Dec 9, 2008

The Omnivore 100

Scotland's Haggis
Back in August, a British food writer named Andrew Wheeler posted a list of 100 foods he believes every omnivore should try. "The list includes fine food, strange food, everyday food and even some pretty bad food," he wrote, "but a good omnivore should really try it all."

Wheeler encouraged readers to copy the list into their blog, bold-face all items they've eaten, and cross out any items they would never consider eating. His post immediately went viral, rocketing around the Internet and even making it into the culinary section of numerous newspapers.

In case you missed it, I'm posting Wheeler's list here and indicating what I have, haven't, and would never eat. I don't have the facility to cross out text with Blogspot, so those things I'd never consider eating are in blue letters. I've grayed-out the foods I've never had the chance to try.

We'd love it if you left a comment to tell us how your list would differ.
  1. Venison
  2. Nettle tea (But I’ve had Nettle Soup)
  3. Huevos rancheros
  4. Steak tartare
  5. Crocodile
  6. Black pudding
  7. Cheese fondue
  8. Carp
  9. Borscht
  10. Baba ghanoush
  11. Calamari
  12. Pho
  13. PB&J sandwich
  14. Aloo gobi
  15. Hot dog from a street cart
  16. Epoisses
  17. Black truffle
  18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
  19. Steamed pork buns
  20. Pistachio ice cream
  21. Heirloom tomatoes
  22. Fresh wild berries
  23. Foie gras
  24. Rice and beans
  25. Brawn, or head cheese
  26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
  27. Dulce de leche
  28. Oysters
  29. Baklava
  30. Bagna cauda
  31. Wasabi peas
  32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
  33. Salted lassi
  34. Sauerkraut
  35. Root beer float
  36. Cognac with a fat cigar
  37. Clotted cream tea
  38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
  39. Gumbo
  40. Oxtail
  41. Curried goat
  42. Whole insects
  43. Phaal
  44. Goat’s milk
  45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth $120 or more
  46. Fugu
  47. Chicken tikka masala
  48. Eel
  49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
  50. Sea urchin
  51. Prickly pear
  52. Umeboshi
  53. Abalone
  54. Paneer
  55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (Big Macs, certainly--but I'll never eat the meal!)
  56. Spaetzle
  57. Dirty gin martini
  58. Beer above 8% ABV
  59. Poutine (I really want to try this)
  60. Carob chips
  61. S’mores
  62. Sweetbreads
  63. Kaolin (a mineral-laden white clay, it’s an ingredient in Kaopectate)
  64. Currywurst
  65. Durian
  66. Frogs’ legs
  67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
  68. Haggis
  69. Fried plantain
  70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
  71. Gazpacho
  72. Caviar and blini
  73. Louche absinthe
  74. Gjetost, or brunost
  75. Roadkill
  76. Baijiu
  77. Hostess Fruit Pie
  78. Snail
  79. Lapsang souchong
  80. Bellini
  81. Tom yum
  82. Eggs Benedict
  83. Pocky
  84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
  85. Kobe beef
  86. Hare
  87. Goulash
  88. Flowers
  89. Horse
  90. Criollo chocolate
  91. Spam
  92. Soft shell crab
  93. Rose harissa
  94. Catfish
  95. Mole poblano
  96. Bagel and lox
  97. Lobster Thermidor
  98. Polenta
  99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
  100. Snake
Check out Andrew Wheeler's original post.

Dec 4, 2008

A Journey of Taste

Cover photo, Favorite Recipes from Mii Amo SpaJust in time for Holiday gift-giving comes A Journey of Taste: Favorite Recipes from Sedona's Mii amo Spa. Mii amo means "journey" in Yuman, the traditional Native American language of Northern Arizona, where the spa is located, and this beautifully-photographed cookbook from Chronicle Press allows readers to start on their own journey to a healthier lifestyle.

No starvation salads or tiny soup cups here. This cuisine--though low-caloric, low-cholesterol, and low-carb--doesn't deprive. Executive Chef Steve Bernstein and Spa Chef Steve Sicinski have created what they call intelligent cuisine.

The 145-page A Journey of Taste contains more than 50 of the spa's most-requested recipes, such goodies as Blue Corn Waffles, Pan-Seared Ahi Tuna with Cellophane Noodles and Red Curry Broth, Buffalo Tenderloin with Horseradish Potato Cake and Chipotle-Tomato Jus (pictured immediately above), and Crab and Corn Cakes with Remoulade Sauce. And for dessert? Try the Berry Martini, or--imagine this!--a low-fat Tiramisu.

By the way, in 2007 Mii amo Spa, which is located at Enchantment Resort, was named the "world's best destination spa" by readers of Travel + Leisure. Surely this remarkable cuisine had a little something to do with that...

You can purchase the book directly from Mii amo Spa.

Nov 29, 2008

The Crisps Stole Turkey Day

Platter of Parmigiano-Reggiano CrispsAnother Thanksgiving, another fabulous feast (aren't they always?). This time, though, a surprising edible stole the day. Not the turkey, or stuffing, or yams, or any of those old comfy familiars. No, siree. The hands-down winner around our table was the scrumptious Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps; made with only two ingredients, they were a perfect amuse-bouche before the Acorn Soup. Hostess Karen found the recipe on the Whole Foods website, and were we glad she did! Here it is:

Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps

Makes about 20

1 cup grated (not shredded) Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Preheat oven to 300°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.

