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Jul 12, 2011

IPAs And Indian Food: Like Peas And Carrots (In Mumbai)

DSC_0022
Fact: Indian food is incredibly flavorful and can be quite spicy.
Fact: India pale ales are incredibly flavorful and can be quite bitter.
Fact: It's difficult to pair beer with Indian food.
Fact: It's difficult to pair food with IPAs.
Fact: Indian food and IPAs were made for each other, literally.

That last fact should be self-evident, but if it was Indian restaurants (at least the ones around here) would stick a few Loose Cannons, maybe an Avery IPA on the menu. But that's not the case. Instead, your beer options are limited to a redundant list of light lagers whose labels might invoke thoughts of India - Kingfisher, Taj - but are otherwise indistinguishable from the light lagers made in St. Louis and Golden, Colo.

To be fair, lagers have been the beer of choice in India for more than a century. In fact, lagers are the beer of choice in most parts of the world. There was a time, though, when bitter, hop-forward ales from England were all the rage on the subcontinent (and then the Indians booted out their British overlords and switched to the German stuff).

Travel to England today and you'll be hard pressed to find a pub that doesn't have curry on the menu. For a people known for fried fish and sausages, they have fully embraced an Indian staple as their own (thanks to their old Asian holdings). But travel to India, and the culinary cultural exchange doesn't stand up, at least where beer is concerned. 

That's a shame because there may be no better beverage to pair with a spicy curry than a hoppy India pale ale.

As craft beer has become more popular over the past decade, so too has the idea that beer can be paired with more than burgers and pizza. Thomas Keller commissioned Russian River Brewing and Brooklyn Brewery to make special beers for his restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se. Here in D.C., Chef Eric Ziebold's tasting menu at CityZen has included a beer course, and Michel Richard imports the Belgian pilsner Blusser for his restaurant Central. And then there's Birch & Barley, which offers a beer pairing with each course of Chef Kyle Bailey's tasting menu.

Once the domain of wine, beer is being recognized as an ideal accompaniment to food. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewing and author of The Brewmaster's Table, has gone even further to say that beer offers a wider range of flavors and styles, making it the ideal accompaniment to food. (The Brewmaster's Table, as it happens, is a book about pairing food with beer.)

That may be true, but when it came to Indian cuisine, I never gave it much thought. As oafish at it may sound, I viewed curries and kormas as ethnic food made by people from foreign lands. So if the people running the restaurant wanted to offer a few light lagers with their dishes, so be it. Their food, their beer. After all, you go to Indique for the food not the drink. Well, a cold Fisherking may be common in Mumbai's curry houses, but it's not the ideal beer for the food. The ideal one might just be a California pale ale. (I know it's not an IPA. I'll get to that.)

Book I got thinking about this particular food and beer pairing after reading Pete Brown's latest book, Hops and Glory. In it, the British beer writer explores the development of the IPA and England's colonization of India, and chronicles his journey from Burton-Upon-Trent (the birthplace of IPAs) to Calcutta with a keg of IPA in tow. It's a good book, and in it Brown makes the point that IPAs not only go well with Indian cuisine, they taste like they were made for it.

"[The IPA he brought from England] really was dangerously drinkable, and when the tandoori canapés came round it went beautifully, cutting through the heat and harmonizing with the spices so perfectly it was as if the beer had been designed specially to go with the cuisine, and perhaps it had."

That sparked my interest. While Oliver and other beer writers have made the point that IPAs can go well with very flavorful dishes and spicy foods, Brown's 450 page treatise on the matter convinced me to try the pairing myself.

Because Indian restaurants don't offer India pale ales, I conducted my tasting at the next logical location: the Iron Horse bar in Penn Quarter.

I like the Iron Horse, a lot. Not only does it offer a great selection of craft beers and is home to bartender extraordinaire Scott Stone, but it has a tavern license. What that tavern license means is that they don't serve food, so you can bring in food from anywhere. As long as you're drinking, that's no problemo. You can even have food delivered and never leave your barstool. That's turned the Iron Horse into my go-to bar for watching college football (Pattison Avenue and pints, people) and in this case, my go-to spot for lamb vindaloo and IPAs.

DSC_0030 The vindaloo, which I picked up from nearby Mehak, was great. Chunks of lamb and potato swam in a pool of fiery red curry. It was delicious, and completely overwhelmed my pallet. The onion kulcha, a doughy flat bread filled with onions, was good, but no match for the vindaloo.

For the pairing, I ordered Flying Dog's Double Dog imperial IPA, which clocks in at 11.5% A.B.V.; Flying Dog's Snake Dog IPA, which comes in at a more modest 7.1% A.B.V.; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (on the theory that English IPAs aren't nearly as high in alcohol as our IPAs), which runs 5.6% A.B.V.; and Sierra Nevada's new Juniper Black Ale, a hoppy 8% A.B.V. black IPA.

Of the four beers, the two with the lowest alcohol levels paired the best with the spicy Indian dish. The Double Dog (a personal favorite) was much too sweet for the dish and the heat of the vindaloo overwhelmed whatever hop characteristics the Juniper Black Ale had, making it taste like an ordinary stout. On the other hand, the IPA and pale ale were spot on.

Although the IPAs didn't compliment the curry in the same way the dark stouts compliment chocolate and coffee flavors, the Snake Dog IPA and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale stood their ground with the vindaloo. A dish with the much flavor and heat would turn a Taj to water, but the IPAs remained bright, hoppy and citrusy deep into the bowl.

Between the two beers, I favored the pale ale. Both went well, but the bitter bite from the Snake Dog and the spicy of the vindaloo were a bit much for me. The Sierra Nevada, though, was refreshing, and the subtler hop bitterness helped restore my taste buds between bites.

These results shouldn't have been surprising, even if they were. This food and this style of beer should be easier to find together, even if it's not. But the fact is, IPAs pair well with Indian food, even if you have to bring the food to the beer.

