Saturday, February 25, 2012

Something Hot for a Cold Month

Earlier this month, I developed a serious case of The Dropsies. Things have been slipping through my fingers, sticking to my arms as I walk by, flying out of my hands. I've been bumbling through life this month leaving a trail of debris in my wake. Food, dishes, my iPhone, and (much to my chagrin) my favorite lens have all fallen victim to my increase gravitational force. While I am relieved that nothing was actually damaged, the dropping of the lens made me particularly skittish about things, and I decided I needed some time to find my internal balance, so I scaled back on things to give myself time to breathe. I still went to work, fed the cats, watched "Glee", but all non-essential activities were put on hold so that I could regain my grip, so to speak.

And now, ten days later, I have my center back.

Just in time for my counterpart to try his had at what we call Dominican Casserole. This is because the first time we had it was when a Dominican friend of ours invited us over when his family was in town. His mother made this amazing layered dish of plantains, ground beef, green beans, and egg. So when we got a cold and blustery winter-type Saturday instead of the 70-degree early spring the weatherman promised, it seemed like a fine opportunity to try it ourselves.

First, Gareth sliced the plantain and sauteed it in olive oil.

Plantains sauteed in olive oil

While the plantain was cooking, he made what can only be described as a pepper paste. He sliced up some jalapenos and green chilis and used the mighty Cuisinart Smart Stick food processor attachment to puree them with some garlic and white onion and leek. Then he cooked it for a few minutes on the stovetop. I tried some. It was hot.

Why my kitchen smells like mace

Brian Boru exhibits his superior olfactory senses

He replaced the ground beef with some finely chopped choice strip steak. 

Chopped steak

He then mixed the steak with the pepper paste.

Steak and pepper mixture

He transferred the plantains to a baking dish and then lightly cooked some green beans in the same pan with the remaining oil.

Green beans

He then layered the meat and green beans over the plantains.

Layers of plantain and steak with green beans in the background

For the egg layer, he used the immersion blender to combine a couple of eggs with some heavy cream, a spoonful of labne and some salt and pepper.

The egg mixture

He poured the egg over the other ingredients. 

Adding the egg

He then baked it all at 350 for about 45 minutes. It was served immediately and was delicious.

Golden and delicious

And, even though we spent twice as much on our ingredients as our Dominican friend's mother, we are still certain that hers is better, although our was still pretty darn good.


Two news items caught my attention this week, both presenting two very different approaches to weight loss and the obesity health epidemic in the United States. I'll start with what I consider the good news.

Foodista shared a story about Glee's Amber Riley (Mercedes). Lat year she gave up fast food, citing severe stomach pain. She replaced it with healthier food choices and dropped two sizes. If conventional wisdom is correct, that's about 20 pounds. And she looks better for it - not just smaller, but more healthy. And, according to her, that was the point - to get healthy. People Magazine has the full story.

The other story is about a controversial drug that was recently reviewed and re-approved by the FDA after previously being pulled off the market for an array of side effects, including heart problems and birth defects. According to NPR, the FDA reconsidered their previous ruling on Qnexa, stating that, in light of the obesity epidemic, the benefits outweigh the risks. The benefits are an estimated 3-10% loss of body weight. That means of you weigh 200 pounds, Qnexa could help you lose up to 20 pounds. Putting you at 180.

Which is what I weighed when I joined Weight Watchers in 2004. (For the record, I lost 35 pounds in three months using the Points system to keep track of my food and exercise.) As you might guess, I'm not a fan of using a drug when a lifestyle change will result in similar - and possibly permanent - results. Drugs have side-effects. As mentioned above, Qnexa is no exception.

With the re-approval of Qnexa, there are also recommendations for monitoring those taking the drug. These include limiting prescriptions to a 30-day supply and regular check-ups with a doctor. They also include regular pregnancy testing for women of child-bearing age to ensure pregnant women do not put their unborn at risk.

These are all very sensible precautions to have in place for a drug that still has some serious health concerns. But, here's the thing - if we are willing to take such extreme health risks to take a drug to lose weight, why not take the far less risky steps to just alter our eating and exercise habits? As Ms. Riley and many others have proven - it works.

What we weigh and how we feel are directly tied to how we treat our bodies. A steady diet of high-calorie food that contains additional chemicals to establish a consistent flavor that will last through deep freeze, miles of transportation, and a quick turn in the microwave cannot be good for us. If we do not know what's in our food, we do not know what we are putting into our bodies. And, if we feel lousy after we eat, we need to pay attention to that crappy feeling and make some changes. I'm with Ms. Riley. I gave up the crap and never looked back. Obesity has enough associated health risks. Why add to it with a drug that may only result in a 3% weight loss.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Nothing Says Love Like Pate

My faith strives to achieve a certain balance with nature. We cultivate a high regard for life, so when we take a life - whether plant or animal - it is imperative that we do not let anything go to waste as this shows a lack of respect for the life that was taken. My counterpart goes along with this, and as a result, I regularly get home made pate.

