The Maven

Can life get any better than a sunny day at a tiny restaurant in an obscure  Northern Italian town? Perhaps. I could be cooking. Or browsing the local markets. Or talking history, culture and the price of tea in China with the locals.

Join me as I explore what the world has to offer where food meets culture.

 

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    Monday
    Sep092013

    Twisted path back around to Twisted Fork

    When stomachs started rumbling around here today, I was determined that we weren’t heading out to the usual. As we got in the car, I started with “do ya remember that Twisted Fork place over on Steamboat Parkway?” He did. We had dropped in some months ago, very late in the afternoon … one of those days that simply got away from us with lunch ending up at three in the afternoon. It’s not a time when even the best restaurants tend to be shiny and at their best - and so it was at Twisted Fork on that day.

    I realized then that we had to give them a better chance to strut their stuff.

    When the hostess handed us the menus - and I saw ‘small plates’ and lots of them - my heart skipped a beat. I was born for small plates. Well, actually big white plates bearing smaller portions of delectable culinary artistry. The selection was diverse and well curated enough to take my attention off of the warehouse atmosphere (and not in a good way ) that the Twisted Fork space seems to evoke for me. More on that in a moment.

    Really, I almost couldn’t decide what to try first - but almost afraid to try anything for fear it wouldn’t live up to the wonderfully descriptive listings on the simple one-sheet/two-sided menu. I’m always so pleased to see this pared down style of menu. It makes it much simpler - eliminating the distractions that come with trying to be everything to every customer, focusing on what the chef and staff feel they do best. It tells me that the back of the house has it together, and knows exactly who they are and what they want to achieve. Sometimes the execution doesn’t live up to this lofty standard, but it’s always a damn good start.

    Ron went for the Teriyaki Pineapple burger special. No particular surprises there, but that’s exactly what my husband wouldn’t have wanted. He was slightly perturbed by the mound of lovely fresh arugula that came in place of iceberg - he’s just not a ‘foodie’ in any way, shape or form. As burgers go, he pronounced it ‘just fine’. When my husband describes food, that’s as good as it gets. I usually have to draw him out on the quality of the meat, the freshness of the bun … it was ‘just fine’. He’s a man of few words but a big heart.

    A Teriyaki Burger isn’t something that I would ever order, but it looked pretty tasty.

    The fries were double-fried and perfectly crisp and tasted of fresh potato - the only slip was that they were cold by the time he plowed through the large burger. We pointed this out to the waitress, and she whisked the offending fries away, and fresh, hot fries appeared in a matter of moments. I couldn’t keep my hands out of them.

    I opted for the Tiger Shrimp Tamal with some trepidation - not having a clue how this might translate here in Reno, Nevada. Kudos to the otherwise brusque waitress - she knew the menu and made a decent attempt to describe the dish. Shrimp in a Tamal sauce. Well …. sorta kinda. Might be an opportunity for some additional training in this regard.

    Since it sounded rather small, even for a small plate, I decided to have a go at a cup of the soup du jour: Chickpea and Chicken.

    I was a bit surprised to see nice chunks of chicken, elbow pasta and well … no actual chickpeas. And yet, the distinctive flavor of chickpeas was there in a nicely crafted broth. Stirring around as I slurped, I actually did run across tell-tale chickpea ‘skins’ and a kidney bean. Although there seemed to be a gap between the name and the reality, I have to say this was good soup. Well balanced, if subtle, flavors. Sodium was handled with a deft touch (thanks!). 

    The Tiger Shrimp Tamal arrived and I was really impressed with the presentation. Again, considering where this restaurant exists - not exactly in the fevered edge of the culinary universe, but a stupifyingly bland and inchoate suburban community center - damn… it was really nice.

    As I tucked into it, the good impressions continued to build. The grilled shrimp weren’t overcooked and, tucked artfully into an almost sculptural corn husk, still had a nicely fresh appeal. Hiding inside the corn husk wrapper was creamy, white masa that served as a welcome bit of comfort when drawn lazily through the silky, smooth puddle of garlic cream sauce and drizzle of chili oil.

    Restraint - the sort that comes of experience and skill - came to mind, both with the visual elements and the flavors. In lesser hands, it could’ve gone so wrong, but didn’t in this case. I really look forward to trying several other of their Small Plates in the future.

    Now, getting back to the space itself. Meh. Which is kind of a shame, as the menu has some real ‘date night’ offerings, but you’ll get them served up in a large, dark high-ceiling rather industrial room without the edgy chic … I keep thinking ‘suburban mall land’. Ron did make the comment that it wasn’t ‘cozy’ - which is something I think people might want in the evening while sipping wine and exploring exotic sounding entrees like Kurobuta Pork Shoulder. 

