A wonderful, intriguing piece in The NY Times today on salt.

The city wants to require chains to lower amounts of salt used in franchise or chain restaurants.

But a reporter went around town, collected favorite dishes from independent restaurants, and sent them to a lab.

The big loser was Katz’s, where, the corned beef sandwich had 4,490 milligrams of sodium.  According to the reporter, that is equal to the amount of sodium in 10 hamburgers from Micky D’s.

According to the article, The Food and Drug Administration, “Recommends a maximum of 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day and 1,500 per day for people who have hypertension and African-Americans (who are at higher risk of hypertension) or are beyond an unspecified middle age.”

Imagine what would happen if The SP (Salt Police) went around to all of our favorite places and checked the salt in the omelets, sandwiches, soups, noodle dishes, and fancy food we eat in restaurants.

One chief reason to learn to cook at home is to control what you put in the food.

Eating out should be a luxury.

A Few Great Restaurants

When we exchange our house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or when friends ask me about my favorite restaurants here and in Boston, I come up with a list.

Here’s that list:

For Chinese, you can’t do better than Sichuan Garden in Brookline or C.K.’s Shanghai in Wellesley.  Sichuan Garden is the real thing: Varying heat and textures, so hot you sweat, and delicious, vegetable driven dishes.  C.K. is simply a great chef and his food has pure flavors with a sure, delicate touch, which, in my experience, is unusual for this cuisine.

For hamburgers, Mr. Bartley’s in Harvard Square is the standard.  Casablanca, while boasting of its Syrian and Palestinian food, does a better bacon cheeseburger than hummus.

The best bakery in New England?  Hi-Rise.

Iggy’s, a bakery, sells wonderful thin slices of pizza.  Armando’s, a pizzeria, sells wonderful pies and thick, Sicilian slices.

Going up the ladder, Craigie on Main and Rendezvous in Central Square are wonderful.  Dining in the bar area at Craigie can’t be beat.  While Rendezvous isn’t nearly as good a restaurant, it has a neighborhood feel and, as an American bistro, is the type of restaurant Boston could use more of in every part of town.

Harvard Square has Tory Row, best voyeuristic spot in town;  The Monday Club inside Upstairs in the Square; Small Plates, a cute tapas place; and, Harvest, serious and thoughtful and a tad precious, but with good fare, as they say.

That’s Cambridge+.

Boston has Scampo: Italian food as interpreted by a lively, whacky bunch.  My new favorite place in the city and I’d be even happier here if they used better pasta, which they do not, and it’s obvious.  To compensate, the breads and sauces are delicious.

The South End has Ginger Park where Patricia Yeo is running a kitchen that turns out extremely flavorful dishes inspired by Southeast Asia; Flour, home of the world’s best BLT; Toro, which has the atmosphere of a good Spanish bar; B & G Oyster; Hamersley’s: dependable; and, Pico, where you can find great pizza.

Other spots in Boston worth your time and money: 390 Post, which I just wrote up in the Boston Globe (appearing tomorrow); Via Matta, pricey, but good Italian food; Rocca, where the pastas are very good; Galleria Umberto, the best square pizza in America, helmed by brothers Ralph and Paul: “Hey, how you doin’?  Everything OK?”; Santarpio’s, great pizza, again, with toppings hidden; Legal Seafoods–best fish/shellfish collection of restaurants in the country.

I would include, if you’re hungry and want places a cut above and don’t care if they aren’t that great, but know that they are better than many other places: In Cambridge–West Side Lounge, East Coast Grill, Pinocchio’s pizza, Oggi pizza, Oleana, and The Friendly Toast.  In Boston, you won’t be disappointed by eating at: Union, Charlie’s, The Butcher Shop, Brasserie Jo, Grill 23, and Brown Sugar.

Hmmm…of 36 places listed, 8 are about pizza.  What does that tell you about dining in Boston?

The Lent Pre-Game Show

It’s a mere 19 days until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

Back when I was growing up, lots of kids and grown-up’s had little black ash crosses smeared on their foreheads as a sign of repentance.

