Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Cholesterol, schmolesterol—eggs are good for you

August 20, 2008

Yes, eggs have cholesterol in them. But scientists now say that they also have something that blocks the absorption of that cholesterol. Since I’m writing about French toast this week in Blue Kitchen, it seemed like a good time to update this post I did about a year ago.

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The people over at the American Egg Board need to get on the stick. Studies showed that wine in moderate amounts is good for you, especially red wine. Bingo. That story is everywhere. Winemakers are even trying to get legislation passed to tout the health benefits on labels.

Ditto chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Not only does it deliver antioxidants, which are good for your heart and arteries. Most of the fats in dark chocolate are the good kind like those found in olive oil, and even the bad ones appear to have a neutral effect on cholesterol. The chocolate marketing machine went to work and now, show of hands, who out there doesn’t know—at least on some level—that eating chocolate is actually good for you?

Well, back in 2001, nutrition researchers at Kansas State University published the first evidence that, even though eggs contain considerable amounts of cholesterol, the lecithin in eggs prevents the absorption of cholesterol from eggs and other sources too.

In 2004, a University of Connecticut report went further, stating that eating eggs is not related to body cholesterol levels or cardiovascular problems and recommending that “people with normal cholesterol levels and no family history of cardiovascular diseases should not worry about eating one or two eggs a day.”

How many of you knew that? Yeah, I thought so. The American Egg Board [still touting their innocuous “incredible edible egg” line, but only supporting it with the most timid, tepid information on their website] has been asleep at the wheel for seven years. There’s not word one about the cholesterol-blocking power of eggs. And all that while, we’ve all been quaking needlessly in our egg-white-omelet-eating boots.

To recap: Eggs good, not bad. Low in fat and calories, very high in quality protein. And most important, studies show that the lecithin in eggs actually prevents the absorption of cholesterol—not only from eggs, but from other sources.

So go eat some eggs. Have some dark chocolate. Wash it all down with some red wine. Just do it all in moderation—Oscar Wilde would have wanted it that way.

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101 picnic dishes, mayo safety & food memories

July 16, 2008

Here’s a quick look at a few food-related things I’ve read recently:

The New York Times’ Mark Bittman calls himself the Minimalist. But he’s anything but minimal when it comes to his popular lists—his favorite number seems to be 101. Take, for example, his latest list, just in time for summer picnics, “101 20-Minute Dishes for Inspired Picnics.”

As with all his lists, these are not 101 full-blown recipes; Bittman just gives you the basic idea for a dish and leaves you plenty of room to make it your own. Here is the complete entry for combining tomatoes and peaches for a lively sounding salad: “TOMATOES AND PEACHES Toss together sliced seeded tomatoes and peaches, along with thinly sliced red onion and chopped cilantro or rosemary. Dress at the last minute with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.”

It’s a long list, but he helpfully breaks it up into 10 bite-sized chunks, including Raw Vegetables, Fruit, Seafood, Sandwiches and Desserts. There’s even a Printable List of all 101. I don’t know about you, but I’m planning to mine this list all summer long.

Mayonnaise: It’s not part of the problem, it’s part of the solution.

Summertime is a time for potato salads, chicken salads and other yummy foods all calling for mayonnaise. And with all the aforementioned picnicking going on, with it’s relaxed approach to refrigeration, it’s also a time to worry about food safety.

For just about forever, mayonnaise has been thought to be a culprit, a germ factory promoting and accelerating all kinds of nasty bacterial growth. Well, according to a recent article by Anahad O’Connor in The New York Times [brought to my attention by a post on SnagWireMedia—thanks!], mayo can actually help fight the growth of bacteria. That’s because most commercial mayonnaise contains vinegar and other acidic ingredients which may help protect against spoilage. According to the Times article, “One prominent study published in The Journal of Food Protection found, for example, that in the presence of commercial mayonnaise, the growth of salmonella and staphylococcus bacteria in contaminated chicken and ham salad either slowed or stopped altogether.”

That’s not to say that you should set all your perishables out in the full sun, then head off to play beach volleyball for hours [I’m personally opposed to playing beach volleyball under any circumstances]. But you don’t have to treat dishes containing mayonnaise like hazardous waste. If anything, it’s good to know that the mayo’s got your back.