Pate is one of those fancy dishes that is actually easier to make than most people realize. It its simplest form, it is liver, flour, brandy, cream, fat, and seasoning. In keeping with the respectful aspects of my faith, my counterpart has expanded upon this basic theme, and now he uses a wide variety of giblets as the base, including turkey, rabbit, chicken, and anything else we have eaten recently. His choices for fat have included butter, bacon, duck grease, chicken fat skimmed off the stock pot, and rendered pig fat. He favors red onion and shallots and garlic along with salt and pepper for the seasoning.

It is also important to note that proper equipment is necessary for making pate. The main objective is to mix everything together into a paste, including the giblets. There will be casualties. Over the years, we've burnt out four immersion blenders and three food processors, and I think an ice blender in making pate. We are now on the mighty Cuisinart Smart Stick, and so far it is holding up.

First, you want to prep your veg - in this case, red onion, shallot, and garlic.



Red Onion

Prepped and Ready

Then, prep the giblets. To preserve the life of your kitchen gear, cut down the giblets into smaller pieces, and puree them in batches, transferring the puree to a larger container as you work.

Cut the giblets into small pieces

Puree them in small batches

And don't forget about the cat

The mighty Cuisinart Smart Stick

Add the remaining ingredients, paying close attention as you go. Pate is one of those things that is made by sight and smell, not by taste. Once you add the cognac, things will start to smell pretty good.

Heavy cream added before moving to a larger container

Separate the eggs as you will only need the yolk

Once things are transferred to the larger container, my counterpart switched to the immersion blender to mix the remaining ingredients. Use the blender to mix in each of the ingredients as you add them.

Mmmmmmmm cognac

Butter is our fat for today

Add a little salt

Add a little cake flour

Add a little olive oil

Add the veg

This is the right consistency

Pyrex or Corning Ware are excellent choices for baking pate. Line them with fat and bacon to help the pate release from the pan with it is done baking. We used butter and pancetta.

Lining the Pyrex

Pour the pate into the pan and bake at 350 until cooked through.


To release the pate from the pan, place a plate over the top and flip it over. Set it down and let gravity work for you.

The pate is releaseing

Carefully remove the pan, shaking it gently to help the pate release. Serve with brie, chopped hard-boiled eggs, capers, and a baguette or water crackers.

Pate is served

Friday, February 10, 2012

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Food Truck Sighting!

This week I was overjoyed to see the return of the GrrChe grilled cheese food truck to my work neighborhood. Turns out, they never really left. Neither have most of the food trucks. They have just moved further west of Central Avenue.

When I spoke with the operator of the GrrChe truck, he told a rather unfortunate tale of two groups who should be supporting each other for the greater good of the community but have a tenuous relationship at best, and sometimes downright hostility - the independent food truck operators who set up temporary shop in various neighborhoods throughout the city and the restaurant entrepreneur working to build a loyal following.

When the food truck rolls into my neighborhood, the block between of Fleet Street between Central and Exeter is prime real estate. There are two large office buildings on that block (including the one that houses my employer) full of corporate America looking for lunch. There is also one of my favorite local restaurateurs - The Bagby Restaurant Group. And it's a challenge to park on that block without ending up right in front of Bagby Pizza. If you were Mr. Bagby, what would you do? If you said "protect my investment", you're on the same page.

SouperFreak spent an abbreviated lunch hour on our block and has never returned. Last time I saw GrrChe, they were also in close proximity to the Bagby building. Now I heard this secondhand, but Mr. Bagby's alleged assertion is that the mobile food truck wins over customers - potentially his customers - without making the same financial investment in the neighborhood. Which is an interesting thought.

Which gave rise to another interesting thought. When I started considering lunch, I first visited the website for Bagby's TenTen Bistro to check the current menu and get a price check on their bison burger. When I stepped outside and saw the GrrChe truck parked on Central Ave, I made a B-line for the truck.

Did Bagby lose me as a customer? No - when I thought of lunch out, i thought of him first and will continue to do so. But why did he lose my business that day? Part of it is the food truck is a novelty. Many of them have a theme (like Haute Dog and the aforementioned SuperFreak) or an eclectic menu (The Gypsy Queen Cafe) that makes them unique. Plus they are mobile so when I see one in the neighborhood, I'm never sure when they will be back. And, with the impending snow already creeping into the air, what I really wanted was a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup. This is not on Bagby's menu. And that's really the bottom line. GrrChe provides something the Bagby doesn't, and vice versa.

