AlexRast's Profile

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Buying Meat in Bulk (quarters and sides)

I bought 1/2 cow some years ago - for a family of 4, one VERY HEAVY meat eater (myself), the rest fairly normal for their ages (adult female plus 2 children younger than teens but older than tots). It took us about 1 year to eat the whole thing, but that wasn't the exclusive meat we ate, not by a long toss. There were still a few packets of mince left at the end of a year. Storage proved unproblematic with all vac-packed in very heavy plastic and a good freezer.

The quality was out of this world, but this we knew going in - we'd already got meat from this particular farmer in the past and his beef was about as good as it is possible to achieve. Much more problematic was trying to get them and their butchers to cut exactly according to specification; I had some fairly exacting ideas about how to cut it up, not all adhering to industry standard on cuts, and there were certain things as a result they simply couldn't manage. I volunteered to go to the abbatoir in person (yes, an experience that I can actually endure) and show them exactly what I wanted done, but that wasn't a possibility; health and safety reasons of course.

Most of the organ meats also wouldn't have been included had I not asked for them specifically, so if you like various forms of offal, be sure to state that first. Also have them give you the real suet from beef and the real leaf lard from pork.

Getting them also to give us some of the cuts fresh - ones we knew at the time of delivery we'd want to eat right away, was also a challenge although I did manage to squeeze that one out.

It's nice to have certain cuts, which you know you can have reserved for particular occasions, there so you don't have to think about it when the time comes. On the other hand for some of the rest of it, it makes you think about meal planning and the need to get through the meat at reasonable clip.

With lamb, remember that the concept of "bulk" here doesn't really apply. My father regularly got a whole lamb for his birthday, roasted it on the beach at a traditional spot we went to every year, and served an (admittedly huge) party - which consumed the entire lamb in a day. By myself I would probably have gone through a comparable amount within a month. However it's a nice way of easing yourself into the concept.

Nonetheless, on the whole I find afterwards that while undoubtedly worthwhile it didn't really add anything to just buying from a reputable butcher periodically. I wouldn't say the cost savings was that large either, because it merely caused us to think about meat more rather than less often in meal planning. If I were to do it again it would have to be for a really very special animal indeed.

Sep 16, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Good Food Guide - Top 50

Much may depend upon your "era"; I can't comment on anything pre-late-70's. My recollection was that food might be on offer but was almost never particularly good. But it did have a certain character; there were some things that you could get and others you would NEVER see. Meanwhile all the restaurants with any pretension to quality would sort of offer an "inverse" of this list. What I always hoped for is a pub which would actually make an effort with the sorts of things you might find in pubs, because you never would find them in restaurants.

Sep 14, 2014
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Good Food Guide - Top 50

A late question (too many other things going on recently): do you have any estimate of how many of the listed pubs have proper pub food - and how clear that is in the review? It's disappointing to me to go to a highly regarded pub only to find that what they really do is poshed-up restaurant fare, but I would murder for a cracking steak and kidney pud.

Sep 13, 2014
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Nutella taste comparison

In Italy you can do much better than Nutella, which is simply a point of departure for truly world-class chocolate hazelnut spreads.

Domori makes one (Crema Spalmabile) which is quite readily available and could be your introduction to what's possible.
Going up the scale, there's Guido Gobino's version, with a somewhat more restricted distribution but still well known, (Eataly has it for example)
Then you get to Guido Castagna, where you reach the elite category; hard to find, but well worth it.
And finally we reach the pinnacle with Slitti, who make both a milk (riccosa) and a dark (gianera) spread that are truly revelatory and will redefine your concept of the possible. It's not cheap (€11.00/$15.00 a 400g jar) but it makes Nutella look like somebody's castoff. And yes, you can get it in the USA (and Canada): from Chocosphere:

If you can afford the price jump you may be ruined for life...

When do you send back a steak for being under/over cooked?

There are always going to be people who take advantage of what they perceive to be a situation to exploit. But it seems to me, that's their problem, not the restaurant's, to solve. If a restaurant decides to offer outstanding service I think it will usually be repaid countless times by customer loyalty over and above the few manipulative people who will try to cheat the system. Meanwhile the dishonest few are always paying the price in their own cynicism, which leaves little room for real enjoyment of anything.

In fact, any attempt to try to "catch" such people usually has the reverse effect of that intended: that honest people end up unnecessarily inconvenienced or offended, rather than that the dishonest get caught, precisely because the dishonest are relentlessly opportunistic and will always try to manipulate the system by taking advantage of people who give them the benefit of trust. So the only "solution" would be not to trust, but absence of trust is part of the very definition of poor (and contemptuous) customer service.

So seen in this light, passing comments to the restaurant is your way of showing that you trust *them*, enough to think that it's actually worthwhile to make a comment in the hopes that they will improve things. It's part of being a good customer.

Sep 11, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

When do you send back a steak for being under/over cooked?