Food: Eat, Memory

If food were only about fuel and sustenance, there wouldn’t be chefs or home cooks. Or food blogs, for that matter. There would just be armies of nutritionists creating vacuum-packed, vitamin enriched food cubes.

But food is much more than fuel. It is, as renowned food editor Judith Jones so rightly said, “one of the greatest gifts of life.” Ann over at A Chicken in Every Granny Cart first made me aware of the above quote. I immediately printed it out and stuck it on our fridge. I read it almost every day. And I believe it thoroughly every time I do.

Marion recently shared an article in The New York Times Magazine with me that absolutely shows the power food has to evoke memories, to reach down inside us and to open us up to new experiences. Allen Shawn’s moving essay, “Food: Eat, Memory—Family Meal,” isn’t a saccharin Norman Rockwellian remembrance. It begins with a very non-sugar coated statement: “For my sister, Mary, who has lived in a Maryland institution for the mentally retarded since she was 8, there’s no hiding the fact that food is central.”

Shawn goes on to tell of Mary, now 59 and suffering from autism, mental retardation and elements of schizophrenia, anticipating and reciting the menu of the birthday lunch she expected each year, unchanged since her teens. In 2005, their mother was near death and unable to travel to the summer home that had been the unchanging venue for the birthday lunch. So Mary was brought to the family’s Manhattan apartment for the first time since she was eight, and in addition to the expected menu, some new dishes were added. Everyone prepared for the worst. Instead, they got what Shawn called a miracle. He was right. Read this wonderful article.

A simple, elegant, summery dessert

June 25, 2008

Summer entertaining is all about light, easy and relaxed. But the meals you serve your guests still need to have style. So today I’m revisiting a simple, stylish dessert that I posted sometime back, Rosemary Apricots. Think of it as a second helping.

Apricots are in season right now. With a little sugar, a little water, fresh rosemary and about ten minutes in the kitchen, you can turn them into a light, sophisticated French dessert. I adapted the recipe from Laura Calder’s French Food at Home. And while it’s a delightful finish to a summer dinner, I like it so much that I’ve been known to overpay for apricots out of season to serve it in winter.

You’ll find the original post and recipe right here.

Heart health, safe tomatoes and a broth shortcut

June 18, 2008

Mice get all the breaks. Scientists have been testing the benefits of red wine on them. Again.

In this latest study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, results indicate that “the chemical resveratrol, commonly found in red wine, can help keep heart tissues young and delay aging—and at levels lower than previously expected.” In fact, researchers “believe that a glass of red wine a day might provide all the resveratrol the heart needs.”

Delaying the effects of aging on the heart is huge; the aging process itself apparently causes more health issues than age-related diseases. In tests on middle-aged mice [did that phrase make you smile too?], the hearts of the mice on resveratrol stayed stronger and the tissue maintained its health longer.

Resveratrol has been known for some time to offer significant health benefits, but previous studies involved levels of resveratrol found in hundreds of bottles of wine. If this latest study is correct, one or two glasses of red wine a day could actually prevent changes in heart cells that lead to aging.

Red wine-based pharmaceuticals are suddenly becoming big business, as heavy hitters like GlaxoSmithKline aim to cash in on these findings with resveratrol supplements. They’re already commercially available. Personally, it sounds like an answer for which there was no question, to quote a former boss. I mean, a nice glass of Cabernet versus a pill? No contest, as far as I can see.

Tomatoes and salmonella scare update

Last week I wrote about an outbreak of Salmonella serotype Saintpaul linked to consumption of certain kinds of raw tomatoes in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] has not yet pinpointed the source for the tainted tomatoes, but they have cleared the tomato crops in 39 states and the District of Columbia as well as Baja California [Mexico], Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands and Puerto Rico. To see if your state’s tomatoes are safe to eat and for the latest updates on the outbreak, visit the FDA’s website.

Better Than Bouillon: Good broth, good and fast

Yeah, broth or stock made from scratch is best. No argument here. But often, we don’t have time to make it. And just as often, it’s playing a supporting role in a dish and, quite frankly, the time and effort to produce a cup or less of homemade broth just isn’t worth the payoff, at least not in my kitchen.