And if Indian isn't your thing or you want a few more pairing options, you could try Thai (which Scott suggested) or fried chicken (which my wife suggested). I think they're both right. If it's spicy enough or fried enough, it can be matched up with an IPA. Brooklyn's Oliver has suggested pairing IPAs with fried fish, Mexican and calamari. Point being, IPAs go well with spicy and greasy food. When it comes to pairing Indian food with beer, though, I don't think there's a better option than an IPA (or pale ale).

Iron Horse Taproom
507 7th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
(202) 347-7665

Mehak
817 7th St. N.W.
Washington D.C., DC 20001
(202) 408-9292

Categories: Bar/Club, Beer, Book Reviews, British, Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Food and Drink, Indian, Lamb, Penn Quarter, Washington, DC
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Jun 09, 2010

Planet Barbecue: Raichlen offers up one more great guide for the grill

Planet BBQ Steven Raichlen's business card says "Writer."

That was the first thing I noticed when the grilling authority, instructor, television personality and all around barbecue guru handed me his card. 

"Writer."

It turns out that for all the notoriety that Raichlen has amassed for mastering a world's worth of grilling and barbecuing techniques, he's basically a writer. Always has been, in fact.

"I'm not a chef or a pit master. I'm not qualified to be. But I am a writer," he told me after a recent talk he gave at the Smithsonian. Thumbing through his latest barbecue book, that makes sense.

Like its author, Planet Barbecue is a work of many things. First and foremost, it's a cook book. But it's also a history text, with sections dedicated to the origins of barbecue and country profiles that show how this popular American cuisine is common around the world. Between the recipes for bacon-grilled enotake mushrooms and hanger steak with Marchand de Vin sauce, are interviews with pit masters, Spanish chefs, and Laotian women who probably know more about grilling fish than Barton Seaver.

With more than 300 recipes and pages of color-photo instructions, Planet Barbecue is very much a cook book. It just also happens to be a work of non-fiction the size of a phone book.

Planet Barbecue is Raichlen's twelfth book and his last on barbecue. The genre has been very good to him, but he's ready to move on. His next book will be a novel -- a novel with somewhat of a food theme, but a novel all the same.

So if Planet Barbecue is the barbecue and grilling cook book he's going out on, at least he's doing so on a high note.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Raicheln's earlier cook book, BARBECUE! Bible, is a must-have for anyone who enjoys barbecue and grilling and wants to improve. It was also the book that put Raichlen on the map.

Like Planet Barbecue, the BARBECUE! Bible featured an international assortment of barbecue recipes. More importantly though, it came with tips and illustrated techniques.

BARBECUE! Bible taught me how to properly butterfly pork, grill lobster and rotisserie a leg of lamb. It also covered the origins of the barbacoa, profiled a restaurant in Mumbai and dedicated 500 words to Indonesian grilling. Turns out, Raichlen has been writing about more than grilled chicken and baby back ribs for some time.

As good as BARBECUE! Bible is, I like the selection of recipes in Planet Barbecue better. Raichlen hits all the necessary American recipes, including brisket, smoked pork shoulder, burgers, whole hog and ribs; and his selection of recipes from other countries is eclectic enough to be interesting, but not so much so to pass up. So while there are tips on how to grill onion and coriander brined lamb chops like they do in Uzbekistan, there's also a world's worth of steak and pork recipes. They may have come from other countries, but many of the dishes feel familiar even if their origins aren't.

When it came out in 1998, the BARBECUE! Bible became one of the authoritative texts on barbecue. The problem was, the book's focus on American and international barbecue recipes meant that the attention given to any one of those cuisines was a little thin. And as interesting as other countries' barbecue recipes are, they were a bit too obscure and I wanted more recipes from my own back yard. Planet Barbecue picks up where the BARBECUE! Bible left off. Add to that the detailed photo illustrations (a step up from the hand-drawn illustrations in BARBECUE! Bible) and additional techniques, and Planet Barbecue becomes the new must-have for barbecue enthusiasts.

Raichlen said he wanted Planet Barbecue to be an authoritative work, a bookend to the BARBECUE! Bible and How to Grill. With the combination of recipes, techniques and profiles, Raichlen expects this book to be used differently by different people: some will read it cover to cover, while others will only crack it for the recipes.

On the other hand, Planet Barbecue benefits from the BARBECUE! Bible. Like the earlier work, Planet Barbecue is a great cook book and an interesting read. However, I'm glad I have both books and the battery of recipes and techniques they provide. Each book is good, but both books are great.

Speaking of those barbecue recipes, in Planet Barbecue they are once again a best-of from around the globe. Raichlen covers grilled bread with DC's own Jose Andres, Balkan grilled veal and pork "burgers," and Singapore-style skate grilled in banana leaves. Each recipe includes a bit of info on where it comes from, what the ingredient is and a little info on the region or dish.

That's all well and good, but what's important is Raichlen has a recipe for Allen & Son's pulled pork, sauce and all.

Some of you just said, "Oh shit." I did, too.

I love Eastern Carolina barbecue, and Chapel Hill's Allen & Son is the epicenter of all things tangy, porky and right. Proprietor Keith Allen has finessed this beautifully simple combination of slow smoked pork shoulder and vinegar sauce into an unctuous nirvana. Given how protective pit masters and barbecue enthusiasts are about their recipes, I was stunned to see that Raichlen got Allen's recipe for that moist, tart pork. I'm also suspicious.

I mean, this might rank up there with the Colonel's 11 spices or the recipe for Coca-Cola.

I promise you, I'll be putting that recipe to good use this summer. I also promise that it'll never be as good as Keith Allen's.

Even as Raichlen traveled from country to country working on Planet Barbecue, he was already working on the novel. He will continue is popular PBS series Primal Grill, but is quick to admit that his delivery and style are better suited for writing than TV.

As middle-aged men stood in line for pictures and autographs, it's hard to think of Raichlen as anything but a barbecue authority. But Raichlen is writer and he's moving on. Fortunately for those fans, he's left them with a great body of work.

Grilled Veal Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Onions
(Where: Florence, Italy)

Excerpted from Planet Barbecue, copyright 2010 by Steven Raichlen. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. New York. All Rights Reserved.