Mix cheese with thyme in a bowl. To form each crisp, spoon 2 to 3 teaspoons of the cheese mixture onto a baking sheet to make a small pile. Space the piles 2 to 3 inches apart as you go. When both baking sheets are full, lightly press cheese with the back of a spoon or your fingers to flatten each pile into a 2-inch circle.

Bake until slightly browned on top (check at 5 minutes--they bake very fast!). Remove baking sheets from oven and cool for a few minutes to let crisps firm up a bit. Slide parchment off baking sheet and use a spatula to loosen the crisps. They should be slightly flexible, but will harden as they finish cooling. Repeat process with remaining cheese mixture.

Allow crisps to cool completely before storing in an airtight container, layered between sheets of waxed paper.

Note: If you like spice, add a pinch of cayenne, espelette or freshly cracked black pepper to the mixture before baking. Serve on the side of any crisp green salad or bowl of soup. You can make these a day or two ahead of time, then store in an airtight container.

Many thanks to Whole Foods Market for this recipe.

Nov 27, 2008

The Versatile Turkey Redux

A cooked turkey on a serving platterWhen it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, I’m a perennial guest—much happier bringing a dish or two to somebody else’s home, pitching in to assist the day’s (usually frantic) head chef, and helping to clean up afterward.
Nonetheless, I always keep an eye out around now for a medium-sized turkey—15 pounds, say. November turkeys are inexpensive and easily transformed into the basis for future meals: slices of turkey breast; a rich soup broth; and a generous amount of Pulled Turkey Breast (which, when tucked into a roll and topped with coleslaw, is a healthier, dead-ringer version of the luscious barbecued pork sandwich found in the south).
Once the bird is defrosted, I remove as much skin as possible—discarding it—and carefully carve out the breast. I’ll need 4-½ to 5 pounds of meat (mostly breast) for the turkey pull. I remove the loins from the breast, wrap them tightly, and plop them into the freezer for a future meal. Then, if I don’t have quite enough breast for the pull, I’ll carve out a bit of thigh or leg meat and add it to the pull pile. I place that meat in a bowl, cover with wrap, and store in the fridge until I’m ready to make the turkey pull (you’ll find the recipe below).
Back to the turkey—or what remains of it, anyway. It now lacks a breast and, probably, some thigh and/or leg meat. It's perfect for a broth. Browning meat lends a rich complexity to broth, so preheat the oven to 400º. Remove and discard as much of the turkey's skin as possible. Place the meaty carcass on a rack in a roasting pan. Insert the neck, liver, and gizzards into the cavity. Brush with canola oil, salt & pepper to taste. Cover. Place in the oven for about half an hour, and then remove the cover. Continue roasting another half an hour, or until the meat has developed a nice brown color. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
When the carcass can be handled, get out your deepest stockpot. Carefully dismantle the carcass, arranging the pieces in the bottom of the pot (leave the meat on the bones—you definitely want the bones in there). Add enough cold water to cover the dismantled carcass by an inch or two, a large onion, 2 bay leaves, carrots, celery, garlic cloves, whole peppercorns, and some kosher salt. Bring just to a boil, and then allow to simmer for at least 2 hours. Turn off the heat and let cool completely. Strain into a large container. The turkey meat that’s been simmering still has plenty of flavor, so put aside likely-looking pieces before discarding the rest of the strainer’s contents. You can now make your favorite turkey soup, or else store the rich broth and meat in the freezer for future use.
The Pulled Turkey Breast, below, is a fabulous standby. I keep it in the freezer in portions, so that it’s always ready for unexpected company. To serve it in a traditional way, whip up a simple coleslaw. Place the Pull on a sliced onion or kaiser roll, top with coleslaw, and dig in. Health-nuts like me might prefer using a 100% whole wheat bun and topping with simple shredded cabbage. Serve with dark greens like swiss chard or kale; and black beans, black-eyed peas, or corn on the cob. A dark beer goes great with this.
Pulled Turkey Breast
2 large onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup dark beer
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup ketchup
4 TB Worcestershire sauce
2 TB Tabasco
1 tsp red chili flakes
2 tsp each salt and freshly-ground black pepper
4-½ to 5-lb turkey breast, skinned

Combine all ingredients except the breast in a heavy saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce to a mild simmer, and allow to cook 15 minutes. Add the turkey breast, cover, and cook at the barest of simmers for about 2-½ hours. Turn off heat and allow to cool.

Transfer the breast to a cutting board. Shred the meat, discarding bones. Stir shredded breast back into the sauce. Heat it again and simmer, covered, for another hour or so. Season to taste with salt & pepper; and add additional Tabasco if you like. Keeps exceedingly well in the freezer.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone!

Nov 24, 2008

Cast-Iron Skillets Rock!

cast-iron skilletsFor many years I've relied almost totally on Magnalite and Calphalon alloy cookware in my kitchen. Incredibly durable and great heat conductors, I've loved these guys. I still use them frequently, but lately--to my surprise--old-fashioned cast-iron skillets have joined the list of my favored kitchen friends.