The good news is that choices for store-bought stock have gone way beyond the soup can and the bouillon cube. Reduced fat and reduced sodium options abound. And at Trader Joe’s [as well as other places], you can even buy organic chicken stock made from free range chickens. One of our favorite “stock options” is the Superior Touch line of Better Than Bouillon bases. They now offer an amazing 18 varieties in all, but what first caught our attention is the mushroom base. We first discovered it at Fairway Market in New York. And we loved it so much, we pestered the Chicago chain Treasure Island to add it to the varieties they already carried.

What makes Better Than Bouillon bases, well, better is that the main ingredient in whatever variety you choose is the name on the label: Beef, chicken, mushroom, lobster… not salt. That said, they do pack plenty of sodium too, so it’s good to taste whatever you’re adding it to before adding more salt. But by way of contrast, bouillon cubes can deliver anywhere from 38 to a whopping 56 percent of your DVA for sodium in a single one-cup serving! Superior Touch does offer reduced sodium versions of their beef, chicken and vegetable bases too.

And you can’t beat them for convenience or value. A single teaspoon makes a cup of broth; an 8-ounce jar makes 38 cups of broth. And it keeps in the fridge for up to 18 months, ready to grab at a moment’s notice when you need a little liquid for a dish. The mushroom base remains our favorite, but we also keep chicken and vegetable on hand. If your local store doesn’t carry Better Than Bouillon, you can order it at Amazon.com or direct from Superior Touch.

You can’t spell “team” without c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e

May 28, 2008

I am not a sports guy. Ever. The sports section of the newspaper only sees action in our house when we’re painting. So when I got an email invitation to meet Team USA, I came thisclose to hitting DELETE.

Then I saw it was Team USA of the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie. The World Pastry Cup. This was a decidedly different story. So it was, a couple of Mondays ago, that Marion and I found ourselves at the lovely Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel, sipping wine, nibbling on delightful little appetizers and anxiously awaiting the dessert portion of the evening.

Established in 1989, the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is the most prestigious event in the industry. It takes place bi-annually in Lyon, France, during SIRHA, the International Hotel Catering and Food Trade Exhibition. This year, after a grueling selection process followed by months of intense training, teams of pastry chefs from 20 countries will convene in Lyon in January to dazzle a panel of 22 judges and a live audience with their technical and artistic wizardry in the realm of desserts, chocolate, sugar and ice. Specifically, each team is required to perform live before an audience and prepare in ten hours:

A Chocolate Cake, composed of Valrhona Grand Cru Chocolat, presented on an all-sugar sculpture
A Plated Dessert, representative of the team’s country, presented on an all-chocolate sculpture
A Frozen Dessert, using Ravifruit Frozen Fruit Purées, presented on an ice carving.

The official partner and founder of the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is Valrhona, a premier French chocolatier. Since 1922, Valrhona has been producing chocolate couverture in the middle of the famous vineyards of Tain l’Hermitage in the Rhone Valley, France, near Lyon. The company is literally “Aux sources du Grand Chocolat” in its role as a planter, discoverer, selector and blender of fine and rare cocoa beans. The French are nothing if not obsessive about food, and we are all beneficiaries of their perfectionist tendencies. Valrhona, for instance, is committed to the creation and enhancement of authentic, intensely-flavored and unique chocolates; they are unique among chocolate producers in offering more than 10 dark chocolates with a cocoa percentage above 64%. And they are currently the only company in the world that produces vintage chocolate made from beans of a single year’s harvest from a specific plantation.

Valrhona’s business is also concerned with encouraging initiative and talent. They have sponsored the Coupe du Monde from its beginnings nearly 20 years ago.

Geographically spread out, Team USA’s training schedule forces them to be organized and focused. Once a month, throughout 2008, the team will meet for intensive weekend training sessions at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This year, the team consists of President and pastry chef consultant En-Ming Hsu; Team Captain David Ramirez, Executive Pastry Chef at The Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida; Rémy Fünfrock, Executive Restaurant Pastry Chef at The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, Colorado; Roy Pell, Executive Pastry Chef at The Phoenician, Scottsdale, Arizona; and Team Alternate Jim Mullaney, Executive Chef at The Cloisters Hotel, Sea Island, Georgia.

