The CHOW Blog rss

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

Sweet Treats for the Festival of Lights

The Hindu/Sikh/Jain festival of lights celebrated in India, Diwali, starts tomorrow, and many bloggers are cooking up special dishes to sweeten the day.

At Mahanandi, blogger Indira needs to overcome her lifelong aversion to pumpkin:

But would the pumpkin accept me? I was skeptical. So I took the help of almonds, milk kova and of course our true friend that would instantly bring joy to any occasion, ‘the sugar.’

The sugar indeed brought joy, allowing her to create a delicious-looking pumpkin halwa.

The Saffron Trail’s Nandita has a massive three-parter devoted to Diwali. She makes “the mother of all Tambram sweets, Teratti Paal, a subtle sweet with just three ingredients: milk, ghee, and sugar. On the savory side, there’s Spicy Khajas, a deep-fried coin-shaped treat flavored with chili and cumin. I could eat a lot of those.

Latha, of Masala Magic, accompanies her recipe for the rich, dense chickpea-flour-based treat besan ladoo with a look back at her childhood Diwali celebrations in India:

I remember many a Diwali at home back in India where we would wake up at 3:00 a.m. in the morning, unable to contain the excitement of the festival ahead. Diwali mornings always started at our home in the wee hours of the morning. ... The kids in our street would always compete at who would be the first to burst a set of fireworks!

For many more Diwali blog posts, check in with Past, Present and Me, where Vee is hosting this month’s roundup of Indian food bloggers’ recipes. This month’s topic: Diwali, of course. Vee will post the recipes on October 21.

Healthy Debate, Unhealthy Drinks

Starbucks baristas and imbibers are getting into a healthy debate about the unhealthy drinks served up by the monster coffee chain.

There are 185 comments and counting on a post at the Starbucks Gossip blog that asks, “When will Starbucks get serious about diabetes and obesity?”

It’s a reasonable question, since some of the coffee chain’s sweetest drinks pack as many calories as fast food. As Marian Burros recently reported in The New York Times, a 20-ounce “venti” Caffe Mocha with whipped cream contains 490 calories, which is on a par with a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with cheese. Moreover, the Java Chip Frappuccino with whipped cream bulges at 650 calories.

The heated debate ranges from whether customers ultimately bear the responsibility for their food choices to whether Splenda is an adequate substitute for sugar. Interestingly, some employees, like the commenter who goes by the name of “Chi-towns best/angriest barista,” are working subversively to lighten up their customers’ drinks without their knowledge:

i think starbucks drinks are too unhelathy [sic], and i work there. sometimes i would use the sugar-free syrpus instead of regular, or add a little non-fat milk to a regular drink, and the frapp-lite base? looks a heck of a lot like the normal stuff when you stick whipped cream on it. maybe this is bad (i’m pretty sure it is bad) but i’ll do it anyway because i hate contributing to the growing unhealth of this country. we had this “go venti” slogan for a while, that i absolutely hated and refused to participate in. we were supposed to push venti-sized drinks on people, but i think that’s awful, and as a customer i hate when it’s done to me, so i never did it. you want a grande latte? sure. tall latte? even better. yeah, i’ll sell you a venti if you order it, but i won’t tell you to.
i consider it my tiny little part to make a difference.

I’ll Have a Rhubarbarella, Shaken, Not Stirred

Gourmet feeds the vague consensus that 2006 is the Year of the Cocktail with a nicely written piece on mixed drinks that puts fresh ingredients first.

The story is pegged to the Healdsburg, California, hotspot Cyrus, where an emphasis on seasonal produce and artisanal distillers yields drinks with a vivid acidity and a gorgeously natural visual appeal. The Plum Dandy photographed in the magazine features:

Hangar One Mandarin Blossom vodka, regular vodka, a wine called Ume Blanc that’s
made from a plumlike Japanese fruit, homemade five-spice honey, lemongrass syrup, lemon juice, peppermint leaves, preserved cherries, jasmine flowers, and a splash of Seltzer Sisters
seltzer …

Two important details were omitted by the story: One, the price tag. Two, the alcoholic wallop. These are both dreadfully gauche details, but when you commit to a drinking experience that includes a double-digit list of ingredients and luxury-branded seltzer, you deserve to have all the facts at hand before committing to your beverage.

That said, this account of a “beautifully obsessed” mixologist and his high-end antics is a delightful little portrait of a man on a mission to bring the ethos of Chez Panisse to the cocktail shaker.

Hey, where did you get that sweet potato shirt?

Food: It’s not just something to eat these days. At the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris last week, produce was turned into pants and sent down the catwalk.

According to a report by Agence France-Presse, more than 60 designers took part in the show, presenting skirts made from pineapple fiber, shirts lacquered with sweet potato paste (a traditional Chinese technique), and jewelry made from fish scales. The show is in its third year and was the largest to date.

Ethical fashion depends on two qualifications—organic materials (not all edible) and humane labor practices. Most products are created by small companies, but according to Eric Olsen, head of consulting group Business and Social Responsibility, ethical fashion is facing issues similar to some in the organic food movement:

Twenty years ago, organic food was made by small alternative companies. Today, health food in America is mainstream. Everyone is reading labels. More health food is made by agro giants than by niche market producers. This is the question for the ethical fashion business: who will be able to reach the mass public?

The other question of course being, is the mass public ready to trade in its denim for pineapple fiber?

