Banning Minarets

The Swiss vote yesterday to ban minarets, which will be written into their constitution, is a good start, a fine one, but it doesn’t go far enough.  If there is any hope to be garnered from a ban, food must be included.  Food is what we experience viscerally each day.  Certainly is it a chief way we define ourselves: our religious, national, and family identities.  For example: Kosher, Halal practices.  Fish on Friday.  The surrender of meat during Lent.  Or: French cooking, Italian pasta, Chinese spices, Indian spices, and raw Japanese fish.  Or: Grandma’s meatloaf.  A favorite aunt’s gravy.  A cookie from childhood.

So, that being the case, here are some foods that we could ban to create social change:

Brownies: Not all brownies, just the ones with walnuts.  These make a lot of disruptive noise during important meetings.  They are also associated with inherent violence in the heterosexual community.

Concord grapes.  Far too old-fashioned and flavorless.  Linked to the John Birch Society through John Welch.

Handballs.  Not technically a food item, but included out of r-e-s-p-e-c-t for dogs who often mistake them food and can choke on them and asphyxiate.

Egg Salad.  Note, not eggs, but just the unctuous, goopy stuff.  Linked to Aryan rights movements.

Say Cheese

The Boston Globe Travel section has a piece today on the cheese market of Luzern, which I wrote.  The twice-weekly market is extraordinary in terms of the delicious cheeses sold, the great pricing, and the conviviality of shoppers and sellers.  That it is alongside both banks of the Reuss River, in view of Pilatus (a mountain), and joined by three pedestrian bridges makes it dreamy.

Everyone’s A Critic

I was recently a judge, the only U.S. representative, at the 8th Annual Mountain Cheese Festival, held this year in the Jura, which is the northwest corner of Switzerland.  (Jura refers to a mountainous range in both France and Switzerland.)  Along with about 99 other judges, from France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, most predominantly, we tasted cheeses and ranked them from 1 to 15.  My category was, “Semi-Hard Smeared Cheeses,” and for four hours I ate bits of about 45 cheeses and judged them across three criteria, which is the point.  That is, the criteria were established and agreed-upon by independent judges.  (All of us were writers, producers, or buyers of cheese.)  The criteria were: Appearance.  Texture.  Taste.  The value of our judgments made me think, again, about the limitations of restaurant and food criticism and the people who write them.  Typically, there are no established criteria.  (Ironically, since the critics are anonymous and amateurs, Zagat’s comes the closest to having criteria.) Subjectivity is a fine thing, how we live, but when critics are judging without making clear what it is they are judging, the value is diminished.  The DSM-IV–Diagnostics and Statistics Manual–in the field of mental health is deeply flawed, but at the very least all its readers know what criteria are used in judging mental illness.  Without established criteria for a restaurant review or “best bacon” or “best bagel in NY,” or whatever is being judged, the criticism or the reviews of “best of’s” tells us more about the observer than the subject.

New Restaurants Opening

An excellent article in the Business section of today’s Boston Globe by reporter Megan Woolhouse notes several new restaurant openings in Boston, including: East by Northwest, Bistro du Midi, Post 390, Trina’s Starlite Lounge, and Coppa.  (The article notes that Trina’s is in Cambridge.  It is in Somerville.)  As Chef Jamie Bissonnette says at the end of the article, there is never a good time to open a restaurant.  Each opening, to have a chance of success, must reflect as well as respond to, the specific culture and financial climate of its opening.  The price points at these restaurants, one would hope, will have a value associated with what’s served.  Certainly Ken Himmel (Bistro du Midi and Post 390) has shown the greatest knack for understanding all levels of the market, from the luxury of Per Se to the urban panache of Post 390.  Chef Bissonnette’s collaboration with Ken Oringer–Toro–is the kind of restaurant, if it took reservations, that every city needs more of: A terrific neighborhood spot where conversation is inspired by good food and wine.  It’s interesting, too, how a concept or idea for a restaurant is altered by the crowd–It’s always a collaboration of sorts.  The chef has one idea; the investors another; the regulars another; the critics another, etc.  Of course, one of the best predictors of success is deep pockets.  The best restaurant can’t keep its doors open without a great credit line and a long-term lease that is below market.  So let’s hope that the creative kitchens and money guys behind these projects have enough capital to keep the ovens on high heat.