The United States has sent a team to Lyon since the competition’s inaugural event in 1989 and has come home with the Gold in 2001, the Silver in 1997 and the Bronze in 1995, 1999 and 2005. Team President Hsu served as Team Captain in 2001 when Team USA was awarded the gold.

So what are Team USA’s prospects for winning this year? Well, if the Chocolate Passion Fruit Cake we sampled [winner of the Best Chocolate Cake in 2007, and yes, those are little flecks of gold leaf on the top] is any indication, I’d say they’re pretty delicious—er, good.

Small Bites: Drinks, a cool tool and a sharp blog

May 21, 2008

Worst drink on the planet?

According to Men’s Health magazine, it’s the Heath Shake, part of Baskin-Robbins’ Candy Bar Madness promotion. The Baskin-Robbins website describes it tantalizingly thus: “Toffee and coffee have never been better! This blend of Heath and Jamoca ice creams, chopped Heath Bar pieces and caramel, are layered on top of caramel, then topped with whipped cream and chopped Heath Bar pieces.”

Their nutritional chart on the site tells a different story, though. The medium-sized 1,420-calorie drink [more than 2/3 of your daily calories needs, by the way] delivers 103% of your Daily Value for total fat and a whopping 200% for saturated fat. If that’s not enough of a fat bomb for you, they have a large size that packs an amazing 2,300 calories!

And the best drink? White tea is the new black.

Black tea is by far the most popular tea in the world. I’m a big fan of black tea myself, but lately green tea has been getting loads of press for its antioxidants. We all know by now that antioxidants fight cancer, reduce the risk of strokes, heart diseases and diabetes and generally slow the aging process.

Well, it turns out that white tea not only outperforms black tea when it comes to antioxidants—it blows the doors off everybody’s darling green tea in this regard too, delivering three times the antioxidants found in green tea. What’s more, According to ScienceDaily, white tea outstrips green in fighting germs, including Staphylococcus infections, Streptococcus infections and pneumonia. And studies by Oregon State University show that consumption of white tea can fight colon cancer, actually reducing tumors.

Is there anything white tea can’t do? Well, it doesn’t have the satisfyingly robust, slightly bitter taste of black tea. On the other hand, its somewhat subtler taste doesn’t carry any of the grassy aftertaste of green tea. And as an added bonus, its pale gold color is far less likely to stain than black tea. For everything you’d ever want to know about white tea, visit White Tea Central.

This cool kitchen tool can really take the heat.

Heat resistant, nonstick silicone has been showing up all over kitchens these days. And one of the best uses we’ve seen of it is these handy Cuisipro Silicone Locking Tongs.

They’re made with commercial-quality stainless steel, and the nonstick silicone ends are heat-resistant to 575°F [300°C]. Pull on the hanging hoop and you lock them closed for easy storage in a drawer. Pop the hoop against your hip or the counter and you can open them with one hand—a useful feature in a busy kitchen.

But what really makes these tongs for me are the silicone tips. You can flip chops or chicken breasts or whatever in a hot nonstick pan without fear of scratching. You can grab green beans or asparagus spears or other cooked vegetables without bruising them. And best of all, as far as I’m concerned, they’re ideal for handling cooked pasta. You get a sure grip without breakage, and the pasta can’t get stuck in them the way they can with open metal tongs [am I the only person bugged by this?].

Cuisipro Silicone Locking Tongs come in a dazzling array of sizes and colors. Whichever you choose, they’ll make life in the kitchen just a little bit easier.

A sharp new blog. Seriously.

The first rule of blogging if you want to build a loyal readership of more than just friends and family is to specialize. Your readers need to know that each time they visit, they’ll find something on a topic that interests them. Well, I recently heard from a blogger named Ken who has carved out quite a specific niche for himself.

The blog is called Only Knives. You’ll find plenty of useful information about kitchen knives—including this exhaustive article called The Best Kitchen Knives For Any Budget. You’ll also find posts about hunting knives, survival knives [did anyone else shudder just then?] and even swords!

