Sunday in the Park with Bello: Dog Days

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While he is no gourmand, my office staff of one, namely, Bello, provides free-spirited conversations relating chiefly to food.  It is, I think it fair to say, his main preoccupation.  Discussions, which tend to be one-sided, I’ll admit, nonetheless provide us both with a good feeling and a broad sense of well-being.  The refrigerator opens: Out waft aromas of Emmental, ground veal, and smoked salmon.  Then all seems right in the world.  A dog has its priorities in order.

Red Tide is Coming! Red Tide is Coming!

I’m sorry to say that red tide may be returning this spring and summer to New England.  In 2005, red tide showed up off the coast of New England.  The result?  A ban on shellfish.  Costly to the already beleaguered fishing industry which has high rates of unemployment.

According to a very informative article in Cape Cod Online, red tide is caused by: “single-celled Alexandrium algae that  form armored cysts that sink to the ocean bottom.”

The article goes on to note that, “Toxins produced by the algae accumulate in shellfish as they filter feed on the tiny organisms. If a human, or other warm-blooded animal, eats a sufficient amount of these contaminated clams, mussels, quahogs, whelks or snails, they can suffer paralytic shellfish poisoning that affects the respiratory system and can be fatal.”

What can you do?

Buy lots of shellfish now.

www.capecodonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100224/NEWS11/100229877

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Good Food & Bad Food and Boston’s North End

What Duke Ellington said about music applies to food: “There are only two kinds of music.  Good music and bad music.”

Most days I don’t eat anything prepared outside my home.  It wasn’t always like that.  Back in the day, in Detroit, I’d get up at 4 A.M. on Saturday morning to drive to Eastern Market where beautiful produce and fruit were sold along with eggs, cheese, chicken, beef, and an array of spices associated with the Middle East homes of most vendors.

Then along several small streets, I’d find a bakery run by a Scot selling meat pies.  Or pierogi in trays lovingly lined up in shops in Hamtramck.   Then there were dozens of ribs joints where thick plexiglass divided the cashier from the customers.  The food spoke of origin, in each of these places, and it was good.  Very good.  Because it showed us the love and relationships that are often more implicit.

Nowadays, not to be sentimental, few places make me salivate as I did then.  The physiology just isn’t there.  I drive by a franchise selling baked goods that might as well be on Mars for all its specificity.  Or, one pizza place after another, or sandwich shops selling $9.00 concoctions of two slices of bread with lots of stuff between them.

Galleria Umberto, in Boston’s North End, is a place that I think about a great deal, however.  How can I time it to be there at noon when parking on the street changes from commercial to public?

The pizza there is good.

The North End:

Street intesection in Boston historical North End

India and Pakistan Hold Talks: Curry Conflict To Be Resolved?

Something I never quite understood until recently is why we have many Indian restaurants in this country, but so few Pakistani or Bengladeshi.  That’s hardly the case in the U.K. where one sees Pakistani curry shops next door to those selling food said to be Indian.  I wondered if it was that we have hardly anyone in the U.S. restaurant industry from Pakistan.  That’s not true, however.

Here is what’s happening:

Pakistanis are calling their restaurants Indian because Americans are familiar with the term.  Pakistan is just too confusing.

In a similar vein, many Japanese restaurants in the United States are, in fact, owned by Korean or Chinese.  That’s not because it’s confusing.  It’s because Americans will pay more for Japanese food compared to what is spent in Korean or Chinese restaurants.

My favorite example of mislabeling is Sabra, which is the Israeli term for a person born in Israel.  It’s also a terrific falafel shop in Harvard Square owned by Lebanese.  They kept the name, after buying the place from an Israeli.  Why not?  I bet more people drop into Sabra than a joint named Beiruti.

I just hope the talks between India and Pakistan mean a better appreciation of their unique gastronomies.

Curry powder & leaves:

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Wednesday Food Sections & Gun Laws

Mid-week, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it’s time once again to see what’s what in the world of food.

The biggest news, of course, was that last week in Virginia, the General Assembly approved a bill that allows people to carry concealed weapons in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.  Surprisingly, the food sections did not comment on this legislation that now makes it possible to have a beer next to a guy packing a Glock.  Please, when you’re in Virginia?   Don’t disagree with anyone in a bar or restaurant.  Yes, Santa Claus, there is a Virginia.

