Archive for March 2010


A Simpler Life

March 24th, 2010 — 8:17am

Tuscan Countryside

While I have found very little to write about food while I am visiting Massachusetts, I have been doing a bit of reading.  I earlier wrote about finding Kitchen Confidential on the “buy two, get one free” table at Barnes and Noble.  At the same time I picked up two other books;  The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz and The Wisdom of Tuscany by Ferenc Maté. The first book, The Paradox of Choice, offers the proposition that as we are given more choices we are actually held hostage to decision making.  That in making choices from so many options we experience regret and with regret comes unhappiness and in the extreme form depression.

The proposition is backed up with economic and psychological studies which show that as we have grown more affluent and our number of choices has expanded, we have not grown any happier than a person earning less money with fewer choices in the 1950’s.  In many cases the studies show that for many they actually feel worse off than people in the 1950’s.  I write a much longer review of The Paradox of Choice in the reference section of the blog.  But the cure for this sort of malaise created by choice is to actually limit your choices, thereby choosing to simplify your life.

This of course segued nicely with the second book The Wisdom of Tuscany.  In this book the author suggests that the simplicity of the Tuscan life leads to long life and happiness.  It turns out that the Tuscan people are a very self-reliant lot with most of the rural inhabitants of the region growing their own food and earning a living by exchanging goods and services with their neighbors.  The lifestyle involves a lot of hard work.  But Tuscans keep the pace slow and allow a lot of time for family and friends.  The result is a very happy long life.

The interesting thing left out of the book is the fact that so many young people have escaped the rural lifestyle, many towns in Tuscany are mere relics of the past.  Many small towns only retain a handful of inhabitants which makes the collective lifestyle a bit harder.  I agree with the notion that simpler is better.  A broader rendering of the facts would have made the book a bit more interesting.  I write a longer review of The Wisdom of Tuscany in the reference section of the blog.

Comment » | Musings

Eat Your Vegetables

March 22nd, 2010 — 3:44pm

You have probably been noticing a lack of new postings on the site of late.  I am still visiting with my mother up in Massachusetts and I have not really come across any foodies things I can really tell you about.  I have mostly been cooking her some of the old standbys which are already on the blog; lentil soup, black bean soup, roasted chicken, pasta in red sauce.  It sounds kid of boring but she does not have anyone to cook for her and I think she is just grateful that she gets to have some of these nourishing, if not too terribly inspiring, dishes.

I have noticed an interesting turn of events up here though.  Somehow the roles of parent and child are beginning to reverse.  The other night when I cooked a roast chicken I gave her a pretty substantial portion.  I am concerned that she gets enough protein in her diet.  She was kind of moving the chicken around on the plate and I said, “Make sure you eat all that chicken.”  When it first came out I think we both looked around the room as if to see who actually said that.  But she smiled and ate all her chicken.  I was muttering something about protein all the while.

This afternoon I caught her working on some crossword puzzles in a very dark room.  “Didn’t your mother ever tell not to read without turning on the light?”  I asked.  I think it finally dawned on the both of us that me being here is even a bit more than hanging out together and cooking dinner.  It is also about “wine and cheese hour” when I get her to eat some cheese so she can get her calcium for the day.  And it gives me time to have a cocktail while she watches the news and I finish up dinner.  It’s about me going to the store and stocking up all her pantries with all the goodies she would never dream of buying.  She really likes the new crackers that are a pretzel on the outside and a cracker on the inside.  And before I leave I will make sure she has a good supply of oatmeal cookies.

Ironically I am the one who eats all his vegetables now, because I like them.  And she is the one who is skipping meals because it is no fun to just cook for one.  So a couple of weeks of lentil soup and chicken dinners certainly won’t hurt me.  And it just might do a lot of good for her.  Besides, I hate a lonely wine and cheese hour.

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Kitchen Essentials

March 18th, 2010 — 7:57am

8" Chef's Knife

I am visiting my mother for two weeks.  I like to cook for her but she does not have a whole lot of the essentials I rely on to cook.  The most important essential is a good chef’s knife.  I would actually rank this as the most essential because without it I am pretty much lost in the kitchen.

I had heard a lot about the Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife.  The people at Cook’s Illustrated always rank it as a “best buy.”  More importantly they rank it much higher than many knives that are 5 to 7 times the cost.  I am a person who uses very nice Wusthof and Henckels chef’s knives.  I like the feeling of the grip.  They feel substantial so I am not afraid of slipping and cutting off a finger.  And they are relatively easy to sharpen, when of course I remember to do so.

I went on line before my visit and ordered the Forschner and had it delivered to my mother’s house.  I have to say I was more than pleasantly surprised with its performance.  It does feel a bit insubstantial.  But in reality it cuts through everything as easily as my more expensive knives.  It has a good balance for cutting.  And despite the composite plastic handle it feels like it would hold up under most of the hard cutting tasks.  At $30 per copy it makes sense, especially if you are just learning the process of cooking.  I will be keeping my other knives.  If they need to be replaced I would be happy with the Forschner.