Besides thorough, helpful product information, you’ll find plenty of articles on the industry and history of knives and blades. Like this post on The Rise and Fall of The Great Kitchen Knife-Makers. So if you’re in the market for new kitchen knives, check out Ken’s blog. And if you’re in the market for a survival knife, I’d just as soon not know about it.

Health news: The days of wine and rosemary

December 5, 2007

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By now, anyone not living in a cave has heard some of the health benefits of moderate wine consumption, so let’s start with the rosemary. I’ve said in the past that it’s my favorite herb. Whether making Tuscan beans, a simple, but stunning French dessert with rosemary and apricots or this week’s rosemary sage chops, rosemary imparts an unmistakable fragrance and flavor, a mix of lemon and pine.

Turns out it also imparts good stuff for your brain. According to a recent article in ScienceDaily, the carnosic acid in rosemary protects the brain from the free radicals that contribute to strokes, neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and the ill effects of normal aging on the brain.

If you drink to forget, you may be out of luck. A new study by the University of Auckland and Ohio State University, published in the September issue of the Journal of Neuroscience and reported in Wine Spectator, suggests that moderate consumption of alcohol may improve memory. That’s actually any alcohol, not just red wine—but red wine has so many other health benefits going for it [see below], why not stick with it?

The research, conducted on rats, found that “rats that drank alcohol in moderation seemed to have superior cognitive skills when compared to non-drinking and heavy-drinking rats, in ways that may occur similarly in humans.” My question is how they determined the rats’ drinking habits prior to the study. Questionnaire? Or perhaps observation, hanging out with rats in little rat bars?

“Does this leftover turkey smell okay?” “Better have some red wine.” Okay, so this isn’t so much about the brain, but if you’ve ever had food poisoning, you’ll never forget it, no matter how good, bad or indifferent your memory is. Red wine to the rescue. According to research by the University of Missouri and noted in Wine Spectator, some red wines help kill food-borne pathogens. [Editor’s note: I obviously went to the wrong school—all our alcohol research was strictly independent study.]

Specifically, the study says that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Shiraz make for potent bacteria killers. The drier the wines and the higher their acidity, the better they worked. Further, they “did not affect non-harmful and helpful strains, such as those that aid digestion, called probiotic bacteria.”

So far, they’ve only tested red wine’s bacteria-slaying abilities in the lab and don’t know “if the positive effects from the lab would be realized in humans by drinking red wine.” Probably had trouble finding student volunteers.

Eating California

November 21, 2007

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Recently, we were out of the kitchen for more than a week. Instead, we were feasting on the abundant and varied wonders along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Here are some of the highlights. These aren’t restaurant reviews, by any stretch of the imagination—just some nice memories of some great places and moments.

First, some lovely mornings were spent at the table of our hosts Cara and Jun in San Francisco, whether over pastries picked up at a bakery a few blocks away or omelets filled with cheese and enoki mushrooms, prepared by Jun and accompanied by much discussion of Japanese cooking. He sent us home with some dried kelp that will be central to future soup experiments.

And now on to restaurants:

Mandalay, 4344 California Street, San Francisco. This was the emergency back-up Burmese restaurant when it was determined our first choice would be too crowded. We were impressed. Chicago has, at last count, zero Burmese restaurants. Mandalay also offers some Chinese dishes, but we were there for Burmese. The spices are different from Chinese cuisine, and the food is less “saucy.” Jun guided us to the most distinctively Burmese dishes on the menu: the salads—rainbow, mango and green tealeaf. Tossed by hand by the waitstaff at the table, ingredients include roasted lentils, garlic, coconut, sesame seeds, crunchy fried garlic, sesame seeds and pickled green pepper. We had all three—all three were wonderful. As was everything else, six or seven dishes in all. And the pre-tip bill for six of us, including half a dozen drinks and one dessert [sweet-toothed Cara tried to share, but we were all happily full], was a whopping $109. Which leads me to ask, who do we have to talk to to get a Burmese place here in Chicago?

