Home Cooking: Terroir! Terroir! Terroir!

Since the kids left home to go to college and strike out on their own, writing the phrase, “Since the kids left home to go to college and strike out on their own,” fills me with an immediacy of fatigue, which is my way to express longing.

Certain dishes I served in the home when we were all A Happy Family, contained within the four walls, sadden me instead of filling me with delight: Turkey meatballs, fish & chips, pea soup, chicken parm, etc.  Memories are evoked when I cook and eat these dishes and, OK, I still cook them, but now, in addition, to the pleasure derived, I can picture things past.  Well, duh.  Duh and double duh.  Wah, wah, wah.  Get a grip.

Meanwhile, the kids call every day, ironically, to get the same recipes that make me miss the good old days.

In the past two weeks, my son has requested recipes for: Jerk chicken, pea soup, and chicken parm.  (He cooks for 20 each Monday in his college co-op.)

Over the same period of my time, my daughter has called up for: Pea soup, white bean soup, and arrabiata.

You know what Faulkner said, right?  “The past is never dead.  It isn’t even past.”

What this means when talking about food is that the best meals evoke and restore a place, a home, a sense of time.  That’s why, in part, NYC has so many wonderful Italian and Italian-American restaurants, why Boston has good pubs, and San Francisco excels at regional, seasonal menus.

Terroir in dining stems from a need for home.  Certainly the best of the new places opening recognize this…so do I.   For example: Look at Andrew Carmellini’s new restaurant, The Dutch, which will feature classic American dishes.  Andrew talked to me about this idea two years ago; I’m thrilled he’s finally doing it.  Or take Jonathan Benno’s new place, Lincoln, which will serve refined versions of Italian-American dishes like eggplant parm.   Note, too: Andrew is naming his place The Dutch because Manhattan was once home for colonists from Holland.  Lincoln’s home is in Lincoln Center.

You want the family ties to be strong?  Cook and eat at home.  Make the dishes with six ingredients, tops, and fast to prepare, no more than 20 minutes prep.  Gary Danko told me that a home cook is lucky to have 25 or so good, reliable dishes unique to to that kitchen.  Work on getting ten.

You can roast, baste, braise, or bake all day, have a ball, but the time to cook: Brevity.  You’d be surprised, too, perhaps by how talkative people get while anticipating a meal…

The Wednesday Food Sections: News You Can Use

Every Wednesday I wake up like a boy on Christmas morning.  Well, some boys, anyway, not wanting to exclude boys from Tel Aviv, Kabul, Siem Reap, or Pyongyang for whom the day is just the same as the one prior and the one to follow.  Anyhow, we’re all friends here.

What I love about Wednesday mornings are the food sections: I feel as if I’ve eaten without leaving home.

In The Boston Globe today: A very good and easy recipe for swordfish.  The only caveats are: The writer suggests two and half pounds of fish for four people.  Me?  I’d suggest at most 1 and 1/2 pounds and kill ’em with sides.  Why eat all that protein?  Also: He talks about grilling the fish until it’s golden.  Thick steaks take a long time and as much as I like raw fish, well, you get the picture.

In The New York Times: A fascinating review of Del Posto, written by the estimable Sam Sifton, no pushover.  He acknowledges that early customers–that’d be me–were not bowled over by visits to the restaurant, but that now it’s worth coming back to and awards the restaurant ****, the only Italian place in NYC to garner that level of recognition.  OK, I’m in.

Meanwhile, the NYT notes that Michael White’s new osteria is opening on 10/4.  212-965-8777.  Here’s hoping that they answer the phone.

FTC & FDA Get Teeth

As is often true, the best food stories were found in the Business sections of today’s newspapers.

In The New York Times, the lead story:  The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is ordering POM to stop saying that their pomegranate juice has any health benefits until these claims are substantiated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Countering the FTC, the company is saying that their health claims are part of their First Amendment rights.  I like that, I really do.  The company claim re the First Amendment makes me think that shrinks should say that psychotherapy can slow the growth of cancer.