That's what real customer service - and responsiveness - is supposed to be all about. Keep those comments coming: it's what the restaurants that actually care about their customers (such as Keens) need to stay on top. If no one's giving them any feedback, they'll not know if they're doing anything even slightly wrong, and that's how possibly bad or sloppy habits creep in. Keens is clearly not about to let that happen.

No need to feel humbled and embarrassed; you're their guest; it's not your job or responsibility to keep them happy. Maybe there wasn't a "real problem" with the meal, which probably would have been OK for Keens if they weren't the kind of place that was satisfied with nothing less than perfection, but to them, that's the difference. Obsession wins. They belong to an older school of thought, that believes that you can always do better, rather than a school that thinks "good enough" actually is.

Casual remarks are exactly the sort of thing all great restaurants crave.

Sep 11, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

When do you send back a steak for being under/over cooked?

This sounds just like a difference in interpretation over terminology - the "effort" word here is meant to incorporate "aggravation", "inconvenience", etc.: all those things that cost mental energy.

And on the "most of us" - yes, I'm someone who's going to try to summarise what appears to be general trends in thinking. It's never meant to be applied too deterministically or personally. It's like describing climate vs. giving a weather forecast. The climate anywhere has only a very vague relationship at best to the weather forecast for a particular place, at a particular time. Same thing with these sorts of descriptions; I'm just trying to capture common threads.

Sep 04, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

When do you send back a steak for being under/over cooked?

:-D (Presuming you've read my other posts)

Luger's gets a special exemption from the usual severe whinging on such matters on account of the excellence of the steak.

Though yes, it does still irk about the hot-plate thing. And that cutting-up-the-meat thing. Not, naturally, that I haven't tried to get them to do neither. The answer was, naturally, no. Part of the atmosphere, really.

Sep 03, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

When do you send back a steak for being under/over cooked?

As I read I'm reminded of a few things.

Here in the UK, people tend to get very fussed about warming plates - it's commonly done even for informal meals at home. I personally have never liked warm plates for precisely the reason you mention: they continue cooking the food. If you want rare meat, that's a serious problem. So if I know a restaurant would typically warm the plate, I'll ask them not to do so. (although if the plate came warm anyway I'd surely not send everything back)

One other reason I find to send things back, much more commonly than doneness: when a dish has a sauce or condiment, not mentioned on the menu, put on top. So, e.g. I asked for a steak and got one with a huge ball of herbed butter on top. Or drizzled with some mystery sauce. That's likely to go back; they didn't mention it, I didn't want it, and it would have had the effect of severely diminishing my experience, possibly to the extent of inedibility. That's one thing I do think restaurants ought to be mindful of: never have "hidden" ingredients that you don't mention or even hint at, yet automatically add.

I also think it's interesting, but not surprising, that people will more readily send back steaks (which represent greater cost to the restaurant) than hamburgers (which usually except for ultra-posh varieties at some places are lower-cost). Most of us are doing a "how much effort is this worth?" calculation when deciding to send something back, much more than a "is this really a serious defect that the restaurant should correct?" calculation.

Sep 03, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

When do you send back a steak for being under/over cooked?

For steaks, I prefer very rare; I'd definitely send back anything more than medium-rare, and if medium-rare, I'll note that to the waiter/waitress, without insisting that they redo it, but just so the kitchen notes it. I'm not particularly fond, when I get a steak asked for rare, that's actually *cold* in the centre, but by the time this is discovered I'll have eaten too much of it for it to go back.

For hamburgers, I wish it were possible to get them rare! This is so uncommon, though, that it's usually pointless to expect it. I do get surprised looks every time when I ask if they can do that. Most of the time the answer is no. :-( There is one thing, though, that does bother me, and puts me in a dilemma. It's frequently the case that a restaurant will offer 2 grades of beef for the hamburger: an "ordinary" one and a "premium" one. But self-defeatingly, it's even more invariably the case, that they will be able to offer the "ordinary" one to desired doneness degree, but the "premium" one can only be done medium. What's with that? (My usual solution then is to vote with my feet and walk out)

Sep 02, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

New York Michelin

Interesting answer. It shows that what constitutes "quality of the food" depends somewhat on your own internal criteria.

To me, it seems like counting menu variety as important is adding another layer of criteria that Michelin doesn't explictly claim - it's an aspect of style, which in fact Michelin claims doesn't matter. You're going to a steak house - you expect steak. You're not expecting nor are likely to get sushi. The same could be said in reverse. As long as nobody is under any illusions as to what's on offer, the rating isn't distorting anything or implying qualities a restaurant doesn't possess. One could also argue that tasting-menu-only restaurants by definition offer zero menu variety - you get what the chef decides to provide. But I would think that shouldn't be any sort of barrier (nor, in practice, does it prove to be) in getting any Michelin rating merited. If the food is good enough, it's good enough. But this is definitely personal opinion as to the details - quality of the food is a (probably purposefully) vague definition, and one man's quality may be another man's pedestrian-ness.