Fifi’s Bistro, 1188 Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove. This was a delightful Internet find by the always resourceful Marion. Pacific Grove is a small town [its own words] on the Monterey Peninsula, filled with wonderfully restored Victorian cottages. It was also the last community in California to give up temperance, not until 1969. So longtime resident and total non-teetotaler John Steinbeck had to leave town to get drunk. The name Fifi’s didn’t fill us with confidence, but a quick look at their website did. And the restaurant delivered: a lovely, relaxed setting and delicious food. Marion had a sea bass special; I had the Petrale Sole Piccata, with lemon butter sauce and capers, a regular offering. Both were excellent. And happily, Fifi’s has embraced the repeal of temperance with a great wine list. We embraced it too.

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Nepenthe, Highway 1, Big Sur. That’s about as much address as you get in Big Sur. Ask locals for more directions and you’ll get, “It’s about half a mile past the…” And when we asked at our hotel, the Glen Oaks Big Sur [address: “Highway 1, Big Sur”], at 4:30 in the afternoon when we should go to Nepenthe for dinner if we wanted to see the sunset, both locals in the room said, “Now.” They were right. This time of year, the sun drops like a shot ox.

Seated atop a cliff on the edge of America, with spectacular views down the coast and out across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of feet below, Nepenthe could get by on looks alone. We all know restaurants that do. It doesn’t. The wonderful food is every bit the match for the scenery. And Nepenthe is staffed with friendly, helpful people who genuinely want you to have a good time. When we bravely chose the terrace rather than the fireplace-heated dining room [it was chilly, but the view was so enticing], the busboy dragged one of the heat lamps over to our seats along the railing. [Except for one bartender in Santa Monica, we found this kind of attitude to be the case everywhere we went in California. And in the bartender’s defense, he probably thought he was supplying needed etiquette lessons to one hapless patron—not us, of course.] We both had the glazed duck, half a Maple Leaf duck generously and mysteriously equipped with an entire extra leg and topped with a mango glaze. It. Was. Incredible.

Olde Port Inn, the end of Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach. No doubt about it—California has some interesting addresses. This restaurant is on the end of a working pier jutting into the Pacific, just north of Pismo Beach. That means much of their seafood is especially fresh. It is also quite good. We had the Fisherman’s Plate, a plentiful combination of grilled fresh fish, shrimp, scallops, clams and calamari. And no, we don’t always [or even usually] order the same thing. It just worked out that way.

As good as the food was, the entertainment was even better. California sea lions live in the waters around the pier, and at night, they congregate on a dock under the pier—and more to the point, directly beneath the restaurant. Their LOUD barking often drowned out the quiet jazz on the restaurant’s sound system. After dinner, we walked around on the pier a bit—again, a working pier, not a tourist attraction. At one point, Marion looked down a gated wooden staircase and saw several LARGE sea lions sitting there, conversing loudly.

Café Angelica, 490 First Street, Solvang. Solvang calls itself the Danish Capital of America. It is, in letters five miles high. Just a brief walk down its relentlessly cute streets lined with shops relentlessly stuffed with all kinds of precious, fragile blue and white… what’s a polite word for crap… I was struck by the desire for an aluminum baseball bat. In my mind’s ear, I could hear the satisfying ping of aluminum contacting porcelain.

We got to the restaurant just in time. Café Angelica is a Cal/Italian oasis in a sea of kitsch. We were on our way to wineries near Los Olivos, but it sounded like our best shot at restaurants was Solvang. Fortunately, our guidebook pointed out this fabulous non-Danish option. One thing about just about everywhere we ate in California, by the way: Everything was incredibly fresh tasting. Café Angelica was no exception. I can’t even remember specifically what we ordered now, but it was delicious. If we ever have the misfortune to end up in this hyperquaint town again, you’ll find us holed up here.

Daikokuya, 327 E. First Street, Los Angeles. After a few days of breathtaking nature and out-of-the-way places, we were ready for big city fun in LA. We checked into The New Otani Hotel downtown and headed out for some gallery openings. A whole gallery district has opened up downtown since the last time we’d been there, and there were people galore trawling the scene. Then we headed for this amazing noodle shop around ten. Daikokuya is a narrow little place with booths along one wall and a handful of stools along a counter facing the open kitchen. Even at this hour, it was more than a half an hour before we got a couple of stools. One taste of the exquisite Daikuko Raumen told us why it was so popular—and why it had made L.A. Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants: The Metropolitan Palate list. While they do serve other dishes, the raumen is the reason to go. The soup is made from pork bones boiled for almost a full day. It is then topped with [stuffed with, actually] noodles, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, green onions, slices of tender kurobuta pork and an entire boiled egg. The place was loud, bustling and lively—the perfect change of pace from the laid back meals of the past few days. We ended the evening with a set of jazz at 2nd Street Jazz Bar & Grill. All these places were walking distance from our hotel, a rare treat in LA.

