Sunday, April 30, 2006

chocolate cookie shout-out

After seeing mention of chocolate nibs a couple of times on the food blog Chocolate & Zucchini, I picked some up at Kalustyan's, the brilliant Indian and Middle Eastern spice shop and grocery in Murray Hill. Chocolate nibs are roasted and crushed cocoa beans, with no sweetness and no smoothness. They add crunch and raw chocolate flavor to whatever you add them to. Then a couple month's ago, Orangette consoled herself, after a sub-par chocolate cake, by adapting a foolproof chocolate cookie recipe, featuring the crunch of walnuts and chocolate nibs. I made a small batch yesterday, to try out the nibs, and the recipe, and they were excellent.

The recipe (here) is surprising for a cookie. Perhaps you recall my earlier posting about cookies and scones, where I talked about flour and butter being essential components of a cookie? Well these cookies have neither. They're essentially a flat meringue, with the bulk of the cookie made of egg whites and powdered sugar. A meringue is a concoction made of whipped egg whites sweetened with superfine sugar and baked at a low temperature to dry without browning. This cookie uses non-whipped egg whites, so they're not airy, and powdered sugar, which has a bit of cornstarch in it which presumably helps thicken the cookie. After beating those two ingredients together, along with cocoa, vanilla, and salt, you get a batter that's more similar to a sticky cake batter than to a cookie batter. You then dump in the chocolate nibs and a bunch of walnuts chopped to about the same size, and bake them in a moderately low oven on parchment paper. That last part is important--the cookies are fragile and will stick like glue to a baking sheet, and carefully peeling them off the parchment paper is the only hope of keeping them intact. But it's worth it, as the perfectly circular cookies look like they were made by a pro, even if the picture is taken with a cell-phone camera. And they taste fantastic too; a worthy challenger to oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies. Kudos to Molly at Orangette.


Saturday, April 29, 2006

Movie Review: Eden

I obviously don't do a lot of movie reviews here, but I'm making an exception for Eden, a German film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, and a film about glorious cooking. I saw the movie with several other foodie friends at a very nice theater in... the Upper West Side. The Tribeca Film Festival has outgrown its roots in Lower Manhattan, and has now spread a 20 minute subway ride away. But they put the film in the best theater in the multiplex, with very comfortable seats. The director, Michael Hofmann, who was present, said it was the largest theater his work has been shown in!

The film is a comedic drama with romantic overtones, about a married woman (Eden) with a young Downs-afflicted daughter (Leonie) and a frustrated husband (Xaver) who meets a fat, introverted, awkward, but extremely talented and warm chef (Gregor) in the spa village they live in. She becomes enthralled by him, visits his house, and begins a chaste affair with him where their mutual affection is expressed only through the food he cooks and her appreciation of it. Xaver hears about his wife's weekly dinners with the chef, and despite her renewed romantic interest in him, inspired by the "cuisine erotique" cooked by the chef, become jealous and angry and the plot proceeds from there.

Although the script is only fair, the film was, I think, saved by its casting. Josef Orstendorf is a German theater actor in his first leading role in a feature film. His character is lonely, possibly somewhat autistic, and we see how his childhood isolation turned into a love of creative cooking and a desire to connect with people through food. Orstendorf's performance is admirably nuanced, expressing both the torment of his physical and personal isolation and the joy he feels in cooking. The complexity of his relationship with Eden, played by Charlotte Roche as a naive but very attractive woman, is expressed well by both actors. The young girl with Downs syndrome (Leonie Stepp) is directed very well, and most of the other actors are good as well.

Besides the relationships in the movie, the other focus is the food. Hofmann gets half of this right, doing an excellent job of showing how the transcendent food (300 euros or $400 for dinner) affects the people who eat it. The interplay of smiles among diners in his restaurant is very enjoyable to watch, and is enhanced by visual touches such as the translucent white plates lit from below. However, with the exception of several beautiful cakes, the filming of food and cooking mostly does not rise to the level of other culinary films such as Like Water for Chocolate, What's Cooking?, or Eat Drink Man Woman, or for that matter to the level of food porn seen regularly on food blogs like Chocolate & Zucchini. As one friend pointed out, there wasn't much actual cooking seen, just eating. For those of us who are into fine cooking, not just fine dining, this was a disappointment. I'm sure the food was good (the director said that he gained three kilos during filming!), but it didn't look as radiant as the actors did while eating it.

