The Year Ahead in Pasta

Like most people, I wonder: Will Brad & Jen get back together?  But while we’re waiting–I mean, it’s not up to us, they need their time and space, it’s a big decision what with Angelina and the brood–what else is happening?

In NYC, we’ll see Jonathan Benno open his new restaurant.

Elsewhere, you can bank on ingredients from Senegal, Brazil, Cambodia, and Iraq appearing in supermarket aisles.  The dollar plummets, big buyers will turn to low-priced stuff to sell to eager consumers.

Here on the home front, it’s pasta.  For example, a friend from Udine sent me photos of his 90-year old mother-in-law making 500 Cappelletti.  So much for food trends.  Does that look like the most delicious thing you have ever seen?  Basta cosi!

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Words To Live By

The decade 2000-2009?  It was about truffle butter and truffle oil.  Flavored experience, not the real thing.  War that was faraway, crises remote, until it all comes crashing down.

What Are They Drinking in Yemen?

Insofar as we’re at covert war with Yemen, don’t we need to know what stimulates the Yemeni palate?  Might their brew yield clues that will help us understand their psyche?  Perhaps.

One feature of Yemen is coffee, which is first-rate.  It is available from my favorite coffee shop on earth–http://www.portorico.com/store/index.html

MOCHA YEMEN SANANI

The description of the coffee on the Porto Rico website notes: “(Coffee was actually first cultivated in Yemen by Muslim clerics who drank it to help them through their prayer vigils. Mocha was one of the original two ports to begin shipping coffee to the West!)”

Note the link between coffee and Islam.  What is afoot here?  Worried?  You should be.  Aboard a plane, next to some guy who says to the flight attendant, “Uh, excuse me, have you got mocha mattari?”  Push the panic button!  Ba-rapp!  Ba-rapp!  Ba-rapp!

The World of Food and Gangsta Rap

When I first started writing about food 23 years ago, it was to create a life at home with my wife and our first child through cooking.  I figured flavors would be memorable.  That if I cooked, people would come to our house and stay awhile.  That, unlike moaning new parents I knew who swore their freedom ended by having children, we would have some things original by accenting our lives with tastes that might become symbolic of our new family.

Nowadays, we find food, as a nation, occupying a central place in the culture, which is, frankly, unfortunate.  Dan Brown’s new book, “The Lost Symbol,” which I hope to read some day, is, I’m told, about Masonic cookery.  Do we really need a book of Masonic recipes?  I ask you.

Not to be outdone, Stephen King’s latest, “Under the Dome,” is said to concern slow cooking, “under the dome,” or, “sous le coupole,” a method of braising that in Provence was a hit when Roger Vergé ran his kitchen in Moulin.  However, can’t Mr. King return to the genre he knows best?  Why the crossover?  You won’t see Ruth Reichl try to write a book like, “The Shining of My Mom’s Apples,” so why does Mr. King presume his talent extends to food?

The most egregious example is Rap Cooking.  Snoop Dogg on The Martha Stewart Show.  Gangsta.  No joke: www.marthastewart.com/article/baking-and-rapping-with-snoop-dogg

End of A Decade

Anthony Bourdain, writing in The New York Times today, notes, accurately and wisely, how food, dining, chefs, and writing about food are regarded by many Americans  over the past decade.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/27/opinion/27bourdain-1.html

Me?  I’m seeking contexts, trying to separate the yolks from the egg whites and the nuts from the shells.

Probably the biggest puzzler is: When does food–how it is grown, produced, cooked, and eaten–become transcendent and memorable rather than a simple distraction?  Tony notes in his Times piece that the critic’s recollection of a childhood taste in “Ratatouille” is an epiphany.  Of course, he’s right.

Perhaps in the next decade more writing and observation will capture the ways in which food, always associated with ceremony, can create mood and inspire connections between disparate souls.


Christmas Comes But Once A Year: 7 days and counting…

It  is the week before Christmas and I am sure that I speak for everyone when I note that we will all be a little happier to be able to say, “It is the week after Christmas.”  Hope & anticipation vie with dread in occupying our time now.  Is anyone sleeping well?  Am I the only one up at 3 A.M. wondering why I’m not a better child?  A better parent?  A better person?

It’s not the gifts still to buy or the food yet uncooked, but the hodgepodge of memories, guilt, sadness, and sheer terror that accompany time to be spent with loved ones.

Thank goodness for the Internet for shopping. Gets your mind off what cannot be undone.

My favorite gifts to give are primarily food:

1.  http://www.martinspretzels.com.  Best dry pretzels on earth.  Fine, there’s salt, there’s hypertension.  Look, it’s Christmas, get a grip.  Don’t be a control freak.  That also contributes to elevated blood pressure.

