Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What’s up with that Now? - FB2B, part 34

Given the ever-changing nature of information, I’ve decided that every so often, I need to go back to earlier musings and give them a bit of a buff and shine, update them as it were. Several of the topics on which I’ve written previously have come up in other areas. Clicking on the bolded word(s) will link you to the original article. The link to the update follows the blurb about what’s new.
Taco Party – I never thought that my little ode to picky childhood eating habits would be a trend-setter, but it looks like Chow (the food website that is the successor to the failed, tried-to-be-hip food magazine) took my idea and spiffed it up quite a bit, making it more authentic and less 70s/80s-era suburban. The upshot is the same, though: do-it-yourself dinner can be fun for everyone. (see link)
Toast – Remember when I said that I just wanted said appliance to make toast, nothing else? Well, it seems as though not everyone agrees with me on this. I’ve see this version advertised elsewhere but had not known until I came across this article that now there is a celebrity endorsement for something that I consider a bit excessive. (see link)
S’mores – I have to thank my mom for bringing this to my attention. Traditional graham cracker squares are so last season, it seems, because now we have holiday ones. For the fall/autumn line for 2006, Williams-Sonoma has decided that we need bat-shaped versions. I’m not sure I could bring myself to eat these. Besides, they supply the wrong kind of chocolate for the purist s’more maker. And, just for the record, brown is NOT the new black. (see link)
BLT – The “Grinder” section of Chow had a brief blurb about tomato season this year. I thought it was interesting that this particular sandwich reference was used to start off the talk of end-of-summer bounty. (see link)
Spinach – This story continues to develop as investigators pursue the leads on what caused the E. coli outbreak. The New York Times dining section for today had an interesting article about what this case means for increased regulation of produce safety. I have to say that “smoking gun spinach” brings to mind a visual of hunting for some rogue greens who maraud around vegetable patches slaying innocent foliage. (see link)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Spinach-gate 2006 – FB2B, post 33


It might seem that I’ve been a bit mum on the latest food scare that broke out last week, but the truth is that I’ve been trying to absorb all of what’s been going on with this. E. coli and other bacterial infections are no laughing matter, and food safety issues are something that I hold pretty highly now that I’m getting a bit older and my digestive system seems to be getting more sensitive to things. I often think that people underestimate how improper handling of food items can make one very, very ill or even kill them.
I’ve lived through a few of these and have learned to take a step back to see what facts emerge before jumping to conclusions, waiting for the hype to subside. 

Remember “The Great Egg Scare” of 1988? For those who don’t recall, this was kicked off by then UK Junior Minister of Health Edwina Currie. In talking last night to someone who works in the restaurant industry, he said he still knows people who don’t eat Caesar salad because of the fear of salmonella in the dressing (a true Caesar uses raw or coddled egg yolks). For a little bit, it was enough to put me off of poached eggs, as well, but that soon passed.

Despite the prevalence of information to the contrary and tips on how to avoid poisoning oneself, I can see how folks would steer clear of anything but cooked eggs after the mis-statement that “a majority of British eggs were infected with salmonella.” Pity, because a really fresh, soft-boiled egg is a great way to start of the day (with buttered toast soldiers, of course). I wonder if the same thing will happen with spinach.

This particular scare hits particularly close to home, as recently I was diagnosed with slight anemia. It was concerning enough to my GP (yes, the same one who doesn’t know about the BBLT), that she wanted me to start taking iron supplements. Not being a big pill fan, I am also trying to get more nutrients via my diet in the hopes that I will not be taking these pills (which can have some downsides) for too long.