Overall, I enjoyed the film. In some sense it wasn't as good as the three culinary films I listed above, with a more erratic script, a less-clear mood, and rather flat cinematography (another review called the visuals muddy), the heart put into the movie by the director and particularly by the actors was clear. I give it three out of four... oh, what should my icons be? stars? brains? skyscrapers? eggplants? Oh, I've got it! Lamb chops.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

learning from a springy veal recipe

In an effort to find a nice springy recipe for a recent cooking club dinner, and to try something new, I stumbled across a recipe for Veal Scallopini with Spring Pea Coulis and Asparagus. It's quite good, straighforward, and involved veal scallopini, a trivially simple meat preparation that I'd never happened to make before. I learned a bunch of new things in the course of making the recipe, and here are some of them. If you knew all of them already, feel free to make fun of me in the comments.
  • Veal Scallopini. I've had veal scallopini before, but never made anything with them. Much less likely to screw up than a medium-rare steak, I do say. Step one is to find some veal. Veal of course is just a young, milk-fed cow, restricted in its movements to keep the meat pale and tender. (This is generally considered to be done less cruelly now than it used to be.) Scallopini are slices from the top of the round (back of the leg), which are then pounded thinner to tenderize them some more. They should be cut 1/4" to 1/2" thick, then pounded to less than 1/4" thick, with a smooth meat mallet or even the heel of your hand. The basic recipe is just to season the veal with salt and pepper, possibly lightly dredge it in flour (see below!), then fry it in a small amount of hot oil until browning but not overdone, usually a minute or so per side. Of course, step one in this process was "find some veal", which brings me to my next learning experience...
  • Butchers in Astoria close on Orthodox Easter. Why, I'll just pick up some veal from my friendly neighborhood Greek butcher, said I! It'll be much cheaper than getting it from Fresh Direct or Whole Paycheck, and will be much fresher than the supermarket! It didn't occur to me that every butcher within 2 miles of my apartment would be closed for a holiday that the rest of the country had celebrated the week before. Yep, veal at Whole Paycheck is quite good, naturally raised, and yep, it's nearly twice as expensive as at my neighborhood butcher...
  • Broth vs. Stock. In the course of writing this posting, it occurred to me I didn't know exactly how "stock" and "broth" differ. I looked it up, and now I know. Broth is made from boiling meat (chicken, beef) in water with other flavorings. Stock is made from boiling meat bones (chicken, beef) in water with other flavorings. Stock is usually a stronger flavor and has more gelatin, which is handy if you're using the stuff to make a thick sauce. Now we know.
  • Coulis. A coulis (coo-lee') is just a thick, strained sauce. It used to refer to such a sauce made from meat or even shellfish (ala bisque), but now it mostly means such a sauce made from fruit, as in a raspberry coulis. The one for this recipe is a vegetable coulis, thinned with chicken broth (or stock!) and a bit of white wine.
  • Flour, Frying, and Pans. I made the recipe twice, once with a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, and once with stainless steel fry pans. In both cases I lightly dredged the seasoned veal in flour before frying, a technique that's pretty widespread for scallopini, but wasn't actually recommended in the original recipe. It seems to help the veal brown rather than steam. But with the stainless steel, the flour also stuck to the pan, leaving the tasty brownness separate from the meat. So it seems to me that the rule might be (and please correct me if my speculation is wrong) to dredge in flour when using non-stick or cast-iron, and not to dredge when using stainless steel. Additional experimentation is clearly needed.
Despite all of the learning experiences, both times I made the dish it was successful, and all were pleased.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