It should be noted though that Luger's wouldn't qualify for a Bib Gourmand, part of the criteria for that is that it must be meals "at moderate prices" - the distinction is meant to bring attention to places whose quality is really quite decent in consideration of their price structure, but who presumably because of the need to control costs might not quite merit star rating.

I still think though, in response to other posters, that New York, and America in general, indeed, needs some different restaurant guide, fulfilling the same function that the Good Food Guide does in the UK or Gambero Rosso in Italy, written from an American perspective, reflecting American priorities on what's good and bad, embodying an American understanding of quality. Differences in expectation are almost certainly one of the major reasons why people find comparing Michelin stars in the USA vs. Europe difficult, and for that matter find stars everywhere to be strangely inconsistent. You shouldn't have to settle for Michelin.

Sep 02, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

Irrationally far-in-advance bookings: an increasingly general trend

Interesting. The "dinner-as-event" does seem to be a new phenomenon. In the past, when people wanted a "dinner event", they threw a party and invited others. Is this a reflection of social atomisation?

It should be said too, that the capitulatory option of taking no bookings at all creates a different irrational situation: instead of irrationally far in advance bookings, you're faced with irrational waits (over 2 hours, possibly more).

However, there *are* other potential solutions to the bookings problem. Of course as you suggest the "pure capitalist" solution is simply to bump the prices up until people squeal. But here are a pair of less-risky models:

1: Block release. Simply make 1/4 of your available bookings open a month (or more) before, release 1/4 more with a week to go, 1/4 more with a day to go, and have 1/4 seats available for people walking in. This spreads the booking frenzy out. Notice that because people know new windows are going to open, they won't be that panicked about calling at the first possible moment, because they know it's not really a crisis if they miss. And furthermore this allows the people with really fixed times, who need to get in at a certain time, on a certain day, appropriate priority, because they *will* be the ones who call first, rather than chancing it until later. And you can always take your chances with showing up on spec, so even if all bookings are taken, hope is not yet lost. Obviously the system can be tweaked using various ratios and release schedules.

2: Dutch Auction. The method of a Dutch auction is actually very clever. You start the booking availability on Day X. But booking isn't free, if you call at the first available moment. No, it costs, probably a significant amount. With each successive day that passes, the price of a booking drops, until, on the day of the booking itself, it's free. So again, people will follow different, independent strategies to maximise what to them is their probability-of-getting-a-table vs. cost tradeoff. And of course the establishment wins, because the costs of running the system are paid off simply through the process itself.

Both systems have the advantage of appearing reasonably fair to the participants, not requiring too much effort on anyone's part, and critically, spreading the booking load out over the whole period, so you don't get either Harters' annoying panic-when-the-phones-open problem or the equally annoying queueing-for-hours problem.

Sep 02, 2014
AlexRast in Not About Food

Irrationally far-in-advance bookings: an increasingly general trend

I'm noticing a phenomenon that started with restaurants, particularly ones with a lot of "media hype" around them, but seems to be migrating to all walks of life. It's the trend for everything to require booking weeks or even months in advance. In the past, it used to be that you could have a reasonable expectation of being able to just turn up to many things, be they restaurants, art galleries, major sights, or just about anything else, and get in, at least if you timed things reasonably intelligently. In the worst cases a week's advance booking usually was plenty. No longer.

The "system" has got to the point in a lot of areas wherein you may have to book for anything 3 months, even a year in advance, to have any chance. This is an irrational situation, in my view. It makes an absurdity of any kind of reasonable planning, obviously eliminates even the possibility of sponteneity, makes no allowances for contigencies (illness, accident, transport difficulties, or anything else), and essentially requires that you lead a completely fixed life with absolutely planned daily schedules and utterly regular patterns, extending years into the future. I very much doubt if more than a tiny fraction of people have that sort of predictability, and even fewer probably want it.

That this problem is occurring suggests a serious failing in organisations' ability to cope with volume of demand, and it would seem, lack of originality in coming up with creative solutions that permit reasonable flexibility. Can anyone suggest any reasons why 1) volume of demand for *anything* has leapt to such a disproportionate extent; 2) places (but particularly restaurants in a Chow context) don't seem to be able to find the imagination to come up with reasonable solutions? (It will be noted that while of course, for some, cynical market manipulation is probably a factor, I don't believe this is the only - or even the prevailing - reason for the problem).

Aug 31, 2014
AlexRast in Not About Food

Differences in terminology

? Accurate measurement of weight was more difficult, until recently?? Balance scales have been around for centuries and measure very accurately. Indeed, I've rigged up my own very simply with a metal rod, 2 pieces of string, an elastic band, and 2 identical bags. It measures accurately to sub-gram precision. In fact, it's been easier for a very long time indeed to measure weight more accurately than volume could ever be measured.