1 pound small torpedo onions, cipollinis, pearl onions, or shallots (see Note)
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup balsamic vinegar, or more for taste
1 cup honey, or more to taste
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
4 thick loin or veal chops (each 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick and 12 to 14 ounces)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Peel the onions, leaving most of the stem end intact; this helps hold the onions together as they cook. Place the onions in a large, deep saucepan, add the red wine, balsamic vinegar, honey, and 3 tablespoons of the butter and bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce the heat to medium and cook the onions until tender - they'll be easy to pierce with a skewer - 12 to 15 minutes. If all goes well, the wine, vinegar, and honey will cook down to a syrupy glaze at precisely the same moment the onions are tender. If not, using a slotted spoon, transfer the onions to a plate and continue boiling the sauce until it is thick and syrupy. Return the onions to the pan, if necessary, and taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste and more vinegar and/or honey as necessary; the onions should be a little sweet, a little sour, and very flavorful. If you add more vinegar and/or honey, return the pan to the heat to let the liquid cook down. You should wind up with about 1 1/4 cups. The onions can be cooked several hours, or even a day, ahead and reheated just before serving.

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat one zone to high.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Generously season the chops on both sides with salt and pepper. (OK, I know they add the sale after the grilling in Tuscany and they don't bother with pepper. But I still maintain you get a better crust when you season the meat just prior to grilling.) Arrange the veal chops on the hot grate at a diagonal to the bars. Grill the chops until nicely browned on the outside and cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium. Use the poke test to test for doneness. Give each chop a quarter turn after 2 1/2 minutes on each side to create a handsome crosshatch of grill marks.

Transfer the chops to a platter or plates and let them rest while you reheat the onion mixture. Just before serving, stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Spoon the onions over the chops and sprinkle the parsley, if using, on top. Serve the chops at once.

NOTE: Baby torpedo onions (elongated red onions), cipollinis (small, flat, round onions), pearl onions - or any small whole onions or shallots are available from Melissa's (www.melissas.com). Although it's not strictly traditional, a few years ago I took to grilling the onions before simmering them in the wine and balsamic vinegar. This takes a little more time (although you can grill the onions at a previous grill session), but it gives the sauce an incredible depth of flavor. Brush the onions with oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill over a hot fire until browned on the outside, but still firm inside, 4 to 6 minutes per side.

Categories: Barbeque, Book Reviews, Books, Interviews
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Jun 01, 2010

The Tomato is Dead. Long Live the Tomato

Ripe I have never eaten a tomato. Well, not a real one, evidently.

Until recently, I didn’t even know there was a difference. And depending on your views about plant breeding and agribusiness, you might not see or even care about the difference. I do.

How could I not? I grew up in rural central Florida. I used to live next to a tomato farm. Over the course of 34 years, I’ve devoured hundreds if not thousands of tomatoes. Each and everyone of those lovely love apples, I assumed, was as nature intended. That's where I was wrong.

With little exception, every tomato you and I have ever eaten was manipulated by man. From seed to picked fruit, the tomato is worked over at every stage of its development. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with the tomatoes that have accompanied my salads and made sauce for my pizzas. It’s just a little unnerving to think that I have never eaten a perfectly natural tomato.

For all I know, the tomato -- the true tomato -- doesn’t exist any more. And if it did, I doubt that I’d know it if I saw it.

Arthur Allen, author of Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, said in all likelihood the wild tomato would be a weird and ugly thing, a far cry from the pretty red orb we know and love.

His new book tells the story of how that ugly South American jungle fruit grew into a hundred million dollar business, an Italian icon and a project for the Chinese military.

Meeting over lunch at Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, Arthur said that for years he’s had an interest an in agribusiness and the things that we eat, which led him to research and write Ripe.

His story of the tomato is a story of industry. The majority of tomatoes, as we know them today, were bred to be harvested by machine, capable of a long shelf-life and to a lesser extent, palatable to the consumer -- in that order (which helps explain the common lament about the modern tomato's lack of flavor). However in Florida, taste falls even farther by the wayside, as growers focus on producing large, firm tomatoes for their fast food clients, who are looking for tomatoes that can be sliced uniformly, over and over again. Despite the hardiness of the Florida tomatoes, most of them are still picked by hand; a back-breaking task most often carried out by immigrants.

As Arthur notes in the book, “Tomatoes, a wholesome food with clear nutritional benefits, have been bred to taste plain, while food chemists and the companies they work for have gussied up their corn-syrup-based snacks with savory essences culled from nature.”

Rather than serving as a totem of modern agribusiness, Arthur said the tomato has been changing since the first genetic accident occurred centuries ago. In fact, the tomato’s ability to be so easily manipulated has resulted in the wide variety of tomatoes available today. It’s also kept the cost down and allowed us to have this seasonal fruit all year long.

Tomato breeders have bred the tomato to have a firmer skin to make it more resistant to bruising and rot. The color, flavor, seed content, density and shelf-life are all the result of breeding. The Brandywines, Green Zebras and Sun Golds are all a product of breeding. As truffle hunters still use dogs and pigs to find fists of fungus in the French countryside, which are sold at premium prices, tomato breeders have built a fruit they can harvest by the ton and sell to consumers cheaply and still clear a profit (and an even greater profit if they can add an organic sticker).

“Today’s tomato -- whether the strangely crunchy specimens on your fast-food burger, sliced from a tomato picked green in southern Florida, the yellowish purple heirloom sold at the farmer’s market, or the paste on the slice at the corner pizza shop -- is the product of countless human hands,” Arthur wrote in Ripe.

But for all that effort, the vast majority of tomatoes grown here and elsewhere end up crushed and cooked down into paste for salsa, ketchup and the very pizza sauce Arthur and I were likely enjoying on our lunch.

In the book, Arthur also explores the spiritual home of the tomato, Italy (again, the actual home was probably a Peruvian jungle). Although the tomato is a cultural icon and a staple of the nation’s cuisine, its place in the Italian kitchen dates back only to the mid-nineteenth century. To be sure, the tomato is a major crop and export for Italy, but the country also imports quite a bit of Chinese tomato paste.