I've had these skillets just about forever. Inherited from my grandmother, I couldn't bear to part with them. But I didn't use them, either, aside from camping trips (where they're perfect over a Coleman stove or atop a wood fire).

On a whim, one day about a year ago I sautéed a salmon filet in one of Grandma's old skillets. It turned out perfectly, lightly-seared and with a lovely color--better tasting and prettier to look at than the same filet cooked in one of my revered (and expensive) alloy pans.

With that, I was hooked. Over the last year I've used the cast-iron increasingly in jobs that require sautéeing, stewing, or simmering, and I often use them in the oven.

A few reasons to consider using this amazingly durable yet quite inexpensive cookware:
  • Cast iron heats slowly but then retains heat while distributing it evenly across the entire surface. No hot spots, no cold spots, and everything in the pan cooks at the same rate.
  • Cast iron adds the mineral iron, which makes red blood cells, to our diet. Small amounts of iron leach from the pan into the cooking food; this is particularly true with acid-based foods like tomatoes.
  • Keep your cast-iron pan well seasoned, and it will act just like a teflon-coated pan: use just a thin touch of oil, and the food won't stick...and you don't have to worry about a man-made coating (such as Teflon) breaking down and adding toxic substances to your food. To learn how to properly season a pan, visit a culinary website I enjoy, What's Cooking America.
  • If you, like me, use a pan inherited from a family member--well, there's just something really nice about that.
Curious about cast-iron skillets? Check out the selection at I always read the ratings given by people who have bought a product before purchasing--it's helped me limit regrets.

Nov 12, 2008

Royal Banquet in Yountville

Entrance to V Wine Cellar"Beautiful," I said, peering down at the small plate held before me. It contained a dozen tiny mother-of-pearl spoons, neatly lined up. Each was filled with something resembling black jelly topped by whipped cream. "What is it?"

"Caviar with creme freche," the server said.

Intrigued, I picked up a spoon and was delighted with the intricate combination of flavor and texture: the slight salt and even slighter tart, the tiny smooth grains and thickish cream. Another server stepped from behind the first, proffering another lovely plate--this one unadorned and intended for my empty spoon. Someone else materialized to refresh my champagne. Another plate appeared holding quarter-sized hors d'oeuvres whose starring ingredient was duck confit.

And so it went until it was time to sit down to the immensely long table for the dinner that had brought us all together.

The place was V Wine Cellar, part of the impressive Vintage Estate in Napa Valley's plush Yountville. The occasion? An inaugural dinner to introduce the first year (2009) of the Vintage Estate V Wine Cellar Winemaker Dinner Series. The Chef: Vintage Estate's Kevin Miller. The night's winemaker, whose wines we reveled in for hours, was Christian Moueix of Napa's Dominus Estate and various legendary wine-making chateaux in Pomerol.

V Wine Cellar is housed in the historic 1870 Groezinger Winery and Distillery, a beautiful red-brick building that's been updated periodically through the decades and has lately been sumptuously refurbished throughout. The Cellar, with its exposed stone and gleaming mahogany woodwork, holds about 3000 bottles of wine from around the world. The room is much longer than it is wide, and the table, set up handsomely for about 60, ran right down the center.

The surroundings, the fantastic wine, the incredible food, and the invitees collaborated to create an unusually fine evening.

The eclectic crowd was made of up of customers, friends, and food and wine writers. As the evening progressed--as we took flight on those generous flights of wine--strangers grew friendly. I had never met the man to my left, a rock 'n roll photographer whose clever business card was shaped like a guitar pick. But by midway through dinner we were engrossed in a discussion of the way in which wine, unlike, say, even the most amazing of single-malt whiskeys, is a living breathing organisim capable of change from one day to the next. "A great whiskey tastes the same anywhere in the world no matter when or how you drink it," he said. "Not so with a great wine or even a merely good wine. The taste of wine reflects what you bring to it at any given moment, and what it brings to you. "

A writer colleague of mine stopped to chat. Taking note of the endless table, she said: "How many times in life do you get to dine at a table this long? It's like a royal banquet from one of those movies about Louis XIV or Henry VIII. Not so formal, though."

Indeed. By the penultimate course any attempt at formality had completely disappeared. People had struck up lively conversations up and down and across and at angles all along the table. I learned that a woman sitting across from me, on the other side of a lovely floral centerpiece, had the same first name. Not too long ago, Suzanne Knecht and her husband took two years off and sailed around the world, resulting in her first book, Night Watch: Memoirs of a Circumnavigation. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Dominus wine label 2004Finally it was time to leave and walk back to my room at the fabulous Villagio Inn & Spa. As I headed out the door with friends I fell into conversation with charming French winemaker Christian Moueix. At the helm of Chateau Pétrus, he's been called wine's "reclutant superstar" by Decanter, which named him their 2008 Man of the Year. We had a short but intense conversation about creativity and the similar way it manifests in winemaking and writing, providing the perfect topper to a perfect evening.

For more information about the 2009 winemaker dinners, visit the V Wine Cellar.

