‘The Art of Simple Cooking’ not up to Watersian standards?

Oh my! I was eyeing the crisp piles of Waters’ new book at Kramer’s the other day, but P. just sent me this review. This dude just saved me some dough—and I mean that in both the cash sense and the onion-or-apple tart sense. 

But then again, warmed olives…mmm… that idea deserves some research.

Je me souviens

Je me souviens (I remember), the Québec license plates vow. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the province’s largest city and was left with the question of what, gastronomically speaking, I would remember most from Montréal.

Yes, Casa Tapas, with its rustic sangria pitchers, Spanish-French-English-Italian (and maybe Turkish and German?)-speaking waiter, and roses sculpted into the ladies room walls won for ambiance:

sangria

Casa Tapas bathroom

But then again, there was the unique experience of eating a beaver tail, Montréal’s lighter, wholegrain-looking answer to America’s fried dough:

 

beaver tail

 

…And then, of course, there’s the crepes! (This one was a sweet corn and sesame batter with seasonal vegetables, Calamata olives, and three cheeses inside):

crepe

However, I have to say that the winner was the simple name of a dish:

Gâteau Fauxmage*

I didn’t even order it. I just happened to see it on a card marking a raspberry-covered cake in the dessert case at Aux Vivres. So cute, so vegan, so lingui-tastic.

 

Yes, I ventured into a city known for having a rich history and culture and the best strip clubs in the world, and came away with that. Next time I make it there, I may put less emphasis on the food and take recommendations for places like Le 281 more seriously. So keep your eyes peeled and you may see a review of another kind of tasty dish.

*For the non-French speakers, this is a play on gâteau fromage, a.k.a. cheesecake.

Papadzules

Well, I tried that papadzule recipe from a few posts back. I can’t say I was too impressed. The bright green oil never came out of the ground pumpkin seeds (disappointment!) and the overall taste was kinda blah. Maybe I should have trusted my aversion to pumpkin seeds, which I think began with the large amounts of egusi I ate during my months in Ghana.

Luckily, the food adventure was not wasted. For one thing, the ingredients lent themselves to a nice presentation:

Papadzules

I also got out of it the realizations that a) whole roasted pumpkin seeds are delightful, especially when you know you’re supposed to be saving them for a recipe and not snacking on them and b) epazote broth is really delish. I’d use it in place of chicken stock in recipes. To make it, use one large sprig of epazote and a scant half teaspoon salt per cup of water. Simmer together for 5 minutes and remove the sprigs.

I say take with you what you can, my friends — the tasty with the dull.

Eat this book

Foodies! Pack up a few of those exotic spices and find another spot for your white asparagus. Why? Because it’s time to make room on your shelves for a few great books.

Here are some must-reads:

Feast (It’s blowing my mind! How did humans break the rules of the animal kingdom and start sharing food around a hearth? According to Martin Jones, bones and fossilized food can tell us the answers… and wouldn’t you know it — they talk!)

Hungry Planet (A combo of photos and essays. A glimpse into what families across the globe eat in an average week and the food cultures in which they live.)

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (The story of a true foodie pioneer! Hoping to read it soon.)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Can’t wait to read more of this one. I actually bought it. Do you know what it takes for me buy a new hardcover book?? Yeah – the reviews and Pollan’s rep are that good.)

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation (It’s on Ruth Reichl’s “to read” list. Nuff said.)

How to cook like an X

You name the ethnicity, this link will help you cook like… well, someone who cooks in that ethnic tradition. And it’s all veggie!