Thanksgiving Helpline: Last Minute Questions and Updates

The most labor-intensive part of the cooking is the stuffing, which took 30 minutes, start to finish in The Haas Test Kitchen this morning.  Is life a battle of desire against what’s right?  Are we fated to repeat childhood’s lessons until we are old?  Where are the salted peanuts?  Why can’t I find the salted peanuts?

8:45 A.M.: Place two sticks of butter in a large pot and melt over a low flame.  Chop three onions, four celery stalks, three carrots, and half a celeriac.  Place vegetables in pot.  Crank up heat to high.  Weep uncontrollably without knowing why.

8:55 A.M.: Take a loaf of corn bread and cut into cubes.  Add to vegetables.  Stir.  Take a jar of peeled chestnuts, slice them up, and add to what is in the pot.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Lower flame.  Check email.

9:00 A.M.: Add a cup of chicken  broth, four raw eggs, more salt and pepper to taste, and a handful of chopped up parsley.  Look at dog.  Crank up heat.  Check email again.

9:10: Turn off flame and add a quarter cup of white wine.  Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.  Allow to cool.  Ask myself: Are Friday’s sales worth the hassle of shopping?

9:15: Stuff two 12-pound birds.  Cut a stick of butter into pieces and place these around the bird.  Dust bird with salt and paprika.  Cover birds with cheesecloth.  Place in pre-heated oven (350 degrees). Periodically, baste turkeys with chicken stock.   Around 3: 15 P.M., remove cheesecloth, crank up heat to 400 degrees.  Remove birds from oven at 4 P.M.  Cool.  Eat.  Question dad about his role in the Civil Rights movement.

12:26: Lowered temperature to 325 degrees and keep turning it every hour or so.  Basted with stock.  Brussels sprouts immersed in water and chicken stock and will be fired 20 minutes before birds served.  Very busy reading, “The Dark Heart of Italy,” while awaiting arrival of guests.  Wondering about the meaning of existence: Metaphorically, is it about the stuffing?  Or the turkey?  Or…the sides?

1:56: Still awaiting arrival of guests, which will then become, awaiting departure of guests.

3:14 PM: Guests arrived approximately seven minutes ago.  Within the past seven minutes, an entire bottle of rum has been emptied and combined with fresh limes, sugar, and sparkling water: Mojito’s.  Lots of loud conversation, most of the appetizers consumed, and the turkey awaits.  What is the meaning of life?

5:41 P.M.  Calling it a night.  A tad dry, but both birds big hits.  Stuffing the biggest fave, duh.  Only 364 days until next year!  Ah, but wait, the pies!

Boids

The countdown to The Big Day commences: in less than 24 hours our homes will be filled with hungry family and friends rich with expectations.  Birds will be roasted, sides cooked, bottles uncorked, the whole nine yards.  This year my mom is dressing up, as usual, in her “Jane Pilgrim,” outfit, which may sound racy, but is more manikin-like than provocative.  Dad is coming as “Jim Beam.”  We expect lots of frivolity and idle talk: football, the health care bill, credit card fee hikes, and the shortcomings of people well-known to us all as well as people we are just getting to know.  The crisped skin of the turkeys will enhance the conversation and the pecan and pumpkin pies serve to finish us off.

Something of Their Own

In NYC, where Italian restaurants have become better, as a group, in comparison to what is served in any Italian city, what do two of the newest additions, Locanda Verde and Maialino, bring to the scene?  Locanda Verde has elevated traditional Italian-American food: refined it, located its relationships to the food of Italy, and demonstrated that flavors can be coaxed from the ordinary Italian-American flavors of our childhoods.  It’s an appreciation of Italian-American cuisine and a recognition of its place in the kitchen.  It’s not a kitsch-like homage to Italy.  Similarly, Maialino has a specificity missing in so many other Italian restaurants.  Rather than serve “Italian” food, the restaurant focuses on one city and one region: Rome and Campania.  By doing so, it might help chefs at other restaurants in town to reconsider their kitchens.  Restaurants achieve success through refinement and focus.

