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

Local Farming 101

The choice between organic produce that has to travel great distances to market versus locally grown traditional produce can baffle even the most educated enviro-conscious Chowhound.

We’ve all heard the arguments for buying organic. Some hounds think it’s much more important to buy from local farms. Morton the Mousse thinks that it often makes sense to buy locally grown produce from small-scale farms who use environmentally sustainable, artisanal agricultural practices, regardless of whether or not those farmers are certified organic. Also, small farms can give more attention to their fields, which can mean less dependence on chemicals anyway, says ghbrooklyn. The organic buzzword has become overused; it’s more important to look for produce from “sustainable” local farms, argues Veggietales.

It may also be to your benefit. Large-scale organic produce is generally shipped in from far-away lands. It’ll be at least several days old, and will have been handled, stored in cold refrigeration, bounced, jostled, crossed time zones, handled again, shipped some more, and stuck in cold storage again, before finally making it to the grocery shelf, says Sethboy.

Board Links
Locally grown (not organic) v. Organic (not locally grown) ... which do you prefer?

Freezer, Filled

Most enthusiastic home cooks have dreamed about casting aside their day jobs in favor of a kitchen career. But the disadvantages of working in a restaurant (lousy pay, grueling physical demands, very ugly pants) chase away all those but the determined or the desperate.

But there is another option, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an article about personal chefs. These cooks typically shop for, make, and deliver custom-made meals that can be frozen and then nuked by the presumably busy professionals in the market for such services.

The job’s hardly a goldmine. The personal chefs quoted in the story quoted rather modest rates; the most expensive charges $375 for five meals for a family of four. That works out to $75 per meal for the whole gang, not a huge amount considering that it covers the cost of food and the labor of shopping for and then preparing said food. But considering that the chefs have exceedingly low overhead (most work out of their clients’ kitchens), they must find a way to make it work.

Interested? There are a whole bunch of professional associations that can provide more information. There’s also this neat blog from a personal chef in Los Angeles, and she talks about her job a lot.

Jive Tribal … but Great Buffet

Washington, DC

The cafeteria at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, a.k.a. Mitsitam Café, seems enticing. They have separate stations for various regions (“Northern Woodlands,” “Meso America,” “Northwest Coast,” etc.), each presuming to serve regional foods. Who could resist?

I’m ambivalent, so I’m moved to both pan and (tepidly) rave.

Pan:

Restaurant Associates (Nick and Stef’s Steakhouse, Café Centro, Naples 45, etc., plus lots of catering) runs the cafeteria, and this is not a company with a deep commitment to culinary authenticity. Of course, I’d forgive inauthenticity if the food were at least decent. But most of it isn’t (I’d single out the mint agua fresca as the worst thing I’ve put in my mouth in ages). And the place is phenomenally overpriced. And the staff’s not even making an effort (I asked for “posole,” and a manager stared blankly until I said “chicken and corn soup”).

Basically, this is a fake, jive, lousy, crowded place hanging entirely on a hooky shtick that no one involved takes the least bit seriously (a Hispanic woman, displayed like a robot Santa in the Bloomingdale’s Christmas window, looked miserable making tamales from a bad, wrong recipe foisted on her by some corporate gringo scum).

Rave:

The recipes, though adapted, short-cut, compromised, and incompetently rendered from ludicrously substituted ingredients, sometimes show honest underpinnings—fleeting glimpses of real Indian cooking. At the start of the chain of events that led to the present culinary catastrophe, some earnest person seems to have really tried to do right (this individual is likely rotting in the dungeon of Restaurant Associates’ headquarters so that he can’t complain to the press).

The tamales, for example, are wrong, but there are mitigating notes of rightness, and they have a nice creaminess. The Indian pudding (does anyone, by the way, think Indian pudding is actually Indian?) is worth more than a single bite. And the tablespoon of chili ladeled onto my mess of an “Indian taco” (fry bread-– here rendered like cheap carny zeppole) tasted cuminy good.

But the real upside is this: Compared with the overpriced bad renditions of bad food found at other museum cafés in the area, the American Indian Museum’s overpriced poor renditions of interesting foods is a best-of-evils alternative. And so they draw in flocks of lunch-hour workers from the neighborhood, who literally could not do better. And so it’d be a particularly serious mistake to attempt to eat here between noon and 2 p.m.