Back to other pressing issues in the Wednesday Food sections:

The Boston Globe

1.  A little piece on a new restaurant called, “Six Burner,” in downtown Boston.  This is not affiliated with the Six Burner restaurant on 1627 W. Main Street in Richmond, Virginia where, as noted, you can carry a gun while enjoying a Viognier, 06, Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville, VA ($38).  This restaurant, in Boston, is where you can order a, “Chicken Pot Pie Spring Roll,” while unarmed.  Does that food item sound good to you?  If so, you may have recently been incarcerated and it could be your first meal since getting out.  Next time don’t confuse the gun laws of Virginia with Massachusetts.  Here it’s a mandatory one year prison term.

2.  A great interview with Paula Butturini in which she touts the Italian way of cooking: “If I see a recipe with 20 ingredients, I’ll never make it. I cook more Mediterranean style, partly because while living in Italy I saw how simple great food could be. Small pieces of veal or chicken lightly sauteed with garlic and fresh herbs, a splash of wine: Done! That’s my kind of cooking.”  Right.  So let’s see more recipes in newspapers that reflect that sensibility.  For example, in The New York Times today, Mark Bittman has a great recipe, “A dinner date with India and Spain,” with six ingredients.  Chickpeas!

3.  Lukewarm review of Bombay Club in Boston’s South End.  The menu, as described by Devra First, the reviewer, sounds entirely too full with too many items.  It’s as if a restaurant called itself Paris Club and served food from every region of Europe.  The big news in the piece was this: “The Head chef Sridhar Periyasamy comes from Bukhara, a well-known hotel restaurant in Delhi.”  That’s not just a well-known restaurant.  It’s one of the best in the country.  I’ve eaten there twice.  Why not serve a similar menu?  Great breads, beautiful oven-roasted meats.  The best chicken, lamb, and vegetarian dishes.  A real specificity of Indian cuisine.  I can taste the tumeric just thinking about it.

The New York Times

1.  A spectacular looking Umami Festival to be held from February 24th through March 14th all around NYC: http://www.umamifestival2010.com.

2. Nice, short piece on a cool place opening in “late summer” on 23rd & 5th to be run by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianiach, and their teams, including Dave Pasternack.  Dave is a culinary genius: His food @ Esca?  O-Mi-God.  Deceptively simple preparations of fish!

3.  Great recipe for braised short rib dumplings from Cafe Boulud.

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Lent and Carnival Times Two

I don’t know why I am preoccupied with Lent and Carnival this year.  Maybe it’s reading John Lanchester’s brilliant book about the banking crisis, “I.O.U.,” or today’s news that 702 banks run the risk of collapse.  Thinking about Carnival and Lent provides a pleasant distraction from the true forces that shape our lives.  Banks, not God, I mean.

For example, a friend writes today from Basel, Switzerland, that his city’s Carnival or Fasnacht is in full swing.  That got me to thinking:  Why is that?  Wasn’t Carnival last week?  Isn’t it nearly a week since Ash Wednesday?

This is the Protestant Carnival, he explained.  Of course.

Wow, so a family where one spouse is Catholic and the other Protestant could, theoretically, have two weeks of Carnival!  (Unless the Catholic spouse objects to the second Carnival, which falls under his or her Lent.)

What does this have to do with food one may well ask?

Here’s the answer:

At Swiss carnival, debauchery is the rule, expedited by consuming great amounts of wine.  Basel hosts the country’s largest Carnival: Three days of abandon, anonymous and inappropriate behavior, and pounding headaches.  In dialect, they refer to this period as: de drey scheenschte dääge, which means, “The three best days of the year.”  That kind of worried me: I mean, if these are the three best days, the other 362 must be awful.

Anyway, the #1 food item during Fasnacht is Mehlsuppe.  This is a hardy, satisfying, easy to prepare soup that seems designed to combat the shakes.