Oh, and the cans of pricey San Marzano tomatoes you’re buying at the grocery store? They’re probably a Roma or similar plum-type tomato. Disease likely wiped out Italy’s San Marzanos 40 years ago.

So the San Marzanos are fake and most of the tomatoes at the grocery store weren’t grown to taste great, just easily harvested. What do we do with this information?

Enjoy your tomatoes. If nothing else, Ripe can help you make better decisions about the tomatoes and tomato products you buy and consume. Why spend the money on cans of  San Marzanos when Hunt’s or Heinz will do? If you long for the flavorful tomatoes of your youth, buy or grow smaller tomatoes, like cherry and grape varieties.

Arthur is even an advocate of year-round tomatoes, though he prefers the greenhouse variety over tomatoes that are picked green and then sprayed with ethylene to ripen. And aside from your home garden, the best quality tomatoes you can find tomatoes are at the farmer’s market.

Not because they’re the real thing, it just more likely that they were picked in season and fairly recently. And a fresh ripe tomato is about as good as you're going to get.

Categories: Book Reviews, Books
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Apr 23, 2010

The Beer Trials: A Fun New Guide to the Wide World of Beer

BeerTrials2 The beer world has become a vast, confusing place, since the boom hit back in the early 2000's. A lot of atlases have been published of late to guide one through this vast, undiscovered country -- indeed, one might call it an overwhelming number, as a search for "beer guides" at Amazon.com yields 855 results! For a beginner, selecting a guide has ironically become as difficult as wading through the beers they propose to describe! And each guide, of course, has its own aim and specialities, which are not always as clear as they might be. Well, neophytes, fret no more; The Beer Trials is a practially perfect populist preamble to the wide world of beer.

Okay, full disclosure: I got this book for free from the Fearless Critic Media, the book's publisher (There! You happy FTC?!). I agreed to receive a copy on a whim, not thinking I would get very much out of it, but what they sent me is actually a really great reference. Where most beer books go either super technical or into the realm of epic beer porn, The Beer Trials keeps it simple, stupid.

A rotating group of about two dozen beer lovers and experts blind tasted 250 beers of various types, agreed upon a score, condensed their notes into a pithy three or four sentences, and framed each entry with a little bit of background and label notes. That's about it. After a preface, some basic information on brewing, and a bit of a diatribe on marketing, the book consists mostly of these well laid out, cleverly written one page descriptions of each beer based on their results.

While this method is nothing new, authors Seamus Campbell and Robin Goldstein excelled in their execution. The extensive notes section is preceded by a brief but well thought out description of beer families and styles, in which groups the various beers were compared and ranked. This division by type is very important; it is often tempting to compare a light lager to Belgian ale, but what's the use? The Beer Trials does not compare Natural Light's apples to Chimay Blue's oranges, but rather ranks the beers in relation to their peers.

SteelRsv That's the other great thing about this book: along with Chimay Blue, they actually DO rate Natural Light! And Bud Light, for that matter, and MGD, and Busch, and every other cheap beer under the sun. And they do so earnestly, with thoughtful notes and reasoning to back up their high or low scores. Though many do garner the scores you'd expect, there are a good number of surprises, like the rosy description and score given to Steel Reserve, pictured at right.

Along with the macrobrews, the book is populated with widely available beers anyone can find; sizable microbrewers like Anchor, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, regional giants like New Belgium and Yuengling, and a good number of your dominant import brands from Asia and Europe are all well represented. Only a handful of these beers are rare or extraordinarily dear, and that is this book's greatest asset. Any newbie with even the most vague idea of what he likes could take this book to the grocery store, flip through and find information on any number of alternatives right in front of his face.

The authors state at the end of the preface that this book has an agenda: "To broaden your horizons, and narrow your search, by arming you with better information about beer. If we can help you find a new beer to love, then our purpose is met." For those new to the game, this book is sure to hit the mark, thanks to its populist selection and fun writing style. For these same reason, I don't think this would be a great pick for the journeyman or 'serious' beer drinker; you lot know most of these quite well, and would be better served by a Michael Jackson tome. This one would be the perfect gift for that slightly geeky young person in your life who is just about to start college -- it'll give him important knowledge to guide his beer pong selections, and force him to think about what he drinks, hopefully leading him down the healthier, more rewarding path towards better beer. Go on! Be the coolest aunt or uncle ever; here's the link.

Categories: Beer, Book Reviews, Books
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Jul 06, 2009

Mark Bittman "How to Cook Everything"

Recently, the Post ran a pretty solid article on how to stock a kitchen with only 20 essentials tools and utensils.  I’d add one more:  Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food.  “Big Red”, as I now refer to it, has become the go-to guide in my kitchen, and even though I'm pretty comfortable with a chef's knife, when I think back to a time when I wasn't, How to Cook Everything would have shoved Joy of Cooking off the shelf.

Bittman's unpretentious style infuses every part of this book, from what appliances to buy to the actual recipes.  He is exceedingly accessible, especially to beginners or people who like to cook but who don't see themselves making gougères anytime soon (but if so, the recipe is on page 99).  He doesn't believe one needs an award-winning kitchen stocked with the most and best tools and appliances, and he offers his own kitchen as proof:  "7 feet long and 6 feet wide...it has a moderate-size refrigerator, what was once considered a full-size stove (as opposed to the compact “apartment-size” stove or the monsters recently gaining popularity), annoyingly little counter and storage space (yes, I sometimes must remove the stored pots and pans before using the oven) and even a small dishwasher."

That's more my style...and, I suspect, the style of most people.

How to Cook Everything is a well-organized walk through every course and food group you might reasonably encounter in a modern market -- super or farmer's.  Recipes begin with building-block essentials, which are easy and/or popular and provide the basis for variations.  Each recipe is also identified as fast (less than 30 minutes), make-ahead (and store for finishing or serving later) and/or vegetarian (600 of the 2000 recipes are vegetarian).

Throughout the recipe sections, Bittman provides basic information about the main ingredient:  types, variations, cooking methods.  For example, the section on beans begins with the basics of buying, storing, preparing and cooking and continues with a 3-page chart on types, varieties and cooking times before launching into 37 pages of recipes, interspersed with sidebars on achieving certain textures of cooked beans, bean/green/pasta combos, edamame, lentils, etc.  There is little you won't know about beans when you're done.