And for all you foodies out there, here's the night's menu:

Seared Foie
Current Bread Pudding, Sultana & Red Flame Raisins
White Balsamic Glaze
2000 Chateau Certan Marzelle, Pomerol
2003 Chateau Magdalene, Saint-Emillion

Roasted Squab
Crisp Pancetta, Butternut Squash Risotto
Elderberry Jus
1996 Dominus, Napa Valley
2001 Dominus, Napa Valley

Omaha Prime New York Strip
Truffled Potato Gratin
Cabernet Sauce
2005 Napanook, Napa Valley
2005 Dominus, Napa Valley

Huckleberry Gastrique
1997 Ramos Pinto, Portugal

Nov 8, 2008

Eat, Shrink & Be Merry!

Cover of cookbook entitled Eat, Shrink, and Be Merry
Back in the mid 1990s, two Canadian sisters named Greta & Janet Podleski co-authored Looneyspoons--the #1 all-time best selling cookbook in Canada (now out of print). The sisters have sold more than 850,000 cookbooks in Canada and currently host the highest-rated show on that nation's Food Network. We may be hearing more about them here in the USA in the next few months as they promote their new cookbook: Eat, Shrink & Be Merry! Great-Tasting Food That Won't Go from Your Lips to Your Hips!

Meanwhile, here are a few dandy weight-maintenance tips from Greta and Janet to get you through the holidays (my favorite is “Dress for Success”):
  • Eat before you meet. A half hour before a party, dilute your appetite with a hard-boiled egg, some yogurt, or some nuts.
  • Make it splurge-worthy! When you get the urge to splurge on calorie-laden indulgences (and we all do!), rate the indulgent food on a scale of 1 to 10. If it isn’t a 9 or 10, don’t bother—it’s not worthy! There’s nothing worse than having to loosen your belt after eating a food that you didn’t really enjoy. Talk about waisting calories!
  • Use small plates, small portions, and small talk. At social gatherings, have everything you like, but have a little of it. Whatever you do, do not exceed the feed limit! Studies suggest that exceeding 500 calories at any meal may cause your body to shift into fat-storage mode.
  • Be a double-fisted drinker. During the holiday season, alcohol’s empty calories can pack the pounds on just as much as over-eating can. Try having a glass of water for each alcoholic beverage you drink.
  • Arrive in mint condition. At cocktail parties, use a breath mint strip before you hit the appetizer table. It’ll dull your taste buds, plus it’ll make you a more popular guest!
  • Gobble white turkey meat. It contains tryptophan, an amino acid that increases the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, which not only improves mood but also helps you resist cravings for starches and sweets.
  • Be a mover and a shaker! Bump up your physical activity level so you can afford to enjoy the great food. You know you’re going to be eating more than usual, so this is the time to move more than usual. During the holidays, make a point of doing some brisk walking every single day.
  • Dress for Success. This might sound far-fetched, but during the holiday season, wear your snuggest clothes that don’t allow much room for expansion. That’ll remind you not to overindulge. It works! Honest!
  • Remember that healthy eating isn’t all or nothing. One rip-roaring, high-calorie meal or indulgence won’t make or break your waistline. It’s what you do consistently, over the long haul, that matters most. So enjoy yourself, have a small portion of those special holiday treats, then get back on track with healthy eating the very next day.

Oct 22, 2008

Recipe: Nantes Carrot Soup

Bowl of Nantes Carrot SoupJust in time for fall, a simple but tasty soup from James Boyce, award-winning chef of Studio at the ultra-luxurious Montage in Laguna Beach, California. Chef Boyce recommends seeking out organic Nantes carrots, a sweet and tender variety that is cylindrical in shape and rounded at the ends rather than tapering off like the more commonly found Imperator variety.
Nantes Carrot Soup by Chef James Boyce
  • 1 T. butter
  • 1/2 medium Spanish onion, small dice
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 8 Nantes carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1t. turmeric
  • 5 C. chicken stock
  • 1 C. heavy cream
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • 2 t. sherry vinegar
  • Salt and white pepper
  • French bread croutons
  • Finely grated horseradish

  1. In a medium saucepot, heat butter over medium heat. Add onions and thyme and cook for 2 minutes, allowing no color to develop. Add carrots and turmeric and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Add chicken stock and simmer for 25 to 35 minutes, then add heavy cream, cooking gently for 5 minutes longer.
  2. Remove form heat and discard sprig of thyme. Puree the soup in small batches, being careful as always with hot liquid. Add the lemon juice, sherry vinegar, salt and white pepper to taste. For a smooth finish, press the puree through a chinois or fine strainer.
  3. Serve with French bread croutons and a dusting of horseradish. Serves 6.