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Spring Gardening

March 15th, 2010 — 8:00am

The Kitchen Garden

Although it does not look like much we were able to plant the spring kitchen garden this week. Usually we have some leftovers from the winter greens garden melding in with the spring plants. But this year the winter was extremely harsh and the winter garden did not even last into January.

We call this the kitchen garden as it is right outside the back door. Once everything gets to growing we just head out the door and make some nice salads or have some handy herbs for cooking. The spring garden here includes cilantro and parsley. Once the temperatures hit the 80’s consistently these will bolt. When that happens they will quickly be replaced by basil and fennel.

In the main garden we took a chance and planted the pole beans, the purple bush beans and the cucumbers. Last year we planted too late and before you knew it the temperatures were in the 90’s and not very hospitable to these earlier plantings. We had a zero yield early on. The beans hung in there through the summer and once it began to cool we had a nice crop of beans in September and October. This year we would like to see a few in the spring.

Plants grow very quickly in this environment. It will not be too long before we are harvesting the lettuces, arugula, and spinach. You can find out why we go to all this trouble by reading my article Fresh is Best. Once these crops start coming in we will inundate you with fresh veggie recipes. In the mean time, stay tuned.

Comment » | Herbs, Musings

Bargain Hunting

March 13th, 2010 — 8:00am

Yellow Cherry Tomatoes

As you have probably figured out from earlier posts I am a person who likes to cook foods mostly in season and I will also jump on a bargain when I see one. I am more than happy to plan a menu around anything that is on sale even if I am not exactly sure how to use it. It requires a bit of ingenuity and an audience that is willing to come along for the culinary ride even if it does not turn out so well.

The other day I came across yellow cherry tomatoes in the market that were super sweet. They were in a two pound package for $2.50. It was about four pints of tomatoes. But I could not resist the price. I figured I could come up with some way to use them, all of them.

I put on my thinking cap, or more realistically I poured a cocktail, and I dreamed up a nice pasta sauce. It was pretty simple and tasty. It contained some olive oil, some garlic and onion, the tomatoes, some oregano, and some fresh mozzarella to finish the sauce. The sauce was sweet and delicious. And the mozzarella gave it a nice character. I served it with some penne rigate. So when the cherry tomato boom comes to your town you might want to try this cherry tomato and mozzarella pasta sauce.

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I’ll Have The Usual

March 11th, 2010 — 9:50am

Chicken Oregano

There is always one recipe that seems to come up when you ask visitors in our house, “What sounds good for dinner?”  It inevitably leads to the response “Chicken Oregano.”  I have made this dish so many times and handed out the recipe so many times I am always afraid of offending someone if I make it again.  In its sheer simplicity it is so wonderfully good. 

Last night I was the one who volunteered the chicken oregano.  I had not made it in awhile.  I wanted to put it in the blog since its inception.  Yesterday I realized that it has been a good six months since I made the recipe.  So why not drag it out again?

The concept is pretty simple: 1) Vigorously beat four chicken breasts so that they are of even thickness.  This is especially fun on a day when you would like to be doing the same to your boss.  2) Dip the breasts in egg, and then breads crumbs.  3) Brown the breasts on both sides.  4) Put the breasts in a roasting pan.  Top off with a lot of grated cheese.  Then sprinkle with a generous amount of oregano.  5)  Place in the oven to completely cook the breasts and melt the cheese.  6)  Pour yourself a glass of wine and dig in. 

I guess with all the breading and cheese this falls into the category of comfort food.  It is simple, filling and delicious.  So next time you want to work out some frustrations and have a nice meal you may want to try chicken oregano.

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Kitchen Confidential

March 9th, 2010 — 10:44am

The original publication of Kitchen Confidential was released in 2000.  Although I have been a big fan of Anthony Bourdain and his style of food and travel criticism, I never got around to reading, other than small snippets of this book until this week.  I guess perhaps like a fine wine I was hoping that the test of time would give me a better perspective on what the book contains.  The book has been re-released with some additional commentary to maybe tone down the original ramblings.  And of course I waited until I could get the book for free on the “Buy 2 Get One Free” table at the book store.  This does not mean I would not pony up the $11 for the book.  It is just that the stars aligned at just the right moment and it was indeed free.

This is largely an autobiography of someone who was full of passion for food but did not really get around to pulling it all together until much later in life.  I suppose there is a good moral in there for all of us.  He is not ashamed to tell you about his addictions to drugs, booze and cigarettes.  One is actually amazed that he is someone who can still stand erect.  His story is typical of one who has a great intellect matched with a total lack of ambition smothered by an overbearing ego.  In his early career he seems to go through kitchen gigs faster than he can pop aspirin; which is actually one of his other special talents.

Let’s face it Mr. Bourdain was the original potty-mouthed celebrity chef.  Based on his outrageous commentary in the book he landed his first television show in 2002 on the Food Network traveling around the world, trying to gross everyone out with his proclivity for eating brains and intestines.  The use of shock value in the cooking world was born.  Unfortunately he paved the way for Gordon Ramsay who just went one better than Bourdain.  That is if you think a foul mouth is a great asset on a great chef.  I bring this up because if you are at all offended by coarse language this is not a good book for you.  On the other hand if you can read through all the coarse stuff you will understand that Bourdain’s acting out is actually his way of expressing admiration for certain things culinary.

The book by itself is a good culinary history spanning from the mid-1970’s up until its publication in 2000.  I think the post script added in the latest release does help to round out the reader’s perspective.  The advent of the Food Network and the increased interest in cooking has actually increased the expectation of the diners.  This has stopped many of the outrageous behaviors outlined in the book.  And, as I would agree with Bourdain, has launched a bunch of hacks on television peddling recipes and rubs at the expense of serious cooking.  So I think it is a good read.  And I will continue to enjoy Bourdain’s irreverence.  It is based on a serious love of good food, and of course, good drink.  You can find more about the book here.

Comment » | Musings, Reference, Resources

Grilling Season

March 7th, 2010 — 8:00am

Grilled Marinated Swordfish

I think, knock on wood, the worst of the winter season is over. I know for many of you in the north you laugh about calling our winter anything of the sort. But it has been early in coming, long in staying, late in leaving, and colder than anything I can remember in my 13 years in Dallas. This was the first year in 10 years when it was too cold for a winter crop of lettuce. That fact all by itself is depressing.

To make myself feel better we have our seeds sprouting for the spring vegetables. I’ll be heading out to the garden center to get a new crop of lettuces and greens. Perhaps more importantly I am back to grilling with some frequency. Grilling is really the raison d’être for Texas.

I am always a bit reluctant to grill fish. If not prepared just right the fish is likely to stick to the grill and create quite a mess. Your vision of white flesh with dark diagonal grill marks quickly becomes a pile of fish chunks akin to a can of tuna. So I stick with the meatier fishes to grill; swordfish, tuna etc.

Yesterday, keeping up with my recent Asian theme, I developed a nice grilling marinade for swordfish. It included the usual suspects; soy sauce, ginger, lime juice. Following a couple of hours of marinating, and about 8 minutes on the grill it turned out moist and delicious. You can find the recipe here.

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Restaurant Reviews

March 4th, 2010 — 7:30pm

When I started the blog I decided that I would only offer reviews of restaurants that I really liked. It makes life a lot simpler. You do not make anybody angry. And if people know this they know that you recommend the place whole heartedly.

Friends have started to note the dearth of Dallas restaurants in the review section. “Surely there are restaurants that you enjoy,” is the typical comment. Yes there are many restaurants that I enjoy, ranging from simple diners to haute cuisine establishments. It is just that when you get to travel a lot and you have a chance to dine in Barcelona, Rome, Naples, London, Frankfurt, in Europe not to mention New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles in the United States, I just find that there is something lacking in the dining experience here. I cannot put my finger on it for some reason.

Last night I decided I needed to break out of this funk and I went to Mi Piaci in North Dallas, about a 10 minute drive from our house. I have been driving past this place since I moved to Dallas 13 years ago. The reviews have always been impressive. It always seems to be busy.

Sitting there last night I finally figured out why most of the Dallas restaurants I would recommend would all be recommended with reservations. There is way too much emphasis on the ambiance, the show involved in the meal, and way too little effort spent on service and preparing the meal. There is nothing more frustrating than eating a dish with a perfectly executed Bolognese sauce, and the pasta is overcooked. The calamari fritti is perfectly cooked, literally melt-in-your-mouth good, and there are no dishes or a serving utensil left with it so you have to eat it like it is a communal bowl of porridge. And I guess there must be a premium on marinara sauce in Dallas every time it is served on the side it comes in a thimble-size portion.

So here is what I have decided to do. When I review a restaurant I am not going to pull any punches. If it is truly not worth going to it will not appear on the blog. If it has some redeeming qualities and I would give it a second try I will post a review. I think that is fair compromise. So first up, Mi Piaci, with reservations.

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Asparagus II

March 4th, 2010 — 8:00am

Crab and Asparagus Soup

When I was first learning how to be a serious cook I used to make a crab and asparagus soup to impress my guests. The concept and production are very simple, yet the idea of crab meat in a soup seemed to impress people. Yesterday I went to Whole Foods to buy some crab meat and I can understand why it would impress people. At $18.99 for half a pound of the good crab meat the soup had better be impressive.

I had my own recipe that I used many years ago. I also found that this soup is one of the many basic styles of soup used in Chinese cooking. The only major difference between mine and the Chinese style was the omission of tofu and MSG. Not being a fan of either I stuck with my recipe.

The result was very nice. The addition of lime juice and extra cilantro at the end, which was not part of my initial recipe, really made the flavors perk up. And I did feel very special knowing that there was about $1 worth of crab meat in every sip. So when you are feeling like being extravagant you can find my recipe here.

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