However, not everyone needs voluminous information on beans (or grains or spices or apples).  If you only need to refresh yourself on a technique rather than a recipe, check out the extensive index and look up either the technique or the technique and the food you want to prepare.  I recently grilled a whole chicken and just needed to know whether I started it bone- or breast-side down; less than a minute later, I had my answer (bone-side first).  When are steaks done?  How can I jazz up plain rice in less than 30 seconds?  Which potatoes are good for salads?  How do I squeeze tofu?  You ask, Bittman answers.

His presentation technique is to provide a basic recipe and follow it with all kinds of variations for modifying it.  Want to make that pound cake low fat?  Replace 1 stick of butter with a cup of low-fat yogurt.  Wondering how you're going to use all that black bean puree you made?  Spread it on crostini, use it as a dip for vegetables or place it under a grilled main course.

It’s utterly impossible to be intimidated by a chef who recommends putting leftover Crème Anglaise on Cheerios.

In his typically friendly and low-key manner, he offers subtle suggestions, followed by his catchphrase, "...if you like."  The recipes can be followed to the letter but really are intended as starting points; Bittman encourages cooks to experiment with the basics that he provides.  Indeed, it's how one learns to cook.

While this is a basic cookbook, the volume of information launches it past that category into, dare I say, The Only Cookbook You'll Ever Need territory.  I was even surprised to find grilled chapati in the index, which immediately brought back memories of Tanzania, where the tortilla-like discs of fried dough wrapped in greasy newspapers are a cheap roadside staple.  Adzuki beans to yuzu sorbet, bulgur to zucchini:  it's in there.

But for me, the moment that defined Big Red's Number One spot in our kitchen was when I walked in one morning to find it open on the counter.  Neil, my boyfriend, was facing the stove but craning his neck towards the buckwheat pancake recipe.  For someone who eschews -- no, disdains -- recipes as much as Neil does, this was no small honor to Bittman.

You can catch Mark Bittman over at the NY Times, where he writes "The Minimalist" column and his Bitten blog.  Every so often, the online NYT posts a short video with Bittman preparing a recipe in 5 minutes or less; the amount of information you come away with far exceeds the time spent watching.  In fact, no one in recent memory has brought great cooking within the reach of everyone as well as Bittman has.

Categories: Book Reviews, Cookbooks
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Jul 28, 2008

Jacques Pépin's "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen"

Those old enough to remember 1970s television might recall the pre-cable, slot-filling cooking shows, where Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet reigned among brick-walled kitchens and hanging copper pots.  You might also remember a dashing Frenchman named Jacques Pépin, who entered the NY cooking scene in the early 1960s and quickly rose through the ranks via talent, connections, and joie de vivre.

His memoir, The Apprentice:  My Life in the Kitchen, reads as a response to all the people who must have told him over the years, "Jacques, you've had an incredible life.  Why don't you write an autobiography?" And so he did, with equal parts humility and insouciance. Pepin_2

Indeed, beginning with his childhood in small-town France, he suffuses The Apprentice with a modesty and gratitude that never descends into an "aw shucks, little ol' me?" corniness.  It's as if the better parts of his French and American natures rose to the surface to produce a noble and modest reflection on a fascinating – indeed, charmed – life.  His advancement in the culinary world was phenomenal yet uncalculated, his successes the result of 10% hard work and 90% simply being in the right place at the right time.

The hard work began early and crafted an ethic that helped him rise through an increasingly prestigious succession of French restaurants.  Packed off in 1949 to a three-year apprenticeship with Le Grand Hôtel de l'Europe in Bourg-en-Bresse, at the age of 14 yet still dressed in the short pants of a boy, he describes in engaging detail the system of brigade de cuisine, the traditional and intense training where aspiring chefs spend years cycling through every station in the kitchen.  Progression is prohibited until mastery is achieved.

His is an incredible insight into the overheated, frantic, steamy and mysterious world that sparks a voyeuristic response in any dedicated foodie.  Pépin's explication of the traditional apprenticeship is worth the price of the book alone, not just for the nostalgic details of a sometimes esoteric field, but also because it is a startling contrast to today's specialized roles in U.S. kitchens, where a cook is hired and trained to do one thing and one thing only. In fact, it's hard to imagine someone today, in our celebritized culture of culinary rock stars, deigning to submit to the militaristic regime of Pépin's era, where there was room in the kitchen for only one ego.  Indeed, Pépin, who started as a cleaner – of the kitchen, not food – was forbidden to even approach le piano, the immense oven at the heart of Le Grand Hôtel's kitchen.

Finally, after a year of unpaid 15-hour days spent cleaning, prepping and observing, the "Chef suddenly materialized” beside him.

    "Quietly and with no inflection, he said, 'Jacques.'
    It was the first time I'd heard him utter my proper name.
    ‘Tomorrow you start at the stove.'"

Yet after a three-year tour of duty, he still had risen no higher than third commis, "a trainee, one tiny step above apprentice."

The other value of Pépin's memoir is the insight he offers laypeople into simple French country cooking. The French's love of offal, if we have learned nothing else from Anthony Bourdain, exhibits a passion for frugality that extends to every ingredient available, sparing nothing and turning it all into a hearty meal.  Following his move to America, Pepin could be seen tramping through the woods hunting for wild mushrooms or scouring the Mendocino coastline for escargots.  Even Billy, a feral sheep terrorizing his Hunter, NY neighborhood, became sautéed kidneys and sweetbreads.