You melt three tablespoons of butter, brown four tablespoons of flour, add one chopped onion and saute until golden, add four cups of water and two cups of beef broth and simmer for about 45 minutes.  Finally, add salt, pepper, marjoram, and nutmeg to taste.  Pour into bowls and put some grated Sbrinz cheese on top.  Eat with good bread.

As the Swiss say, En guete! Meaning, Bon appetit!

Basel carnival mask:
Basel carnival mask picture

Goodbye Bluefin, Nice To Know O Ya

A wonderful and interesting piece by Devra First on the front page of The Boston Globe today highlights the danger of overfishing blue fin tuna. www.boston.com/lifestyle/food/articles/2010/02/22/with_

bluefin_endangered_sushi_chefs_look_to_other_fish_in_the_sea/

Quoted in the third paragraph of the piece is Tim Cushman, chef and co-owner of o ya, Boston’s most upscale Japanese-style restaurant and said, by Frank Bruni of The New York Times, to be the best new restaurant in the country (circa, 2008).  Chef Cushman says that he will continue to serve bluefin tuna because his customers “expect it.”  Now there’s leadership for you.

In contrast to Chef Cushman, look at what Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernadin, in NYC,  the country’s best fish and shellfish restaurant is doing.  On his menu, it’s written: “LE BERNARDIN WILL NOT SERVE CHILEAN SEA BASS, GROUPER, SHARK, SWORD, MARLIN, SAILFISH … WILD BLUE FIN TUNA…IN SUPPORT OF OCEANA, NRDC AND SEA WEB’S EDUCATIONAL EFFORTS TO SPEED THE RECOVERY OF THESE ENDANGERED SPECIES.”

Now was that so hard?

I mean, honestly:

“CITES, the U.N. group that oversees the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, notes that Atlantic bluefin populations have declined more than 80 percent since the 19th century, so establishing special protections is justified by science.”  (Japan, which consumes 80% of blue fin tuna, announced that it would reject and violate the U.N. ban.)

The European Parliament endorses a ban on fishing the tuna before they disappear.

Customers can help: Why patronize restaurants selling bluefin tuna?

Restaurants can feed us and satisfy our appetites while at the same time showing the same respect and love to the environment that provides the sources for what is on the plate.

Photo: A bluefin tuna eating

Bistros, Sunday Suppers, and James Beard

Last night several of us enjoyed a first-rate dinner at Bistro du Midi, which is in downtown Boston, facing the Public Garden, in the space that first housed the estimable Biba and then Excelsior.

The new decor is very French, meaning subdued in lighting and subtle in colors and soothing, very soothing, very chill.

The food, start to finish, was exemplary.

It began with little mouth amusements of fried artichoke with a garlic-lemon sauce and small pouches stuffed with ground lamb and a tomato paste.

Then some appetizers: a nice, fat piece of duck foie; a Nicoise salad with tuna confit; and some beets and goat cheese.

The dinners of beef Daube; wild bass; and, cod were delicious.  The bass, which came with three, thinly sliced pieces of fennel, was the best I’ve had in a restaurant in a long time: charred skin, moist flesh, thick texture.  No surprise there: The chef, Robert Sisca, was Executive Sous Chef at Le Bernadin for four years. That three-star Michelin restaurant is the best fish and seafood restaurant in the United States and arguably the Western world.

Service was tentative and lacking rhythm, but thoughtful and while not anticipatory, well on its way.

The wine list, unlike most Boston restaurants, where the good stuff starts at $40 had many fine choices between $28 and $35.

Funny, like Joe Pesci said in Goodfellas, how the James Beard Foundation didn’t think to nominate the chef, restaurateur (Ken Himmel of Per Se fame), or restaurant this year.

Well worth your time and money.

Inspired by the meal, tonight it’s a veal osso buco, a no-brainer, easy prep dish that will cost $9.80 for the meat: Savenor’s again.

France text with map on French flag illustration

Simple Italian Food

Italian food is what I first learned to cook with confidence, accuracy, and competence.  For one thing, it’s easy.  Very easy.  I read somewhere that Julia Child said she did not like to cook Italian food.  Why not?

“Not enough cooking,” she said.

Which is why I like it.

Another reason is that it is deeply comforting.