Two New Italian Restaurants in NYC

Ten days ago, Danny Meyer opened Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel.  In May, Andrew Carmellini opened Locanda Verde in the Greenwich Hotel.  Maialino is a Roman-style trattoria.  Locanda Verde is refined Italian-American and traditional and broadly Italian.  Both restaurants offer ingredient driven menus in unpretentious and lively settings with service that is smart, well-informed, and attentive.

Having dined on Friday night at Locanda Verde and at Maialino on Saturday night, here’s a report of observations.  It’s not a review, I am not a restaurant reviewer.   (More on that in a minute.)

The kitchen at Locanda Verde excels.  Lamb sliders were playful and savory.  The pasta with fresh porcini shook the palate with every bite.  It was cooked with more butter than olive oil, and as a result the mushrooms took center stage.  And the texture of halibut slow cooked in olive oil!

Eating at Maialino is like being in Testaccio in Rome: Very authentic, very brightly lit, and lots of fun.  An appetizer of a pig’s foot on the bone was really terrific.  A pasta dish, sans tomato sauce, with pecorino, guanciale, and black pepper was delicious.  Boned sea bass: subtle and deeply flavorful.

Of note is the fact that the tabs at both restaurants were nearly identical: $161 and $164, respectively, for two.  You can dine for much less at both if you do not order pricey wines ($60 [LV] and $64 [M]).

These restaurants signal a future in dining: Dining with value in lively settings where food is a fundamental part of the evening but not the night’s sole entertainment.   Both are neighborhood spots where, as in Italy, the food is meant to create and buttress conviviality.  It’s not a new concept in dining, per se–the neighborhood haunt–but the value in prices and the refinement of familiar dishes are noteworthy.  Carmellini’s, “My grandmother’s ravioli,” and Maialino’s pastas are examples.  In a city that has long had a love affair with Italian food, these two new additions fit in well with places like Lupa and Esca as well as adding something of their own.

Is Wine the Drug Industry of the Food World?

Is wine the drug industry of the gastronomical world with an expensive product that is deeply alluring and delicious?  Brands of course are key here.  All the articles and pieces about what wine goes best with turkey?  Well, think about the ads for medication to treat psychiatric disorders and you get some inkling of what is at play here.  The critics get literally dozens of caseloads of “samples” (a.k.a bottles) of wine and choose the best from the free assortment sent to them by the drug companies; I mean, wineries.  Little wineries without marketing budgets hardly stand a chance.  What wine goes well with turkey?
Deep pockets: Red burgundy or white burgundy.  (Duh.)

The Rest of Us: Gruner Veltliner, Alsatian whites, terroir-based wines of southern France, light Piedmontese reds.

Shake Shack

Restaurateur Danny Meyer has put in a bid to open a, “Shake Shack,” in Boston Common.  Shake Shack currently has locations in Madison Square Park, the Upper West Side, and Citi Field.  According to the Shake Shake website, a Miami outpost is planned.  The menu at Shake Shack includes burgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, fries, frozen custard, wine, and beer.  Meyer has a number of upscale restaurants, including 11 Madison where Chef Daniel Humm has helped with his team to earn one star (out of three) from Michelin; and, Gramercy Tavern, which helped reinvent service: Still anticipatory, but based on the expectations of customers whose desires were more about food than social status.  One can wonder how Shake Shack would influence the changing restaurant scene in Boston.  The sense is that it might improve service in the city as well as raise the competitive bar with other burger “joints” like Uburger.  One dreamy expectation is to see a Meyer restaurant in Boston on the level of his fancier places.  Unlikely.