In The Boston Globe‘s Business section, we learn that Ben & Jerry’s, in response to a study done by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is voluntarily removing the “all natural” claim from all of its products because they contain processed and artificial ingredients.  Voluntarily is putting it nicely.  The CSPI actually threatened Ben or Jerry.  Or both of them.  Here is what they did:  “At least 48 out of 53 flavors of Ben & Jerry’s “All Natural” ice cream and frozen yogurt contain alkalized cocoa, corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, or other ingredients that either don’t exist in nature or that have been chemically modified. Calling products with unnatural ingredients “natural” is a false and misleading use of the term, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Today, CSPI urged Ben and Jerry’s to drop the claim or else the nonprofit watchdog group will take its concerns to the Food and Drug Administration and state attorneys general.”  cspinet.org/new/201008121.html

Forty-eight out of 53 flavors?! Think about it.  That means that less than 10% of the product is natural.  Does that include the paper used to make the little pint cartons?

In 9/09, funding that had been granted to federal agencies to monitor, control, and act on false health claims began to be utilized and an infrastructure of agents and review processes were implemented.

This is good news and it follows the lead established in the UK and in the EU where regulation of fake health claims has been going on for years.  Here’s a nifty example: Dannon, which owns Stonyfield, had to pony up millions in a French court last year for claiming that probiotics are healthy.  Oh, sure, so’s Dr. Clay’s Life Prolonging Elixer.

In the UK, the government has forbid farmers and producers from claiming that organic food is healthier than food that is not organic.

Omega-3?  “The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) scientists say there is enough evidence to suggest that consuming these fatty acids helps to reduce blood pressure and blood concentration of triglycerides (a blood fat that has been linked to heart disease). But they don’t see sufficient evidence of fatty acids maintaining healthy joints, lowering “bad” cholesterol or maintaining “good” cholesterol.”  www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article6876773.ece

And so on, and so on, and so on.

In the months ahead, we’ll see more cases like POM & Ben & Jerry’s as the FTC and the FDA sink their teeth into the food industry.  I think it’s ironic that so far the culprits who were found guilty of making stuff up are way cool, progressive dudes.  But wait until the government investigates The Tea Party and discovers that the tea they are selling isn’t as good as they claim.

One can only hope.

NYC: Same Old, Same Old

I almost wept this morning when, after taking the escalator down at Eli’s on 79th & 3rd, I saw all the beautiful, delicious, colorful, and aromatic food.  Fresh squeezed juices, pomegranate seeds, pasta fatto in casa, prime beef, dark breads, cheeses, etc., etc., and so on.  I mean, it’s not rocket science, is it?  Why don’t we have a single store close to this up here in a city of 1 million  plus?  You tell me, I don’t get it.

On top of that, on top of that, hold on, I’m sputtering…wait a sec…where was I?…oh, OK, on top of that, last night I’m in the kitchen at 11 Madison for a tony Bocuse d’Or event, watching and interviewing chefs Boulud, Humm, & Keller orchestrate a five-course benefit banquet dinner and I’m thinkin’, see, I’m always thinkin’, using the old noodle, just me bein’ me, why the heck can’t we have one terrific place like this one up in the tundra?  You know, a place where Eskimos and explorers could gather after a long, hard day of hunting blubber, a neutral venue where we could all eat the products of terroir: Ice Floe Soup, Penguin Frittata, whatever.  Omakase.  As if I care, just serve good food and get it right, for Pete’s sake.

Even today: A lunch of pizza at Lattanza’s at 38th & 8th: 3 slices, two iced teas, we’re talking $11 plus tax & tip.  For delicious, thin crust pizza with fresh mozzarella, nice red sauce, and thinly sliced sausage.  If that ain’t living, what is living?

We do have good food here in Yootsville.  I can prove it: Brought back 1/2 pound of pastrami, 1/2 pound of corned beef, a loaf of seeded rye, a jar of mustard, and 4 pickles from 2nd Ave Deli.

Daryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen: A Review

I wanted to find a restaurant near the Huntington Theatre last night where “Bus Stop” is showing.  So I googled, “new restaurants South End,” and found that Daryl Settles opened a new place only three weeks ago in his old place on Columbus & Mass. Ave.  I’ve always liked his old places and was happy to see a new one so we booked a table through Open Table.

The place was crowded at 6 15 PM, more filled with people by 730 when we left, and jammed at 1015 when we walked past after leaving the play.  Many customers were friends and family and evidently known to the owner, Daryl, who was working the room, monitoring the room from the bar, and helping organize space for the band.

The food is very good:

Pulled pork NC style, said the menu, was not NC style, which is a vinegar base.  Instead a generic, deliciously spicy red sauce had been mixed with roasted, pulled pork.  The pork was in a good bun and it was topped, as tradition demands, with coleslaw.  For sure, I’d order this again.

The salmon burger was equally good in its own way.

The pork came with hand-cut, crispy potato fries.  The salmon with sweet potato fries.  The fries were very tasty.

Drinks were big & cold.

The service was first-rate.

The crowd, dressed to the nines, was clearly having a great time and that vibe helped make the dining experience unique.  Boston needs more places like Daryl’s: Forget all these precious French bistros, which have little to do with real French food and Boston. They appeal to a rare kind of snobbery and lack terroir. Their food doesn’t taste good.

Daryl’s speaks of a place, a time, and culture on the plate and in the room.  I gripe all the time about the peculiar quality of this city vis-a-vis smart, casual, adult, urban dining; I’m glad someone is doing something about it.  This restaurant is the proof.

Generosity of spirit.

Music was jazz, by the way, recorded, and later in the evening  a live band performed.

The tab for two?  Including tax, drinks, and tip, it was $59.  That’s nearly half the cost of most joints in town.

We’re talking pleasant, folks, very pleasant.  Me?  I’d like to stop by every Friday night.

Pizza 24/7: The Full Report

I swear I wake up thinking of pizza and it remains a preoccupation the whole day through.  Now I know how monkeys must feel about bananas.  If I had to live on one item, day in and out, it would be pizza.  And why not?  Why the heck not?  The food has everything to recommend it:

Baked bread, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese.  Done.

I think the only time in my life I ever had bad pizza was a slice at Revere Beach and even that was better than no slice at all.

The problem?

I can’t eat pizza every day.  I’d get big.  Today…today I gave in.  Two delicious slices from T. Anthony’s, which is in Brookline, and serves some of the area’s best NY style pizza: Super thin, oozing with mozzarella, tangy sauce, crispy crust.

In my own neighborhood, there’s Armando’s, equally delicious.  I play a little game with myself: If I can find parking, I’ll grab a slice there.  Found a slice there yesterday, but resisted.

It’s interesting: At this point, Boston excels at slices compared to NYC, and while most of these places are fair at best, it’s nice to know that they are around.

Certainly the best slices in town are at Galleria Umberto: Sicilian.  Incomparable.

After that, we have a Serbian version at Iggy’s and a Neapolitan version at Santarpio’s.

Next rung down is T. Anthony’s & Armando’s.

Finally, decent slices are at Cambridge One and Upper Crust.

But even going further down, it’s all pizza, isn’t it?

The Wednesday Food Sections: Birds, Bars, Bugs, & Bonny Doon

In today’s Food sections, we learned about birds, bars, bugs, & Bonny Doon.

1.  In The Boston Globe, there is a recipe for “Cornish game hens with exotic spices.”  The writer says that Cornish game hens are the same as poussin.  They’re not.  Ask a poussin.  Ask a Cornish game hen.  A poussin is a baby chicken of any breed–they cost more than Cornish game hens and have many, tiny bones and are juicier and tastier.  Cornish game hens, which you won’t find in 90% of upscale restaurants (which use poussin), are a commercial breed developed in the 1950’s in Connecticut by Alphonsine and Jacques Makowsky.

As for “exotic” spices, the dictionary says, “Introduced from another country.”  So that means salt, pepper, paprika, etc.  are exotic, too.  The point?  Calling a recipe “exotic” doesn’t mean anything.  As in, choose from Column A: “Exotic chicken.”

2. In the Globe, again: Big cover piece on bar food.  Well, I said the same thing a few days ago: This town excels at bar food the way NYC excels at Italian and Italian-American food and the way SF excels at delicious, regional dishes.  It’s like: Let’s drink and listen to music all night.  Oh, yeah, what are we forgetting?  OK, let’s grab a bite.

In the same piece, the writer criticizes the restaurant Craigie on Main saying that the food in the main dining room isn’t as “soulful” as what’s served in the bar.  Uh, dude, you can order from either menu in either room.  Leaving that aside, entrees served in either room include: “Slow Roasted Line-Caught Bluefish,” “Whole Roasted Misty Knoll Chicken,” and “Grilled Wild Alaskan King Salmon Tail.” That food is soulful.  Seriously.  And exclusive to the dining room?  The waiter or waitress, if cued, will sing Marvin Gaye’s, “Let’s Get it On.”  If that’s not soul, what is?

Meanwhile, in The NY Times:

1.  Cover story on eating bugs in restaurants.  What, we’re out of pasta?  Stores are closed?  Phone dead?

2.  Great piece on Randall Grahm’s new restaurant at his vineyard: Bonny Doon.  Beautiful food informed by terroir!

On a personal note, I am pleased to say that my first letter in The London Review of Books appears in the current issue.  Joke about pederasts in the Church, ‘natch:


Grafton Street: A Review

Finding myself in Harvard Square on Saturday night, after seeing the improbable but delightful, “The Town,” it was time to find a place to eat, which is not as easy as it sounds.  Restaurants in Boston excel at bar food or elevated bar food.  But is that really satisfying?  It is amazing that Harvard Square has two Chinese restaurants, neither worth visiting, and not a single Italian restaurant other than a franchise and an upscale hotel joint that is about as Italian as I’m Ghanian.

So we wound up at Grafton Street: This place opened a decade or so ago and it has breathed new life into what Boston does best.  We sat outdoors, had good, cold martini’s and ate, respectively, a pizza, a tuna tartare and avocado dish, and pork belly on corn bread.  The pizza was good.  The tuna was good, too: Sort of deconstructed sushi.  The pork belly was very flavorful.  Portions were much too large: Not a good idea to overwhelm with size when taste should be paramount.  Service was dicey: the poor server was so nervous I wanted to take care of her.  Sitting outdoors was nice.

Compared to other places in the Square, Grafton Street is a good bet.  Standing on its own, without that context, it’s still a fun place.  At $85 a couple, the fun is expensive, but still a decent value.

River Gods: A Review

Loathe as I am to eat out, sharing this distaste with grandma, it happens now and then that I have no choice.  Take Friday: Went to a fun show @ ImprovBoston to see my nephew and his girlfriend and afterwards, being in Central Square, thought, what the heck, let’s eat out.

Central Square has become very hip and while I am not certain that this trend started as soon as I left that part of town, I do wonder.

Anyhow, River Gods.  I’ve wanted to eat there for a long time.  Outside and inside, it feels as if you’re in SF or Amsterdam: Very cool digs.  Patrons ranging in age from 18 to 70.  A wonderfully lit bar and first-rate cocktails.  The food?  Pretty tasty: Charred burgers with melted cheese and a very good version of pizza with mozzarella, parmesan, and bacon.  OK, it’s not close to being a restaurant–it’s a bar with food–but the very limited menu suggests an understanding of what they do best.  Long list of veg and vegan items, too.

Mind, as usual in Boston, two drinks, totaling $21, cost more than the pizza at $10.50.  That’s typical in this town: Booze drives the engine.

I’d give River Gods a shout out and wish it was in my neighborhood.

Recession Dining

A big article today on the front page of The Boston Globe Business section: Several top area restaurants selling their version of “French” food are now buying frozen bread.  When customers come in, they defrost it.  Sacre bleu! This is a business plan designed to cut costs, but isn’t dining in a restaurant–where the tab at places noted (Petit Robert and La Voile) runs typically at about $90 per couple–supposed to be as good as or better than eating at home?  Do you serve frozen bread to guests in your house?

If a restaurant wants to increase business, the solution is not to sell an inferior product.  Everyone knows frozen bread does not taste as good as fresh bread.  Everyone.

Ironically, the Frozen Bread Solution will lead to fewer customers.  At least this customer: I won’t knowingly eat in a restaurant serving frozen bread.  Nor will most people dropping big bucks to eat out.

In other news: Starbucks is trying to open a joint in the center of Harvard Square.  It’s nice to see a bank replaced by a coffee vendor, but the last thing the Square needs is a Starbucks.  I thought there was a ban on fast food in Harvard Square.  If you want to attend the hearing on this measure, it takes place on 9/30/10 at the Cambridge Seniors Center on 806 Mass. Ave.