As his many anecdotes show, you can take the boy out of the countryside, but you can't take the countryside out of the boy.  Despite his Parisian training and a diplomatic job cooking elaborate, no-budget meals for heads of state (following an unexpected turn of political events that landed him the title First Chef of France), many of the recipes with which Pépin ends each chapter are from his beloved Maman:  cheese soufflé, apple tart, stuffed eggs.  In fact, only four of the nineteen recipes come from his high-end chef days.  The remainder are hearty soups, brasserie fare and favorites he adopted from his friends in the U.S.:  pork ribs and red beans, scallop ceviche, pasta primavera.  His simple recipe for Chicken Salad à la Danny Kaye, who was famous for comedy but largely unknown for his enviable talent as a chef, sets a new standard for a pretty basic dish – it's that good.  In addition, Pépin's recipes are simple and use only common, unpretentious ingredients, yet they are elaborately explained, eliminating any of the familiar "Does this mean I'm supposed to…" doubts that recipes sometimes foster.  His recipes and his instructional manner – actually, the man himself – are the perfect antidote for anyone intimidated by French cuisine, which perhaps explains his wide appeal to Americans.

Pépin, in the 73rd year of a rather charmed life, is enjoying a full-on embrace of the multimedia world.  He has too many book titles to list, but most notable are his seminal cooking guides, La Technique and La Methode.  These manuals are, interestingly enough, the means by which Tom Colicchio taught himself how to cook, and are available combined under the title Complete Techniques.  Pépin also has a website (www.jacquespepin.net) and a PBS series on DVD, Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way, with a follow-up, More Fast Food My Way, reportedly in the works.

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Jul 23, 2008

Zagat DC-Baltimore 2009 Guide Released Today - A Chat with Tim and Nina Zagat

Zagat_3When it comes to restaurant reviews by diners, for diners, the folks at Zagat have been doing it longer than just about anyone else out there.  Beginning in New York in 1979, they have conducted yearly surveys of frequent diners (starting with their friends and expanding to include thousands of people in cities around the world) and using their results to provide their iconic ratings of venues' Food, Decor, Service and Cost.  With that sort of participation, is it any wonder that restaurateurs watch the guide closely and are quick to point out categories in which they score well?

Today's release of the 2009 edition of the DC-Baltimore (that's right, we still have to share) guide should prompt a new round of press releases and emails touting high ratings and inclusion on the "Most Popular" list.  And with yesterday's announcement of the participants in next month's DC Summer Restaurant Week, the timing for this release couldn't be better.  Available in local bookstores for $14.95 or at amazon.com for $10.17, the "burgundy bible" can give you a quick glimpse into the opinions of more than 7,200 DC diners as you prepare to make your Restaurant Week reservations.

Tim_and_nina To help promote the release of the new guide, owners Tim and Nina Zagat have come down to Washington from their home in New York.  Over coffee, I sat down to talk about some interesting statistical findings, a few surprises in the new guide and the role of Zagat's guides and other products in an increasingly digital society. 

I began by asking about the reasons behind the combination of Washington and Baltimore - a bit of New York snobbery, perhaps?  They assured me that it was more a concession to Baltimore than a snub to DC - while Washington could support a guide on its own, Baltimore's restaurant scene didn't quite do the trick.  Because the two are separated by less than an hour's drive, they felt that the combination allowed diners in both cities to see what the other had to offer and it allowed for a larger print run resulting in lower costs for both cities.  Take that, wounded pride!

The biggest news, for those who follow the guide's results closely, is Makoto's receipt of top honors in the category of Food.  While the Inn at Little Washington retained its place atop the Decor and Service categories, they placed second to the MacArthur Boulevard kaiseki establishment "by hundredths of a point," according to Tim.  This is in keeping with a national trend that has seen Japanese cuisine rise in prominence across the country - a result that the Zagats say was unheard of even five years ago. 

And that miniscule (but significant) difference in rankings is where the Zagats feel the strength of their model lies.  With thousands of reviewers, they have a series of filters in place that they use to weed out industry shills and others who might try to skew the results.  Those who do participate are asked to submit their opinions on a scale of 0-3 for each restaurant, from which the guide gives an averaged result (multipied by 10 to result in the 30-point scale).  This forces reviewers to think long and hard about whether a restaurant is excellent (3), good (2), fair (1) or poor (0).  They've experimented with other formats, including the more widely used 0-5 scale, but have found that more options tend to lead to results that drift toward the center as voters hesitate to give 5's and 1's and settle into that middle range for most of their rankings.

Here in Washington, the 2009 survey turned up some interesting results about our dining habits.  No longer a city of steakhouses and expense-account lunches, Washington's average meal is $4.33 below the national average.  Maybe that's why so many of those surveyed (62%) indicated that they are willing to pay more for food that is sustainably raised.  In addition to a preference for sustainable agriculture, seven in ten of us said that we consider local sourcing important.  Taking these results to heart, the Zagats indicated that they are looking into the most appropriate way to highlight green practices, commitment to organic ingredients and/or local sourcing as a "Special Feature" category for future ratings - much as breakfast, chef's tables and 'power scenes' are in this year's guide.

It should come as no surprise to D.C. Foodies that we are far more digitally inclined than our neighbors to the north - 37% of the participants in the DC survey indicated that they use online reservation sites like OpenTable while only 17% do so in New York.

As a writer for a food blog, I was especially interested in learning the Zagats' views of online reviewers and in hearing about their own evolving web presence.  Tim was quick to acknowledge the value in the multitude of local voices that the proliferation of food blogs provides - "You live here," he says.  "Who knows the food in your neighborhood better than you?"  But he went on to point out the need for common frames of reference to help people determine which voices mirror their own.  A sixty year-old married man, for example, is unlikely to seek out the same sort of establishment as a twenty-six year-old single woman.  According to Zagat, both voices are important (and useful on their own) but the blending of those voices is a strength of Zagat.

Nina was a wonderful ambassador for the Zagat web presence, encouraging me to take out my BlackBerry and check out the Webby-winning zagat.mobi site designed for mobile accessibility.  By registering at the main Zagat site and then signing in on your mobile device, you can access a significant portion of their content while on the go - helpful when trying to choose among the various restaurants in a given neighborhood once you're there.  Registration on the site also allows you to join the ranks of the Zagat reviewers - you can vote year-round and then submit your votes for the annual survey when the time comes.