Oct 15, 2008

Review: Donsuemor Madeleines

Packages of Donsuemor Madeleines
Madeleines are petite, shell-shaped cakes (sometimes mistakenly called cookies). Beloved in France for centuries, they've been best known outside that country as the catalyst for the multi-volume Proustian memory-fest, Remembrance of Things Past. The narrator dips “one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines” into his tea and is immediately overwhelmed by a rush of childhood memories.
Now, thanks to a company based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Americans are coming to know madeleines first-hand. When I lived in Paris years ago I loved these little treats and enjoyed them regularly. In the years since I’ve relegated madeleines to an “only-in-France” possibility; it just never occurred to me to look for them at home. So when I held a package of American-made Donsuemor madeleines in my hand last week, I was wary.
I needn’t have been. These plump little cakes were every bit the equal of the best madeleines I had in France. Rich, buttery, and first-rate delicious, they’re made with high-quality ingredients and are completely free of preservatives, additives, or trans fats (they’re certified Kosher).
Even better: they come in 5 varieties. Along with the Traditional madeleine are Lemon Zest, Chocolate, Dipped Chocolate, and Dipped Traditional. And a nice touch: they last up to 6 months in the freezer, so you don’t have to wreck your diet when you get your hands on a package. Available throughout the USA and Canada, or you can order a Donsuemor Sampler online.

Bon Appétit!

Oct 11, 2008

Eating Fruit Bat Soup

fruit bat soup
I recently spent a week with a group of travel journalists in Palau, an island nation in Micronesia known for its sensational diving, gorgeous scenery, and bountiful adventures both soft and xtreme. You can read all about our trip here, and in a few days I’ll have a page devoted to Palau (with plenty of photos) on my travel website.

But right now, this being a culinary blog and all, I want to tell you about the xtreme food adventure I had on Palau while dining at the five-star Palau Pacific Resort. Our gracious host—having learned that we were all wildly curious about Palau’s most famous culinary delicacy—had arranged to satisfy our inquiring journalistic minds with a dish not ordinarily on the menu. After a pleasant round of drinks, the wait staff suddenly arrived en masse carrying steaming bowls of soup, which they placed gently before us.

Yeah, you got it: Fruit Bat Soup.

These little bats live in heavily-forested areas of Palau, residing at the top of trees. They eat wild fruits, nectar, and flowers, pollinating plants and widely distributing seeds in the process. Fruit bats spend most of their lives upside-down, or so it seems to us; they eat, sleep, and even give birth suspended downward from tree branches. Palau’s fruit bat, a sub-species known as the olik, lives nowhere else on earth.

fruit bat
Talk about sustainable foods! Until recent times, most Palauian residents−for that matter, most island inhabitants throughout Indonesia−fed themselves with what they grew, caught, or hunted. Fruit bats have long been a traditional food in Palau, providing needed protein and nourishment. Now that a western-oriented diet has become popular, bats have become an expensive rarity. You can find Fruit Bat Soup in a couple of local restaurants, but expect to pay a premium for it. The soup is mostly ordered by intrepid foreign tourists who learned about it on Survivor: Palau.

The soup’s history and rarity didn’t make it any less discomfitting for me to gaze down and spy a slightly-furry bat wing floating around at the top of my bowl. Nothing in my adventurous life of gourmandizing had prepared me for such a sight.

But, hey, I’m game for anything…or at least I pretend to be. I picked up my spoon and dug in. You know what? It was good. Not great, I’ll admit, but good—and before you ask, the bat meat did not taste like chicken. It didn’t taste like anything I’d had before, really. It was quite gamy and oddly fragrant.

Want to try it? Below is a well-known recipe for Fruit Bat Soup that originally appeared in The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook (Jean Hewitt, 1971). This recipe differs from what was served to us, though, in that you get the bat meat in your soup—but not the bat.

Vive la difference!

Serves 4

• 3 fruit bats, well washed but neither skinned nor eviscerated
• Water
• 1 Tb finely sliced fresh ginger
• 1 large onion, quartered
• Sea salt to taste
• Chopped scallions
• Soy sauce and/or coconut cream

1. Place bats in a large kettle and add water to cover. Add ginger, onion, and salt. Bring to boil and simmer 45 minutes. Strain broth into second kettle.

2. Take bats, skin them, discard skin. Remove meat from bones. Return meat and any viscera fancied to the broth. Heat.

3. Serve, liberally sprinkled with scallions and seasoned with soy sauce and/or coconut cream.

Big Island, Hawaii: Culinary Tourism

vanilla beanThe Big Island Farm Bureau has teamed up with local farmers to create Hawaii AgVentures—a way to learn about and sample the diverse tastes and agricultural splendors of Hawaii Island. Visit farms that grow lavendar, vanilla, bananas, macadamia nuts, cacao beans, and more. Talk to an orchid grower, learn how to make a lei, explore cattle ranches or coffee plantations. Sample tropical fruit wines where they’re produced. Enjoy a BBQ dinner with a cattle-ranching family, or do a tea tasting of island-grown Camellia sinensis.

Group tours include Chocolate Treats & Tropical Temptations (Kona Joe coffee plantation, Original Hawaii Chocolate Factory); Pele’s Bounty (Kalapana Tropicals orchid nursery, Hilo Coffee Mill, Green Point Nursery; Mauka to Makai (Parker Ranch, Honopua Farm, Merriman's Restaurant, and the Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii, whose research includes the farming of abalone and lobsters); and Taste of Kamuela (Waimea Homestead Farmers Market, Honopua Farm, a Hawaiian lunch and hula, Kahua Ranch).