trade center site, new buildings

A magazine called Metropolis (which looks interesting -- urban design sorts of things) has an article this month entitled Ground Zero's Saving Grace, about the small, small shreds of hope that the new construction at the WTC site may actually be something other than a fiasco, contrary to all other current indications. The author of the piece, Karrie Jacobs, discusses how impressed she is with the new 7 World Trade, a replacement for the third building that collapsed that day. Since the building was not part of the master plan for the site, and since it housed a big power substation, it was redesigned and rebuilt as quickly as possible. The architects, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, are the same firm who will be responsible for the Freedom Tower if/when it is ever built. The article describes how 7 World Trade is actually an architectural success, with interesting color effects in the exterior glass and a popular art installation (poems projected in giant letters on a glass wall) in the lobby, and how that leads her to some hope, perhaps unwise, that the Freedom tower may actually end up as an attractive building after all. She says:
7 WTC reminds me that architectural magic is more likely to emerge from necessity--terrorism proofing, green strategies--addressed with technological sophistication and a modicum of imagination rather than overworked symbolism and hot air. It also suggests that if we are trapped in a world where truck bombs are an eventuality, the awfulness of our current circumstances can be eased a bit by embedding our blast screens with poetry.
Several other tall buildings are going up in the city right now. The tower of the Hearst building is basically completed, with interesting diamond shapes that for some reason remind me of the considerably more ambitious China Central Television building under construction in Beijing. And the New York Times building, which I really like the design of, is also well underway. Below, from upper-left going clockwise, photos snagged off the web of 7 World Trade and the Hearst Building, and renderings of the Freedom Tower and the New York Times Building.


Monday, April 17, 2006

on eating with your hands

I rarely post links to other articles without something constructive to say, but I'm making an exception here. London food blog Jam Faced has an excellent article today about eating with your hands. I agree with almost everything said there, except I don't think asparagus is finger food, Chicago-style (and thus God-given) pizza cannot be eaten with your hands, and non-pitted olives ought to be. [Image of Ethiopian food from]


Thursday, April 13, 2006


To paraphrase Heraclitus, no man may read the same article twice, for although it is the same article, he is not the same man. This is my thought as I discover that, once again, I have re-read a journal article without even recognizing it or considering it familiar. About every six months I read a paper, think "oh, that was quite interesting, I learned a lot", then go to enter in into my bibliography database only to find it already there. And since I note the date that I add entries to the database, and I write a paragraph of comments about each paper, I can look and see that, lo, I last read this seemingly novel paper just eight months ago, and had rather a different point of view then. I think the alternatives are either that (a) I'm kinda dumb, or (b) my extensive experiences in the past eight months have changed me so much that identical 15-page papers don't register as familiar. I've got a vested interest in voting "b", supported by mangling the words of a pre-Socratic philosopher, but you may draw your own conclusions...

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Paul Newman's Controversial Oreo Knock-offs

The Times has an interesting story today in its Dining & Wine section about those Oreo clones I've been seeing in the "health" food aisle of the supermarket. (I've been tempted, but never bought them, cause I know I'll eat an entire bag in two days... Mmm, Oreo-clones...) They're manufactured by Newman's Own, and are called Newman-Os. (Are they made from real Paul Newmans?)

Real Oreos, of course, are unbelievably bad for you. In addition to just the levels of fat and sugar (so good!), the fat that they use to make that creamy filling is hydrogenated vegetable oil. Basically, shortening, roughly as healthy as a slab of sweetened lard between two chocolate crackers. Instant heart-attack. There's been a widespread movement in recent years to get rid of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils and the saturated trans fats they're chock full of, using liquid oils (soy, canola) when possible, and other solid oils when necessary. This is where Newman-Os come in. They've replaced the hydrogenated oil with palm oil, a partially saturated oil that is solid at room temperature, and can thus be used to make delicious creamy lard-like fillings. Healthier than shortening, but not exactly olive oil when it comes to your health.