Last night, using a recipe from Mario Batali’s first book, aptly named, Simple Italian Food, I made a very delicious dish of pork cutlets.  He says, in the book, that this dish is from Perugia and that it is favored there by students and paid academics.  No wonder: it’s deeply flavorful and very inexpensive.  One trick, of course, is buying good pork.  I got mine from Savenor’s, which, in the Boston area, is the only place where the meat is worth buying, from chickens to pork to beef, we’re talking restaurant quality.

Oh, the recipe: You dredge four cutlets in flour to which salt and pepper have been added.  You heat four tablespoons of olive oil.  When the oil is hot, you pan sear the cutlets for about three minutes on each side.  You remove the cutlets.  You lower the heat and add two tablespoons of capers, four anchovies, six sage leaves, and two sliced garlic cloves.  Cook for two minutes.  Add zest from two lemons and 1 and 1/2 cups of white wine.  Reduce to half.  Pour on cutlets.  Adjust salt and pepper.  Done.

We’re talking a cost of about $10 for two people and cooking time of about 12 minutes.

I’m hungry just thinking about it.  Thank goodness, I doubled the recipe: Leftovers for lunch!

Photo of Perugia:

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James Beard Awards 2010 Announced for Chef & Restaurant SemiFinalists- Beard to Boston: Drop Dead!

Less than 24 hours ago, the James Beard Foundation announced its list of this year’s chef and restaurant semifinalists: http://www.jamesbeard.org

(I won a James Beard award in 2004 for my on air reporting on public radio and was one of five national finalists in the same category in 2003 and 2005.)

Let’s look closely at what happened to Boston this year.

Boston was snubbed by the James Beard Foundation–it is the single most important institution in the country judging the food scene and its awards have been called, “The Academy Awards of the Food World,” in several media outlets.

2010 James Beard Foundation Awards Restaurant and Chef Award Semifinalists

OUTSTANDING RESTAURATEUR (20 nominees nationwide.  Only one from Boston)

Roger Berkowitz, Legal Sea Foods, Boston.

OUTSTANDING CHEF (19 nominees nationwide, none from  Boston)

Ana Sortun, Oleana, Cambridge, MA, which is close to Boston.

OUTSTANDING RESTAURANT (20 nominees nationwide,  none from Boston)

Not a single Boston restaurant is nominated.

RISING STAR CHEF OF THE YEAR (26 nominees nationwide,  none from Boston)

Will Gilson, Garden at the Cellar, Cambridge, MA is also close to Boston.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT (31 nominees nationwide,  none from Boston)

Not a single Boston restaurant is nominated.

OUTSTANDING WINE SERVICE (20 nominees nationwide,  none from Boston)

Il Capriccio, Waltham, MA can be reached from Boston by car, taxi, or public transportation.

OUTSTANDING SERVICE  (20 nominees nationwide,  none from Boston)

You must be kidding.

BEST CHEF: NORTHEAST (20 nominees nationwide,  one from Boston)

Dante de Magistris, Il Casale, Belmont, MA, which is near Boston.

Krista Kern Desjarlais, Bresca, Portland, ME, which is two hours away.

Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon, Straight Wharf Restaurant, Nantucket, MA, which is faraway.

Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, Arrows Restaurant, Ogunquit, ME, which isn’t close either.

Steve Johnson, Rendezvous in Central Square, Cambridge, MA, which is just over the bridge.

Michael LaScola, American Seasons, Nantucket, MA, which is near Straight Wharf, but not Boston.

Michael Leviton, Lumière, West Newton, MA, which is down the Pike.

Tony Maws, Craigie on Main, Cambridge, MA, which is down the street from Rendezvous.

Marc Orfaly, Pigalle, Boston!

In the past year, the following restaurants, among others, opened their doors in Boston: Rowes Wharf Sea Grill, Bistro du Midi, Coppa, Ginger Park, Post 390, The Stork Club, and Teranga.  Apparently, the James Beard Foundation did not  think enough of these ventures to nominate them.

It’s like nominating restaurants from Berkeley, but ignoring SanFrancisco; restaurants from Brooklyn, but not Manhattan.

What happened?  Why did the James Beard Foundation diss Beantown?