Hawaii AgVentures can also assist you in putting together an itinerary for solo visits targeted to your specific interests. Some farms and other sites are open to the public, but others are available only by appointment. Among the many interesting sites:

cacao beanThe Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory produces the only 100% Hawaiian chocolate on the planet—grown, harvested, processed, and packaged right on the Big Island. Cacao beans are grown on volcanic soil in a 6-acre, 1300-tree orchard surrounding the owner's Kona Coast home. After cacoa pods are harvested, the beans are removed, fermented, dried on racks for up to 28 days, and then roasted. From there the resultant cocoa nibs are combined with cocoa butter and other ingredients to produce chocolate.

Hawaiian Vanilla Company cultivates, hand-pollinates, and distributes Hawaiian vanilla on the Hamakua Coast (the in-depth presentation on how vanilla orchids are grown and laboriously pollinated is fascinating). A gallery and gift shop are on site, and you can indulge in various repasts, from an upcountry tea brunch to a gourmet four-course luncheon.

The Kona Coffee Belt is a must for java-lovers. This narrow stretch of land on the western slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualalai, about 2 miles wide, runs parallel to the ocean and contains more than 700 Kona coffee farms. Many are open to visitors, offering a chance to learn how coffee is hand-picked and roasted. At the Kona Coffee Living History Farm you’ll stroll through coffee and macadamia nut orchards and tour an historic farmhouse, while costumed interpreters answer questions about the daily lives of early 20th century Japanese coffee farmers. Or visit East Hawaii, which once boasted 6,000 acres of coffee. Now the area’s Hilo Coffee Mill is giving those local coffees—100% Ka'u, Hamakua, and Puna varieties—a new life.

Volcano Island HoneyThe honey produced by Volcano Island Honey Company (VIHC) has been called “a miracle” and “some of the best honey in the entire world” by celebrated figures of the culinary world. The rare Hawaiian organic white honey is derived from a unique forest of Klawe trees.

For more info on Hawaii AgVenture group and personalized tours, visit their site. To learn more about what to see and do on the Big Island, visit my honeymoon travel website.

Oct 4, 2008

Umami: the 5th Taste

umami chartHave you heard about umami? I hadn’t either until about two years ago. Umami—the word comes from the Japanese umai, which means “delicious”—is the fifth basic taste that can be sensed by specialized receptor cells on your tongue (after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter). 

Unlike the other four tastes, though, umami can’t be defined in a single word. This fifth taste is one of deep and full flavor, often described as meaty, rich, savory, or brothy. 
It wasn’t until modern times that umami was identified as a taste. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University noted: “There is a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, but which is not one of the four well-known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty.” In 1907, he began experiments to identify the source of this distinctive taste. He knew that it was present in the “broth” made from kombu (a type of seaweed) found in traditional Japanese cuisine. Starting with a tremendous quantity of kombu broth, he succeeded in extracting crystals of glutamic acid, an amino acid and a building block of protein. 100 grams of dried kombu contain about 1 gram of glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Professor Ikeda found that glutamate had a distinctive taste, different from sweet, sour, bitter and salty. He named this taste “umami.”

A umami food contains high levels of glutamate, which is present in plant and animal tissues. According to culinary scientists, the more umami present in the food, the more flavorful it will be. When you combine umami-rich ingredients in a recipe, you create layers of nuanced flavor. 

Among the foods containing glutamate−and, thus, umami−are beef, duck, chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms, seaweed, green tea, oysters, milk, beets, soy sauce, and aged cheese. As far as cocktails go, a Bloody Mary is about as umami as it gets. If you’re going alcohol-free, try a glass of V8 or tomato juice.

The Mushroom Council has created a downloadable .PDF, Umami: Discover the Taste of Nature’s Hidden Treasure, that explains the basics and offers recipes. If you’d like to know even more, download the Council’s whitepaper, Umami: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It, which discusses the scientific underpinnings of taste and umami in an easy-to-read way. These documents are a bit mushroom-oriented, as you’d expect, but nonetheless provide a lot of great info.

A umami-rich recipe for Salmon with Shitake Relish is available online from the Mushroom Council.

Thanks to the International Glutamate Information Service (IGIS) for the umami taste chart.

Jun 24, 2008

A Working Lunch in San Francisco

Hyatt Regency atriumThis past weekend in San Francisco I had a working lunch in the Hyatt Regency’s Eclipse Café. The experience turned out to be delightful on two very different fronts.
First, the Café is located in the hotel’s vast, soaring atrium lobby, which has been featured in major films. Completed in the early 1970s and designed by architect John Portman, this 300-foot long by 170-foot high room still has the capacity to stun with its sleek modernity. A bank of streamlined, capsule-shaped, glass-enclosed elevators zoom silently up and down. Touches of brass reflect sunlight from the narrow skylight, a zero-edge fountain surrounds a free-form gilded aluminum sculpture by Charles Perry. In this space, asymmetry doesn’t just rule—it makes sense. I live in the Bay Area and have been in this atrium a good many times over the years, but each time it’s a revelation.
The second delightful aspect was lunch itself. The menu was a masterpiece of updated, slightly innovative comfort foods: Fritto Misto (crispy Monterey calamari, Pacific shrimp, Blue Point oysters, Mediterranean vegetables, chipotle aïoli); a Grilled Cheese Sandwich made with aged cheddar and Sonoma pepper jack on thick-sliced sourdough; a trio of French-Vidalia Onion Soup (you got all three, separately topped with Gruyere, Provolone, Pepper Jack).
lounge at Hyatt Regency in San Francisco
I almost went for the Hobbs Prosciutto & Grilled Fulton Valley Chicken Panini, but in the end opted for a “Build Your Own Lunch” selection. That’s where you get to choose an entrée and select two sides from a tempting list. My choices: the Mini Jumbo Lump & Dungeness Crab Cake Sandwiches on toasted brioche, French Onion Soup, and Sonoma Greens with Goat Cheese, Bacon, Tomato, Cucumber, and Pesto Vinaigrette.
All this, against the dramatic backdrop of soaring atrium, space-age elevators, brass and chrome and light. If only more meetings were like this!
The Eclipse Café is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., serving three meals a day. San Francisco Hyatt Regency, 5 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco 94111 • 415 788 1234

Jun 18, 2008

Happy 25th Birthday, Mustards!

Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustard's Restaurant

I’ve never forgotten the first time I walked into Mustards Grill in Napa Valley. This was back, oh, 24 years ago, when the food revolution was beginning to take hold. In those days, when it came to food, much was new, being invented, and being-reinvented. I was living in San Francisco, and everybody kept saying, “You’ve got to come to Napa and try this new place, Mustards.” So I did.

Entering Mustards that first time I was blown away by the new-to-me combination of smells: meats grilled over woods, home-made BBQ sauce and other condiments, oysters, fine wines (oak-heavy chardonnay then predominated). The Grill wasn’t even a year old, but that fabulous scent already seemed imbued in the very wood of the building.
This past Monday, June 16, founder/owner Cindy Pawlcyn (pictured above) threw a 25th Birthday Party for Mustards, and what a scene it was! The party took place entirely in the surrounding vegetable and herb garden, and something like 1200 people turned out to celebrate. Forty or so local wineries—Far Niente, Trefethen, Joseph Phelps, the Hess Collection, Silverado, Groth, Beringer, Robert Mondavi, Caymus, to name a few—were pouring. Musards was closed for the night to the public, but the kitchen churned out vast amounts of ribs, pulled pork, sliders, and chicken wings for delighted party-goers. Two huge heaps of ice were covered with Hog Island Oysters. There were small cups of Crab Gazpacho, a table groaning with fruits and cheeses, cones filled with onion rings. A lively bluegrass band, Poor Man’s Whiskey, played into the night. And all around were the pale yellow summer hills and green vines of Napa Valley.
Mustard's 25th Birthday Party
As we stood waiting for our car at the end, my friend Karen said “Let’s look inside the restaurant for a second.” It was empty, since the party was raging in the garden, but the doors were open. I hadn’t been inside Mustards in many years, and I was curious to see if it had changed.
We wandered inside, and there it was: the scent of grilled meat, sauce, fine wine (now predominating toward Zins)… Despite the years, that smell was so familiar and evocative, so very Mustards, that I might have stepped back 25 years in time. Before it all got too Proust-like, the car came and we whisked ourselves off to the future.
Thank you, Cindy Pawlcyn, for 25 years of Mustards Grill–and for knowing how to throw a great party.

Mustard’s Grill: 7399 St. Helena Highway, Napa, CA 94558 •707-944-2424 •

Jun 11, 2008

Kids'll Love 'Em!!

Baked Idaho Pommes Frites

The Idaho Potato Commission sent me a recipe they think will get kids involved in summertime cooking. I don’t know about that, but the recipe’s pretty nifty and kids and adults alike are going to scarf these things right down: Baked Idaho Pommes Frites and Simple Dipping Sauces.
Yeah, you got it: french fries. But they taste so good your kids may not even suspect that these particular frites are heart-healthy and nutritious. Here goes:

Baked Idaho Pommes Frites (Serves 4)

  • 4 large Idaho Potatoes, well scrubbed
  • Cooking spray
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Preheat oven to 450° F.
  2. Cut each potato into eight lengthwise wedges. Place potatoes in an ungreased baking pan. Spray potatoes evenly with cooking spray.
  3. Bake 20 minutes. Remove potatoes from the oven, turn them over using a spatula, and return the potatoes to the oven to bake an additional 10 minutes, or until golden brown.
  4. Season with salt and serve hot.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 278 calories, 1 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 154 mg sodium, 6 g protein, 64 g carbohydrates (does not include optional ingredients).

Tex-Mex Ketchup

  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon mild chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  1. Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl.
  2. Stir until evenly blended. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 34 calories, 0 mg cholesterol, 366 mg sodium, 0.5 g protein, 0 g fat, 9 g carbohydrates

Bacon-Cheddar-Ranch Topping

  • 3/4 cup light ranch salad dressing
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped (use green part only in this recipe)
  • 2 tablespoons 2% Sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 tablespoons packaged 50% reduced-fat real bacon pieces
  1. Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl.
  2. Stir until evenly blended. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 75 calories, 12 mg cholesterol, 285 mg sodium, 1.5 g protein, 6 g fat, 4 g carbohydrates

Easy Microwave Cheese Sauce

  • 1/2 cup 2% milk
  • 2 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  1. Combine the milk and cream cheese in a small microwave-safe bowl with handles. Heat on high for 1 minute, 30 seconds. Use a whisk and stir until smooth.
  2. Heat another 30 seconds on high, then whisk again.
  3. Add grated cheeses and stir constantly until smooth. If necessary, heat at 10-second intervals, stirring in-between, until an even consistency is achieved. Serve immediately.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 76 calories, 20 mg cholesterol, 95 mg sodium, 4 g protein, 6 g fat, 1 g carbohydrates

Jun 9, 2008

2008 James Beard Award Winners

James Beard Award medalsLast night the annual James Beard Awards—known as “the Oscars of the food world”—were handed out in New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall. Below you’ll find a list of chef, restaurant, and cookbook winners. To learn more about the awards and the other category winners, visit the James Beard Foundation website. Of interest to me: there is no award given as yet for food blogging.
Best National Chefs & Restaurants
  • Outstanding Restaurateur: Joe Bastianich & Mario Batali, Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, New York
  • Outstanding Chef: Grant Achatz, Alinea, Chicago
  • Outstanding Restaurant: Gramercy Tavern, New York
  • Outstanding New Restaurant: Central Michel Richard, Washington
  • Rising Star Chef: Gavin Kaysen, Cafe Boulud, New York
  • Outstanding Pastry Chef: Elisabeth Prueitt & Chad Robertson, Tartine Bakery, San Francisco
  • Outstanding Wine Service: Eleven Madison Park, New York
  • Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional: Terry Theise, Terry Theise Estate Selections, Silver Spring, Md.:
  • Outstanding Service: Terra, St. Helena, Calif.
Best Regional Chefs
  • Best Chef: Great Lakes–Carrie Nahabedian, Naha, Chicago
  • Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic–Eric Ziebold, CityZen
  • Best Chef: Midwest–Adam Siegel, Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, Milwaukee
  • Best Chef: New York–David Chang, Momofuku Ssam Bar, New York
  • Best Chef: Northeast–Patrick Connolly, Radius, Boston
  • Best Chef: Northwest–Holly Smith, Cafe Juanita, Kirkland, Wash
  • Best Chef: Southwest–Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, Colorado
  • Best Chef: South–Michelle Bernstein, Michy’s, Miami
  • Best Chef: Southeast–Robert Stehling, Hominy Grill, Charleston, S.C.
  • Best Chef: Pacific–Craig Stoll, Delfina, San Francisco
Best Cookbooks
  • Cookbook of the Year: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The River Cottage Meat Book
  • Cookbook Hall of Fame: Paula Wolfert, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco
  • Asian Cooking: Niloufer Ichaporia King, My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking
  • Baking and Desserts: Peter Reinhart, Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor
  • Cooking from a Professional Point of View: The French Culinary Institute w/ Judith Choate, The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine
  • Entertaining: Trish Magwood, Dish Entertains
  • Americana: Jean Anderson, A Love Affair with Southern Cooking
  • General: James Peterson, Cooking
  • Healthy Focus: Jean Harvey-Berino w/ Joyce Hendley and editors of EatingWell magazine, The EatingWell Diet
  • International: Anne Willan, The Country Cooking of France
  • Reference: Rowan Jacobsen, A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America
  • Single Subject: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The River Cottage Meat Book
  • Wine and Spirits: David Wondrich, Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar
  • Writing on Food: Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
  • Photography: France Ruffenach (Photographer), The Country Cooking of France (Anne Willan, author)

Jun 2, 2008

Watermelon Summer

Watermelon SlicesI’d never heard about the National Watermelon Promotion Board until last week, when a cheery CD Press Kit—filled with photos, facts, and recipes—arrived via snail mail from the folks at NWPB. And just in time for summer…
Most of us eat watermelon because it’s delish (and is there anything more refreshing on a hot day?). It’s also good for us, filled with more lycopene than tomatoes (15-20 mg per 2-cup serving), and it’s an excellent source of vitamsin A, B6, and C. Also, thanks to amino acids citrulline and arginine, watermelon helps maintain a healthy heart.
The press kit offers a few tips on picking the best watermelon available:
  1. Choose a firm, symmetrical watermelon free of bruises, cuts, and dents.
  2. Lift it up. It should feel heavy for its size—watermelons are, after all, 92% water.
  3. Turn it over. On the underside should be a creamy, yellow spot (the “ground spot”) from where it sat on the ground and ripened in the sun.
Best thing in the kit was this recipe for Watermelon Cherry Mojito:
Watermelon Mojito

Watermelon Cherry Mojito

  • 3 fresh mint sprigs, chopped
  • 1/4 cup watermelon puree
  • 1 tsp cherry syrup
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 oz light rum
  • Chilled sparkling water
  • 1 sugar cane stirrer
  • 1 lime wedge
Using a fork, press the mint with the back of a fork to coat the inside of the glass and leave it in the glass. Add the watermelon puree, cherry syrup, lime juice and rum. Stir well. Top with ice. Top-off the glass with sparkling water or club soda. Add the sugar cane stirrer and lime wedge to the glass and serve. Serves 1...but you, of course, will be making 2.