The new controversy, according to the Times, has to do with the way palm oil is harvested. In Southeast Asia, forests that are habitat for orangutans are being replaced with palm plantations, as exports of palm oil to the US food industry are growing rapidly for products like Newman-Os. Now, Newman's Own uses environmentally sound palm oil from South America, and so does not directly contribute to starving photogenic orangutans. However, like crude oil, palm oil is fungible, and increasing demand for South American palm oil just means that the majority of orangutan-hating food manufacturers will purchase from Southeast Asia instead. Eating Newman's Own Oreo-clones doesn't solve the problem.

So, what to do? My solution: homemade Oatmeal Chocolate-Chip Cookies, made with butter.


Monday, April 10, 2006

coq au vin

I've made the classic French dish coq au vin a few times recently, from different recipes, and have been struck by the commonalities and variations among the recipes. Coq au vin, at its simplest, is just a chicken, cut up and browned, then simmered with bacon, mushrooms, pearl onions and thyme in red wine. But like any great dish cooked frequently by home cooks across France, and now across the world, it has many variations, some of which add greatness and some of which doubtless just add labor. It's all a matter of taste, of course, so I have no idea what the "best" recipe may be, but you could do worse than to spend your time trying to find it... I've done some brief Internet research on the history of the dish, and have some notes on ingredients, a comparison of six variations, and a very modern footnote.

The "coq" in coq au vin just means rooster, or an old chicken best suited for stewing, not frying. There's a legend that the recipe originated with Caesar's cook, who when Caesar received from the Gauls an old rooster as tribute after they had been conquered, made the best of it he could. I've made the recipe with a smaller, younger chicken, which generally would have less flavor than an old bird. As always, a free-range chicken would presumably be more flavorful, and one recipe suggests using more flavorful dark meat thighs and drumsticks to imitate some of the richness in taste of a stewing rooster.

The other standard ingredients are pearl onions, mushrooms, red wine, brandy, and chicken stock. One recipe notes that to peel pearl onions, cut an X on the root end, par-boil them for a few minutes, then slip off the skins. This works pretty well... Another recipe suggests just using frozen pearl onions. Plain white mushrooms are traditional, but morels or wild mushrooms certainly wouldn't hurt. For wine, a fruity red such as a pinot noir (Burgandy, if French) or zinfandel is traditional, but a very good recipe reprinted below uses dry vermouth. Not all of the recipes I've seen use chicken stock, but most do, and one even suggests making a quick stock with the back and wings of the chicken. I'm not sure you'll get enough flavor from that to make it worthwhile though.

Here's my babelfish-aided translation of a French recipe for coq au vin from 1938:

Coq au Vin (from an old recipe)
Larousse Gastronomique (1938)

Cut into six pieces a young chicken from Limagne. In a casserole pot, add 2 T butter and 4 T lard, then trim and add some small onions. When they are ready, add to the pot the chicken pieces, a small clove of garlic, minced, a bouquet garni, and morels or mushrooms. Brown on high heat, then degrease. Add a finger of good brandy, flambe, then add to every a half liter of wine from Auvergne. After cooking on high heat, remove the chicken, then serve it with the sauce, thickened with beurre manie.
(Limagne is a region of Eastern France, a bouquet garni is usually a bundle of parsley, thyme, and bay leaves, Auvergne is a wine region of central France that makes light, fruity wines, and beurre manie is a mixture of flour and butter used to thicken sauces. Note the use of lard -- pork fat -- in lieu of bacon.)

And here are five other recipes, of which I've made the first two. The second one is non-traditional, with vermouth instead of red wine, but particularly excellent. I've summarized the main components of a coq au vin for each recipe, describing what that recipe uses for each component. It should be easy to see the variations...