2.  http://www.oregonmushrooms.com.  These guys ship spectacular, seasonal mushrooms.  Their blond morels are the best I’ve ever had.

3.  http://www.bellaviva.com.  I first discovered their products @ the Embacadero in San Francisco.  The dried pluots, apricots, and nectarines are intense and delicious.  The walnuts ought to compensate somewhat for the salt (noted above).

4.  http://www.brownetrading.com.  If you want to have the same fish and shellfish used at a few of the country’s best restaurants–Esca, Le Bernadin–give these guys a call.  Thick filets, perfect ingredients, fresh, and flavorful.  Now all you need to do is learn to cook fish.

5.  http://www.dartagnan.com.  Best poultry in the country.

6.  http://www.snakeriverfarms.com.  I first had their Kobe-style beef years ago during a lunch at The French Laundry.  Nothing is more marbled outside of Japan.  The burgers are a bargain.  The beef is so satisfying, one winds up eating less of it and feeling mildly euphoric and somewhat confused.

7. http://www.manicaretti.com.  You can find this pasta in stores.  I was introduced to it by Andrew Carmellini who is the chef at Locanda Verde.  It’s one difference between a good Italian restaurant and a great one.  Remember: cook the pasta in the sauce and place it in the bowls while still very al dente.

Haley House & the DSM-IV

I work two mornings a month at the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) in Dudley Square, Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts.  The task is to interview and diagnose the unemployed who assert that their inability to function in a work setting is due to major mental illness.  The people I see often have histories of behavior that are consistent with, respectively, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depression, Mental Retardation, Schizophrenia, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Polysubstance Dependence, or Alcohol Abuse.

Around the corner from the DTA, still referred to popularly as “the welfare office,” is Haley House, a bakery-cafe, which has as its motto: “Food With Purpose.”  The coffee and food are good at Haley House.  Just as good is the business’s mission: As a non-profit, it teaches “essential job and baking skills to unemployed men and women aspiring to economic stability.”

The vibe is pleasant at Haley House.  You could say it is irie.

Each Wednesday night, Haley House has, “Pizza and Beats.”  On Thursday, it is, “Art Is Life Itself,” a night of, “Spoken Word, Music, Community and conversation.”  Friday nights?  Chef Zakiya Alake goes Vegan: “SistaZa’s V-Spot.”

Before or after a morning of listening to the mentally ill reveal the secrets of their existence, the vibrancy of what keeps them going, the mishmash of resilience and trauma, Haley House offers enormous relief.

Maybe next year we’ll see more such places sprout in cities suffering from unemployment.

www.haleyhouse.org

Real Food Trends 2010: The Back Story

Here are a few predictions for 2010:

1.  Dinosaurs Will Close.  Many big name restaurants in major cities will close their doors following the sad example of Chanterelle (NYC).   The economy simply cannot support the plethora of high-end places and my deep-pocketed friends tell me it’s no longer fashionable to drop big bucks routinely.  Want to know who is closing first?  Here’s a clue: Go to Open Table and check out which restaurants are offering 1000 points for customers who dine on Friday and Saturday nights.  www.opentable.com

2.  Stock Will Rise @ Walmart, Costco, and Other Food Warehouses. People are going to stock up on well-priced food and eschew the upscale and artisanal, local or otherwise, as, respectively, its value is limited and the dollar has little buying power for European goods.

3.  Food Trucks. No rent, low utility bills.  The whole country is gonna look like a Hobo camp.

4.  Pizza. This is the first name in Proletarian food.  Being from N.J., I enjoyed slices from the time I could walk.  No, it was before, in my bottle, liquified.  Anyhow, it’s good and it’s cheap.  We’re not talking about “gourmet” pizza (see Prediction #1)–”Gourmet” pizza?  Except for Wolfgang Puck and Lydia Shire, geniuses with baked dough, the term is like “military intelligence.”  I mean the real thing: Lombardi’s, Grimaldi’s, the Original Ray’s, Santarpio’s, Pepe’s, Sally’s, The Modern, and Galleria Umberto, to name a few.  How you doin’?

5. Unemployed Cooks Will Start A New Cultural Movement. We’re going to see and hear more great garage bands and post-Hip Hop, Hip Hop.  Mom, send money, I’m this close to signing a contract.

6.  Global Corner Joints. Diners, pubs, izakaya, Stube, brasserie.  Good, reasonably priced food and lots of beer.  In NYC, DBGB is a good example.  In Boston, we have Post 390.  Food will be increasingly simple and fun.

