Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Taste Is Half The Battle

As the last of 3 children, I learned at a young age what needed to be done to escape the dreaded rug-burn torture. Never attempt to control the television. As a result of this simple unspoken rule and the fear instilled in me by my brother, I spent my youth full of appreciation for G.I. Joe and its teachings. No other cartoon offered a life lesson complete with an unforgettable catch phrase- "Knowing Is Half The Battle". But as much as I enjoyed an action packed episode of G.I. Joe, the show was clearly geared towards adolescent boys. If I were able to get my hands on the remote control and somehow restrain my older (much bigger) siblings, I would have sought out a program a little better suited to my interests. As I picture it today, my favorite after school program would have been found on a channel born from the marriage of the Cartoon and Food Networks.

If I could go back in time (maybe I should get in touch with the writers of ABC's Lost- they seem to think time travel is acceptable), the first step would be to soften G.I. Joe's main character to appeal to a young viewer who loves food. Easy- replace military fatigues with a chef's jacket, replace muscular frame with one that screams 'I love to eat', replace ammo belt with a knife roll, and replace battlefield with a stocked kitchen. This is how I picture the star of "Chef Joe: A Real American Cook", a show I would have weathered bumps and bruises to watch as a youngster. Throughout the thirty minute episode, lovable Chef Joe, along with his sous chef and helpful kitchen staff, tackles a recipe while teaching viewers how to measure, dice, sauté- the list is endless. Special dinner guests may even include G.I. Joe's first in command, General Hawk, and second in command, First Sergeant Duke. After reviewing the valuable lessons learned and the components that make a great dish, Chef Joe ends each episode with a reminder, "Taste Is Half The Battle".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Grandma's Green Tomato Relish

Temperatures soared above 90 degrees in NYC this weekend, and being that there are several weeks before the massive Memorial Day exodus to the Hamptons, it was nearly impossible to find a patch of grass not utilized by bikini-clad sun worshippers. Luckily I've retained a faint hint of bronze from a recent trip to Florida, so the lack of space to lay out concerned me much less than finding the right food for the warm weather. I've always found a great way to prepare a meal while maximizing time outdoors is to make use of a grill (**see NOTE below).

A naked burger or hot dog is never quite enough. When it comes to grilling, condiments are equally as important as the protein. Ketchup and yellow mustard are go-to classics, but adding another option may be a welcome change for a hungry crowd. In my family, a cookout means breaking open a big jar of "Grandma's Green Tomato Relish". Without solicitation she'll be the first to tell you how delicious her "tomata" relish is- whether it tops a hot dog or hamburger, or is mixed into a light tuna salad. Once or twice a year she prepares a big batch and cans it for relish worthy family members (hopefully she won't deem me unworthy seeing as I'm sharing a secret family recipe).

Grandma's Green Tomato Relish (yield- 10 pints)

2 cups onions
1 medium head cabbage
30 medium green tomatoes
6 medium green peppers
3 medium sweet red peppers
1/2 cup salt
1. Grind vegetables using a fine blade and sprinkle with salt. Let stand in refrigerator overnight.
2. Rinse vegetables in a collander and drain. Put vegetables aside and prepare juice.
6 cups sugar
4 cups vinegar
2 cups water
1 tbsp celery seed
2 tbsp mustard seed
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
3. Combine ingredients for juice in sauce pan and bring to a boil.
4. Add rinsed vegetables to juice, and reduce to a simmer.
5. Simmer vegetables in juice for approximately 3 minutes.
6. Seal finshed green tomato relish in sterilized jars.

**NOTE: If nothing else, my law school education has taught me that use of a propane grill on an NYC terrace is illegal. If there is a 10 ft clearing from the building (in the average cramped NYC apartment, not likely) and an immediate source of water, use of a charcoal grill is not illegal. For a list of designated grilling areas in NYC-

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day And Beyond...

Today marks the 39th anniversary of Earth Day. As I listened to environmentalists advocating for green living (actively participating in the day's events by recycling the uneaten contents of my lunch), I couldn't help but think- if the Toyota Prius can't help save us, and pollution causes the planet to meet its demise- is there a chance for life beyond Earth? Even if NASA has been holding out on us, I can't say that I'd be first in line to sign up for life on the moon.

On my last trip to Cape Canaveral, home of the Kennedy Space Center, I had the opportunity to taste some of the food astronauts eat on their voyages into outer space. I strongly support Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson's efforts to clean up our planet because a life of freeze-dried ice cream saucers and space food sticks (even if they do come in chocolate and peanut butter flavors) isn't very enticing. With each bite the saucer crumbles into small chalk-like pieces that are rehydrated with the natural moisture (i.e., spit) of one's mouth. Clearly a different experience than being able to lick cold, smooth ice cream sandwiched between two crispy chocolate cookies. The space food stick, described on the package as an "out of this world energy stick", resembles a giant sized tootsie roll, but the similarities end there. Take my word for it, astronauts' space food sticks are much less appetizing than even the hardest of tootsie rolls. So as Earth Day 2009 draws to a close, I look forward to many more to come and hope that space cuisine will be reserved for the Neil Armstrongs of the world.

Freeze-Dried Ice Cream Saucer, Cookies and Cream

Space Food Stick, Chocolate

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tuesday Dinner With Tom? Not Likely.

Tom Colicchio can do little wrong in my eyes. His restaurant empire is legendary, he makes for great television on Top Chef, and he gives an air of sophistication to his controversial Diet Coke advertisement. It is for these reasons that I continue to try, in vain, for a coveted table in Craft's private dining room to experience Tom: Tuesday Dinner ( Every attempt thus far has been met by a busy signal or a recorded message telling me, in short, Tom will never cook for you- even our waitlist is booked solid.

Tom recently announced he is extending his Tuesday Dinner series, originally slated for a 1 year run, indefinitely. The glimmer of hope I had when I heard this was quickly extinguished as I realized the system for taking reservations will not change from what it currently is- phone lines open at exactly 10:00 a.m. one month before the next scheduled dinner. If a caller gets through to a reservationist, it's a miracle (and not a small one at that). Images of changing my name to Hosea Rosenberg or increasing my chances to score a table by becoming fast friends with Gail Simmons periodically pop into my head. I like my name (I was named after my grandma) and I doubt Gail needs any new friends, so unfortunately, unless Tom's system for taking reservations changes sometime in the near future, eating dinner prepared by Tom Colicchio on Tuesday, or any other day, isn't very likely.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter In Buffalo

There are several telltale signs of an Easter spent in Buffalo, N.Y. The most prominent, if the relentless snow has melted by the time the Easter bunny hops into town, is a basket overflowing with chocolate shaped buffalo and plenty of sponge candy- a true Buffalo staple.

If you are not a native Buffalonian, the lesser known sponge candy often takes a backseat to the city's more popular claim-to-fame culinary delights such as buffalo wings and beef on weck. But if you've had the pleasure of being raised in Buffalo, sponge candy is an absolute must have food during any holiday. The candy can best be described as a cube of airy toffee-esque honeycomb enrobed in either milk, dark, or orange chocolate. Of the many recipes that are floating around, the majority utilize molasses, brown sugar, baking soda, and vinegar. These ingredients are combined and brought to a high temperature, removed from the heat, then left to set before being covered with chocolate. Whatever the correct recipe may be, the proper way to eat a piece of sponge candy is an ongoing debate amongst Buffalonians. Some will tell you maximum enjoyment is had by popping the entire piece into your mouth and chomping away until you are left yearning for more. Others insist on biting the outer chocolate layer off first, and letting the square of caramel colored honeycomb melt into a gooey glob before swallowing and reaching for another piece. Whichever way you may choose to eat your sponge candy, chances are the bag of Buffalo's finest will be gone before you know what hit you. The confections have an unforgettable and highly addicting flavor that will have you planning your next holiday in Buffalo, N.Y.

Sponge candy from Parkside Candy in Buffalo, N.Y.

If you can't make it to Buffalo, you can always make sure the sponge candy makes it to you (in alphabetical order):
1. Fowler's:
2. Parkside Candy:
3. Romolo Chocolate:
4. Wahl's:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

You Can't Do That At Home

When I flip through the pages of any given food magazine I am always mesmerized by the amazing photographs and immediately develop a heated desire to eat everything I see (it wasn't a lie when I previously noted I am an advertiser's dream). After I wipe the drool from my face and set out to make the food in whatever recipe I settle on, more often than not I end up disappointed as it rarely (and I use that term loosely) looks quite as glamorous as it does in the photograph. Of course that never stops me from eating it!

I attended a seminar on the art of food styling earlier this week, and thankfully have a much clearer understanding of why my past attempts to re-create the food I have seen in these magazines never stood a chance. Just as models' imperfections are airbrushed in fashion magazines, professional food stylists work to "control" the imperfections in food, and the photographs are ultimately edited, resulting in a final product that the home cook would never be able to achieve without knowing the tricks of the trade. Food stylists are paid to ensure the food is presented in a manner that is visually appealing to the targeted consumer. Given the number of food magazines in today's market, I must say to these food stylists- Job well done!

I'll use cereal, a food anyone can assemble, as an example. There are numerous magazines that display cereal advertisements in which you see a beaufiful splash of milk appearing to pop off the page just as the milk is poured into a bowl of crisp flakes topped with bright juicy berries. These advertisements are incredibly inviting, and cause me (much to my husband's dismay) to suggest cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is a reason the cereal looks so delectable- the food stylist specifically created a scene that entices the consumer to desire bowl after bowl of cereal. First, the cereal bowl is partially filled with Crisco. The spoon is placed on top of the Crisco and the cereal flakes (only the lucky flakes with character- crispy, with depth) are arranged in strategic position to cover the Crisco and a portion of the spoon. Wildroot Hair Tonic is poured around the flakes to resemble fresh milk. Lastly, the berries and splash of milk must be added. Surprise- the milk splash isn't real, and depending on the season, the berries probably aren't either. A good quality handmade, fake milk splash can retail anywhere between $250.00-$850.00 depending on its size.

Disappointing home assembled cereal-

The next time I pick up a magazine and attempt to re-create a beautifully presented dish (or even less- a splash of milk), I will forego dissapointment and remember to tell myself- you can't do that at home.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Unforgettable South Africa

On the heels of my most recent post (Fit For A Queen?) several people have asked me what I consider, at this point in time, to be the world's best place to eat. To be completely honest, I don't feel I am qualified to answer that very tough question and I don't know that I will ever be able to make that determination. There are too many dining experiences I haven't had, too many culinary destinations I have yet to explore (a not so subtle hint to my husband- Sonoma/Napa Valley?), and I am inclined to think that I may never stop searching for the world's best place to eat. I am lucky in that I married someone who likes to travel and eat as often as I do, so it's safe to say I've been to more countries and eaten at a greater number of restaurants than the average American, but my best experience could very well be one that is yet to be had. I also can't discount the fact that food and tastes are constantly evolving and what is on one occassion a knock-your-socks-off dish may be built upon to create a more spectacular dish the very next time it leaves the chef's hands.

Although I don't feel I am capable of handing out the label "the world's best", I have no problem using "unforgettable" in its place. My list of positive unforgettable culinary encounters is rather extensive (it remains separate from an expanding negative unforgettable list), and a 2008 adventure in South Africa with my husband provided an ample number of restaurants that earned a place on this list. Of course it always helps when the exchange rate allows you to eat like royalty (I have yet to be extended an invite to dine with royalty, but I can't help visualizing the vomitoriums of ancient Rome- Thank you Ms. Taylor, my favorite high school history teacher).

After working up an appetite dodging baboons and ostrich at the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, we set out for a small restaurant called The Foodbarn. The Foodbarn, situated in a tranquil Noordhoek farm village, prides itself on using only the freshest, local ingredients in dishes prepared by reknowned chef Franck Dangereux. We sat at a quiet table and soaked up the afternoon sunshine while we devoured our beautifully prepared, perfectly seasoned meal.

Sundried and fresh tomato risotto with fresh prawns- The Foodbarn, Noordhoek

Catch of the day- The Foodbarn, Noordhoek

The meals that followed were equally as memorable. We spent an evening eating a platter of jumbo langoustines at Baia, located in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. The langoustines were so delicate and juicy the only accompaniment needed was a bottle of South African wine (the most expensive bottle on the menu was $45). On that particular night as we ate on the open deck, we were enchanted with a waterfront illuminated by shades of bright blue and red.

Unforgettable nighttime sky (with shell of 2010's World Cup Stadium in the distance)- Baia, Cape Town

Following a morning hike on Table Mountain, we opted for langoustines (can you ever have enough of a local favorite?) and sole at Belthazar, a wine bar, grill and seafood restaurant. The langoustines proved tender with a subtle sweetness, and the crisp South African chardonnay helped to bring out the flavors of the sole.

Langoustines- Belthazar, Cape Town

Sole- Belthazar, Cape Town

The relaxed atmosphere and hard to beat prices helped to make our dining experiences in the Cape Winelands unforgettable. Each meal showcased flavors that were enhanced by the locally produced wines. At Tokara we sat in front of a warm fireplace and viewed the rain soaked grounds through floor to ceiling windows while eating tomato and red pepper soup, and homemade pasta with salmon, prawns, and roasted tomatoes in a crayfish sauce. At La Petite Ferme, a quaint winery and restaurant, we chose a meal with a homestyle feel- eggplant parm and a fig-bacon burger. The bar at Reubens, a popular restaurant in Franschhoek, is made from the wing of an old airplane (hold onto your drink because it will go sliding if it's not stragetically placed!) and the menu includes dishes made with impala and zebra fillets (we would later see these same animals, alive, in their natural environment while on safari in Kruger National Park). The highlight of this region was the Tasting Room (unfortunately there are no pictures). It is easy to see why Margot Janse was voted South Africa’s top chef last year by both WINE Magazine and Eat Out. We boldly chose the 6 course tasting menu (evoking again a picture of ancient Rome's vomitoriums), and didn't look back. Each successive course built on and complimented the last. We left this unforgettable restaurant fat and happy.

Tomato and red pepper soup- Tokara, Stellenbosch

Pasta with salmon, prawns, roasted tomatoes and crayfish sauce- Tokara, Stellenbosch

Eggplant parm- La Petite Ferme, Franschhoek

Fig-bacon burger- La Petite Ferme, Franschhoek

Reubens, Franschhoek

Exotic meats- Reubens, Franschhoek