With respect to butter, and measurements, this is only true as far as I know in the USA. Definitely not true for the UK. And presumably the marking into tablespoons presupposes existing uses in volume measurement. And when people use "cups" that adds another layer of interpretation. Complex. Weights are simple. Bung on scale, measure. I'm sure people do it that way now in the USA because that's what evolved, but I'd love to know the historical events that led to a somewhat more complex and imprecise system being adopted over a time-honoured and simple one.

Interesting insight on the tart/pie US terminology. Now I can see why I've always been guessing about that. I would never have thought that type of pan would make the difference. If applied to some traditional English pies this would lead to difficulties in description. A pork pie, for instance, always has straight sides, but isn't even baked in a pan at all. You form the crust with your hands, "raising" it over the filling, and the whole is self-supporting when you put it in the oven.

Aug 31, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

New York Michelin

Replying to both posters streakeasy and loratliff:

Peter Luger: Can you articulate why you think it's "utter craziness"? The way I see it is this: Michelin's standard suggests that 3-star is worth a specific journey for the sole purpose of visiting the restaurant in concern. I would *easily* and *gladly* do that at any time. I know of others who would, too. And the steaks themselves are of a level that is a quantum jump over anything else I've had, anywhere, with the possible exception of Cha Cha Char in Brisbane which might have been relatively close. I've been to a lot of steakhouses worldwide and am fairly confident by now that these are steaks about as good as they can possibly be. Now, I realise that it's quite unlikely Michelin will go for 3 stars, but again I would suggest that if this is the case then at least part of the reason may be having narrow ideas about what styles can even qualify for the possibility of a 3-star rating.

EMP: In a discussion some time back, it emerged that at least one possible reason why a lot of people like EMP is that they're looking at a restaurant as "entertainment" - a sort of dinner-as-theatre - wherein what they're looking for is more an Experience than a fantastically good meal as such. Fair do's, but that's not what Michelin is rating, at least not if they're following their own stated criteria. My experience of EMP has been that none of what they presented delivered the sort of visceral, "Oh my God, that's GOOOD!" (sighs follow) reaction that I would consider essential to a 3-star restaurant. At the very least I should be able to remember in vivid detail what I had, and I can't. Everything is technically well-executed but falls short in the area of pure sensory pleasure. Which is not to say, not good (hence the 1-star), but not world-class great. Not close to many 2-stars I've been to. Annisa, in terms of quality of the food on the plate, just blows it away. At least, that's my opinion. Same thing - can you (or anyone else) articulate what in your opinion justifies the 3-star, or for that matter justifies putting it above so many of the other quality restaurants in NYC?

Aug 31, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

New York Michelin

Some comments from a total outsider (UK: Manchester) who visits periodically. Obviously, with limited exposure, these should be taken with some discretion. Personal opinion more than prediction of what will happen. Criticism/disagreement welcome.

Michelin's own criteria state that stars are awarded purely for the food, not for other aspects. Then according to this:

1 star is supposed to be "A very good restaurant in its category" - one that you might expect to be best in town in a medium-sized city, and a standout even in a great metropolis like NY
2 stars is "Worth a detour" - one that even if you're not going specifically to the city it's in, would be worth diverting just to go to. E.g. if you were travelling to Philadelphia, it might be worth going up to NY for.
3 starts is "Worth the journey" - something that can be considered a place of pilgrimage, that you might plan a specific (long-distance) trip just for the purposes of visiting.

Commenting on ones people have put up:
EMP should be reduced to 1 star. Good but not a place of pilgrimage. Not by a long toss.
AquaGrill: not starred, not yet. They're not bad, but there is much better in NYC.
Minetta Tavern: should lose the star. They're very nice, and I definitely return as a regular, but it's more a sort of decent midrange choice. Needs a little more attention to small details.

Peter Luger: Should go to 3 stars. Indisputably a place of pilgrimage. You probably won't find a better steak anywhere. For Michelin not to do so suggests they expect some sort of "canonical style" to get the 3-star rating.
Annisa: Should go up to 2 stars. The cooking is easily of a level to match 2-stars in Europe, and is some of the finest, most elegant food in NYC.
Gotham: Stays at 1 star. This provides context for why, e.g. EMP goes to 1 star or Minetta loses a star. EMP is about on the same level, in terms of the food. Minetta is a notch below (as is AquaGrill).
Momofuku Ssäm Bar: Should be promoted to 1-star. The Bib Gourmand is nice but doesn't really capture the level you're getting here. Not been to Ko though. (Does this suggest maybe I should? If it's at commensurately higher level then that would suggest it should go to 3 star)

Aug 30, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

Differences in terminology

Can anyone shed any light on historical reasons why the US favoured measurement by volume? The one I always find most surprising (and initially difficult to calculate/convert in your head), is, as you describe here, the use of volume measurements for butter: things like "1 cup" of butter to me seem strange. It will be pointed out though that in the UK a standard butter brick weighs 250 g, but strangely measures 25/6 of an *inch* in length, so that each 1/6 of an inch is 10 g. A really odd example of mixed measurements almost certainly carried over from pre-metric days.

