crown Pilot fans did in 1996, when consumer outcry after the cracker’s discontinuation got the product back on the shelves in just a few months.

Over at Chowhound and Amazon, disconsolate devotees are lamenting the untimely disappearance of the cracker just before prime turkey-stuffing season. Writes one Chowhound,

This is a catastrophe! Making stuffing with Royal Lunch has been a tradition in my family for generations. Nothing else seems to work as well. Please don’t wreck the holidays for those of us that grew up on this product!

And an outraged Amazon reviewer thinks only drastic measures will do:

How dare they just take these traditional crackers off the shelf without even a warning!!! Nabisco knows very well that folks use them for traditional stuffing recipes. The boycott has begun!! Here I come Keebler!!

Is it time for a grassroots campaign to bring back the Royal Lunch? Lovers of the purple box can write to Nabisco’s parent company, Kraft Foods, at Kraft Foods Global, Inc., 1 Kraft Court, Glenview, IL 60025, or call 1-800-323-0768.

Fun in Bethel, Serious Scores in New Haven

Bethel, Connecticut

Kristie and April, troublemakers in the idyllic (and oh-so-chowy) little town of Bethel, Connecticut, wanted to take me for my first clam chowder as I headed north.

The Putnam House Restaurant (12 Depot Place, Bethel, Connecticut; 203-791-1852) has tons of antique charm and extremely well-poured tap beer. The chowder was fine, but other stuff was just OK—a bit disappointing for a town with such high food standards.

My Casio Exilim camera is out of control—it made those calamari look great. I fret that it may no longer be my trusted agent of truth.

April was all atwitter about the new fried-in-house potato chips at Stew Leonard’s (99 Federal Road, Danbury, Connecticut; 203-790-8030), the world’s largest dairy store, so we rode over to investigate.

They’re certainly pushing those chips.

They’re even offering free samples.

This is Pablo. His full-time job is to fry the chips. And he is so totally into it:

Hear April and me making our way—against the traffic flow—through this enormous shticky store, filled with animatronic mooing cows and such (and also meet Pedro) in this podcast of rambunctious shopping fun: MP3.

The potato chips were delicious and, of course, extraordinarily fresh. But the kettle corn was killer. We ravaged it in the parking lot. Hear our ebullient crunching and giddy exegesis in this podcast: MP3.

+ + +

Then it was on to New Haven, where I was to meet my buddy Jim for a bite. On my way into town, I passed a sensational-looking sidewalk smoker, spewing lovely aromas of Jamaican jerk.

I braked hard and screamed into my cellphone for Jim to come meet me immediately, as I suspected the chicken was about to emerge from the smoker.

Caribbean Connection (370 Whalley Avenue, New Haven, Connecticut; 203-777-9080) makes very serious old-fashioned jerk chicken, and, unlike many Jamaican jerk places, they also serve terrific sides (I really liked my plantains, collard greens, and even the rice and peas). Really nice folks, too. And though I’m restraining my praise because I know a couple of slightly better places in the outskirts of New York City, this jerk chicken is grand-slam great for New Haven, and worth a trip for anyone driving through (as many do on their way to or from Boston).

Jim dutifully joined in for some takeout Jamaican (it passed the drizzle test, by the way—we ate sitting on a bench, it drizzled, and we kept eating), but we were both saving room for the meal we’d planned on, at L’Orcio (806 State Street, New Haven, Connecticut; 203-777-6670), a newish Italian place that Jim wanted me to try.

What a gem. It’s intimate but with a non-smarmy atmosphere, personal service, and a terrific, well-priced wine list; and the food—at least the two things we tried—is killer, and as authentically Italian as one could ask for (chef-owner Francesco d’Amuri is from right off the boat).

Gnocchi al Gorgonzola are astounding. The gnocchi are as refined—subtle, light—as one could imagine, yet they also have full-fledged soulful/satisfying peasant-fare credentials: by far the best gnocchi I’ve ever had. I was particularly impressed by the bleachy white Gorgonzola sauce—not just for its lush deliciousness, but for the chef’s assurance in declining to gussy it up.

Farfalle strascicate is wailingly delicious homemade bow-tie pasta tossed in a creamy meat sauce with peas. Once again, the chef accomplished a whore/madonna integration—a precise equilibrium between subtle refinedness and unaffectedly lusty good eating. I’ve seldom found cooking so evenly bridging the two extremes with such confidence.