Truthfully, it’s taken me many years to actually enjoy eating spinach and one easy way to do that is to eat it raw in salads. Bingo, there goes that iron-supply treatment. That’s where the problem arises given the current situation. The company cafeteria at work pulled all of it (not even serving spanakopita as advertised on the luncheon menu today), and it also disappeared from the mesclun salad mix they normally serve. The managers had put a very helpful sign next to the salad bar explaining to us that due to FDA recalls, it was no longer being served.
Interested to see the impact of this movement on other food places, I took my camera and scoped out a few stores in my neighborhood. The small, mini-chain more high-end greengrocers didn’t have any on the shelves.
But look what I found in their loose, mixed salad bin….(in their defense, the original recall was for specific brands of bagged salad so maybe that didn’t qualify).
Then, I visited a larger chain of stores, one that’s quite prevalent in Manhattan. They had pulled all the fresh and bagged spinach off of the shelves. I couldn’t even find a bag of mixed greens that might have it included.
Lastly, because by that time I was really hungry, it having already been a long day at work, I decided to check out a local restaurant that features a great dish of grilled calamari and grilled, sliced potatoes served on a bed of sautéed spinach. I was curious to see what they would do.
They had a side of mesclun which was devoid of the same baby spinach as our company cafeteria’s. Nothing was lost on the meal by this change. It turns out that the chef (to whom I spoke later) said that he’d originally served it that way and had switched to spinach when preparing it in the winter.
This was akin to the day the Mad Cow news broke when I was living in Italy several years ago. Before I could make it to the butcher’s shop after work, all the beef and beef products had been pulled from the shelves. In a twist of supply-and-demand, all the non-beef items were prominently on display with new, higher prices. I’ll also be curious to see what the economic after-effects will be following on from this food scare. Are we going to be eating more iceberg this winter?
Buon appetito!
Many food websites and blogs have carried stories about what is going on with the spinach recall. I scanned quite a few of them and was a bit surprised that the food/dining sections of some of the larger ones didn’t have more extensive coverage of the issue and its implications for factory and organic farms. I had wondered if this would be used as a launch pad for a larger food safety discussion by the community of experts.
For a farmer’s point of view, check out Chez Pim. Marian Burros (whom some might remember from her Consumer Reporter days on Washington, D.C.’s WRC-TV) wrote very briefly about it in her column in the New York Times this week, and Nina Planck of Real Food wrote an Op Ed that was published today. Kim O’Donnell covered it more extensively in the Washington Post. I’ve been checking into CNN and the CDC site which are more up to the minute in my eyes, even if they are more factual than exploratory.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

My Summer Reading – FB2B, Part 32

While some folks might curl up with a juicy novel or the latest thriller, the dwindling days of summer 2006 found me reading up on blogs and blogging. I’ve also been analyzing some of the blogs I read on a semi-regular basis. Recently, after having written for eight months or so, I actually decided to do some studying up on this concept, much like looking at the instructions only after something doesn’t quite seem to work the way that you had thought it might.

After work one day, I headed over to the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library to look for books about HTML (I love the NYPL.) and doing my own website. There must have been a mad rush by New Yorkers to brush up on their computer skills during the dog days of August, because not a single book on that topic was on the shelves. To me that seemed a bit odd, as there really isn’t much to starting one’s own blog from a technical standpoint. Log onto Blogger.com and it walks you through the process.

What I was trying to do by researching this was to figure out a deeper philosophical question regarding The Experimental Gourmand: Where is its place in the blogsphere and what do I want it to be? This is not a light-hearted endeavo(u)r. As this link from Cravings points out, blogs are now analyzing other blogs and selecting which ones they think are worthwhile recommending to the wider blog audience. It seems as though there must be some cycle in which newspapers or magazines highlight blogs and the foodblogging phenomenon because something seems to appear every so often about the same topic in the print press.

One of the key things about blogs rather than magazines and newspaper articles is that you can actually directly query the writer. Well-run blogs feature long strings of comments and often will have questions answered directly by the host. How often can you just ask someone about something he or she wrote and get a response from that person? I know that most of you who check out this site are lurkers (i.e., those who read but don’t comment), but for many folks this is a way to create a dynamic exchange of information and ideas.

Food blogs have expanded at a rapid pace since the inception of this method of communication. They have been considered for awards in the most prestigious of culinary prizes – The James Beard Awards. Several well-known bloggers have been awarded book contracts and have become food writers for the more mainstream newspapers and magazines (Julie/Julia Project, Chocolate & Zucchini). They even have their own advertising network.

In a twist (not with a twist), a few prominent food journalists are now hosting their own blogs, such as Frank Bruni of the New York Times. It seems as though the lines are getting a bit blurry these days, which is interesting as a cooking writer and teacher told me two years ago during her course, “Nobody reads blogs.” At that point, I’d been reading them for six months or more.

Many food blogs list their other favorite blogs and link to interesting articles by the same. The Food Section is one of my must-reads a couple of times a week as it brings together information from lots of different sources as well as highlights for what is happening in the New York food world. (I often think that lots of the food blogs are written by New Yorkers – are we that obsessed with food?) I also check out Gothamist on a regular basis.