Use of volume measurements for flour and other dry ingredients with unknown densities would seem to defeat repeatability in baking, another US usage which appears surprising.

Apart from measurements, most of the time I find the differences in terminology not too difficult to manage, once you acquire a bit of familiarity. There are patterns, to a degree: the English prefer French-derived words in many cases: courgette, rocket, mange-tout, ceps; where Americans are more varied: zucchini, arugula, snow peas, porcini. Oz tends to have a hybrid between English and US usage. English meat cuts favour cooking methods that work in cool, damp climes: roasts, stews, braises (the old English word for braised was "boiled" but this has passed out of typical use); American cuts have a stronger slant towards grilling and barbequeing, techniques more suited to warmer, more stable climates. (The terminology for different cuts of meat, from different animals, is its own separate subject!). Don't know about Oz cuts but I'd guess based on climate that it would lean even more heavily towards the hot-weather forms.

Scones are surprisingly different between the UK and the USA. The US object I would say is closer to farl (an Irish thing) than the English scone, which is altogether lighter (and generally much smaller, although US sizes in everything are larger). American biscuits are similar to UK scones but not, as has been noted, identical.

Here we tend to make a distinction between a pie - something fully enclosed in pastry - and a tart - something baked in a shell but not enclosed. Pork pies but custard tarts. My sense - can someone in the USA confirm? is that US "tart" usually refers to size rather than format; tarts being small and single-size; larger versions of what we would call a tart tending to be called pie.

Aug 30, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Hamburger buns: "Ideal"? recipe

Some of you will no doubt have seen my whinging on the indifference of typical hamburger buns, even at "specialist" burger joints. Various comments suggested that for a lot of people the bun is considered exclusively as a vehicle and therefore of little concern. My view has always been that, given that the bun is one of the sine qua non parts of a hamburger - it's not one without a bun - if the objective is to produce a really great burger, the bun should match that. OK, let me put that to the test. Here's my recipe for a great bun; I'd like if possible for people to try this and give me your *honest* comments. That means, I don't need any praise from anyone indicating how great they think they are, unless you really think that they are that great, and I'm open to any criticism no matter how severe you feel is appropriate, unless you're merely firing criticism because I've made myself an easy target. It's my view that no matter how good *I* might think the buns are, that's meaningless: it's what the wider world thinks that matters; only then would they really be good as opposed to good for me. So if you feel inspired to make these, please do, and tell me what you think. From my point of view, I think these are close to ideal because: 1) They have a real flavour but one which never interferes with or overshadows the flavour of everything else; 2) They will stand up to the heaviest of loading (250 g patty, cooked rare, + all sorts of toppings) without collapsing or dissolving; 3) They remain soft and pliant, a similar texture to the patty, rather than heavily chewy and difficult. 4) They look lovely - just exactly as one might imagine an iconic hamburger bun would look like.

Hamburger Buns

Makes approximately 12

850g (approx, by weight) strong bread flour
500 ml whole milk
3 (UK) large eggs + 1 for brushing
60 ml mild vegetable oil (I use sunflower)
15 g salt
Approx. 10 g fresh yeast (probably about 1/4 packet dry)
About 20g sesame seeds (optional)

Take a small amount of the milk (about 50 ml), heat to lukewarm, and in it dissolve the yeast. Stir the salt, oil, and milk in a large bowl. Beat the eggs and add. Add about 1/2 of the flour, then the dissolved yeast, and mix (with a fork or mixer) until it is well-blended and has a stringy texture. Allow to sit for about 20 minutes.
Add most of the rest of the flour (the amount here is approximate, you are aiming for a very sticky consistency but one that doesn't quite flow) and knead vigorously (preferably with a stand mixer; I use my hands because that's what I'm used to and prefer but most will find this difficult and tedious because of the stickiness of the dough) until it starts to clear either the hands or dough hook (it will have a smooth, uniform consistency). Cover and allow to rise until double. (about 6 hours)
Knock back and allow to double again (about 3 hours).
Now, line hamburger bun tins (the ideal ones are about 10 cm/4 in in diameter and about 1 cm/0.4 in in height) with parchment. Divide the dough evenly amongst the tins - it should fit about 12 - and allow to rise until the domes swell about half again the height of the tins. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top, if desired (I personally prefer sesame seed buns but you can leave them off if you prefer) and press lightly in.
Preheat the oven to 175C/350 F. Beat another egg and brush the tops with it (over the sesame seeds if there; this helps to bond them in, in addition to browning the bun tops), then bake for about 20 minutes, until the tops are uniform brown and there is a hollow sound when the bottoms are tapped. Remove and place on a towel, then cover with a large tin (or anything else that will cover all the buns - the aim here is to trap some of the steam while cooling so that the crusts don't crisp).