After talking about the specifics of the new survey and the increasing importance of Zagat's online presence, we spoke for a while about the rise of celebrity chefs and television's increasing obsession with food.  Tim said he was unsure how he felt about the whole thing, and he took the opportunity to correct a misrepresentation in David Kamp's "The United States of Arugula."  Though he acknowledges criticizing Emeril's on-screen persona as reported in the book, Tim adds that he saw the run-away success that Emeril attained and told Emeril to "forget what I said about all that" six months later...though he might know something about food, he said, he readily admitted he knew nothing about television.

Despite the fact that they no longer participate in the surveys themselves, I was unable to get either of the Zagats to admit to any favorite DC restaurants ("Unlike Katherine Harris," said Tim, warming to District's political culture, "I try to remain impartial while I do my job.").  On their current visit, they stopped by Central last night and will be enjoying lunch at the new WestEnd Bistro today before joining a reporter from the Washington Post for a whirlwind tour of 15 restaurants tonight.

Tim said the tour will be more about impressions than dining, as even the smallest taste at each of 15 restaurants can dull the senses and make it hard to get a good read on a place.  That being said, he reiterated an assertion he has made for some time - that a diner can be 85-90% certain of the experience they will have in a restaurant within the first five minutes.  Attention to the decor, the service, views of neighboring tables' food, aromas and sounds all assert themselves within that first period.  We'll see if his record remains intact after tonight's marathon.

Categories: Advice, Book Reviews, Interviews, Restaurant Reviews, Washington, DC
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Apr 14, 2008

Melissa Murphy’s The Sweet Melissa Baking Book

Few things can round out a dinner party or take the chill out of a gloomy day better than a perfectly executed baked treat. Similarly, only the rarest of kitchen mishaps can elicit the same howls of frustration as a dessert gone awry – the glaze that boiled into hard candy, the uneven cake, the mysterious metallic flavor you can’t quite pin down. The fickleness of baking can be enough to drive even the most confident cooks from their mixers.


Melissa Murphy’s The Sweet Melissa Baking Book takes the guesswork out of baking while offering up Img_4368_2an array of fun, sweet treats. Her conversational style guides the reader through the book, providing anecdotal history on family traditions and customer favorites from her Brooklyn patisseries. Many recipes include suggestions for storage, cutting like a pro and serving ideas. Most importantly, all of the recipes can be executed with equipment found in a reasonably stocked kitchen.


Although Murphy’s style focuses on simple recipes executed well, her options turn up the volume on classic favorites. Murphy’s Guinness gingerbread, which I baked for a pregnant friend on St. Patrick’s Day so she could keep her stout tradition alive, debuted as a rich, dense cake. The use of high quality chocolate and Guinness laid an earthy platform and the surprising addition of white pepper gave our tongues an extra kick. Fair warning: this recipe requires you to simmer the stout in a saucepan for a few minutes, causing your kitchen to smell like a frat house on Sunday morning. Luckily the baking bread pushes this aside with clouds of delicious goodness once it’s in the oven.


Img_4533

The butterscotch cashew bars were a first for me and I wasn’t sure what to expect. This turned out to be a dish that is high on presentation but fairly low on effort. Although the recipe calls for a homemade shortbread crust, this is remarkably easy as it’s really a measure-and-dump effort with your standing mixer doing the leg work. While the crust bakes, you can get started on the butterscotch caramel which essentially means “put this on your stove and let it melt.” Once it is appropriately gooey, pour the contents over the now-baked crust. Sprinkle cashews on top and toss the whole thing back into the oven for 5 minutes: et voila! A beautiful treat that looks store-ready. The saltiness and crunch of the cashews and crust is a perfect balance to the sweetness of the butterscotch. It was so simple I almost felt guilty for accepting compliments when I brought it to work. (Almost.)


The sweet potato bread with cinnamon-rum orange glaze is a welcome addition to my stockpiImg_4339_2le of go-to quick breads. Can anything beat the smell of a great bread rising in your oven? Murphy’s sweet potato bread is no exception. The generous use of spices gave our entire apartment a heavenly, seasonal perfume that took me back to fall afternoons and cozy sweaters. The bread arrived with enough softness and spring to double as a pillow.

Murphy’s red velvet cake with cream cheese was the only disappointment I encountered. Maybe I set my hopes too high; I’d been obsessed with red velvet since eating it in cupcake form in New York. I tried to replicate it here with Murphy’s recipe but something fell short. The batter, an amazingly rich concoction with cocoa, cinnamon and buttermilk, was good enough to eat on its own with a chilled glass of milk (I say this with confidence since I ate as much batter as I baked). Unfortunately, the batter lost its depth in the baking process and the decadent flavors faded to the background in the final product. The addition of the frosting did not help – its over-the-top sweetness screamed over the cupcakes and overwhelmed the flavors.

 

Overall I’m pleased to have Sweet Melissa’s Baking Book in my arsenal. She has dozens of other recipes I’m itching to try. An entire section dedicated to baking with fresh fruit which will surely fuel my farmer’s market trips this summer and her final section highlighting favorite treats to share as gifts will certainly be stained and dog-eared by mid-December.

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Apr 09, 2008

Jeffrey P. Roberts' "The Atlas of American Artisan Cheeses"

Img_4544 There are some books that attract Foodies for their engaging prose and subject matter - "Kitchen Confidential" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" are just two of the numerous examples that have emerged in increasingly greater numbers over the past decade.  But there are others whose value lies more in the depth of the information they provide - reference books that become go-to volumes for Foodies who want to learn more about things like how to make salumi (Michael Ruhlman's "Charcuterie: the Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing") or a broad range of esoteric details (David Kamp's "The Food Snob's Dictionary").

For me, the most valuable resource book I have come across since I started writing about cheese is Jeffrey Roberts' "The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese."  Unlike other volumes that provide introductions to cheese-making or the differences that distinguish the various categories of cheeses, The Atlas serves a very specific function: it provides a catalog of almost 350 artisanal cheesemakers throughout the United States broken down by region.

Jeffrey Roberts took on the daunting task of cataloging these cheesemakers as a way to celebrate and acknowledge their commitment to preserving (and in some cases resurrecting) traditional foodways and methods of production.  Through interviews and surveys, he verified that each cheesemaker he profiled in the Atlas was a licensed dairy producer who worked primarily by hand to craft the cheeses that they make and sell.