What seems to have developed, from my blog, is more of a weekly food-related column more than what might be strictly considered a blog. My hope for The Experimental Gourmand is that you find the information on this site to be useful and entertaining. It’s definitely helped me realize that I am passionate about food and food-related things. I’ve learned quite a bit in trying to explore my passion for food and eating in working with this new medium and my digital camera. It also helps me chronical different events in my life and helps me to tuck away positive memories, even in the darkest of days.

As a parting shot, and by way of encouragement to get y’all more interested in this electronic exchange, here’s my list of some of my favorite food blogs. I probably look at each of these every week and tap into some of their links if I’m researching something in particular. Someday, and with your help, maybe I’ll get to be in their league. Not every city where you live even comes close to being covered, but I hope that you’ll find some sites from which you can get some great food and eating ideas. Some of these also cover health-related food issues.

101 Cookbooks (www.101cookbooks.com) – For those of you wondering about what to do with your overflowing shelves of cookbooks and pages of recipes torn from magazines, Heidi Swanson decided that she need to start cooking from them. Here are her chronicles.
An Obsession with Food (www.obsessionwithfood.com) – West Coast-based food writer who seems very tapped into that area’s happenings. I love the copper pots that he uses as his banner on the top of his site. He’s also very into wine.
Becks & Posh (www.becksposhnosh.blogspot.com) – Modern Cockney rhyming slang for “nosh,” according to the header on the site, Sam is very involved in the San Francisco food network. Really, one of my favorite blogs.
Bourrez Votre Visage (www.bourrezvisage.com) – French for “stuff your face,” this was one of the early blogs to receive press acclaim. I checked it out before posting today and it now seems to be an ad for one of the blogger’s own businesses. Shame because they had a good angle on DC restaurants. Good for the list of blogs on the “Food Blog Central” tab.
Chez Pim (chezpim.typepad.com) – Pim has made the transition to doing what she loves about food fulltime. She is considered one of the standard-bearers of the medium.
Chocolate & Zucchini (www.chocolateandzucchini.com) – an odd combination for a name, but then blog titles generally reflect the passions of the writer(s). This is an informative and very well-known blog. Clotilde lived for a few years in California and is now back in Paris. She has some great recipes and is now writing a cookbook.
Chowhound (www.chowhound.com) – Looking for the best restaurant in Guam? Trying to find out what to do with the random items in the food basket Great-Aunt Sophronia sent you last holiday season? Post your questions here and you are likely to find the answers to them. One of the early sites to tap into foodie mania.
eGullet (www.egullet.org) – Renown site for culinary information and tidbits. The forums are the places to find all sorts of information and food facts. This is the one site on which you will have to register to get access to all of its features.
Epicurious (www.epicurious.com) – This is an essential resource for cooks. I’m not sure that you could actually throw away all of your cookbooks and solely rely on this website for ideas, but you could come pretty close. The key to using it well is also to read the comments at the bottom of the recipes of those who have tried to make these dishes before you. Their changes can sometimes be goldmines. This site also acts as a repository for recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines
Gothamist (www.gothamist.com) – o.k. so technically not a foodblog, but they do run food things and are great for updates of NYC happenings/politics/news in general. Also have Dcist, Sfist, etc. It is one of my daily must-reads.
Julie/Julia Project (http://blogs.salon.com/0001399) this blog has ended and Julie has moved to another site to continue her writing career (juliepowell.blogspot.com). She’s another individual who has made the transition from blog writer to author to freelance writer. Her hook? She worked her way through Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking and blogged about it for the world to follow her successes and failures.
Leite’s Culinaria (http://www.leitesculinaria.com) David Leite is a respected food writer, some of whose work you might have already read. His articles on various food-related topics combine information with a dash of humor. This site is full of recipes that have been tried by his team of testers. He is the recipient of the 2006 James Beard Award for Best Internet Food Web Site.
Nordljus (www.nordljus.co.uk/en) – Hands down, the best blog out there for food photography. This isn’t just my opinion, either. Folks write about how in awe they are of these creations and their visual representation. Having just started to try to take photos of food (even if it generally doesn’t squirm around like little children), I can tell you, getting shots like these is not easy.
Slashfood (www.slashfood.com) – A much-quoted, very respected blog. Again, one of my standbys and must-reads. Also check out the links to other food blogs here.
Slice (www.sliceny.com) – hard to believe that a one-food-topic blog dedicated to pizza is a huge hit, right? Lots of people are very passionate about this topic. Also check out A Hamburger Today (www.ahamburgertoday.com) for another installment by the same author.
The Amateur Gourmet (http://www.amateurgourmet.com/) By a New York-based food writer and graduate student. His breadth is wide and he covers lots of topics. What might be more of interest to the non-NYC set are his cooking experiments, which he’s now letting us see via videoclip (vlogs).
The Food Section (http://www.thefoodsection.com) Personally, I don’t consider this to be a blog but more of an on-line food resource, as it gathers together information from various sources and republishes it. The yellow sidebar keeps track of lots of interesting articles, recent food press, and tidbits.
Buon appetito!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