When fully cool, these can be used as is, toasted if preferred (I do) or frozen in plastic freezer bags.

Aug 28, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Next question: breakfast (possibly brunch) Saturday?

Thanks to all who've responded with suggestions on my first post regarding the latest NYC trip. Now, the next.

I'm trying to decide on a good option for breakfast on Saturday. Been to several "usual suspects": Clinton Street Baking (will return but not on Saturday), Bouchon (an entirely different direction, again, will return but for other reasons it's not appropriate for this particular occasions), Norma's (not really a fan), Minetta Tavern (very nice but for me there it's all about the burger; saving for another day).

Here are the parameters:

I have unknown but real time constraints: at some point in the morning (probably later rather than earlier) I will need to go across the Hudson to NJ. Somewhere that I can't expect to leave by 12 or be seated by 11 is not a practicable option.

Will be eating alone.

Need high proportion of protein and minimal amount of sugar, for reasons connected with activities of the rest of the day.

Never that impressed with "twists" on typical breakfast items, at least not if that's the main selling point: if creativity is what elevates it I wouldn't give it too much weighting factor. But certainly not averse to creativity as such.

Too far north in upper Manhattan would be logistically awkward so if you recommend something there (say, north of 86th) it had better be spectacularly better than anything else further south.

Aug 25, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

QUIET restaurant, GOOD FOOD (that's it!)

Strongly seconded. Definitely quiet, definitely outstanding food.

Aug 24, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

Tips for using a chocolate fondue fountain?

You need to use a chocolate with a very high percentage of cocoa butter. It should be noted that milk chocolate is particularly problematic due to the milk solids, which if the heat is too high, will coagulate and completely ruin things. (were you trying milk chocolate, perchance?) But again, it's the cocoa butter percentage that matters. 45% is a good point of departure. For that look at the nutrition information to determine if at least 45% of the portion weight is listed as fat grams.

This is the most common problem people have, in fact: somehow it's not widely made known that chocolate fountains need very-high-cocoa-butter chocolates. The very highest of all, and they will flow beautifully, although the flavour is rather muted, is Hachez. They have a 77% chocolate with an astonishing 55% cocoa butter. A high-quality choice would be Bonnat; I would strongly recommend it if you can afford it.

Many of the larger companies (e.g. Callebaut) make special-purpose fountain formulations with very high cocoa butter. If you look on the websites of people like Callebaut, Valrhona, Felchlin, etc. you can usually find suitable chocolates.

If the fountain has adjustable temperature, you want to set it to the lowest setting that will produce acceptable flow. Higher temperatures perversely can worsen things, because it encourages the fat to coalesce as it becomes very fluid, and the cocoa particles themselves drop out of suspension.

The other way you can go wrong is if you were dipping things with some water content. As usual, small moisture introduction in flowing chocolate will cause it to seize. For instance, if you use strawberries, and wash the strawberries, it's going to be fatal almost every time, as the clinging droplets seize the chocolate coming down the fountain. Fruits in general are difficult, you have to make sure they're thoroughly dry and limit the number of dippings. Anything that has external moisture tends to be problematic eventually.

Aug 24, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

sour milk

I usually use sour milk as you suggest for e.g. soda bread or cornbread. But, as other posters have correctly noted, you need to catch it "on the right day" - once it's gone too far, it's of no use. And the milk needs to be "pasteurised" (or raw), not "ultra-pasteurised" or UHT; the latter types as noted just spoil, although this is fairly obvious. I think it's best to make whatever it is you might bake with it using the milk, that day, and if not wanted immediately, to freeze the result rather than the milk. Freezing really separates milk and I don't know how it would reconstitute in a sour state upon defrosting.

There's also milk that one might call "on the edge"; it's not exactly sour, but you can tell that it's just about to do so. There is a subtle change in flavour at this point, it becomes more developed, nuttier. While there might be some risk in this, I find that's when it has its best flavour (albeit for one day, no longer) and is good for applications where the flavour of the milk is paramount: semolina and rice puddings, cold cereal, certain sauces. I don't know exactly what the risk level is with cold cereal but I have a feeling it's not far off the risk level with raw milk, i.e. it *probably* won't kill you, but those with weak stomachs or vulnerable physiologies might not want to chance it. These are guesses.

Aug 24, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Favorite chocolate for making truffles?

No, in this case tempering really is about achieving the right crystal form for chocolate. Cocoa butter actually has multiple solid phases and certainly the more stable ones are reasonably crystalline; it's normal industry practice to refer to the solid phases as "crystal forms"

There is negligible water in chocolate to begin with, and tempering chocolate as a result doesn't result in any appreciable loss of residual moisture. Rather, tempering is done to ensure the desired crystal form (V/beta-2) in the finished chocolate. See http://www1.food.leeds.ac.uk//mp/Lipi... (and other references are available).