This sign does not prepare you for what is to come.


Tamale (edible) and blue cornbread (insipid).


Indian taco (a smothered mess, mitigated by a dab of decent chili).


Buffalo flank steak sandwich (tasted like Arby’s).


Indian pudding (pretty good).

BuffetCam videos! Warning: My video skills are still severely lacking. I’m improving, but this footage is still fast, jumpy, and out of focus (which, come to think of it, is actually how I’m feeling nearly two weeks into my trip!).
Movie file

Falls Church, Virginia

On last night’s podcast, you heard Dave Sit raving about his dim sum find. I begged him to bring me there (Lucky Three Chinese Restaurant, 5900 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, Virginia; 703-998-8888).

When it comes to dim sum, Dave is the pickiest of picky. Precious few places merit his consideration, and the smallest shortcoming (slightly overthick dough on the har gow, fried items less than optimally crisp) can ruin his whole day. New York City has a half-dozen top-class dim sum places, but he’ll only eat at the Nice Restaurant on East Broadway, where everything is suitably refined and consistent. So I was stunned to hear that he’s fallen hard for a dim sum buffet, for goodness’ sake. Dave is not a buffet kind of guy!

But see the photos and hear the podcast to understand why this place has won Dave’s heart.

Lucky Three’s unassuming exterior.

Delicious-looking crab (though the Crab Fiend has picked out every single claw).

Podcasts:

I’ve been eating dim sum with Dave for two decades, and I continue to learn new things from him. Listen in so that you can share his tips and perspective:

MP3 file

Dave guides us through the big hot pot of fresh tofu.

MP3 file

Strategies: dim sum buffets versus classic dim sum.

MP3 file

Always select for succulence!

MP3 file

The Crab Fiend

... and the still-bumpy and amateurish BuffetCam:
Movie file.

Note: A suspicious manager came running over to question why I was filming, so I had to give him the Bugs Bunny treatment.

Things to Do with Stale Bread

Things to Do with Stale Bread

Ten uses for an old loaf of bread, from thickening gazpacho to soaking up the Grand Marnier in grown-up French toast READ MORE

Your Dog, the Gourmet

Your Dog, the Gourmet

If your dog has such a great sense of smell, why is he eating your old socks? READ MORE

Three Times an Entrée

Three Times an Entrée

Double entendres aside, three-ways have been offered up since the Yuan dynasty. READ MORE

What’s That White Stuff on Grapes?

What’s That White Stuff on Grapes?

Is it pesticide? Yeast? Unidentified gross substance? READ MORE

Something More Than Crappy Pilsner

Something More Than Crappy Pilsner

While there is no brand of American pilsner distributed nationally, several excellent examples have popped up on the micro and regional levels. READ MORE

Am I Being Petty?

Am I Being Petty?

I think it’s rude of people to assume they can keep my Tupperware. Or am I being petty? READ MORE

In Search of the Great American Beer Hall

Fodor’s has published a brief—and flawed—report on the five best places in America to drink American beer.

Wisconsinites like myself can be counted on to have opinions on three things: beer (we’re pro), cheese (ditto), and the Packers (“pro” is an understatement, even in a rough season like 2005). Not surprisingly, I think Fodor’s has fallen down on the job, and not in a good, beer-related way.

They’ve overlooked two very different beer-associated places with very similar names that indicate a common tie to the German rathskeller tradition.

The first is the Brickskeller of Washington, DC, which boasts the world’s largest beer list. With more than 500 kinds of beer on the menu, it’s a claim that carries serious weight. Skipping the Brickskeller, an American beer hall of Norse-god proportions, is a borderline-criminal oversight. Sure, they’re internationalist in the best possible way, but you can’t fight the fact that their list boasts an overwhelming pile of excellent domestic brews.

The second is the UW-Madison Rathskeller. You have to know Madison to know the Rathskeller, so this particular oversight is understandable. But if you’ve ever had one of its house brews (or something wonderful by the New Glarus Brewing Company) in its cavelike, dark-wood-appointed and stein-decorated interior, you truly know what great beer drinking is all about.