An Unhappy Anniversary – FB2B, post 31

This is probably a more difficult post to right than usual, today. It’s not that I don’t in general write from the heart, but this hits a bit closer and is not as light of a subject matter as that about which I general opine. You see, tomorrow is going to be a long day, but then, it usually is.
The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wreaked across the Gulf Coast has passed. Right on its heels is the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the United States. In both cases, destruction was instantaneous, deadly and earth-shattering (in the literal sense of that word). Whole neighborhoods were torn apart and lives were changed forever or lost in the blink of an eye.
For the past four years, it has really been a matter of getting through this anniversary, of trying hard not to remember too much. Not to remember the way it used to be, what was lost, what still hasn’t come back. Not to think about it all too much. Despite the plethora of events taking place this weekend and next week to commemorate the terrorist attacks of 2001, I decided this time to reflect on my Lower Manhattan life from 09/10 and before. To try to remember.
Many of my memories of working in that area have to do with food and drink (some may be more of the latter than the former). Sense of direction? Well, mine has never been that great, which is a handicap in a city in which everyone generally refers to “south-east corner of something” or “north-west side of the street.” The two main Manhattan navigational landmarks were always the towers and the ESB (Empire State Building).
On more than one night out downtown, the comment was made by someone in our group, “Well, the towers are that way, so that must be South,” with a wave of a slightly inebriated hand. [the ESB isn’t visible from all parts of the city] After the attacks, the high-powered lights that illuminated the 24/7 recovery efforts took their place for a time. Now, it’s almost as though their absence fills that role, but that void isn’t always a reliable directional device, trust me.
After 09/11, there was quite a bit of press about Downtown businesses and how they were trying to survive and rebuild in the aftermath of the attacks. What struck me at the time, and some of what I still remember, is how many of these establishments were related to the food industry. Money may move Wall Street but its belly does need to be fed as well.
From hotdog carts to drinks at Windows on the World, from the food kiosks in the Plaza of the Trade Center, to the restaurants on Greenwich Street just north of the tower complex, the variety of choices was widespread in terms of price and cuisine. Even the vast mall underneath the plaza contained many places from which to dine during that lunchtime dash to nourish one’s body. Every so often, one had to get away from the company cafeterias that most organizations have.
I can pretty much still remember the list of options for errands and refueling stops that existed for workers in the area. I met friends at Gemelli (the Italian place off the Plaza), grabbed a quick bite at Hale & Hearty Soups, stood on line to get sandwiches at Au Bon Pain, nibbled on sushi at the place near the Sbarro, and on occasion, made a mad, mid-afternoon sugar dash to the Ben and Jerry’s at the complete opposite side of the complex from where I worked, always trying to beat my previous record for being away from my desk without being it noticed.
Some of my happier memories are of trying to find a seat at lunchtime on one of the benches that ringed the fountain in the Plaza, the golden statue gleaming in the bright summertime sunshine. Competition for these seats was fierce, like much of life in financial services. Stock Exchange traders in their color-coded jackets and large badges stood out there just as much as the sunray-grabbing fresh-faced interns and newly-minted analysts that flood the halls of financial institutions each summer with the same regularity as the arrival of seasonal produce.
Così had recently opened up a shop at one of the entrances to the complex and had also placed a small stand there selling limited numbers of sandwich and salad choices. This was great for me because it was closer to my office and meant that I could grab one of those coveted seats a bit earlier, taking time to listen to one of many bands that played during the sponsored lunchtime concerts. On a daily basis, the Plaza was a great, big melting pot of languages, cultures and peoples all snatching a brief, fresh-air break during their long, intense workdays. It was great people-watching.
Krispy Kreme had a store at the Church Street entrance to the Plaza, as well. Every morning, coffee in hand, I would pass by those large windows that seductively showed gleaming, fresh, hot donuts rolling by on the conveyor belts. I have to say, I never succumbed to this cheap, sweet advertising ploy, having already consumed far too many of these in my lifetime prior to the company’s nationwide expansion (they come from the South). For that, I am sorry.
In the evening, there were lots of places off the surrounding streets to gather with friends. I think I may have been back to a couple of them once or twice since then. Downtown is no longer the place to consider for a night out, despite the fact that there are still plenty of places to go. I sort of feel as though there’s a cordon that stops about Chambers Street. Prior to that, life was very different. It was just too sad to be down there, too difficult to party nearby where so many had died due to the fact that they worked in a certain place.
I’ve never been to New Orleans so I can’t speak to what happened there and how that city has changed. However, I did live in New York prior to 09/11 and have lived here since. One interesting facet of life in both cities is that eating and good cooking are treated as one’s birthright, hands down. The industries hardest hit after their respective tragedies were tourism and restaurants/food. Places were closed, some never to open again or whose reopenings remain in serious doubt. Residents and visitors to these establishments were gone or displaced.
In both cases, as well, the culinary community rallied round to help those who were affected by these events. Jobs were found, scholarships set up, and new attention was given to the importance of eating out as an integral part of these cities’ cultural landscape. Some places will never return. Some have found homes in other cities. New York has picked up some more Southern accents.
As we enter another year moving away from both of these tragic events, continuing to remember what was lost and hanging on to the good parts of what existed, creating new memories of food shared with friends is the best healing that we can have. Anytime I’m dragged down to view the pit, I insist that we grab a bite to eat down there. I’ve located a place for a great slice, found a favorite brunch place, and had amazing artisanal ice cream across the Brooklyn Bridge. With these tastes in mind, holding onto my more pleasant memories of what the World Trade Center area was like prior to that Tuesday morning, and ignoring all the press rehash of what happened on that crystal-clear fall day, I think I can safely make it through this anniversary relatively unscathed.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Truth is, I don’t really like Mayonnaise – FB2B, part 30