Img_4546_2Thankfully, Roberts did not simply dump all of this data in his readers' laps.  Instead, he dedicates a page (and in some cases, a little bit more) to a narrative that gives some background information about each producer.  He shares stories about how cheesemakers came into the trade (it's interesting to note just how many emerged from dairies that sought to profit from the surplus milk their herds were producing), who runs the operation, and how they perceive the impact of what they do.  Despite the brevity of these descriptions, they definitely help to put a human face on each farm, elevating this book beyond the ranks of simple reference volumes.

For those who use the book for its reference purpose, Roberts also provides a more cut-and-dried recitation of the cheesemaker's details.  These include the year it was established; the owners and cheesemakers; the address, telephone, email and website (where possible); and the types and varieties of cheeses produced.  Each page also alerts readers to whether or not visitors are permitted and where the establishment's cheeses can be found, though this information is rarely detailed beyond an indication of "limited regional distribution" or "local farmers' markets."  Icons across the top of each entry identify the types of milk used (cow, sheep, goat and water buffalo) as well as whether raw milk is used, if the milk is organic, and if the milk used in cheesemaking comes exclusively from the farmstead where the cheese is produced.  These indicators can be helpful if you're seeking a goat cheese made in Maryland, like the ones from Firefly Farms, for example.

Img_4548 As the entries are arranged alphabetically by state within seven regions, searching for a specific dairy (or a list of the cheesemakers from a given state) is exceptionally easy.  Less easy, unfortunately, is determining exactly where in the state each cheesemaker is located.  Nowhere in the book does Roberts provide the sort of detailed state maps that could be useful to a cheese-lover planning a road trip or hoping to visit farmsteads in his or her nearby area.

On the whole, however, Roberts, has provided those of us who are eager to know more about the artisanal cheesemakers both near and far with an accessible and informative resource.  I have definitely benefitted from having it as I've acquainted myself with the various artisanal producers who sell their cheeses at the farmers' markets in and around Washington.

The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese
Jeffrey P. Roberts
With forewords by Carlo Petrini (Slow Food International) and Allison Hooper (American Cheese Society)
2007, Chelsea Green Publishing Company

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Dec 24, 2007

Alice Waters' "The Art of Simple Food"

Art_of_simple_food_book_jacket Mesclun and other mixed-greens salads.  Goat cheese.  Name-dropping on restaurant menus.

All of these now-commonplace foodie conventions (and an impressive list of others) can be attributed, either directly or indirectly, to the influence of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, her world-famous restaurant in Berkeley, CA.  So profound is Waters' impact and that of the "California Cuisine" that she helped to popularize that David Kamp devotes an entire chapter to Waters, Chez Panisse and their culinary contributions in "The United States of Arugula," his brilliant foodie history.   

Now, more than thirty-five years after Chez Panisse opened its doors, Alice Waters has released a cookbook to share the secrets of her "Delicious Revolution," as it was dubbed in a 2003 American Masters episode on PBS.  She distills her experiences into nine basic rules that should govern anyone who wants to cook (and eat) well. 

"This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook," says Waters in the introduction to the text.  And on that front, she delivers.  The book begins with nineteen "lessons" that cover the basics of shopping, preparation and cooking.  Some of these lessons cover specific courses like soups, pastas, desserts and, of course, salads.  Others deal with cooking techniques like grilling, simmering, slow-cooking, and frying. 

Each "lesson" chapter begins with a brief paragraph introducing the concept that will be addressed before jumping right into the topic at hand.  Rather than discussing bread making in an academic context, for example, Waters takes only a few paragraphs to talk about factors that impact the taste and quality of breads before walking the reader through a recipe for "Herb Bread or Pizza Dough."  Lessons that deal with techniques are approached in a similar fashion, with an emphasis on learning through doing in the form of recipes.

The second section of the book is a compendium of additional recipes entitled "At the Table."  These recipes are separated into broad categories (sauces, meats, eggs and cheese, etc.) and then presented in straightforward fashion. Not surprisingly, the single largest category is the one for vegetables - Waters provides seventy-two different recipes for everything from fennel and chard to potatoes and tomatoes.

It is the presentation of these recipes (Waters' status notwithstanding) that truly distinguishes "The Art of Simple Food" from similar cookbooks.  Waters eschews the traditional recipe format (a list of ingredients followed by a series of instructions) in favor of a more - go figure - organic approach.  Each recipe is a narrative in and of itself, instructing you to:

"Season:
       4 pork chops, 1/2 inch thick
with
       salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Heat a heavy frying pan over medium-high heat.  Pour in:
       olive oil to coat the pan"

The offset, bold-faced ingredients are still easily noticed, and the as-you-go instructions help to reduce the risk of omitting a key item or skipping a step.  Most recipes are followed by a set of bulleted recommendations on ways to vary the end result without significantly changing the basic technique.

To put the book to the test, I attempted to follow Waters' recipes for Grilled Lamb Loin Chops and Lentil Salad.  The first recipe was quintessentially Waters - it called for nothing more than salt, pepper and oil to season the meat and a total cooking time of 10 minutes - and it allowed the full, rich flavor of the lamb to shine through.  The Lentil Salad was simply dressed with red-wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and the lentils were combined with shallots and parsley for added taste and texture.  I opted to include two of the recommended variations - chopped cucumber and sweet red pepper - to give the dish some more crunch.  The final product was flavorful, but unlikely to become a staple in our household. 

A word of warning: anyone who reads the title and subtitle ("Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution") and expects a memoir or even a few anecdotes is in for a disappointment.  This is a simple cookbook extolling the virtues of simple food, though it is accessible, clearly written and a pleasure to work with in the kitchen.  That should come as no surprise to those who see Alice Waters as one of the people who helped awaken the American palate to the joys of "fresh, local, seasonal ingredients" in the '70s and as a tireless advocate for sustainable agriculture and "edible education" today.

 

Categories: Book Reviews, Cookbooks, New American
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