These are the kinds of dishes I like to tell people about when they ask what vegetarians eat. It’s my theory that we enjoy flavors and food adventures that most omnivores would never stumble upon. So even if it’s just to rattle off a few mouth-watering dishes the next time someone asks you how you survive on “just vegetables,” check it out:

http://www.vegcooking.com/cookwithhema.asp

Imitation crustaceans

I bought a package of frozen vegetarian shrimp in spite of the somewhat hefty price (about $5.50 for 10 or 12 of the pink and white shrimpy looking things) and the recent scares about food imported from China. This was kind of a treat for myself and also a way to satisfy my curiosity. Of all the many versions of cold cuts, chicken nuggets, sausage, turkey, and steak I’ve seen, I had never laid eyes on fake crustaceans. Considering the news about imports with questionable ingredients, I had some hesitation. However, I happen to know that the most fun imitation meat and fish products come from China, and as a wise man once said, “to flirt with danger is to invite disaster, but also the possibility of a tasty un-shrimp pad Thai.” So the package went into my cart. Continue reading

Pancake Challenge: cast iron vs. non-stick

You know that expression, “It ain’t your grandmother’s ____”? As in “This here ain’t your grandmother’s pickup truck”? Well, I have something that is my grandparents’, and it still works just fine for my generation. It’s a cast iron pan. I have two of them, and they literally belonged to the Greatest Generation.

The other day, I decided to make pancakes and thought I’d pit my grandparents’ cast iron against something that really ain’t my grandparents’, namely a non-stick skillet. Which would brown those babies better? Which would give me the fluffiest result? Which would require the least fuss?

I whipped up a batch of basic pancake batter and set up the challenge. I might as well put in a word about pancake cookery, and quick breads in general. Basically, the two things you should avoid like those tomatoes you forgot in the back of the crisper are overmixing and confusing your rising agents. The general idea is to mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another.  Then you put them together in one bowl and stir until just combined.  As soon as the liquid hits the baking powder or baking soda, its limited amount of fizz starts working. If you continue to mix or wait too long to cook it, the thrill is gone. You’ll be left with tough, flat pancakes or muffins or banana bread. So then the next key is to not confuse rising agents, usually baking powder and baking soda. Some quick breads require both, but many only require baking powder. That is milder because it tempers baking soda with other things like corn starch. Unless you have an acidic element in your wet ingredients (buttermilk, fruit juice, etc.), you are probably NOT supposed to use baking soda. It’s harsher and can make your baked goods taste very nasty indeed. Read your recipe carefully!

Back to the Pancake Challenge. So I mixed up my batter, heated up the pans with canola oil until a drop of water sizzled on its surface (allowing a little longer for the cast iron), and poured me some pancakes. Cue Jeopardy music…

pancakes

Both were doing pretty well, though I had to turn down the cast iron skillet after a while so it wouldn’t get too hot. It could then chug along on a medium-low flame. The non-stick kept an even temperature with a medium flame. When bubbles popped on the surface and the sides looked dry, I flipped the pancakes.

Then I gave them some space to do their thing and poked ’em a little to see if they were firm on the second side (that means they’re ready).

pancakes2

Then I removed my little darlings and put them out for inspection.

pancakes3

Alas! They looked the same! You can see here, with the cast iron on the left and the non-stick on the right. Both were golden brown and any deviation from that was due to some overly intent listening to Car Talk. Both were pretty fluffy. I admit I did have assumptions, which for the sake of making me look good I will call hypotheses. I thought that the non-stick would turn out irresistably golden, evenly colored beauties while the cast iron would make tougher ones that had the whole spectrum of charcoal brown to light gold on one side. I thought this would be bitter-sweet, since I don’t like the idea of a chemical finish making my food look nice and I wanted something old fashioned to triumph for once.

As it turned out, I couldn’t pick one set of pancakes any more than a mother can say which kid she loves best. Each had their ups and downs, the downs being that cast iron requires a lot of fiddling with the burner temperature, continually turning it down to keep he pan from getting too hot. The non-stick obviously uses more energy to because it it less efficient, receiving heat and immediately letting go of it again to keep that consistent temperature.

So there you have it, folks–it’s a draw.

Once smitten, twice shuddering

A rule for judging eating establishments: try them more than once before gushing to your friends. I learned this the hard and embarrassing way today. My new policy will be to make two visits to a place to be responsible about my reviews.

For months, I’ve raved about this pizza place in Dupont Circle, having been smitten by a generous (and, to my recollection, very good) slice I had once. It’s a bare bones Chicago-style pizza joint called Alberto’s. Continue reading