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Chez Jay, 1657 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica. When Chicago transplant friends Lou and Marie suggested we meet in this nondescript little dive near the Santa Monica Pier, one look at the menu online was enough to sell Marion. They had Sand Dabs. Pacific Sand Dabs [also sanddabs, depending on whose spelling you believe] are smallish relatives of halibut and other flatfish. Marion had read that they are also hard to find, and that when you do, you should order them. Period. So what makes a flatfish a flatfish? They start out looking fairly standard issue, but as they mature, one eye migrates to the other side of their heads, right alongside the other [see the photo, cadged from Wikipedia, as I recall—God knows where they got it]. They then spend much of their lives lying on the sandy ocean bottom, nicely disguised as they wait for prey to move within range. Some of them are then caught and become the amazing, delicate fillets served at Chez Jay.

As a place, Chez Jay is reliably, comfortably divey. Great bar [with the aforementioned bartender the night we were there], checkered oil cloth on the tables and a great history. Hard-drinking celebs like Robert Mitchum used to hang out there because Jay knew how to keep his mouth shut when gossip columnists called. Even today, they frown on cameras in the place.

Frying Fish Restaurant, 120 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles. Chicago expat Lou also turned us on to this place, a lively little sushi joint in Little Tokyo, also walking distance from our hotel [I think we perplexed some California friends with our propensity for walking in LA]. There are a few tables, as I recall, but the action is centered on the stools and narrow counter in the middle of the room. A conveyor belt travels the edge of this island, carrying individual small plates of sushi. A sushi chef works continuously inside this loop, creating new dishes and adding them to the conveyor belt. As the small plates pass by, you grab what you want—the plates are color coded by price, and at the end, the cashier counts up your plates and charges you accordingly [the prices are quite reasonable, by the way].

Everything is fresh and delicious, and the chef keeps an interesting variety coming. And if you have a special request, you just call it out and the chef prepares it, sometimes with a side of editorial comment. Someone called for California rolls, and he let out a big sigh and said, “Ohhhh, okayyyy.”

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Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. This landmark market in downtown LA dates back to 1917. Its produce stands and restaurants—mostly Asian and Latino food vendors with narrow counters around their booths—are always bustling. On this visit, a mariachi band was roaming the huge hall. The food we had here was mostly just filling—an important factor before we headed for LAX—but the atmosphere was wonderful. Director Ridley Scott filmed much of Blade Runner across the street at the historic Bradbury Building. Looking around the market, at diners crowded at counters and a constantly moving sea of shoppers among the stalls, I could imagine him getting inspiration for his dark street scenes in the movie.

Okay. I know this sounds like much more than a week’s worth of meals, but there are actually places I left out. Just about everything we ate was wonderful, though. And I would happily return to just about every place we hit.

 

Freezer burn of mammoth proportions

September 19, 2007

mammoth.jpgWhen I first saw this Columbian mammoth skeleton [Mammuthus columbi] at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, my first thought was not, “Hmmmm, I wonder how mammoth meat would taste.” My first thought was more along the lines of whether or not I could outrun one if the situation ever presented itself.

Granted, unlike the sabertoothed cats found in this museum [perhaps more famously known as the La Brea Tar Pits], mammoths were herbivores. Still, they’re distant ancestors of modern-day elephants, also herbivores, who are famously known for being territorial, irritable creatures who will quite suddenly and unpredictably stomp measly little humans to death. And they’re big. Really, really big.

reader_cover.jpgSo, no, my first thought was not how I might prepare a mammoth steak. Apparently, though, that thought has crossed the minds of more adventurous souls, even before the advent of The Flintstones. In the September 14 issue of the Chicago Reader, Cecil Adams tackled this very topic in his always illuminating, always amusing column, The Straight Dope.