Ganache can separate or become grainy because it's an unstable emulsion. The solid, starchy cocoa particles are suspended in a water/fat emulsion containing cocoa butter and butterfat. If there is too much fat in the mixture, it will "oversurround" the starch and water particles, aggregate into large blobs, and then separate out. Graininess is a partial separation; the fat particles start to join and thus correspondingly the starch particles likewise clump together. As some have noted, adding butter may not solve the problem because you are merely adding more fat into a possibly already overfatty mixture. However, ganache can "break" even if the fat content is OK, by excessive agitation which again causes the fat to aggregate together. Generally the higher the water content (greater amount of cream), the lower the fat content should be. You can do this by using progressively lighter cream in the ganache, as your ratios go from 2:1 chocolate:cream to 3:2, 1:1, or even 2:3. The most important things though, are to have your chocolate thoroughly grated or chopped, so that it's in very small bits, prior to incorporation: this makes melting more uniform and eases the job of creating an emulsion because you're already starting from distributed particles; and to stir only as much as is absolutely necessary to achieve glossiness. As soon as that point is reached, stop stirring.

Temperature is also important; the ganache mixture should be at around 45 C at its highest temperature; don't let it get hotter than that. Cool slowly, at room temperature or just below.

By the way, I'll note for posterity and the original poster that Guittard is amongst the very best chocolates for ganache or just about any other application, a world-class chocolate manufacturer who certainly today is considerably better than Valrhona. The Guittard Colombian, for example, is probably the reference chocolate for its origin, a masterful job. Guittard does also make commodity-grade chocolate for the volume trade, although I would say even there the quality is perhaps that bit higher than others, but in the top-end couvertures, they can rival anyone. If I were in the Bay Area, they'd be my chocolate of choice without hesitation.

Here in Europe, my choice, if I had to select one "main" brand for most work, it would be Michel Cluizel. Cluizel has consistently maintained the top standards and have a breadth and refinement that is matchless.

Aug 23, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Gotham/Gramercy Tavern/Annisa/Union Square cafe - which one this time?

What I mean by "vaguely intimidating" is to be understood in a distinctly *relative* way. In other words, if you compare it, next to some of the other fine-food restaurants in NYC (at least, that I've been to), it strikes me as less relaxed, less casual. I would say for instance that Annisa has a more formal atmosphere than Eleven Madison Park which is *definitely* trying to create a formal atmosphere.

Same thing with the service, it's all relative, it's that to me there was an atmosphere of formality and keeping a professional distance that's different from other places I've been to. This should be put in context by saying that in fine food restaurants in, say, France, the service will be *much* more formal most of the time than that in Annisa, or almost anywhere else in NYC.

On portion size, I'm not going to quibble over portion size as long as the food is as good as it was. As far as I'm concerned, that's the factor that outweighs everything else. But it should be realised that I'm a person with one of those extreme metabolisms. A steak for 3, or even 4 at the Peter Luger, for instance, presents no particular problems, and I'd say that a steak for 2 is for me what would be a realistic size for a "normal" meal assuming I'm ordering side dishes, desserts, starters, etc. Different categories of food need. So in the case of Annisa, it's more a matter of having to plan ahead by having a heavy lunch.

I should emphasise again that in terms of the food it's decisively the best I've had in NYC.

Aug 22, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

Gotham/Gramercy Tavern/Annisa/Union Square cafe - which one this time?

Interesting idea! For the date I have in mind above that's not really an option because I'll be with a friend but I like the idea of being able to just "drop in" at the Gramercy myself. With that in mind I think I'm leaning towards one of the other 3 for the booking and to find an open evening to visit the Tavern room.

Will post on my return how things went.

Aug 20, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

Gotham/Gramercy Tavern/Annisa/Union Square cafe - which one this time?

Perhaps some of you will remember previous requests in the past. If so you'll know my general preferences. If not, a few very quick notes in "shorthand form"

- Like Modern American
- Am more interested in good basic technique than creativity
- Budget-insensitive
- Not really enthusiastic about tasting menus
- Distance not really a factor unless it truly is miles away

I'm again to be in NY in late September. Have already been to both Gotham and Annisa; liked both (although I have to admit I'd class them as great in a local sense rather than in a world sense). Again looking for something excellent and top-end; all 4 of these seem to fit the bill in some sense. For this trip I think relaxation is the keynote: something where the food is great, the atmosphere charming, but where you're not coming in with any particular expectations.

USC is shutting so it may be now or never, but on the other hand I'm not necessarily bothered about the "never" part - as I just said, don't want to be coming in with particular expectations. The idea generally of trying one of the places I've never been has appeal, but on the other hand the idea of patronising somewhere I know and already enjoy has just as much appeal.