7. Ingredient of the Year.  Pasta.  No doubt about it.  A one pound box, a can of tomatoes, olive oil, an onion, a celery stalk, and a carrot ($5, total), and you can feed a family of four.  You know how Italians look back at Rome with pride and regret?  Welcome to America in the 21st century.

8.  Speaking of China.  We’re going to hear more about dicey food products coming from China.  The food safety standards there are kinda quirky.  Guy does what he wants, gets caught, and is executed by the state.  Why do we still import food from China?   Because without their loans to our banks, it’s over.  They hold the chits.

9.  Recipes.  At last count, there were a bazillion recipes on the web, in cookbooks, on T.V., on the radio, and in newspapers.  2010 will see fewer recipes.  Take two slices of bread, insert  ham, apply mustard, look through Want Ads.  That should get you through the year.

10.   The Popcorn Ploy.  More people will try to sneak candy, cans of soda, bottles of water, and popcorn from home into movie theaters to avoid high prices at concession stands.  Ushers, be on the lookout!

Food Trends 2010

Yesterday, The Food Channel released its predications for the top 10 food trends for 2010.   www.foodchannel.com/stories/2154-top-10-food-trends-for-2010.  It’s a fun, lively, thoughtful, well, trendy list.  Um, scientific, too, as it is based, “on research conducted in conjunction with CultureWaves® (www.culturewav.es) and the International Food Futurists®.”  Although I am not an IFF, I would like to be one since it sounds like they are thinking of their next meal, how does it feel?

Re the predicted trends, brief commentary:

Keeping it Real.  This is a good idea: “A shift from convenience foods to scratch cooking.”  Broke, we cook.

Experimentation Nation.  Maybe.  Maybe even possibly.  Could be.  The idea is we’ll share food, sit together, and have fun.  Less pretension, greater recognition that eating is secondary to the people with whom you are eating.  But then won’t we have to call this, “The People Channel?”

More in Store.  The suggestion is a growth in grocery stores.  Definitely not happening.   No way.  Investment dollars are not going into retail not from private guys, hedge funds, equity funds, or banks.

American, The New Ethnic.  Absolutely true.  Well-priced Italian-American food, as seen at Locanda Verde (Tribeca), and New England cuisine at Post 390 (Boston), will surely attract crowds and for good reason.

Food Vetting.  Yes: we need to know where the food comes from.  Let’s hope the FDA adopts the same standards as the European Union on food safety and claims of health made by manufacturers.

Mainstreaming Sustainability.  The word “sustainable” is not readily defined.  It sounds good, but it does not mean the same thing to everyone.  When we have a working, agreed-upon definition, let’s add this to the list of trends.

Food With Benefits.  This does not mean having sex with food, although it is implied by the phrasing, but rather it means eating “beneficial food.”  Unfortunately, the science behind this is unsubstantiated at present and is promoted by the producers rather than the scientists.  Me?  I think let’s all keep eating lots of fish, vegetables, fruit, and pasta.  Hungry?  Go to the gym.

I Want My Umami.  Umami is another odd word.  Like “sustainable” or “terroir,” it is not well-defined.  I think the idea here is: Enjoy the dog from Papaya King as much as the foie at Per Se.  Sure, why not?  You buying?

Will Trade for Food.  Barter for food.  What do they mean?  Will work for food?  Unlikely.

I, Me, Mine.  Here they write, “It’s the rise of the individual…Expect more attention to the individual…it’s…about food that reflects personality.”  The idea is we’re cooking more stuff at home: “Making our own cheese, smoking our own meats, and making our own speciality desserts.”  Can you say, “Listeria?  “E coli?” “Bacteria?”  I’ve been in countless dairies and smokehouses.  Folks, don’t try this at home unless you have a 100% sterile environment.  Otherwise, new trend: Food poisoning.


My Most Memorable Meal

Saturday night we had some friends over and one of them introduced a topic for discussion having to do with food in order to avoid what was certain to be a big argument between two of the guests about the war in Afghanistan.  Send troops?  Don’t send troops?

“Let’s talk about your most memorable meal,” said Molly.  “Who wants to go first?”

We heard about grilled porcini outside of Siena; truffles in Paris; and, lobster in Maine.

I must have been about eight months old and although I don’t have a conscious memory of it, the milk at my mother’s breast that afternoon was most remarkable.  We were  in her bedroom, overlooking the neighbor’s yard, with its tall pine, and snuggling with mom that wintry day, the milk flowing, has left an indelible impression.  The milk–organic, fresh, seasonal, and from a free range mother–tasted the way milk is supposed to taste: warm, a hint of hazelnuts, and in the background a very slight garlic flavor from some gherkins mom had eaten earlier in the morning.

Nothing has tasted quite as good since.