Even in an era when high-end restaurants take particular pride in their cellars and compete to hire the most informed sommeliers, it can still be a strain to get the house to take back a corked bottle, even if your party’s established its wine-geek credentials. We dined at the bar, served by a smashingly beautiful and preternaturally composed young woman whom I’d figured was simply part of the handsome décor. She opened our bottle, took a careful whiff, pronounced it corked, and invited us to reorder.

The problem was fairly mild and by no means easily detected. This server is smart as a whip. For the umpteenth time on this trip, I was reminded that appearances can deceive.

Addendum: Central Connecticut Barbecue Cluster

En route to New Haven, rushing to meet Jim, I asked Eartha (my GPS navigator) to show me names of all nearby restaurants. The result was a stunning barbecue conjunction, god-knows-where in rural Connecticut, that I, alas, had no time to check out. Hear a podcast where I note this remarkable node and read off the names of the barbecue joints: MP3.

Time to Make the Doughnuts

Most of us are content to head down to the nearest doughnut shop for our (weekly? monthly? yearly?) fix. But not LiveJournal-ist Derrick. His mouth-watering post is an in-depth exploration of how he went all Homer Price and bought himself a Belshaw Donut Robot 42, capable of making 6.5 doughnuts per minute.

As much of a modern wonder as the machine is, it isn’t foolproof, as Derrick learned after cramming it with 35 pounds of shortening that promptly caught fire. Other problems erupted in the attempt to get the consistency right:

The instructions tell you how much mix and water to use by weight, not volume. The reason they do this is because industrial food manufacturers are communists who hate America. The best scale I had in the house was the bathroom scale, which is some balky digital thing that measured you to the half-pound. My first batch of mix was far too thin, causing the hopper to dump batter like it was blowing its nose, giving me a 41 inch doughnut that came out the other end in a wadded gooey mess.

But practice eventually makes perfect, and Derrick now has more doughnuts than he can shake a coffee stirrer at. Which brings up yet another problem …

Seafood Shacks: A Plan of Attack

Manhattan, New York

Back home in New York City for a few days, surprised to see trees a different color than they were at my August departure.

I’d seen a copy of the just-published New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks, by Elizabeth Bougerol, and it was incredibly timely, seeing as how the next leg of my trip will take me up through New England. It’s a hefty book, very well written, and includes virtually all of my top picks. I thought it might be a good idea to meet with Elizabeth so that she could help launch my northward trip with some seafood shack savvy.

We enjoyed a lively conversation al fresco in front of the underrated East Village restaurant Quhnia (45 East First Street, New York, New York; 212-529-3066). Listen in:

Podcast #1: General hunting tips (and why going in October makes the task harder but the prospects better): MP3.

Podcast #2: I must wake up early and go hang with fishermen: MP3.

Podcast #3: Chowder obsessions, self-loathing Canadians, and all for the love of salt: MP3.

Podcast #4: Final counseling and benedictions before I head north: MP3.

Is San Francisco Killing Restaurants?

Is San Francisco killing restaurants?

That’s the question posed by San Francisco Chronicle food editor Michael Bauer. With a slew of taxes, and new wage and sick leave requirements for staff, is the cost of running a restaurant in S.F. too high?

This week, on his official Chronicle blog Between Meals, the food critic took a look at some of the costs San Francisco restaurants are asked to pay. “How about a $200 a year ‘candle’ tax for starters? A $146 propane tax? And then there’s the $146 tent tax.” Additionally, voter approval of local ballot measures that require all city businesses to provide sick leave for employees, and an increase in the minimum wage, means that restaurant operating costs are going up.

Not surprisingly, the post got quite a response—from restaurant owners and patrons alike, all of whom commented anonymously.

Amen. The cost of doing business as a restaurant in SF is the HIGHEST in the country per employee when all the ‘extras’ the City, etc. charge are factored in…. Even the best, best restaurants, excluding a few are only making decent money when you factor in the hours, etc. it takes to make a go of it.

When it comes to this issue, you guys only see those evil people who want to unjustly provide health insurance and fair wages to a sector of the workforce dominated by women and minorities, all renters and all living close to poverty. I see increased competition that will improve the quality of the restaurants that can provide a quality product while taking responsibility for the people who do the work.