I strongly support both in their endeavors. I am also a regular patron of both types of business. I think they provide different services to the city. Their presence means a smaller market for The Cheesecake Factory and Hooters and Chipotle and other purveyors of culinary abominations. I'm sure there are loyalists in both camps, but I'm also sure there is a lot of crossover customers like  me. And, as any restaurateur can attest - people are fickle. I can change my mind in a moment. I did.

So while I continue to contemplate the state of the local food scene, feast your eyes on GrrChe's Grilled American on Sourdough with sliced tomato. It came with a piping hot cup of from-scratch tomato basil soup, a bag of Utz Kettle Crisps and the requisite deli pickle. It was, like my last GrrChe sandwich, cooked to perfection. And the gossip wasn't bad, either.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Bento Lunch Experiment

The bento box has always appealed to me. I'm what's known as a sectional eater. If you serve me a meal of meat, veg, and starch, I'll turn my plate clockwise until the veg is closest to me and will proceed to eat one section at a time continuing clockwise around the plate. I also don't like my food to touch. This has fascinated my counterpart over the years, and he regularly prepares meals to thwart this tendency.

Given this quirk of mine, when I discovered bento boxes,  I felt like there was someone else out there who understood. The entire concept is ingenious - each item unique enough to stand on its own, placed in its own separated section of the box. If I had my way, all meals would be served in this manner.

Recently, through various food blogs, I've discovered the world of DIY bento - websites devoted to photos and ideas for turning standard lunch fare into a bento experience, extending the concept beyond Asian cuisine so that anything can become part of a bento box. This is my favorite food porn. I marvel at the creativity that goes into these lunches. The sheer artistry of the garnishes alone is breath-taking.Today I decided that it's time to give it a try.

My bento lunch is going to have a nice, wintery, Northern European feel. I'm making mini sandwiches that I'm going to pair with a fresh slaw. And I'm going to add a fruit section of tiny Mandarin orange sections. I'll use parchment paper between each section.

Mini Sandwiches

Nothing fancy here - just French baguette and kohlrabi, both sliced thin; mustard; brie; and Braunschweiger made into small, bite-sized sandwiches.


My knife skills are not what they should be for this task, so I am using the not-very-chefy technique of the food processor. The slaw consists of apple, kohlrabi greens, carrot and a little shallot, tossed with some sushi vinegar and a little sugar. It's a little bitter from the greens and the shallot, but the apple and sugar cut this a bit.


This was more challenging than I thought. I wanted to use the parchment paper to create individual compartments inside my Snapware but couldn't figure out how to do this. Once my counterpart realized what I was up to, he was so impressed with the creativity of this venture that he gladly lent an origami-skilled hand.

He made little boxes out of the parchment paper that will keep everything separate and even added little sheets of paper between each sandwich. Here's the finished product.

I can see that I have quite a way to go. While all the flavors should work well together, it's visually out of balance. And I didn't even attempt a garnish. But I did have fun, so I'll keep at it. For some real bento lunches, visit Gamene's photostream on Flickr and check Foodista for a weekly Bento Love posting.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What a Modern Scientific Age We Live In

I grew up during the glory days of the US space program. Born just a few years after we landed on the moon and coming of age during the heady heyday of the shuttle program, my childhood was marked by the changes to everyday life brought on by the technological advanced achieved as a result of our drive into space. My youth saw the an increased popularity of such scientific wonders as Tootsie rolls, Tang, and Teflon simply because they were associated with the astronauts. While Tootsie rolls have remained a unique feature in the US candy market, Tang launched a revolution in the beverage industry, giving rise to a whole subcategory of powdered drink mixes and opening the door for everything from Kool-Aid to Crystal Light. But it has been Teflon that has had the greatest impact, starting a chemical revolution and altering our home lives in ways we never could have predicted.

Teflon was trademarked in 1945 by a couple of chemists and was initially used to coat valves and bearings and seals where friction needed to be reduced. NASA used it on their heat shields and space suits, raising the profile of the product and its corporate owner DuPont. Since then, it has been used on a variety of common household items, most notably water-proof fabrics (like Gore-Tex), stain resistant carpeting and non-stick cookware.

The increasing presence of Teflon in our modern lives has had an unexpected consequence that has been making the news in recent weeks. It turns out that prolonged exposure to the chemical components in that non-stick coating result in an impaired immune system that does not respond to viral inoculations. The research that discovered this connection also discovered that these chemicals are now so widespread in our atmosphere that they can be found in the blood of polar bears. So, how does this happen?

For items like carpeting, every time you walk across the carpeted floor, you weaken the fibers and allow tiny particles to become airborne. You breathe them in, and they enter your bloodstream.