As its motto says, The Straight Dope has been “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 [It’s taking longer than we thought].” Every week in the Reader and other publications—and now online—Adams and his crack research team cover a new arcane question from a reader. And they cover it remarkably thoroughly in the far less than 1,000 words of space the column is allotted.

The question in question had to do with a story about members of The Explorers Club thawing out, cooking and eating a prehistoric woolly mammoth [a hairier, slightly smaller cousin of the 13-foot tall Columbian mammoth]. The reader wanted to know if this group or anyone else in modern times had actually done so. The full—and fully entertaining—answer is here.

The short answer is yes, though not as often as many people have bragged. Typical, right? Regarding how it actually tasted, contrary to some highly suspect reports by the aforementioned braggarts, the answer is pretty bad. A Russian zoologist Adams cited tried a bite and said, “it was awful. It tasted like meat left too long in a freezer.” Yeah, about 10,000 years too long.

Adams summarizes beautifully thus: “Let’s keep it simple: frozen meat from tundra = specimen; frozen meat from freezer = dinner. Study the mammoths and eat the burgers, and anyone who craves that great prehistoric taste can wash ’em down with Tab.”

International comfort food—in a tuba museum?

August 29, 2007

Quirky, comforting little places like the Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum in Okemos, Michigan, are why you leave the Interstate. It’s not quirky in an it’s-so-bad-it’s-good sort of way—owners Jennifer Brooke Byrom and William White are in on the joke of its charm. Neither is it quirky in a calculated, corporate theme restaurant sort of way.

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Instead, everything about the Travelers Club—the decor, the friendly, relaxed staff, the ambitious, multi-paged international menu—seems to have grown organically from the owners’ own travels and lives. You get the sense that the restaurant is the way it is because this is the kind of place they want it to be.

And the way it is is comfortable and charming. The whole place has a relaxed, slightly homemade, slightly shabby [in a hippieish good way] feel. Tubas, sousaphones, French horns and fluglehorns adorn the walls and ceiling, along with an assortment of world maps for the traveler in us all. In addition to the handful of tables and booths, there’s an outdoor garden patio with the world’s only Sousaphountain. The music, when someone remembers to put it on, is an eclectic mix.

The tuba collection [or museum, as they call it] grew just as organically. William is a tuba player. He started leaving horns around the restaurant to play with visiting musicians [speaking of WTF?] and ultimately decided to create a museum. Most of the horns on display are in playable condition.

An overnight Michigan road trip led us to the Travelers Club. We’d driven past it on previous trips, so when Marion found a positive write-up of it on Chowhound, we decided to give it a try for dinner. We liked it so much, we went back the next day for lunch.

As I said, the menu is ambitious. It goes on for pages and pages, embracing American classics along with latin, asian and middle eastern dishes. Pulling this off would be a feat for any restaurant; for a small place like this that does breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, it is a formidable challenge. Not everything succeeds. But the stuff that is good is really good. And when we sent back a weirdly subpar gazpacho, the waiter cheerfully announced he would take it off the bill, without even being asked. Among the successes were the buffalo burgers and the ridiculously delicious Deluxe Nachos Grande with chorizo. There were plenty of excellent vegetarian offerings too.

A dinner special, Pescado en Tikin Xik—a fish dish from South and Central America, grouper fillet charbroiled in an achiote paste [a mixture of garlic, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and vinegar]—was wonderful, but just not plentiful enough. And let me clarify: We are not big eaters. But the fillets were tiny, probably weighing in at three or four ounces. We would gladly have paid a few dollars more than the far too modest price of $10.95 had another small fillet been added.

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The prices across the board are insanely modest, even after factoring in my Chicago-trained threshold for wallet pain. This extends to the equally ambitious beer and wine lists. They serve 120 beers, all well-priced [although, of course, they were out of the first one Marion ordered]. And the well-chosen wine list—including more than a dozen Californias, a truly international selection of imports and even a few Michigan wines—has by-the-glass prices starting at $3.50 and topping out at just four dollars more.

It all adds up to this: Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum is a delightful, cozy, quirky place that would quickly count us among its regulars if we lived there. Not precious, not hip. Just real. Best of all, it’s run by people you know you would end up calling your friends. And what more can a traveler ask for?

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