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

MSG in Home Cooking

Monosodium glutamate–MSG–is the source of umami, that fifth taste we sense (along with with sour, salty, bitter, and sweet). It’s often describe as “meaty’ or “savory.” It occurs naturally in many foods, and in concentrated doses in things like red meat, seaweed, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and soy sauce, but it’s also been used for ages as a seasoning to wake up dishes that taste flat.

It’s a flavor enhancer, explains DanaB, used in addition to, or in place of, salt; if you taste a dish and it’s not really salt it needs, but something else you can’t put your finger on, MSG can brighten up its flavors. In powder form, it’s powerful stuff, and should be used very sparingly–no more than a sprinkle in most cases. Scott123 recommends measuring; he finds pinch dash smidgen measuring spoons, which are 1/8, 1/16, and 1/32 teaspoon measures, invaluable for working with MSG. Be conservative: you can add more if needed, but there’s no way to undo an MSG overdose. As Jackie de warns, “Watch out, too much and your dish can be ruined.”

Dana often uses a little sprinkle of MSG in guacamole when the avocados aren’t perfectly ripe or lack flavor. Jackie likes to add a little to eggs to boost their flavor. Scott123 avoids using MSG when cooking with foods that are naturally high in glutamates (e.g., tomato paste, Parmesan, heavily reduced meat stocks), but thinks it really enhances Tex-Mex dishes, chicken, and beans. He’d never dream of making chili without it, but only uses 1/4 teaspoon for an 8-quart potful.

MSG is a traditional enhancer in Chinese cooking. Some chowhounds avoid adding MSG to dishes that use lots of soy or fish sauce, feeling the combo can be overpowering. But plenty do use it, saying there’s a reason it’s been done for centuries. Fatty Lumpkin describes the way a pinch of MSG changed a bok choy stir-fry that had plenty of soy sauce but lacked that certain something: the MSG smoothed out and enhanced the flavor.

Some advocate reducing the overall salt in a dish when adding MSG, because MSG ups the sense of saltiness in food, and can lead to sodium overkill.

Look for MSG in Asian or Latino markets, where it will cost a fraction of the price of supermarket brands like Accent. bitsubeats likes Ajinomoto brand, and C. Hamster uses Sazon Goya.

As an alternative to MSG, Alice Letseat, says that a tiny bit of pure citric acid has much the same effect. Trader Joe’s sells citric acid, and it is also sold as “sour salt,” most often found in kosher shops or groceries with good kosher food selections. King Arthur Flour also sells it.

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Using MSG in home cooking

Airline Food

Some Chowhounds fondly remember the glory of the gooey, hot airline omelet, served steaming in a little plastic omelet dish with single-serving packets of salt, pepper, and Neufchatel cheese. And some Chowhounds don’t remember it that fondly. Still other hounds want to know: who has the best (coach class) airline food of all?

Japan Air Lines gets high marks all around, especially for offering cold soba with whatever entree they’re serving. Korean Air Lines serves bibimbap which Das Ubergeek likes as much as the stuff he’s had on the ground in San Francisco and Los Angeles. El Al Airlines out of Israel serves amazing food, says thunderbug84, including warm pita and hummus as soon as you sit down. El Al’s food is never as good during and right after the Sabbath, though, says rbc. Copa Airlines, with flights to Central America, serves good food, as does TAM Airlines to South America.

As for domestic flights, Chowhounds like the hot food from Alaska Airlines. If they have to eat airline food, that is. “Bring your own,” says Scrapironchef.

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Best COACH airline food?

Guanciale

Guanciale is Italian cured pork jowl, a salty, intensely flavored item that adds richness, savor, and a dose of “Ungh!” to Italian home cooking. The flavor is deeper and porkier than bacon or pancetta, says ESNY. It’s traditionally used in carbonara and bucatini all’Amatriciana, where a little goes a long way–four ounces of guanciale to four cups of vegetables in the latter dish, says Robert Lauriston. Modern Chowhounds are free to try it thinly sliced on a pizza with tomato sauce, goat cheese, and figs, as recommended by sweetpotater.

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All about Guanciale … is it salty?