Nowadays, fewer foreheads evince remorse.  I think Patti Smith has had an impact through singing: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine. G-L-O-R-I-A!  Gloria!  G-L-O-R-I-A!”

Ashes aside, giving up certain foods is (or was) a big part of Lent.  Meat was usually forsaken–Why hast Thou forsaken me?–and candy and desserts, etc.

But what will people be giving up this year?

40 Days is a long time to do without a cookie.

Ash Wednesday ash wednesday dates

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Unemployment in Massachusetts is at 9.4%.  That tenth person you see on the street is out of work.

You’d never know we’re in an economic crisis from looking at Boston restaurant pricing for Valentine’s Day.

These are temple of gastronomy prices, well-deserved at iconic American restaurants like The French Laundry, Daniel, Le Bernadin, and Jean Georges.  But for a night out elsewhere?  I don’t think so.

Have a look:

1. Aura: $190 per couple without tax, wine, and tip.

2. Beacon Hill Bistro: $190 per couple without tax, wine, and tip.

3. Craigie on Main: $300 without tax and tip.

4. Dante: $200 plus tax, wine, and tip.

5. Hamersley’s: $220 plus tax, wine, and tip.

6. Lumiere: $200 plus tax, wine, and tip.

7. #9 Park: $165 per person, plus, tax, wine, and tip.
And the winner is…

8. L’Espalier: $185 per person, plus tax, wine, and tip.

Where’s the love?

I don’t know.  Why not drop big bucks by ordering caviar and fresh fish from Browne Trading Company, supplier to top restaurants, and open a great bottle of Roederer?  Or save up for a pilgrimage to a temple?

Is one dinner worth literally a month’s worth of groceries for two people?  Who can afford these prices, anyway?  And: Is there an economic downturn or not?  If there is, why are people partying like it’s 1999?

An article in today’s New York Times notes that spending for V-Day in 2009 was down 13.9% from the previous year due to the recession.  The article goes on to say that Americans are looking for frugal ways to be romantic.  Chefs need to know that…

“Making Salad”

Food is sexy and here I think of the novel “The History of Tom Jones” and the fig scene in the filmed version of “Women In Love,” as well as one moment during my late adolescence in South Plainfield, New Jersey.

As to that moment in NJ: One slice of great, chewy pizza remained on the tray and all of us, day camp counselors, wanted it.

“Whoever can take the sexiest bite can have the slice,” said Debbie, camp director.

Little bites, nibbles, moaning, etc.  But I got the slice by licking the slice’s triangular corner and massaging its sides with my right thumb and index finger.

Plus  ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Anyway, this memory got me thinking of phrases people use for love making.

My favorite comes from early adulthood.  Visiting my friend Fiona at her granny’s little cottage on a lake, she would want to sneak off with her boyfriend, Brunsli, to make love.

“Brunsli, come, let’s make a salad,” she said while we all swam in the lake.  And off they went.

The phrase has become part of Fiona’s life and mine as well, here, decades later.

A Fish Story

Twice a month I drive from Boston to Hyannis just for the day in order to work at the welfare office–Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA)–interviewing unemployed people who report mental illness that prevents them from being employed.

The drive takes about three and a half hours, round-trip, and is especially harrowing at the juncture of Route 93 and Route 3, near Quincy, where cowboys stoked on caffeine roar by at 80 to 90 miles per hour.

I am up at 5 A.M. and leave by 7 A.M.

Recently I interviewed three heroin addicts, clean three months each; a homeless alcoholic; and, two people with very limited intelligence.

I find the work spellbinding and overwhelming.

Finally, I arrived at a way to alleviate stress, somewhat:

I googled, “best fish store and Cape,” and found in Hyannis:

Cape Fish & Lobster Co.

Located at 406 West Main Street and with the phone number: 508-771-1122.

Lobsters the size of Buick’s were being brought into a big tank by the boss when I was there.

“Wow,” I said, “those are huge.”

“You got that right,” he said.

Trays of fish and shellfish were exquisite: Cod, haddock, swordfish, shrimp, oysters, scallops.

Prices were 50% lower than in Boston.

I bought swordfish, Nantucket bay scallops, and medium shrimp.

The swordfish, which I broiled last night, after I plated it with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice, was amazing.

Final word at the cashier: “Want a lemon with that?”

Bavarian Rhapsody

My father was born and raised in a Bavarian village.  He came alone to New York City as a young adolescent: August, 1941.   When I think of Karl Rossman, in “Amerika,” I see my father: Bewildered, hopeful, and hungry.

Growing up, my sister and I had childhoods decorated with images of food he had lost: Cheeses, breads, and pastries.  Whatever longing my father could not put into words was transformed magically into tastes he craved.  The pain he felt, the absences of family he would not see again, was remote and so much a part of his early childhood that only food could explain to him who he had lost.

At Cafe Geiger in Yorkville our father would come alive, briefly, with fresh cream and hot chocolate and good strudel.

When I go to a bakery these days I think, too, of Sundays with Walter: At Natale’s in Plainfield, New Jersey, 12 miles SW of Newark, where I grew up, we would go on Sunday for fresh rolls and frozen sausage pizza.

As he breaks open the poppy seeded roll to pull out the hot, doughy center, my father recollects…

Kaiser roll with poppy seed

Free Cookbooks

Back in the day when I was broadcasting weekly on public radio, for which I won a James Beard award (2004), publishers sent me cookbooks for review on-air.  Many cookbooks, hundreds of cookbooks.  Towers grew on my kitchen floor.  Stalagmite recipes.

The covers of the cookbooks are colorful and the typeface enticing.  However, from a practical standpoint, few have utility.

It is very hard for me to part with books of any sort.

So when the floors of the kitchen were redone this past week, it was an opportunity to respond to the big change.

I kept the best ones: Gourmet’s compendium, Robuchon, Bittman, Chez Panisse, Patricia Wells, Silver Palate, Esca, Babbo, Batali, Keller, Boulud, Joy of Cooking, Joan Nathan, Paula Wolfert, etc.  Sentimentally, I held onto, “The Da Silvano Cookbook,” which I co-authored with Silvano Marchetto.

That leaves no fewer than 250 cookbooks that are in bags and free!

Two Hard Boiled Eggs

“Avatar” showed us a hungry, frozen guy landing on Pandora, told to eat slowly so as not to be sick, but we did not see what he ate.  Subsequent scenes depicted him wolfing down eggs in a hurry to be wolfish with the alien.  And then with the alien our hero ate what appeared to be a juicy, libidinal passion fruit.

But the old, old days of cinema held us closer.

Chaplin eating a boot in, “The Gold Rush,” of course but even better was his performance as a singing waiter in, “Modern Times,” and a starving customer who eats his fill knowing he will be arrested in, I think, “City Lights.”

But the best scene of all for its sheer artistic mayhem, its seeming spontaneity,  is in “Night At the Opera,” when The Marx Brothers, as cruise liner stowaways, order food in a stateroom crowded with laughing girls, waiters, and others on the boat.

Groucho as Driftwood: “Two fried eggs, two poached eggs, two scrambled eggs, and two medium-boiled eggs.”

Chico as Fiorello: “And two hard-boiled eggs.”

Driftwood: “And two hard-boiled eggs.”

Harpo as Tomasso: (Honk!)

Driftwood: “Make that three hard-boiled eggs.”

Tomasso: (Honk!)

Driftwood: “And one duck egg.”

The genius of the scene is the way in which the eggs show us the resilience, humor, and hope of men who live on eggs.  Uncalculatingly, we drift with them.

Harpo and Chico Marx 1949 (990-3502 / 990-3502 © SuperStock)

A Day of Tumult

A day of tumult ends: My home office was painted forest green and, as a result, I was denied access to writing here.

At least I enjoyed delicious challah from Hi-Rise bakery; and then mushroom-cheese-ham something or other from Hi-Rise; and then very decent spaghetti Bolognese @ Scampo.  If Scampo used higher quality pasta, it would have been perfect.

A colleague today spoke to me today about Ina Garten and The Food Network: What a relief it all is, how her favorite is Ina, and how she loves to cook.

A great relief from stress.