Williams-Sonoma Chicken cookbook:
  • chicken -- brown with salt and pepper
  • bacon -- 1/4 lb pancetta, fried and chopped
  • vegetables -- 6 sm shallots, 1/2 lb mushrooms
  • herbs -- thyme
  • wine -- 2 c Zinfandel, 1/4 c cognac (flambee)
  • other -- 1 c chicken stock, 2 t tomato paste
  • thicken -- beurre manie
  • serve with -- egg noodles
Global Gourmet:
  • chicken -- brown with flour, salt and pepper
  • bacon -- 4 slices bacon, chopped and fried
  • vegetables -- 2 c pearl onions, 1 celery, 1 carrot, 1/2 lb mushrooms
  • herbs -- tarragon and tyme, garnish with chives
  • wine -- 1 1/2 c dry vermouth
  • other -- 1 t sugar
  • thicken -- reduce
  • serve with -- pasta or potatoes
Nigel Slater (The Observer):
  • chicken -- large, brown with salt and pepper, make stock from carcass
  • bacon -- 1/4 lb pancetta, thickly chopped and fried
  • vegetables -- 2 onions, 1 carrot, 2 celery, 2 garlic, 12 pearl onions
  • herbs -- thyme, bay leaves
  • wine -- one bottle full-flavored fruity red , 2 T cognac (flambee)
  • other -- chicken stock made with carcass, onion, carrot. cook pearl onions and mushrooms separately and add.
  • thicken -- 2 T flour, reduce
  • serve with -- boiled potatoes
Cooks Illustrated, January 1999:
  • chicken -- 3 lbs thighs and drumsticks, brown with salt and pepper
  • bacon -- 6 oz thick cut bacon, cubed and fried
  • vegetables -- 1 carrot, 1 onion, 2 shallots, 2 garlic, cooked then strained out; 1 lb frozen pearl onions, 1/2 lb mushrooms
  • herbs -- bouquet garni, parsley to garnish
  • wine -- 1 bottle pinot noir
  • other -- 2 1/2 c chicken stock
  • thicken -- beurre manie
  • serve with -- not specified
Bon Appetit:
  • chicken -- 1 large, marinated with wine and vegetables, brown with salt and pepper
  • bacon -- 6 oz thick cut, in strips, fried
  • vegetables -- 1 onion, 2 celery, 1 carrot, 1 garlic, for marinade; 2 shallots, 2 garlic, cooked then strained out; 1 lb wild mushrooms, 20 pearl onions, cooked separately then added
  • herbs -- thyme, parsley
  • wine -- 1 bottle Burgandy/pinot noir
  • other -- 2 c chicken broth
  • thicken -- 3 T flour
  • serve with -- not specified
And finally, from The Surreal Gourmet on the Food Network Canada, comes this recipe for a deconstructed coq au vin. Marinated then baked chicken drumsticks, braised shallots, mushroom pate, roasted bacon, and a small tumbler glass of wine, all served separately and elegantly on a long white plate.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Eat a worm, help science

From Science News, this amusing note about a 16-year old girl in Massachusetts. She apparently got talked into eating an earthworm by a "friend," then caught a fairly common parasitic infection called Toxocara (roundworm). (Image of an adult roundworm from here.) Second in frequency in the US only to pinworm, it can cause pneumonia-like symptoms, and sometimes affects the eyes and liver.) The parasite lives in cats and dogs, and usually affects children of pet-owners when they play outside in contaminated dirt. Although Toxocara infections in people is pretty common, it's been very hard to nail down how long it takes from infection to the time when symptoms appear, 'cause most kids spend a lot of time playing outside in contaminated dirt. In this case, though, the earthworm was the only possible way the girl could have gotten infected, so now they know that the incubation period of Toxocara is about four weeks. Hooray for science and double-dog dares!

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Monday, April 03, 2006


Blog A Full Belly links to this great article about how to pour ketchup quickly. Executive Summary: tilt the neck of the bottle only slightly downward, then whack the neck of the bottle against your hand. (Or, if appropriate, squeeze plastic bottle...)

And this reminds me of one of Malcolm Gladwell's great essays, about choice and variation in foodstuffs, entitled The Ketchup Conundrum. Executive Summary: Food companies in the 1970s finally figured out that people like different things. Different pasta sauce, different mustard, different everything. With one exception: ketchup. Scientific studies have proven that there's one ketchup formulation that everybody likes, and nobody likes any of the alternatives. Heinz.