There’s a very simple solution to this—just move your restaurant to somewhere cheaper—Oakland, South San Francisco, Livermore, wherever. People will still come if it is good…. There is nothing particularly magical about a San Francisco location.

Do you want only the large corporate restaurants to be able to have restaurants in the City? Or do you want $30 entrees in every restaurant? The City should realize that the restaurant industry is also a deciding factor for conventions, leisure visitors, etc…. Decisions to hold conventions in SF are made everyday because of the vitality of the dining scene. So there. Where is your bread buttered SF City council?

But perhaps the final word comes from Brett, of the blog In Praise of Sardines, who is currently in the process of opening his own restaurant, Olallie, in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Is he daunted by the slew of taxes being levied against the city’s restaurants? In a word, no. “I know the risks and costs of this business,” he writes, “and yet I still have decided to open a restaurant here…. I love this city too much to even consider doing it anywhere else.”

There might be hope for San Francisco’s restaurants yet.

Forsake All Others

In his November newsletter, Beau Timken, the proprietor of San Francisco sake-selling joint True Sake, flat-out begs his readers to try drinking sake with their turkey, cranberry, and mashed potato feast.

If you’re in the San Francisco area, Beau makes it easy for you to saunter in and choose your Turkey Day sake, he promises, “I will hang little turkeys around the necks of the sakes that excel with the bird in the True Sake store.” I might have to go in just to see the little turkeys.

However, if you don’t happen to be staggering distance from America’s first sake store in Hayes Valley, you can still benefit from Beau’s thirsty knowledge:

I look for a robust acidity when I pair with meat, game or fowl. Add to that butter and other mouth filling flavors I like sakes that have some staying power in terms of flavor. I select fatter sakes that fill the mouth, rather than the light clean ones that fire right through the palate. Think meaty sakes for meaty flavors, and also use a larger glass than usual to mix up that acidity. Go with your big reds glasses, and don’t worry about the next day big reds hangovers.

1. Hiraizumi Yamahai Junmai
2. Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai
3. Masumi Yamahai Junmai Ginjo
4. Taiheizan Kimoto Junmai
5. Tenzan Junmai Genshu

So basically this year I am asking you all to ‘Be a man!’ (or Woman) and go for it. Throw sake to the lions and watch how well it performs. There isn’t a fowl alive that cannot be paired with nihonshu. I will add 5 more sakes that are new this year that will also stand up to that overcooked underjuiced slab of white sandpaper that your father calls his ‘best bird ever.’

5. Narutotai Nama Ginjo Genshu
6. Kasumi Tsuru Yamahai Ginjo
7. Born Muroka Junmai Dai Ginjo Nama Genshu
8. Tsukasabotan Junmai Dai Ginjo Shizuku
9. Otokoyama Junmai Genshu

Also, check out Beau’s sake lingo in order to decipher the above recommendations. Kanpai!

Apples and Oysters

Head up to Sebastopol for a double dose of natural beauty. First, taste some of the many varieties of apples grown by Walker Apples, including Northern Spys, Pink Ladies, Romes, and Arkansas Blacks. Twenty dollars will buy your forty pounds of apples, and they let you taste each kind. It’s a great year for apples, says Ericruo–juicier than last year, very crisp, and with a good amount of acid to balance the sweet. Arkansas Blacks are particularly recommended.

Second, what problem can’t be solved with an entire quart of freshly barbecued oysters? Head to the Drakes Bay stand at the Sebastopol Sunday farmers’ market for succulent barbecued oysters. They’re $2 per oyster, or $18 to $20 for a quart. Melanie Wong says they were even good in July–and there’s no ‘R’ in July.

Walker Apples [Sonoma County]
10955 Upp Road, Sebastopol

Drakes Bay Oysters [Marin County]
formerly Johnson

At Blue Ribbon Market, Mustard Like Fine Wine

At Blue Ribbon Bakery Market, the mustard can upstage the sandwiches. Benjamin68 has no complaints about his smoked duck and honey on toast, but his enduring memory is of amazingly good Dijon mustard, with “intense, vibrant flavor and an incredibly long finish, like a great wine.” Made in France, it’s sold under the Blue Ribbon brand, both the Dijon ($6 a bottle) and a whole-grain variety ($8).

Blue Ribbon Bakery Market [Greenwich Village]
14 Bedford St., between Downing St. and 6th Ave., Manhattan, NY

Board Links
Fantastic mustard at Blue Ribbon Market