Trouble With Toast

Foodie Book Review–The United States of Arugula

August 29, 2007
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As soon as I caught the lengthy-but-clever subtitle of David Kamp’s book, which read, “The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution,” I knew it would be a good read. I was not disappointed; The United States of Arugula is a fast-paced, intricately-researched, often-hilarious romp through the American food industry and its colorful history.

Kamp begins by introducing readers to “The Big Three”—also known as James Beard (the “father of American gastronomy”), Craig Claiborne (New York Times restaurant critic and food writer), and Julia Child (beloved Amazonian chef, cookbook author, and television personality). As the cast of characters grows to include disciples of Beard, Claiborne, and Child, the book journeys from New York to California and back again, not only describing how Americans went from Jell-O molds and Spam to foie gras and sushi.

From Francophilia to “New American” cuisine, Kamp does a wonderful job of chronicling this country’s great culinary voyage. His footnotes (which are often more interesting than the text itself) give fascinating glimpses into some of the peripheral characters and ironic coincidences that popped up throughout the years. He also strikes a fair balance between discussions of restaurant dining, home cooking, and retail food operations (interspersing stories about the likes of Dean & DeLuca, Williams-Sonoma, and Whole Foods with tales of bistro kitchens and cookbook recipes). Perhaps most intriguingly, Kamp includes a healthy dose of gossip about the power players on the U.S. culinary stage (it’s no surprise that many of the early food personalities were closeted gay men, but who knew that Chez Panisse was such a den of iniquity). Some hard-core epicureans might not appreciate the seedy stories and non-food-related lore, but I think it adds a human touch to some of America’s favorite culinary icons.

In Kamp’s discussion of American food history, no one is safe—from The Frugal Gourmet to The Food Network, from Moosewood to McDonald’s, from Batali to Boulud—and everyone’s influence on the current culinary state is analyzed. In the end, though, the note is positive—after all, we are eating better and smarter than ever before (despite a still-troubling rate of obesity and other food-related health problems).

Whether or not you agree with Kamp’s conclusions, chances are that you’ll enjoy the road he takes to get there. I wholeheartedly recommend this book—you’ll absolutely eat it up.


How orzo saved my dinner

August 22, 2007
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I looooove rice. White, brown, jasmine, saffron, Arborio, long-grain, short-grain, wild, enriched, instant, or “–A-Roni,” I’m a huge fan of the starchy goodness. I especially dig rice dishes where seemingly random, unrelated ingredients come together to form a cohesive, delicious whole (jambalaya, paella, and risotto come to mind).

After pondering what to serve with last night’s pork loin, I decided to prepare a vegetable risotto. Unfortunately, when I peeked into the cabinet, I didn’t see any Arborio rice—so that plan was right out. I found wild rice, but I don’t usually like it except in soup (which is why I had it on hand). Jasmine rice was available, but I thought it would be too floral for the sweet, oniony sauce in which I had marinated the meat. I had a teensy bit of brown rice, but it wouldn’t have been enough for me, my boyfriend, and our delicious leftovers. Dejected, I scanned the cupboard for a solution when it dawned on me…

Orzo!

Orzo is pasta masquerading as rice, and I had a big canister of it just waiting to be put to use. I boiled it up until it was just past al dente, and then I strained it and let it cool slightly. Meanwhile, I boiled and de-kerneled four beautiful ears of corn; diced and sauteed some garlic, red bell peppers, white onions, and jalapenos; and coarsely chopped some tomatoes and cucumbers.

When the orzo reached room temperature, I added the vegetables and threw in some jalapeno oil, garlic oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and oregano. A few good stirs, and voila! Carby, spicy, veggie-y goodness—yum! It was a great side dish for the pork loin, and now I can use the leftovers as a base for new creations.

I think orzo makes great summer salads, and it ends up being delicious whether heated or refrigerated. Are you a fan of orzo? What’s your favorite rice, and how do you use it?


Dishing about Let’s Dish!

August 14, 2007
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At the beginning of the year, I started eating lunch in our office’s small break room. One of the secretaries chowed down with me, and I noticed that her leftovers always looked and smelled great. When I asked her how she had time to cook (she has more kids and grandkids than I can count), she confessed that she “dished.” As in Let’s Dish!, a rapidly growing chain of retail meal preparation stores.

According to its website, “Let’s Dish! is an innovative store where you can make (or pick up) family-friendly dishes designed to be frozen and cooked when you need them.” Even though many of my colleagues raved about the food and the experience, I was a bit hesitant to jump in. After all, I love to cook—wouldn’t “dishing” be like cheating? I don’t have any kids (unless you count my boyfriend), so I felt like the concept wasn’t really designed for me. Nevertheless, in the interest of investigative blogging, I accompanied one of my officemates to a Let’s Dish! session in Fairfax, Virginia.

The first thing I noticed about the store was its operating room-esque cleanliness. “Wow,” I thought, “my kitchen usually looks destroyed before I’m even done chopping onions.” That is definitely one of the plus points of “dishing”—there is absolutely no clean up. If you spill all over the floor or the table, a staff member appears and takes care of the mess for you. Brilliant.

There are about 15 meal options each month, from which you can choose 4, 8, or 12 in advance. The packages cost $100, $180, and $240 respectively (which works out to $4.17, $3.75, and $3.33 per serving). Each meal equals six servings, and they can be split into two servings of three for smaller families (which is what I did, since it’s just me and the man). All of the meals can be grilled, broiled, baked, or sautéed—there is no microwaving involved. I chose an 8-meal package, and after tying my apron and bandana, I was on my way.

There is one station per meal, and all of the ingredients (which are either fresh or flash-frozen) are lined up logically with an appropriately sized measuring cup or spoon. The instructions are clear, and there are separate recipes for those who want to split their meals. Over the course of about two hours, “dishers” move from station to station (depending on what meals they selected), putting together the ingredients, storing everything in plastic and foil, and labeling the completed meals.

The dishes I chose for my first session were Chicken Casablanca, Frozen Strawberry Margarita Pie, Louisiana-Style Jambalaya, Pasta Pomodoro (vegetarian—I doubled up on this one), Sicilian Tilapia, Spring Vegetable Crostini (vegetarian), and Tropical Shrimp and Noodles. All of the meals were pretty darn easy to put together, and the ingredients were quite impressive in their quality. More importantly, I had a lot of fun and I didn’t have to chop or clean anything. I still wasn’t convinced, though. The real test would be cooking the dishes in my kitchen and then tasting them.

With the exception of the Tropical Shrimp and Noodles (which I knew I probably wasn’t going to dig, since it had mango and coconut in it, and I like neither mango nor coconut), all of the dishes were tasty. Some—like the Chicken Casablanca, Sicilian Tilapia, and Spring Vegetable Crostini—were downright delicious. I couldn’t get over how tender the meats were and how fresh the veggies tasted. The 48 servings of food lasted about two months, so I feel like I found a good balance between cooking from scratch, heating up the pre-made meals, and dining out. The meals that could be cooked straight from the freezer without thawing were wonderful when I ran out of the house without defrosting anything.

Since I was pleased with my first Let’s Dish! experience, I brought my culinarily challenged significant other with me to the next session. We had a great time making meals together, and he was impressed with how good everything looked and smelled. He also commented that, for the amount of food you get, Let’s Dish! is a pretty good deal. This time, we made BBQ Pork Tenderloins, Calypso Chicken with Grilled Pineapple (two of these), Spinach and Black Bean Enchiladas, Design-Your-Own Calzones, Southwestern Grilled Pork Chops with Black Bean Salsa, and Spinach Ravioli (two of these as well). So far, we’ve tried the enchiladas, which were VERY tasty; the calzones, which were pretty standard, but good; the ravioli, which was yummy and spicy; and the chicken, which had awesome flavor and was even better with the pineapple.

In addition to convenience, Let’s Dish! offers a healthful approach—most of the meals have been reasonable in caloric content without leaving me feeling hungry. My boyfriend and I are on a low-fat diet right now, and we’ve been able to choose dishes where the fat content doesn’t exceed the 15 grams that we’re allowed per meal.

While I wouldn’t go to Let’s Dish! more than once every 2-3 months, and while I do still love to cook and bake from scratch, I think the concept is an interesting and successful one. It is nice to not have to think about menu planning every day, and it is wonderfully un-stressful to have certain dishes prepped and portioned in advance. Does anyone else have experience with this type of business? What did you think?


Restaurant Week Hodgepodge

August 9, 2007
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I used to write individual reviews for each establishment I visited during Restaurant Week. However, now that I’ve finished my fifth go-round of the popular dining promotion, I realize that I don’t have enough novel things to say to merit three separate write-ups. Instead, I’ll share the highlights of Summer Restaurant Week 2007, during which I ate two discounted dinners (at Vidalia and PS 7’s) and one reduced-price lunch (at DC Coast).

Best value: DC Coast. To determine this, I added up the regular prices of the food I ordered (or the closest item to it) at each restaurant and then performed various complicated mathematical operations to determine which savings was the greatest. I would have normally paid about $36.00 for my lunch at DC Coast, so the $20.07 Restaurant Week price tag represented a 44.25% discount. Vidalia was a close second, coming in at 43.7%. PS 7’s savings were about 37.4%.

Best service: Vidalia. Our server was knowledgeable and friendly, and he was honest in his recommendations (instead of steering us toward things that would pad his tip). He was there when we needed him, but he allowed us to enjoy our meal in relative peace. Bravo.

Worst service: PS 7’s. Our server was painfully slow and awkward. We certainly didn’t want to be rushed, since we were having a lovely conversation and enjoying the food, but he often disappeared for 20-30 minutes at a time. He left to tend to another table in the middle of taking our appetizer orders, and then he did the same after picking up our credit cards. Worst of all, he was almost completely unresponsive to our friendly comments and questions.

Most upcharges: Vidalia. I counted six there. DC Coast only had one (for the crab cakes), and PS 7’s had none.

Most impressive appetizer: The tuna sliders that my friend ordered at PS 7’s, which consisted of tuna tartare (with lots of cilantro—yum) on Parker House rolls with a spicy miso-based sauce. Lovely on the plate, but even better in my mouth.

Least impressive appetizer: DC Coast’s soup of the day, a chilled cucumber-melon soup with shrimp. Tasty, but way too watery, and the shrimp were a bit tough.

Most impressive entrée: Shockingly, they were all pretty darn good. If I had to choose a favorite, I’d probably pick the pan-roasted rainbow trout from PS 7’s. It was VERY rich, but cooked perfectly (skin on, hooray!) and incredibly flavorful. Then again, the roasted poussin at Vidalia was nothing to sneeze at (the skin was crispy and the meat was tender), and my seared tuna at DC Coast was light and delicious. Well done on all three counts!

Least impressive entrée: My boyfriend’s veal Oscar at Vidalia, though he certainly cleaned his plate. The accompanying gnocchi was, quite possibly, the best I’ve ever had. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a huge veal fan to begin with.

Most impressive dessert: Vidalia’s pecan pie, hands down. So. Good. The peach crisp at PS 7’s was also delicious.

Least impressive dessert: Crème brulee at DC Coast. It was tasty, but it wasn’t mind-blowing, and it was a bit heavier than I’d prefer.

Other notable touches: the peach-chardonnay dressing on my frisee salad at Vidalia (I’d buy it by the gallon, it was so good); the perfectly cooked scallops at PS 7’s; and the lovely caprese salad that accompanied my tuna at DC Coast.

Best overall experience: Vidalia, which should come as no particular shock. The food was beautiful and satisfying, the service was attentive but not cloying, and the inclusion of a special, affordable wine list was an excellent extra (of which I definitely took advantage).

There you have it—DC Coast is consistently good (but not spectacular), I’d absolutely go back to PS 7’s (though I’d request a different waiter), and Vidalia is still my favorite restaurant in the city.

Now, back to my regularly scheduled diet…


Recipe: Low-Fat Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

August 1, 2007
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Banana bread

In my weekly produce delivery, I get a lot of bananas. When they are green, I eat them by themselves, on cereal, or with some granola and yogurt. When they are brown, they do not appeal to me at all. Rather than continue to throw them away, I began my search for the perfect banana bread.

My prayers were answered in a recent Slashfood post. The blogger found the original recipe on another blog, and that blogger got it from somewhere else, and so on, and so on. Since I had all of the (relatively few) ingredients handy, I whipped up a batch a few nights ago. The bread was moist, tasty, and an absolute hit with my hungry (and picky) co-workers.

The only hitch? My boyfriend and I are trying to stick to a low-fat, lower-calorie diet, and the bread–while it doesn’t contain any oil or butter–does have a couple of eggs and a lot of sugar. So, I modified a few ingredients and tried again, this time hoping to create a better-for-you baked treat that tastes as good as the original. Thankfully, my second, healthier batch was indistinguishable from the first in both flavor and texture. Victory!

Those who are unconcerned with matters of the waistline can certainly click the link above to find the original recipe. For the rest of us, here’s my edited version–enjoy!

Makes about 10-12 large slices. Cooking time: 40 minutes.

  • 3 very ripe bananas
  • 1/2 cup Egg Beaters
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat, all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup Splenda for baking
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter or spray an 8-inch square pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, mash the bananas well with a fork or potato masher. Add the eggs, and stir well to combine. Add the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and vanilla, and stir to mix. Add ¾ cup of the chocolate chips, and stir briefly. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and top with the remaining ¼ cup chocolate chips.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.


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