South Vietnam, 1963: Three Courses at the Diamond

Renowned author and reporter David Halberstam has a mesmerizing piece in Gourmet titled “The Boys of Saigon.”

The story revolves around the war reporters Halberstam ran with in Vietnam during the war, and an off-the-beaten-path restaurant called the Diamond. There the author and his cronies congregated for three-course meals prepared in a Vietnamese style tailored to American tastes. Here’s Halberstam writing about the meal:

The second course at the Diamond was always the baby pigeon. They looked very elegant, all those wondrous little birds, perfectly done, placed with admirable spacing, equidistant from each other, like 30 or 40 miniaturized turkeys on a platter. They were, I think, roasted; I know they were not grilled. And again, we did not use knives and forks or chopsticks to eat them—rather our fingers flew, plate to mouth and back.

Some of the best food stories are those that serve as bridges between the world of culinary delights and some other place—the entertainment industry, or the criminal underworld, or in the case of Halberstam’s piece, war journalism. Gourmands have a tendency to get lost in their own little self-contained universe of chefs, restaurants, ingredients, and recipes; the stirring thing about “The Boys of Saigon” is that its lushly detailed account of meals from long ago is set against a stark backdrop of daily deadlines, mounting casualties, and political pressure from both Saigon and Washington.

There are certain stories that make an entire magazine worth buying; this piece might justify half a subscription.

Next Issue: A Four-Page Exposé on Wooden Spoons

The new Cook’s Illustrated presents readers with a question so monumentally awesome that it’s remarkable that it was answered in a mere three-page spread.

The question: “Do Manual Knife Sharpeners Work?”

In one intensely detailed article, Cook’s Illustrated has served up a textbook example of the obsessive-compulsive fussiness that makes them the Adrian
of food magazines. Get a load of this hot copy:

Most sharpeners, both electric and manual, start their work with a coarse material and progress through stages of finer material to polish the edge. In general, the hardest material is diamond, followed by tungsten carbide, followed by high-alumina ceramic, followed by steel.

Flanked by inset tables including the make and models of 18 different sharpeners (including price, sharpening material, strokes to sharpen, testers’ comments, and three different star-rating fields), this article is the sine qua non of knife-sharpener-review articles.

The thing is—and I appreciate, like most amateur cooks, that Cook’s Illustrated is out there plugging away to do the hard reporting on boring but important food-related issues—they could’ve just run a one-inch box with “The four best knife sharpeners,” and we would’ve taken their word for it. For the intensely distrustful or
bored-at-work reader, they could’ve posted all the work online.

Make no mistake: When’s Cook’s Illustrated is good, it’s about as good as cooking magazines can get. It’s clear, thoughtful, precise, and admirably clear-headed, and their recipes have a lower failure rate than the Pill. But a little judicious editing of any given issue’s dullest feature would go a long way.

“Iron Chef” Goes Cheesy

As a trial run, to make sure the kitchen stadium was ready for battle, the Food Network staff recently held a practice Iron Chef cookoff. The secret ingredient: Cheez Whiz!

As reported on the Food Network blog, two teams of staff chefs got cooking with this odd, bright-orange, cheeselike substance. But the menus they prepared are impressive:

Team 1:

Cheez Whiz ravioli in brodo (broth)

Wild mushroom panini with truffled cheese sauce

Cheese popover with caramelized red onions

Cheese risotto with buttery beef and micro-greens

Cheese-ribbon ice cream with brown-sugar fig sauce

Team 2:

Mini bacon–quail egg and cheese sandwich with coffee

Cheez Whiz soufflé with arugula, apple, and beet salad

Applewood smoked bacon truffled mac and cheese

Jalapeno cheesesteak with chipotle cheese fries

Cheez Whiz cheesecake

There’s no report on which team won this battle, but my money is on Team 2 and their applewood smoked bacon truffled mac and cheese. If you forget about the use of fluorescent pseudocheese, that actually sounds pretty good. Cheez Whiz cheesecake, however, I don’t even want to think about.

Flash-Frozen Hot Chocolate

Flash-Frozen Hot Chocolate

The Anti-Griddle allows you to instantly freeze almost anything, while keeping the center still gooey. READ MORE

Late Night at Momofuku: From Wraps to Little Plates

Momofuku Ssam Bar, trendy Korean-inspired wrap counter by day, recasts itself as a trendy small-plates hangout late at night. Early reports say one of the best bites is the three-terrine sandwich–ham, head cheese, and chicken liver pate on ciabatta, its meaty richness balanced by a lively banh mi-style vegetable slaw.

nycfoodie went with a big group–which seems to be the way to go–and loved just about everything on the short, beer- and sake-friendly menu: oysters raw and fried, spicy honeycomb tripe, Brussels sprouts with bacon, steamed pork-belly buns, and wax bean salad (with pickled beets, candied peanuts, purslane). Some complain about prices–e.g., $3 an oyster or $9 for an eighth of a wheel of Burns Ardrahan cheese.

The late-night menu is served 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Momofuku Ssam Bar [East Village]
207 2nd Ave., at E. 13th St., Manhattan

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late night dining at momofuku ssam?

Polenta Revelation

The Restaurant Pearl’s soft polenta with sauteed seasonal vegetables and roasted tomato sauce is a wonderful thing of vegetable beauty, says Ruby Louise. It’s a shallow bowl of soft, creamy polenta, rich with cheese and butter, topped with savory roasted tomato sauce and perfectly saut