Foods – The Geeky Gourmet

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Thoughts about food and technology

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The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Fri, 31 Aug 2007 04:00:20 +0000

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Your mother probably told you not to play with your food. But did she tell you not to play your food? As Morgen described on , the members of the

do just that. The morning of each performance, they go shopping at a local produce market and pick out the specimens they think will make the best sounds. Then they set to work creating the instruments for that night’s show—mostly percussion instruments, but also flutes made of carrots, horns made from bell peppers, and all sorts of other weird concoctions. And these guys can really get a groove on (as the video demonstrates). After the show, they serve vegetable soup to the audience—though not, thankfully, made from the actual instruments that were just played! Way cool.

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La Grande Épicerie

La Grande Épicerie

La Grande Épicerie

Mon, 27 Aug 2007 04:00:25 +0000

La Grande Épicerie

During our first several weeks living here in Paris, we became accustomed to shopping at either of two local supermarkets, a Monoprix and an ATAC. Both of them have a pretty good selection of the basics, though their prices are typically higher, and their freshness typically poorer, than any of the outdoor markets. Still, there were a few items we’d been unable to find here in our neighborhood, such as baking soda and baking powder (yeast is easy to come by, but not chemical leaveners), Swiffers, good sun-dried tomatoes (the brands we could find were all way too salty), respectable soy sauce, and a few alcohols (you know, gotta have Lillet Blanc for our Vesper martinis).

As Morgen wrote a few weeks ago in , we found all these items and much more at a famous old supermarket called , which is part of a larger shopping complex known as .

La Grande Épicerie has one of the widest selections of any supermarket I’ve seen in any country. I’ve been in larger supermarkets and fancier ones, but the breadth of options here is what truly struck me. They have numerous foreign food sections, for example, so if you’re looking for Italian pasta or coffee, British specialties such as Marmite, Spanish spices, Thai coconut milk, or American staples such as marshmallow creme, popcorn, cream of mushroom soup, and maple syrup, you can find it all here. And, naturally, a full array of produce, meat, seafood, dairy products, frozen and canned goods, and everything else. Plus some awfully attractive pastries and desserts. Nearly everything food-related (and a few non-food items) we’d ever said we wished we could buy but couldn’t find elsewhere in Paris, we saw at La Grande Épicerie. If you’re a food geek in Paris, and particularly if you’re from outside of France and homesick for special foods, this is somewhere you must visit.

We’ve heard several people complain about the high prices at La Grande Épicerie, but most of the items we were interested in were quite reasonably priced—some considerably cheaper than at Monoprix. On the other hand, you’d have to pay the equivalent of about US$7 for a single large sweet potato (ouch!), eggs were terribly overpriced, and a few other items just didn’t seem to be worth what they were charging. So you have to shop carefully, but then, if you need something that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else in the city, it’s likely cheaper to buy it here than having it shipped from North America.

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The baguette problem

The baguette problem

The baguette problem

Fri, 10 Aug 2007 13:13:35 +0000

The baguette problem

I came to France for the bread. There, I said it.

OK, I had lots of reasons for moving to France, but even though I joke about it, it’s absolutely true: I have what some might call an unnatural fondness for traditional French breads—especially baguettes. I’ve gotten into several arguments animated discussions recently about whether one truly can’t find a decent baguette anywhere in San Francisco. My position has been, and remains, that I personally was unable to find any, despite considerable looking (that is to say, tasting). There were breads that looked like baguettes and even smelled like baguettes, but they Just Weren’t Right. In other words, they made the wrong sound (or none at all); an incorrect texture was simply a natural consequence.

I mentioned the sound of baguettes

on Interesting Thing of the Day, and this summer, in the movie Ratatouille, Colette spelled it out during a lecture to Linguini: it’s not the appearance or smell of a baguette that lets you know it’s fresh, it’s the sound it makes when you break it in half. Right on.

So what’s the problem? Since moving to France

that were excellent, though very different from each other. I’ve had exactly one decidedly substandard baguette (yes, it’s possible, even here). And I’m confident in my ability to distinguish good from bad baguettes. What I’ve discovered I can’t do at all is to discern which of half a dozen great baguettes is the best. On the Baguette Perfection Scale, I can tell the difference between a bread that scored a 3 and one that scored a 7. But when the choices range from 9.1 to 9.9, I’m totally out of my league.

It’s very much like wine: I can tell a lousy wine when I drink one. But my palate isn’t refined enough to distinguish a merely good wine from a fantastic wine. Particularly if I’m trying them on two separate days—side-by-side comparisons are definitely easier.

One of our local bakeries sells two species of baguettes: the “normale” variety (pictured here) and the “traditionnelle” variety, which is shorter, denser, chewier, and more expensive. I like them both equally, for different reasons, and can’t even come close to deciding which is better. Likewise, we’ve had fresh (normale) baguettes, hot out of the oven, from at least four different bakeries. We’ve smiled, we’ve sighed, we’ve moaned. But I am completely unable to compare them in quality. And yet, clearly there are lots of people who do make such evaluations and who, moreover, agree with each other (“Oh, everyone knows X’s bread is way better than Y’s bread.”). How do they do this?

Obviously, I need a great deal of practice.

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The Pasta Pot

The Pasta Pot

The Pasta Pot

Thu, 09 Aug 2007 13:00:36 +0000

The Pasta Pot

Contrary to what every cookbook instructs, I’ve frequently cooked pasta in the following unorthodox manner: put the dry pasta and just enough water in the pot, turn on the heat, and turn it off when the liquid is all absorbed. In other words, somewhat like the way you cook rice (though uncovered). No draining, no getting a colander dirty. Add the rest of your ingredients (think: cheese) in the same pot, cook a while longer, and your meal is done.

I didn’t invent this technique as a way of advancing the culinary arts. I started doing it partly just to see what would happen, but mostly because I was lazy. And, for my applications, it worked just fine, with the proviso that one must stir the pasta frequently and watch that evaporation carefully—if you don’t turn off the heat just before the last of the water is gone, the pasta sticks to the pot, which is not what you want. But the bottom line is that I felt I was saving myself a bit of effort and, as far as I could tell, the end result tasted every bit as good as pasta cooked the conventional way. Maybe even better. Yes, I know that a certain amount of starch that would otherwise have gone down the drain went back into the pasta, but I haven’t been able to detect any negative impact from that starch on the pasta’s taste.

Well, it seems that great minds think alike. No less a chef than Alain Ducasse (yes, French, of course) has developed a “new” and revolutionary way of cooking pasta, which is essentially just to do everything in a single pot without any draining. He calls this technique . And, OK, I’m oversimplifying a bit. Using Ducasse’s method, you’d typically start by briefly sweating some aromatics or greens in the pot, then adding your dry pasta and sautéeing for a few minutes, and finally pouring in some stock or other flavorful liquid and cooking, uncovered, until the liquid is gone.

I have no quarrel at all with the method, of course, since it validates what I was already doing all along. But what I do have trouble with is a new piece of Alessi cookware designed expressly for Ducasse: the (eponymous) . It’s this, you know, stainless steel container that sits on your stove and holds ingredients while they cook. It has a removable cover, and a melamine trivet on which you can place it when it’s not on your stove. The only thing that makes the design unique is that its handle doubles as a spoon rest (spoon included). And for this, the retail price is $238. Naturally, they’re currently sold out, but you can be put on a waiting list.

If you have money to burn and style is the most important consideration, hey, knock yourself out. I’m sure it’s as good an all-around pot as you’ll find anywhere else. But you can employ the Pasta Pot method just as well with any $30 pot, too. With the money you save, you can buy yourself an appetizer at one of Ducasse’s restaurants.

To read what another Big Name in Cooking had to say about pasta, see .

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Matisse & Jack’s TrailBlaze Energy Bars

Matisse & Jack’s TrailBlaze Energy Bars

Matisse & Jack’s TrailBlaze Energy Bars

Tue, 07 Aug 2007 13:00:08 +0000

Matisse & Jack’s TrailBlaze Energy Bars

Before leaving California, I got to sample the latest innovation in energy bars from a local (San Francisco) company: bars you can bake yourself. The idea behind

is that you get the same nutritional benefits of a commercial bar (if not more), but with all-natural ingredients, without all the packaging, and with the kind of fresh-baked flavor you can get only by, um, baking something fresh. Combine the mix with a few wet ingredients, pop it in the oven for a half hour, and you’re off. Two flavors are available: Cranberry Walnut and Chocolate Chip.

Now, on the surface, this concept seems sound. Certainly, you can save a bit of money by baking your own bars—so at least there’s that. But I’ve read lots of reviews of these bars that proclaim them the best thing since manna, and frankly, I don’t get it. They’re totally adequate—there’s nothing wrong with them—but in my opinion they completely fail to live up to the hype.

Let’s start with the most important thing: taste. They taste fine, which is to say they have yummy ingredients (like chocolate chips—nothing bad you can say about that) mixed in reasonably pleasing proportions. But they do not taste like energy bars. If you’re expecting something along the lines of a PowerBar, or Clif bar, or Balance bar, you’ll be disappointed. These bars are much fluffier, more like a slightly dense brownie than the firm and grainy texture most of us associate with commercial energy bars. And actually…I like that sort of texture. I’d prefer a Clif bar over Matisse & Jack’s any day. True enough: that’s just my personal preference. But I’m saying that it wasn’t what I was expecting, and the difference was so striking that I have difficulty putting these bars in the same category of food as other energy bars.

Maybe, however, the taste of these bars is exactly what you’ve always wanted, in which case, more power to you. Even then, though, be aware of a few facts:

Now, I hate to be hard on these guys. I know they mean well. As I said, the bars do taste perfectly fine, and I can’t quarrel with their nutritional specs. Plus, lots of other publications have given them rave reviews. So I accept that it’s entirely possible I’m the only one who doesn’t think they’re great. But to be entirely honest, my experience with the bars just didn’t impress me.

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Cookie decorating: Secrets of the pros

Cookie decorating: Secrets of the pros

Cookie decorating: Secrets of the pros

Mon, 11 Dec 2006 15:00:38 +0000

Cookie decorating: Secrets of the pros

Last year, following the step-by-step advice in a well-known cooking magazine, I decorated a batch of holiday cookies. My efforts yielded a ghastly mess of smeared, melted, and clotted sugar.

This year, I headed over to the local

store to take a class from a professional cake and cookie decorator. It was a revelation, and the revelation was three-fold: icing ingredients, decorating equipment, and basic technique.

Ingredients

Last year, I’d mixed up a batch of royal icing, divided it in three, added liquid food coloring, and got to work. Bzzt! Wrong move. Instead of liquid food coloring, I should have blended in coloring in paste from, available at cooking stores. I’d also used decorating gels, pre-mixed, in tubes from the supermarket. Wrong again. Gels (as I discovered) melt and blur. You need to prepare your own icing, and fine tune it (adding water or confectioner’s sugar) to the right consistency.

And, as it turns out, there are two consistencies. The thick one, which I was familiar with, is for outlining. The other (very liquid) is for “flooding,” a technique explained below.

Equipment

One of my frustrations last year was the discovery that I needed not just one bag for piping the icing, but several — one for each color I was working with. The Sur la Table instructor showed us how to turn zip-closure plastic bags (freezer grade) into quick, cheap pastry bags by making a tiny snip in one corner, adding a piping tip, and then filling with frosting.

Toothpicks (round ones) also turned out to be an important tool. They are used for plugging the tips of the piping bags to prevent drying out and/or leaking as you work. And they are used for making designs in the flooding icing, much the way a barista makes designs in espresso foam.

Technique

The outlining technique, using firm, thick icing, was what I had previously mistaken for simple decorative lines. As it turns out, the outline of firm piped icing serves as a dike to contain the large, smooth swatches of “flooded” color (see the snowman, or the green ornament, in the photo; click for a larger version). Instead of trying to smear thick icing around with a tiny offset spatula as I had last year, we simply squirted the thin icing into the outlined area, nudging it around a bit with the piping tip, and it melted into place.

A second, very elaborate-looking technique involved taking advantage of the melting property of the soft icing. A dot or a stripe of soft icing is piped directly into a lake of soft color (see ornament and stocking top), where it melts flush to the first color. Then, a clean toothpick is used to marble the two colors into a design (see top of bell). This technique was also used to transform a red dot on the gingerbread man’s vest into a heart.We also learned to use the firm icing as glue for attaching the candy cane (stocking) and miniature candies (eyes on the gingerbread man).There were 16 people in the class, and by the end of the two hours, every one of them was creating bakery-quality cookies.

Want to try the dual-icing technique? Here are some online recipes and guidance from

(good recipes and detailed instructions) and

(nice pictures of decorating technique).

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Eggettes

Eggettes

Eggettes

Wed, 29 Nov 2006 12:00:03 +0000

Eggettes

A few weeks ago a new eatery opened just a few blocks away from my home in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco. Called Eggettes, it’s located at 2810 Diamond Street, in the space formerly occupied by Dr. Video. While the store was being renovated, I could tell from the decor that it was going to be a Hong Kong-style snack joint/cybercafé and suspected (rightly, I’m pleased to say) that they’d serve . But I didn’t quite get what the name was all about. When the shop opened I had to search a bit to find something called “eggettes” on the menu, and considering that this eponymous food was supposed to be the restaurant’s signature product, I found it odd that there was no photograph or description.

When we walked in, we saw what turned out to be the eggettes displayed behind a glass case next to the cash register, labeled with their flavors but not the word “eggettes.” I inferred that’s what they were from the fact that they were vaguely egg-shaped and that it seemed to be the only food item on display. So, lesson #1: if you want to attract new customers, and if you want those customers to have any idea why they should come in and order your wacky new food, give them at least a tiny clue as to what that food actually is.

Well, we decided there was little to lose by ordering the things without any explanation, so we asked for one order each of original, chocolate, and coconut flavors (sesame was also an option). What we were served is called gai daan jai in Hong Kong, and often described as egg puffs or egg waffles. They’re made by taking a thin batter (not unlike a sweeter waffle or pancake batter) and cooking it on a special iron with small egg-shaped indentations on both plates. The result is a sheet of little dough eggs you can break apart. They’re slightly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, almost like beignets. And let me end the suspense: they’re delicious. I mean, seriously, addictively delicious. I could almost give up doughnuts for these things. But although they’re relatively light and relatively low in fat, they’re clearly full of sugar and nasty carbs—no surprises there.

So, eggettes are a winner. The

store, on the other hand (apparently just the latest in a small chain), needs some work. The food was great and the staff was friendly, but the place has, shall we say, user interface issues. The lack of an explanation of eggettes on the menu is just one example. We decided to plop down on the couch and watch the DVD that was playing on their big flat-screen TV, but we couldn’t figure out how to adjust the volume (turns out the staff controls the remotes, but they also had to do some rewiring of the speakers to get any noise to come out). We noticed the card reader on the cash register and tried to pay with plastic, but the cashier informed us apologetically that they hadn’t yet managed to get a merchant account. And although there are a few Net-connected computer kiosks, you have to stand to use them—not the most comfortable arrangement. The store is neat, shiny, and spacious but not cozy, and that’s a big strike against it in my book.

Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll return for eggettes and bubble tea whenever I need a quick break from the South Beach Diet. You can do worse.

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Brushed Stainless-Steel Cream Whipper

Brushed Stainless-Steel Cream Whipper

Wed, 22 Nov 2006 14:00:56 +0000

Brushed Stainless-Steel Cream Whipper

When it comes to whipped cream—one of my all-time favorite edible substances—I’ve always been a purist. Freshly whipped cream (sweetened with a bit of sugar, and with maybe just a hint of vanilla) tastes best to me, and I’ve never considered the process of sticking a mixer into a bowl of cold cream to be complicated or onerous. However, I admit that around the holidays, I do keep a can of spray-on whipped cream on hand, just as a backup. I further admit that spraying whipped cream onto your pie, pancakes, or whatever, is kind of fun. It’s just that I don’t dig all the additives put into those cans, and wonder just how many months ago the dairy component may have come out of a cow.

Now, for a mere $90 (plus an extra $11 for a package of nitrous oxide cartridges)—ingredients not included—I can have my cake and eat it too, nicely smothered in freshly whipped cream that didn’t require me to turn on a mixer or dirty a bowl. There are plenty of these gadgets on the market, but the Williams-Sonoma

must be among the classiest (and most expensive). Oh yes, I want one.

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Cooking Cucurbita

Cooking Cucurbita

Wed, 01 Nov 2006 12:00:14 +0000

Cooking Cucurbita

Now that your jack-o-lantern has enjoyed its moment of glory on the front steps, it’s time to turn your attention to the pumpkin’s smaller—and far more edible—relatives.

The botanical family name Cucurbitaceae covers everything from cucumbers and melons to gourds, pumpkins, and squash. If you’ve found yourself standing in the supermarket puzzling over a display of thick-skinned vegetables in various shades of orange, yellow, and green, the Earthbound Farm’s website has a handy

you can consult before your next shopping trip. Once you can tell your acorns from your delicatas, you’re ready to start exploring some superb recipes, most of them high in vitamin A and potassium and low in calories.

I have to confess that I am not a fan of the spaghetti squash; it may look like spaghetti, but the texture (crunchy) and the flavory (watery) don’t make it a good substitute for pasta. My favorite squashes are the traditional acorns and butternuts. There is simply not a richer, smoother vegetable for making a pureed soup than the butternut. Here’s

to get you started; check some cookbooks and you’ll find variations with savory herbs and others with spices such as ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. For a richer soup, garnish with sour cream or crème fraiche.

The dark green acorn squash is fabulous split, seeded, heaped with a rich sausage-and-vegetable stuffing and roasted for an hour (a very easy-to-make dinner). Just about any stuffing will work, but the Food Reference Web site has .

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37 Foods by Subscription

37 Foods by Subscription

37 Foods by Subscription

Mon, 30 Oct 2006 19:45:35 +0000

37 Foods by Subscription

Over on

today, I posted a list of

you can get in the mail every month with a subscription. More than half of these are foods. I’ve personally been a member of a fruit-of-the-month club and a chocolate-of-the-month club, and for a while we subscribed to the Illy a Casa program to get coffee delivered every month. My overall impression of these programs is that the quality and convenience tend to be quite good, though that the prices seem out of proportion, at least if you have decent local markets. Even so, who wouldn’t like getting cookies or wine in the mail every month?

Avocados:

Bacon:

Barbecue Sauce: ,

(Amazing Clubs),

(The Month Club Store),

(Delightful Deliveries)

Beef Jerky:

(The Month Club Store)

Beer:

(Clubs of America), , ,

(Amazing Clubs),

(Delightful Deliveries)

Cake:

(Amazing Clubs),

(Delightful Deliveries)

Candy:

Cheese:

(iGourmet),

Cheesecake:

(Amazing Clubs)

Chicken Soup:

Chocolate:

(Clubs of America),

(Amazing Clubs),

(Delightful Deliveries),

(Delightful Deliveries)

Coffee:

(Clubs of America),

(iGourmet),

(Illy),

(Amazing Clubs),

(Delightful Deliveries)

Cookies:

(Amazing Clubs),

(The Month Club Store),j // (Delightful Deliveries)

Desserts:

(Amazing Clubs)

Fruit:

(Clubs of America),

(Amazing Clubs),

(Delightful Deliveries)

Gourmet Foods:

Gourmet Meals:

(Amazing Clubs)

Hot Sauce:

(Amazing Clubs),

(The Month Club Store)

Ice Cream: ,

(Amazing Clubs)

Jelly Beans:

Jelly:

(The Month Club Store)

Lobster:

(Amazing Clubs)

Mustard:

(Mustard Museum),

(The Month Club Store)

Nuts:

(The Month Club Store)

Olive Oil:

(The Month Club Store)

Olives:

(The Month Club Store)

Organic Fruit:

(Delightful Deliveries)

Pasta:

(Amazing Clubs),

(The Month Club Store),

(Delightful Deliveries)

Pickles:

(The Month Club Store)

Pizza:

(Clubs of America)

Popcorn:

(The Month Club Store)

Potato Chips:

(The Month Club Store)

Salsa:

(iGourmet),

(The Month Club Store)

Soup:

(The Month Club Store)

Steak:

(Amazing Clubs),

(Omaha Steaks)

Tea:

(iGourmet),

(Adagio Teas),

(The Month Club Store), /// (Delightful Deliveries)

Wine:

(Clubs of America), ,

(Amazing Clubs),

(Delightful Deliveries)

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