For items like non-stick cookware, the chemicals enter our system through our food. Here's something most people don't know - if you let your non-stick pans get too hot, the lining starts to break down, and the chemicals are leeched into the food you're cooking. Even worse is when you use metal utensils or stack your non-stick pans - you are scratching the finish and allowing particles to break off and enter your food.

So how did non-stick pans end up on the market anyway if they present this health risk? Here's another thing most people don't realize - they come with instructions. I am a fan of the stuff. I think there is a place for Teflon in the kitchen - think omelets, crepes, French toast. These are all items that should be cooked over fairly low heat and under close monitoring - perfect for a non-stick pan that will allow your food to slide nicely onto the plate. If you read the instructions on your non-stick cookware, the manufacturer has let you know that your pan should not be used for high-heat cooking. There's a different pan for that - cast iron or anodized aluminum.

Instructions on Wegman's non-stick frying pans

If you use non-stick bakeware, stop. There's little control over how hot it gets once it's in that oven. If you don't want to grease your bakeware, use parchment paper.

Even if you are cooking at home, the best way to stay healthy is to know and understand what's in your kitchen - the ingredients you buy as well as the tools you use.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Not All Carrot Cake is Created Equal

I have never met a carrot cake I could refuse (see here and here and here). I am also an unapologetic cupcake lover. You may remember my cupcake fixation of last summer and the regular Friday visits to the IcedGems cupcake truck that parks outside my office (see here and  here and here). Part of this weekly habit included lengthy discussions with the IcedGems employee within about the merits of carrot cake. Even though I gave up the cupcake habit several months ago, I walked out to the truck last week with a colleague. And, even though I didn't buy anything, I did pitch my weekly appeal for carrot cake.

This week, my efforts paid off. As I strolled past the truck during my lunchtime outing, I spotted on the menu the long awaited carrot cake.

A few moments and about $3 later (the price was recently increased), I had my IcedGems carrot cake in hand. The guy in the truck let me know that my persistance was one of the reasons for the carrot cake addition. He says that the owners of IcedGems take their customers' options very seriously and value their high regard. I have to admit I find this to be a sound business practice, especially since they decided to agree with me.

Back at my desk, I lapsed into another "bad" habit and promptly wipped out the iPhone to take some photos, and my apologies for the poor quality. It's unfortunate that my current life prohibits me from taking the Canon 7D everywhere. Believe me, I would if I could.

The cupcake was much smaller than usual, but the exterior looked as appealing and promising as always. It was crowned with a perfect dollop of icing and an attractive garnish. I liked that they substituted sprinkles for the more traditional icing carrot, too, for the whimsical aesthetic it presents - very much in keeping with their overall image.

The promise of impending satisfaction

Now, after months of customer devotion to these guys, and a consistent level of satisfaction, my expectations were pretty high. I was braced for a little disappointment when the guy in the truck warned me of the raisins at the time of purchase. Even so, I was not prepared for the sheet volume of raisins - both regular and golden - that filled the cupcake. That, combined with a very coarse grate of carrot, made for a less than satisfying carrot cake experience for several reasons:

  1. All that fruit weighs down the cake batter and prevents the normal leavening that occurs during the baking process. You end up with a short, squat cake that is missing that delectable golden mound of cake rising up out of the cupcake paper. If it's the best part of the muffin, it's certainly the best part of the cupcake.
  2. It also interferes with the texture of the cake and weakens the crumb. Usually when I get a cupcake, I break off the top. This is partly to test the texture of the cake, and partly because it makes it easier to eat. A good cupcake should have a nice separation point just below the mark left by the paper cup, leaving two complete halves. Some crumb is nice, but a crumble is a sign of a dry cake. The IcedGems carrot cake did not want to separate. It took great care on my part to remove the crown without destroying it altogether. This is what too much stuff can do to a cake. 
  3. It mutes the wonderful flavor of what is usually a very nice cake. Similar to the CakeLove carrot cake, the IcedGems carrot cake was just plain overstuffed. Which is unfortunate because they really do make the best cake in town. And the actual cake part of their carrot cake was excellent. It was spicy with nutmeg and cinnamon and what tasted like a hint of ginger and was the most perfectly-spiced carrot cake I've ever had.

There's more raisin than cake

The icing was also spot-on - dense and tangy with cream cheese that coated the inside of my mouth and clung to my teeth as they cried out in agony. This slightly-tart, supremely-sweet icing was the perfect complement to their wonderfully-earthy, perfectly-spiced cake.

IcedGems is still my favorite guilty pleasure. I will continue to bring my coworkers out to their truck on Friday afternoons. As I recover from the endless January flu, I'll probably break a couple of Resolutions and resume my Friday habit.

I'm also quite happy that they presented me with a carrot cake option today. There are few things as valuable as a business that listens to their customers. IcedGems is not only a superlative bakery, but a contientious business and a vital component of the Baltimore food scene.