Online Surprise

If this week’s episode of “Top Chef” clinched your impression of Marisa as uptight, humorless, and not very nice (Cf. her handling of Lycheegate and willingness to sell out a teammate to save her neck), it’s time to add another adjective to the list: sexxxy. As Blogging Top Chef discovered, the ostensibly buttoned-up cheftestant has a weirdly porny website where she hawks her bikini calendar.

It’s got to be fake, right? Well, her site links to her Myspace profile (apparently she’s in my extended network), and it looks pretty legit—it would have taken a lot of work on the part of a hoaxster to come up with all those friends and create all those comments, at any rate.

Speaking of Top Chef profiles on Myspace, guess what comes up as the first Google result for Harold Dieterle (last season’s Top Chef winner)? The profile’s Google ranking may have something to do with this link from The Modern Age, which comes up fourth in the search results (and which makes a rather good point about the annoyingness of Harold’s declared musical tastes).

Am I the only one who’s simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the sudden intimacy that Myspace’s awful “comment” function creates? If some of the first things people read when they google a chef are his sister’s (I think) text-message-esque personal note (“Give me a RING when u can. Gotta ask u somethin….”) and his cousin’s (again, inferring) wacky photo caption (“Someone said we could be brothers…or did they say lovers…haha none-the-less..ROCKSTARS! HOLLA!!”), doesn’t that take things into uncomfortably unprofessional territory? But then, maybe having millions of people read these messages doesn’t feel weird after you’ve been on a reality show.

Candy Corn and a Nice Little Riesling

Just in time for Halloween snacking, the Wine Enthusiast comes out with perfect wine pairings to go with your trick-or-treat loot (or the loot the trick-or-treaters left you with).

Want to know what to drink with caramel apples (muscat or gewürztraminer), fruity Jujubes (Prosecco), or nutty little “fun-size” candy bars (Madeira)? This article will be your guide to flawless Halloween pairings.

After all, the little ones shouldn’t have all the Halloween fun.

Dispatch from Terra Madre

Dispatch from Terra Madre

Our food editor reports from Slow Food’s global get-together. READ MORE

How to Drink with a Fake Mustache

How to Drink with a Fake Mustache

Dressing up for Halloween? You're going to need this advice. READ MORE

The True Cost of Food

On the Eat Local Challenge blog, Sara brings our attention to a short movie highlighting the true cost of factory-farmed, commercially raised, and non-local food. The price is staggering.

Put out by the Sierra Club as part of their Sustainable Consumption campaign, the video (made by the same company that did the Meatrix) touches on a number of important and topical issues—monocropping, feedlot-raised beef, loss of topsoil, chemical usage, agricultural runoff, and decreasing crop yields. When all these factors are valued and given a price, the true cost of a commercial tomato is far beyond anyone’s budget.

The campaign, which seeks to “encourage people to think about the environmental impacts of their consumption choices,” also offers a discussion guide, as well as information and action suggestions for those wishing to evaluate their impact as consumers. From background information on the importance of eating locally and organically, to projects that can be done as a group or with children, and even cooking suggestions, there are resources for learning more and steps for putting these ideas into action. And the FAQ section clears up niggling questions (so you know about GMOs, but what about COOL?).

The Sierra Club hopes that this campaign will “promote more informed choices about how the way we eat affects our planet and our quality of life.”

With elections around the corner, here’s a campaign to get behind.

Fancy Brewski

Fancy Brewski

Bartenders mix creative cocktails with beer. READ MORE

Men, Women, and Food

The Observer Food Monthly has published a “Girl’s Guide to Eating and Drinking,” and it’s bound to offend … girls.

Well, at least those who like lamb shanks (“too knuckley!”) and cassoulet (“has ‘man’ written all over it”).

The cheeky article by Mimi Spencer makes a series of sweeping generalizations about “dining requirements” for women, ranging from cute rhymes about offal (“if women are about, snout is out”) to excursions into gastro-anthropology:

Broadly speaking, while meat is unreconstructedly blokeish, fish is rather more feminine—possibly because there is less gore involved in its preparation. We’re fonder of the garden too, and find ordering salads a liberation not a duty. This harks back to our earliest days when men hunted and women gathered. Deep down, we still quite like a nice bowl of seeds and some wild cherries.

Since I’m just a “blokeish” eater of “man dishes,” what do female CHOW readers have to say about this gastronomical version of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus?