Sunday, July 23, 2006

power outage in Astoria

Although the outage is not as widespread as the one in St. Louis, the outage here in Western Queens has been going on for six days, and parts of it may last for several more. Which blocks have had outages and which haven't has been very hit-or-miss, and I've been very lucky. Some disruptions to my cell phone and cable modem, but I've had full power, even as people just a couple blocks in each direction have either had nothing or just a tiny bit of low-voltage power to light some light bulbs.

This afternoon I went for a walk to take some photos, and got a few shots of workers repairing the electrical system a few blocks from my apartment. In addition to ConEd workers, there are people from all over the Northeast here working on the wires. I've seen trucks from DC and Ohio. Here are my photos of the workers:

There have been a lot of cops around, traffic cops where stoplights were out, as well as a bunch of beat cops who were sent to "prevent looting". Apparently, there's been basically none. Squeaky clean people, we Astorians are...

I'm in Seattle and Vancouver for a week, visiting relatives and going to a conference, so this blog will be taking a week's vacation as well! Enjoy the rest of the Internet without me...

Labels: ,

Friday, July 21, 2006

New York City water and bagels

There was recent news that there's been too much clay in NYC water, and the city might have to, for the first time, build a filtration plant to filter out impurities in the water we get from upstate reservoirs. Today, the Times had an article on reaction from bakers:

The wrong water can ruin things, he said. “You can’t use well water to make bagels,” he said. “You could, but they won’t come out right. What, exactly is in that water, I don’t know. I’m not a chemist, I’m just a bagel maker. All I can tell is the water in New York has always been good for bagels, Italian bread, pastries.”

Noel Labat-Comess, the president of Tom Cat Bakery, a wholesale operation in Long Island City, Queens, called the issue of filtration and taste a “nonworry.”

“Water used for bread that’s within a normal range has little or no effect on it,” he said. “It’s only when it gets to the extremes, when it gets extremely mineraly, that it can be a problem. I’ve never run into anyone in my years of baking anywhere that had a problem with their bread that was caused by the water.”

The article says that most of the people they interviewed didn't think water quality mattered much for most cooking, but they did definitely suggest using purified water for making coffee. I suspect Italian ices would also be badly affected by dirty water... I, for one, have a water filter in my fridge for some reason, but I always just use tap water, for cooking and for drinking.

Labels: ,

Sunday, July 16, 2006

popcorn fish

This isn't about tiny little deep fried fish as found at Red Lobster. Thankfully.

For some reason I got it into my head that popcorn would make an interesting ingredient, not just a tasty snack. It might have been the two large bags of gourmet popcorn sitting in my cabinets. In any case, I did some Googling for recipes with popcorn as an ingredient. There aren't very many, and in fact the only recipe I found was one found here, for a popcorn-breaded fried fish fillet.

It's a trivially easy recipe. Pop some popcorn (I like to use my wok for this, as the results are good and it helps to season the wok!). Throw a cup of the popped corn in the food processor until it's pretty fine. Dip fillets of fish in a mixture of egg and milk (I used soy), then coat with the ground popcorn. Add some salt and pepper, and saute on medium-high heat in butter and oil. The recipe calls for catfish; I used tilapia, but suspect the catfish would have been better.
I also slightly undercooked the fish, despite the recipe being trivially easy.... This said, the thinner parts of the fillet were excellent. The popcorn adds a light crunch and corn flavor without the heaviness of a cornmeal breading. The color effects of the white popped corn and the (since I used purple popcorn) dark corn skin were also interesting.
I also made some good steamed/sauteed beets and beet greens, thanks to the CSA and Deborah Madison. And the leftover popcorn, seasoned with seasoned salt, was pretty tasty too...


Thursday, July 13, 2006

158-degree eggs for lunch

Over the last several months I've seen several articles talking about "65 degree eggs" (that's Celsius). One of Hervé This's contributions to modern cooking is his rigorous study of how to boil eggs without overcooking them. There are a couple of standard rules of thumb for hard-boiled eggs, like boil them for 10 minutes, or put them in boiling water, turn of the heat, and letting them sit for 13 minutes. However, as This has meticulously documented, either of these techniques tends to overcook the eggs, giving rubbery whites and dry or even greenish yolks. The reason why is quite scientific, and has to do with the temperatures at which various proteins in the eggs coagulate. Discover magazine gives this summary:
Ovotransferrin, the first of the egg-white proteins to uncoil, begins to set at around 61 degrees Celsius, or 142°F. Ovalbumin, the most abundant egg-white protein, coagulates at 184°F. Yolk proteins generally fall in between, with most starting to solidify when they approach 158°F. Thus, cooking an egg at 158°F or so should achieve both a firmed-up yolk and still-tender whites, since at that low temperature only some of the egg-white proteins will have coagulated.

Now, the way This cooks his eggs is with a shockingly expensive digitally controlled oven set to precise temperatures. Yeah, he bakes his eggs, which takes, like, an hour or so. When fellow tech-chef Wylie Dufresne made his appearance on Iron Chef America, he did some sous vide cooking in a convection water bath, also a shockingly expensive piece of gadgetry.

I had an egg I wanted to try this with the other day, an egg I wanted to serve with some CSA lettuce and some basil parmesan dressing. I don't got the time or the money to do it as precisely as the pros, but I do have a digital instant-read thermometer and a little saucepan, and that was enough to get me a budget 65-degree egg.

I boiled a pan of water, then turned off the heat and let the water cool to about 175 degrees. I then dropped in the room-temperature egg (crack! should carefully lowered it in! drat!), covered the pan, and watched the time and temperature. The couple of times the temperature went below about 160 degrees, I turned the heat on to low and let the water get back up to 170 or so. After about 20 minutes of this, I removed the egg, rinsed it in cold water for a few minutes, then removed the shell.

The results were quite intruiging. The yolks were a little like a soft-boiled egg, soft and smooth, with none of the dry graininess of a hard-boiled egg, but definitely set and not runny at all. The whites were unbelievably soft as well. The whole experience of these eggs was remarkable, much better than I had anticipated.

Next time I do this, I'll do a couple things different. First, I won't crack the egg when I drop it in the pot. As you can see from the photo, the egg didn't really hold together that well, and that was a big reason why not. Second, I'll use an egg slicer to cut the egg. A wire instead of a knife will hopefully allow the egg to remain in slices instead of just getting squished. And third, I'll try to get some really fresh pastured eggs from the greenmarket, so see if the reported advantages of those eggs makes the results even that much better.

I'm pretty sure the temperature of the water and the time worked well, though. Room temperature egg, 20 minutes, 160-175 degree water. When mixed with lettuce, and topped with olive oil, white wine vinegar, minced basil, grated parmesan, salt and pepper, it made quite a tasty lunch.

Labels: ,

Lavender: Yep, It's Girly

A couple of weeks ago, the CSA gave us fresh lavender. If I may make use of gender stereotypes for a moment, all of the women in the CSA squealed and said, "yay, lavender, I'll dry it and put in my clothes drawers to make everything smell nice!", while all of the men kinda squinted and said, "uh, can you eat it?" Actually, that's not stereotyping, that's exactly what happened.

I, of course, decided to cook with it, and found this recipe for lavender hazelnut bread, and made it that weekend. It was OK. The lavender scent was fairly mild, and the base bread was merely fair. It did make for a pretty good picture, though:

I took the rest of the rosemary, dried it upside down in a paper bag, and put the dried rosemary in a jar to use, somehow, at some undetermined point in the future... Time passed...

And then, last week, I got an issue of Science News that filled me with horror, and not just any horror, but emasculated horror!

The article (subscription required) starts as follows:
Two ingredients common in many hair- and skin-care products have been linked to abnormal development of breasts in boys. Lavender oil and tea tree oil contain compounds that act like female sex hormones and interfere with male hormones, researchers have determined.
That's right, a major component of lavender acts like estrogen, and when boys used shampoo or other products containing lavender oil, they grew breasts. When they stopped using the products, the breasts went away in a few months. It probably works on pre-pubescent girls, too, in the sense that if you give them hair or skin products with lavender, they may start developing early.

Spread the word...!

(Original lavender image from Ziggiu)

Labels: ,

Sunday, July 09, 2006

food movies

Also in the Times today is an article about food in movies. It reviews past classics, talks about the appeal of food in cinema, and notes some upcoming films:
On Nov. 10, 20th Century Fox is scheduled to release "A Good Year," in which a London investment banker, played by Russell Crowe, inherits a vineyard in Provence. And Warner Brothers just finished filming a remake of the German film "Mostly Martha" in New York, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as a controlling chef and Aaron Eckhart as her culinary opposite, an earthy Italian-American named Nick. Also on the horizon is "The Food of Love," based on the novel by Anthony Capella, which reimagines the Cyrano de Bergerac story as a contemporary romance set in Rome with gastronomy as the poetry of seduction. The project, scheduled to shoot in September, will combine two of the director Peter Chelsom's greatest passions: romance and Italian food.

What's more, Nora Ephron, a food enthusiast who helped make the joy of cooking and eating so palpable in "Heartburn," which she adapted from her own book, will write and direct Columbia Pictures' planned adaptation of the Julie Powell book "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen," inspired by Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

And for every reverie on the restorative qualities of food and drink there is a dysfunctional cousin: Fox Searchlight's fall release "Fast Food Nation" is the writer-director Richard Linklater's dramatized version of Eric Schlosser's nonfiction book about the truth and consequences of the fast food industry, while the producer Craig Perry ("American Pie") is looking at a fall start date for "All You Can Eat," set in the bizarre world of competitive eating, for New Line Cinema.

Pixar's next film, the brilliant-looking Ratatouille, is conspicuously absent from the article. Remember, you heard it here first! The indie German film Eden, which I also reviewed here, was not mentioned either, but I it doesn't look like it ever got U.S. distribution. Still, lots of great movies to look forward to!


Queens Plaza development

I take the subway train every day from home, in Astoria, to work, in Greenwich Village. The subway is elevated in Queens, and the last stop before it dives under the East River and into Manhattan is Queensboro Plaza. This "plaza" is the Queens base of the Queensboro (59th St.) Bridge, and it's a fairly ugly and industrial part of the fairly ugly and industrial neighborhood of Long Island City. But, as reported nicely by the New York Times today in their City section, the area is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. After being a center of prostitution and street crime for decades, with decreasing residents and crumbling factories, the area started to improve in the 80s. The Citibank Building, the lone skyscraper in Queens, three or four blocks from the plaza, was completed in 1990. The Museum of Modern Art, while rebuilding its Manhattan location, for several exhibited its collection in its warehouse and office facility in Long Island City, MoMA QNS. In 2001, much of Long Island City was rezoned for development, and several projects are underway or have been completed. A smaller skyscraper next to the Citybank Building is nearly done. Towards the river, new condo towers are going up daily, Silvercup Studios is planning to expand to a site next to the river, and there's even a little beach with genuine trucked-in sand. Several old buildings across from the plaza have already been converted to offices (Met Life) and condos (The Queens Plaza).

New to me in the Times piece were discussion of three new projects that are to start soon. Another residential tower is to be built next to the new condos. The horrifically ugly municipal parking garage on the South side of the plaza, a giant concrete blight, will be torn down and replaced with an office tower. And, most exciting to me as I look out the windows of the train, a parking lot next to the tracks will be converted into a park:


Saturday, July 08, 2006


There's a very American steak dish called Steak Diane, usually involving a pan-fried steak, and a pan-sauce with cognac (possibly flambeed) and some other things. It was more popular 40 years ago, before the advent of Americans eating Thai food and carb-free salads, but it's still an interesting, flavorful, and quick dinner. It's origins are obscure, and different sources give different explanations. has a well-researched set of citations of early versions of Diane. For example, Larousse Gastronomique (authoritative late 19th-century French cookbook) says:
Diane, a la
The description "a la Diane" is given to certain game dishes that are dedicated to the goddess Diana (the huntress). Joints of venison a la Diane are sauteed and coated with sauce Diane (a highly peppered sauce with cream and truffles). They are served with chestnut puree and croutons spread with game forcemeat.
Which is fine, except that the modern sauce Diane has no truffles and is not particularly high in pepper, and many versions have no cream. And, of course, it's not used with venison, and I don't even want to think about game forcemeat. So I'm not convinced the modern dish has anything in common with this old recipe. Instead, I'm more inclined to believe the second story told there, and by James Beard, that Steak Diane is an American (New York!) dish, with origins in Steak au Poivre and the tableside drama of flambeeing.

There are a number of variations, such as whether the steak is pounded thin or not, whether the alcohol is flambeed or not, whether there's cream in the sauce or not. Here are two recipes that flambe, and one that doesn't. And there are a wide selection of recipes for chicken Diane as well. Here are parallel recipes for my versions of Steak and Chicken Diane that don't pound, flambe, or include cream, but are very good and easy. The chicken uses Mark Bittman's sear-and-steam approach, which I rather like, while the steak is just a standard saute. Credit goes to Joy of Cooking and for the basic recipes.


Monday, July 03, 2006

La Prova del Cuoco

I was channel surfing yesterday when I ran across some Italian TV towards the top of the dial. And not just any Italian TV, but La Prova del Cuoco ("The Test of the Cook"). It's an Italian version of Ready Steady Cook, a daytime BBC cooking show where two celebrity chefs battle to cook meals in 30 minutes with 5 pounds worth of surprise ingredients, in front of a live audience. But that's not the good part of the Italian version. The feel of La Prova del Cuoco is not merely a cross between a game show, Emeril Live, and Rachel Ray (the host is the busty blonde in the photo), it also has live audience dancing.

Periodically in the first half of the show, before the cooking competition, the host and someone else makes a dish in front of the audience. But, well, that's boring, so every few minutes disco music (e.g., I Will Survive) starts playing and the live studio audience starts dancing. There's a guy standing in front of the audience demonstrating how to do horribly cheesy dance moves. Of course, the audience is middle-aged couples, tends towards chubby by Italian standards, and can't dance, except for the guys with stylish haircuts and pink shirts... The crew dances when the camera points at them, including the guys running the cameras and mixing the sound. There are animated dancing critters overlaid on the screen, a little like the Whammies on Press Your Luck, but dancing instead of stealing your money. It's hilarious; it's awful. And it's in Italian.

Unfortunately I can't find any video of the audience dancing on You Tube (but here's some other video from the show), so instead I will share this Babelfished translation of an Italian blog's comment about the show:
Sure, it must also observe that the test of the cook has introduced the happy innovation of the old ones that dances YMCA following scoordinatissime the indications of the coreografo behind the television camera: also this has a its weight, in the economy of the trash.
I couldn't agree more.