Any opinions on the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the above 4 (which seem from what I've been able to research the most obvious ones fitting my basic profile)? Any others I should definitely be considering? This would be for a dinner. I generally book very late (as late a slot as I can get). 2-3 in the party most likely.

For the record,

General take on Gotham: Loved the atmosphere, very New York, food very good and the portion size was gratifying, excellent service - but could they be even sharper on basic technique?

General take on Annisa: Dignified atmosphere if vaguely intimidating, reasonable service but with a trace of haughtiness perhaps (nothing severe, just a more formal approach, really). Technique truly outstanding and the flavours were wonderful. Portion size a problem though, really too small for a full meal. Good after a long day of heavy eating though.

Both of the above have the distinct advantage of being a literal stone's throw from my hotel (in fact, less than 1 subway stop away in both cases, so a walk regardless). As I said distance, though, isn't really a factor.

Aug 19, 2014
AlexRast in Manhattan

What do you eat when you don't know what you want?

That feeling is symptomatic of catastrophically low blood sugar.

So if there's one thing to AVOID, it's very sweet, sugary things that will cause a spike and collapse (relapse?) You (I!) must firmly resist cakes, biscuits, puddings, etc. even when they're the obvious thing on offer. Fatty things are also not the best choice, because they won't bring about much blood sugar recovery, not quickly.

Best is going to be a slow carb with some protein to bring recovery to blood sugar levels. What I usually make as a "default" in that situation is a Turkish bulgur - something with the bulgur, probably some lentils, carrots, celery, spices, and if I feel like it a bit of meat. Possibly substitute peppers and tomatoes for celery/carrots. There are endless variations. It's nice because it's fast to make, has a good moderate blood sugar release, and relies on ingredients that you can (and I do) keep around the house, as basic staples.

Here's a second question on a related theme (fork a new topic?):

What do you do when you know exactly what you want but for whatever reason it's absolutely unavailable?

(Much more difficult for me and usually leads to endless vacillation. I wonder if there are productive ways out of that trap?)

Aug 19, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

#@%* White Chocolate

No, that wouldn't work; the bits wouldn't flow together and would stay distinct. There would also be a very great risk of separation unless the melting was agonisingly slow: think 100C oven temperature. In a microwave, I don't think you could control the heat that precisely.

Many recipes don't mention all sorts of critical technical details, because the recipe-maker does them instinctively and subconsciously. Also, it often seems that recipes written down take liberties with what the person *actually* did. That's difficult or impossible to confirm of course, but I can look at recipes and see some suggested steps that are guaranteed not to work if you follow the directions exactly as stated.

Aug 18, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

#1 Black Licorice?

The best liquorice I have had is pure Calabrian liquorice pastilles. Literally this is liquorice and nothing else: no sugar, no flour, no molasses, nothing. They're (inevitably) hard but the flavour intensity is of course unmatchable. Liquorice is a Calabrian regional specialty.

Not that this will necessarily help you - but there is a small market stall in the Borough Market, London, that specialises in all things liquorice. Their selection is awe-inspiring.

Aug 17, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

#@%* White Chocolate

White chocolate, depending upon formulation, is always more difficult to melt successfully because of the high proportion of milk solids. It does need to be melted slowly and absolutely uniformly, which means it's very unwise to try to melt it directly in a pot in contact with the heating element. Isolating it in a bain marie makes a difference, and you need to make sure the water doesn't come to a boil.

Don't stir with a whisk, either, because that will create too much aeration and therefore uneven/rapid *cooling*. Use a metal spoon or something that really minimises air incorporation. Small quantities are also problematic because they react much more quickly to sudden temperature changes, to be precise, they have smaller heat capacity so that a small change in temperature may mean a large change in heat. And finally, break the chocolate into small pieces so that it melts uniformly, too. It's all about having uniform, controlled melting.

Moisture from bits like pistachios and particularly the cranberries can also cause seizure. And because you're spooning out small dollops, the mixture will cool very quickly, so if you fill first, top second, the first ones filled may congeal before you've even topped. And since you're also removing chocolate from the overall mixture, unless you're keeping it over a gentle heat source, it's likely that the remaining amount in the main vessel will congeal too, because you're steadily decreasing the amount in the vessel. If you're allowing the spoon to touch anything other than the chocolate, furthermore, the contamination may act as nuclei, so you have to make sure the spoon stays absolutely clean (of anything but the chocolate mix) until you're finished.

Maybe that's too much effort or obsession to detail for you, which is understandable if so (white chocolate really does demand an obsessive personality type to work with successfully) but it is possible, as long as you strictly resist the urge to play it fast and loose.

One final recommendation for all: by far the best white chocolate available is El Rey Icoa. It's really a quantum leap over anything else. I've also found it fairly accommodating to work with, in part because it's got a high cocoa butter percentage, relative to many other white chocolates. I *regularly* mix butter and El Rey Icoa together, without ill effects (but as you can see, I'm prepared to obsess over technique, as well).

Aug 17, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking