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The Silliness Of Plant Rights

I think that it is important to respect the lives of the animals we eat. They should be raised as humanely as possible, and slaughtered with a minimum of pain and fear. That is not to say that I reject the incredible advances in food production. I love the fact that we spend much less on food then at any other time in history. And that is a tremendous advantage. Not as much to us first-world folk, but to the poor across the world, who have access to food at prices that were just dreams even a few years ago. People on the margins are alive because of our incredibly efficient food production. Can we do better? Of course. Water conservation, runoff of fertilizer and waste, loss of topsoil, and many other problems have yet to be solved. But I will happily tolerate less-than-perfect living conditions of our food animals if it means that even one human being will not starve.

And I draw the line at respecting the dignity of plants. I just don't care that a corn plant has been violated, its genetic essence destroyed in a cold-blooded attempt at growing more of the stuff at lower cost. Slaughter every broccoli plant on the planet (that actually happens every year!) and I will sleep peacefully.

Momofuku Ko (No, I Didn’t Eat There!)

David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar is a great little noodle joint that is fun to enjoy on the spur of the moment. It is certainly not a destination unto itself, but then I don't think that it is intended to be. But Momofuku Ko, Chang's newest restaurant, is something else entirely. Ignoring for a moment (we'll get back to it, don't worry) the interesting, innovative, and ultimately successful Internet-only reservations system, it is perhaps the toughest reservation in New York. Oh, maybe Babbo and a few other restaurants are in the same league, but this one is booked in 4 seconds for the entire evening (one week ahead)! And the reviewers have been almost unanimous in their praise of Ko. Gaele Greene was unimpressed, and Bruni has yet to weigh in, but most love the place. And with an $85 prix fixe you can't really argue that it isn't close to the top in the quality/price ratio, at least according to the critics.  But there is a pretension that irked Greene, and I had a taste of it when I made a reservation for dinner at Ko a few weeks ago. I had to cancel because, well...that's the way stuff sometimes happens with adults. But I cancelled as soon as I knew that we would not be using our reservation for four. I would have liked to try to change it for a two-person reservation, but alas, the system is Internet only, and the website provides a telephone number at which to leave a message if you will be late. There is no mention of the possibility of change. And that is fine. It's their system, it's completely egalitarian, and even if it was stacked for blind, pygmy movie stars, it's their restaurant! They can do what they like -- until they e-mailed me a snotty comment that I didn't cancel early enough. This is the hottest reservation in New York, I cancelled 1 hour before, and there was no way to modify the reservation. What would they prefer? A no-show? And I pointed all of this out to them, but in a nicer way. And they responded with more criticism. I am sure that this is a wonderful and interesting restaurant, and I look forward to eating there someday, which is why I didn't write what I felt like saying. But I am no longer in a hurry to spend my money in a place that has such obvious contempt for its patrons.

A Blog By a Real Chef

Here is a new food blog that I just came across. The blogger says that he is a chef and restaurant owner and lives in Lambertville, NJ. We have spent several weekends in and around Lambertville, and the food scene there is fun and good, with a few excellent restaurants. So this guy might be a serious chef, although he doesn't name his restaurant, so I guess it could be a Burger King. Anyway, it's a fun blog to poke around, and worth a few minutes. [Update]  He is the chef at Anton's at the Swan in Lambertville (Thank you Tommy).

“The Agony Of A Food Snob”

Don't click on this link unless you want to be irritated. Written by Daniel Gross, the Moneybox columnist for Slate, this is a pompous, elitist, self-important whine about high food costs. But not just any food, or the foods that most people eat, this is a whine about organic eggs and $43 olive oil and $22 Parmigiana Reggiano. And just so he can irritate everyone, he makes a profoundly stupid comment about the politics of most food snobs. He partially redeems himself at the end, but it is still an obnoxious article. And yes, I know that it is, at least in part, tongue-in-cheek. But it isn't nearly funny enough to get away with being so pretentious.

A Barbecuer’s Dilemma: Charcoal Or Gas?

I love to barbecue. There, I said it. For those of us who aren't chefs, barbecuing is a perfectly acceptable cooking method, and one that is preferred for some things (no matter what the real chefs say). Like steak for instance. Oh, I can make a mean steak in my kitchen with my trusty cast-iron pan, but grilling outside on a charcoal or gas grill just...feels right. But which will it be? When I was young and poor I didn't have a choice. It was a tiny kettle and cut-rate briquettes. Then, as my pay check grew, so did the size of my grill. And the next logical leap was into hardwood charcoal or, and this was the really fun part, hardwood itself. Then I moved to the suburbs and left behind many things, not least among them was good bars and restaurants just around the corner, but that is a different post. But I also left my trusty Weber kettle, and moved on to a neat, and expensive, Weber gas grill. But I have grill envy, and the rightness and the truth of cooking over charcoal was driven home the last few weekends. The first was a chilly evening during which we built a roaring charcoal fire in one of those new Weber kettles with the integral ash keeper. That is a very, very nice feature. No more ash blowing every which way as I clean the grill in preparation for another evening of carcinogen laden food. Yeah, it's true, barbecuing produces a small amount of bad stuff, mostly, I think, in the fat. But risk is relative, and I'm going to concentrate on the large risks that are easily managed -- like wearing a seatbelt, and not sharing needles, and not smoking cigarettes -- and enjoy the absolutely delicious trade off for a six hour decrease in my lifespan. [Climbing down from soap box] Anyway, the fire was fantastically hot, much more intense than anything I can produce on my gas grill. And the steaks were better for it! On the same grill just a few weeks later I cooked some lamb rib chops on a fire that might have been even hotter. The chops cooked in seconds, and they were great! I realized that I could not come close on my gas grill, but even with the new designs, charcoal is still more trouble. But just because I am not a chef doesn't mean that I am going to take the lazy way out, especially if it means sacrificing flavor. So I will soon have two grills on our patio. And if I have my way, there will be a smoker somewhere too. But that will be hidden from view, because my wfe will probably get a bit irritated if our patio turns into a barbecue pit.

Steak Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive

When I was just a lad, cooking for myself and, more importantly, paying for the food that I ate; I was a model of frugality (not like today, when I think nothing of using Petrus as cooking wine). I used to shop for meat at my local Safeway, which was in a great neighborhood (Rockridge, if anyone knows the East Bay), but not too far from a few less savory and elegant places. So they had porterhouses alongside chuck steaks, and that is where I used to head when I had an urge for steak, which was fairly often. I would buy a thick chuck steak, at least two inches, and then let it age for a few days in the bottom of my refrigerator. At 69¢/lb. I could get a pretty hefty steak for not much money. Cooking it was one of the simple pleasures in my life. I would return from work quite late, usually close to midnight (don't ask), pop open a bottle of beer made by one of the many small, spectacularly good microbreweries in Northern California, and begin the ritual. I would fire up my trusty Weber grill with far too much charcoal, and when the flames were licking the underside of the deck above me I would spread out the coals so the entire grill surface would heat, hopefully red-hot. If it were a cold February night then I would have to settle for a less impressive temperature, but it was always at least roaring hot. Then came the tough part. Chuck is a boldly flavored cut, but it also has a fair amount of fat interspersed among the sections of meat. At 69¢/lb. it isn't marbling, it is thick chunks of fat. And as many of you grillers know; fat burns. So I had to be careful, turning the steak and moving it around the grill as it cooked. But that was half the fun, so I didn't mind. The steaks usually turned out very well, with great beef flavor and an almost crispy surface from the intense heat.  And I was usually drooling with hunger by this time, so I wouldn't worry too much about cutting away the fat. Admit it, grilled fat does taste good. I rarely finished the steak, so I would have enough for a sandwich or two, usually made with Semifreddi bread from the wine store around the corner. Good stuff! I found a chuck steak in my local market recently and couldn't resist the temptation. And last night I fired up the gas grill (yes, I have become weak in my old age) and had a grand old time. Just to make sure that my wife would be fed, I also grilled a T-bone. Both steaks were aged for the same length of time, and both came off the grill at the same temperature (rare). And ya know? They were both good. Different, but good. While I agree with Thomas Wolfe that "You Can't Go Home Again," maybe you can, but just for dinner.

I Love My Cast-Iron Skillet

You can easily spend $200 on a skillet. And a set of pots and pans made from some weird copper alloy sandwiched between stainless steel with a hi-tech coating will set you back the price of a used car. Before you shoot me horrible e-mails and comments about how I don't appreciate the technological advances that have made cooking accessible for lots of people (ignoring the fact that most people can't afford this stuff) and how I am a Luddite, I like fancy pots and pans just as much as the next guy. But my Lodge cast-iron skillet cost me $25, and I use it almost as much as my fancy non-stick sauté pan. I use it for burgers and seared tuna and even fried chicken. Actually, the fried chicken was great, the best I have ever made, but I went all-out and brined it and gave it a good buttermilk soaking and then fried it in shortening. I am not sure that it's worth the trouble on a small scale. Anyway, the point is that this inexpensive pan is incredibly useful, and no more so than for roast chicken, which is what I made last night. What I like about it is not just its ability to hold an amazing amount of heat, but that the surface is practically non-stick if maintained well. And I don't know about you, but I don't have any non-stick cookware that can go into a 550° oven without melting into a messy puddle of slag on the bottom of my stove. And I can heat the admittedly heavy beast on top of the stove until it's practically glowing red. I have one of those nifty infra-red thermometers with the laser pointer (great toy!), and according to it I can get the pan up to 600°, and that's better than an amp that goes to 11. I split the chicken and pressed it flat, and then just put a bit of salt and pepper on it. I cheated a bit and used duck fat in the pan, because I am worried that there isn't enough fat in my diet. Then I seared the chicken, skin side down, until it was nice and golden brown. I took it out of the pan, put some cut up potatoes and carrots into the pan and tossed them to coat with the duck fat. I put the chicken back in, skin side up, and roasted in a hot oven for about 45 minutes. Easy, quick, and it tasted great. And all because of the wonderful folks at Lodge Manufacturing.

Sibling Rivalry, And I Lost!

I am a better cook than my sister. I have better technique, a surer sense of the chemistry of food, a much better grasp of ingredients, and I am a man, and everyone knows that men make better cooks. Did I mention that I am a better cook than my sister? So how could she take one of my recipes and improve it, both in taste and simplicity? And the worst part is that she is holding out on the details. I discussed this kind of repellent behavior a while ago, but I never expected it from my own sister.

Political Snark, But Good!

Yeah, yeah, I said this isn't a political blog. So shoot me.


Ingredients: Good, Bad and indifferent

I have always been puzzled by the huge differences in the quality of ingredients that, at first glance, seem to be similar. Tomatoes are an obvious example. Who hasn't been fooled by  spectacular looking tomatoes that are utterly tasteless, horribly textured, and devoid of aroma? Even stuff like potatoes and carrots can vary. But most people are more aware of things like beef, mostly because it's comparatively expensive. If I buy a bag of potatoes that are a bit below par I can survive the blow to my bank account. And doctoring a potato to make it palatable is a simple affair. But making a tough, tasteless porterhouse taste great is an undertaking that, at least in my experience, is akin to Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It may be a good idea, but it probably won't work.  So choosing ingredients is best done very, very carefully. But there is one problem with this plan; who the hell can tell the difference between a great rutabaga and one that has being cryogenically preserved by ConAgra for 16 years? I know to avoid food with large spots of mold on them, and it's pretty obvious that if you can sink your thumb into a potato it's probably past its prime. But I have absolutely no idea  what to look for in radishes or brie or pork butt. I am not talking about freshness. I am talking about the difference between a good looking steak that tastes just so-so, and a good looking steak that knocks your socks off.  I think I have a pretty good handle on beef, but trying to articulate my reasons for choosing one package of skirt steak over its neighbor is an exercise in futility -- I have the sneaking suspicion that were I subjected to a rigorous test I might fail. And I can't tell at all whether those cute little lamb loin chops will be great or just good. Luckily I have found a source for lamb that is very reliable. But also expensive, so I am constantly looking for an alternative source, and constantly being disappointed. It's not that most lamb stinks, it's that a few places get lamb that is simply better. Lest you think I am a snob, it is not always a function of cost. My go-to store for pork butt is the A&P, and they don't make anyone's list of "Best Butcher." I'm not sure of my point in all of this; I just find it interesting that quality varies so much. Maybe that is the biggest difference between my dinner table and a table at Per Se. That and about 300 other things.

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