Mayonnaise is one of those food items that I have a dislike/hate relationship with. Over the years, I’ve hoped it would change but it hasn’t. The smell of a knife having been used to spread mayo and left in the kitchen sink makes my stomach turn. I can’t stand the way it makes bread all spongy or the sight of oozy white stuff in tuna or chicken salad*. Mayo on fries, don’t even get me started on how repulsive that is to me.

That’s probably a bit surprising as I like other gooey white food products: yogurt, sour cream, crème fraîche, double cream (mmmm…w/ scones please). Mayonnaise and I have just never hit it off. For some reason, though, this summer, when the tomatoes were at their peak, I decided I wanted to see if I could change that. I decided that maybe if I made my own mayonnaise, I might actually like it.

As you may have read on the previous blog, I went a bit tomato crazy in August. It’s just so hard not to, with such gorgeous specimens available. And the flavors are amazing. I decided that the showcase for this, using only Greenmarket produce, would be a BLT. Again, baring my soul to you, dear readers, I have to confess, I’ve never liked BLTs.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

It’s Tomato Time – FB2B, part 29

In the cycle of the seasons, the end of summer usually brings with it a plethora of tomatoes. A really fresh, ripe tomato that’s been raised outdoors (not in a greenhouse) smells just like a warm, lazy August day with sunshine, a blue cloudless sky, and the sound of bugs droning in the background.

If you can get the chance to pick one jus as it is ready, straight from the vine, you are one of the lucky ones. Hold it up to your nose and inhale (yes, this is legal). To me, this is its quintessential fragrance: the mellowness of the red with a bit of a sharp tang from the green. It is the contrast between the smooth roundness of the tomato and the prickly parts of the stalk from which sprung the vine on which it grew.

Some of these memories come from the years when my mother decided to cordon off part of our backyard so that she could grow vegetables (fortunately, it wasn’t any part of the yard where we used to kick soccer balls between used car tires). I can’t remember for how long she did this, but it has left me with a life-long appreciation for freshly-picked produce and the ability to know what a real tomato should taste like. I have been forever spoiled.

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