    It’s common to so many similarly located restaurants these days that the human scale gets overlooked in the design. Huge booths require a two-top to sit at the far end nearest servers - begging what the heck you do with the rest of it. Lighting design also seems to suffer - the thought being (maybe?) that dim cool sunlight being reflected off the adjacent large retail building is ‘enough’ to penetrate clear to the gloomy deeper reaches of the restaurant.  Actually, well … not. The large dining room looks hard to fill at lunchtime, so diners appear spread out in lonely islands of hushed conversation. The lively energy that we seek out for one of our most important social rituals - eating - is a fail here. It’s a real shame that the decidedly uninspired interior of Twisted Fork doesn’t live up to the food, instead seeking to reproduce the anonymity of suburbia.

    The prices aren’t bad at all considering the ambitious menu - for lunch we paid $10 to $12 each, which is pretty standard these days. As I hope I’ve said, the execution and portion sizes demand that price point. For us, that means we’ll be there, perhaps, once a week, deferring to other local spots where we can ease in and out for less than a $20 bill, finding a bit more sunny convivial energy and comraderie among familiar faces.

     

     

    The Twisted Fork on Urbanspoon

    Saturday
    Sep072013

    Not Rocket Science: 10 tips for a better wine experience

    My travels in France, Croatia and Italy have completely changed the way I approach wine, having removed a lot of the unnecessary mystery and silliness that seems to surround it like too much makeup on an otherwise perfectly handsome woman. I’ve learned that wine at its very best can be a decidedly low-brow experience, while also celebrating outstanding wine in the appropriate circumstance. You can have it both ways - and cost needn’t be the first consideration.

    Jacqueline discusses the wine selection with the staff at Hotel du Midi, Pierrefort, Cantal, France

    One of my biggest revelations was in learning to let go of the old rules of wine that I’d learned over the years. I’ve found most of them to be either inaccurate or irrelevant chestnuts delivered, like old wives tales, down through the years by people who don’t particularly like wine or haven’t bothered to learn just a bit about it. This includes what red and white wines are ‘supposed’ to go with. Leave that one in the dustbin of history.

    Another revelation came when I learned how to talk about wine. Wine-speak doesn’t have to come with the snootier-than-thou, ‘Frasier Crane’ baggage that scares the puddin’ out of wine neophytes. Loving and understanding wine doesn’t have to equate with only liking classical music and foreign films. Real wine aficionados simply use the terms as helpful shorthand, rather than as a way of marginalizing those not in the Cool-Kids group. Finding a good wine shop - preferably one that offers tastings - is a wonderful way to learn how to talk about wine. Learning the Lingua-Franca of wine will get you to what you really like faster and more effectively. Wine shops with knowledgeable staff can be a huge help, and it’s worth the time and effort to develop relationships with these people - and learn from them. It’s just tough that this learning process might require an occasional Saturday afternoon in a comfy bar chair - staring down a flight of premium reds. Damn.

    So, here’s my take on the top 10 tips for enjoying wine:

    Number 1 - Drink the wine you like with the food you enjoy. Wait, did somebody say that “X wine was a perfect match with Y food”? But you don’t like Y … or X? Move past this thinking.

    Number 2 - When tasting a wine - and you’re just not sure what you should be looking for - my strategy is to look to the staff and say “Tell me about this wine”. Simple. To the point. The knowledgeable staff will probably say something that absolutely resonates with you - and the conversation (and learning) will be off and running! I’ve also found that by asking this simple question, the wine staff are happy for an opportunity to share their knowledge.

    Number 3 - You’re planning a dinner and want to pair wine, so what to do? Decide which is the more important: the wine or the food. If you’re preparing some absolutely takedown gourmet meal with complex dishes, pairing that with a complex wine is a disaster. One or the other will suffer. You can’t have this both ways. So with a simple meal, pair it with a robust, complex or highly nuanced wine that demands attention. Pull out the stops. But with complex meals, keep the wine simple, straightforward and to the point.

    Number 4- More on pairing with food: Are you serving big, bold, robust flavors? Serve younger, more tannic wines with the roast lamb and fatty meats. Save the expensive old wine for meals where they won’t get ‘stepped on’. I’d serve a grand old Bordeaux with a mellow stew or a simple, well executed pasta. Truffles are a classic example of a food that will completely overwhelm some perfectly wonderful more mature wines.

    Number 5 - Preparation is almost everything. The old chestnut of white wine with fish falls flat on its face in most of Europe. They regularly drink red wine with fish. If the fish is being prepared in a tomato-based sauce then, by all means, serve it with a red wine. So in general, mushrooms, tomatoes, wine sauce reductions, veal stocks … all call for red wine. Light, fruity reds will pair very well with your eggplant parmesan. Got pork schnitzel with lemon? Think white. In fact, anything with lemon or other citrus seems to beg for white wine.

    Number 6 - Cheese must be served with white wine. Derp. This one needs to be tossed aside, too. My family and friends in France live, eat and breathe cheese. In the Auvergne, it’s in their very DNA. And most often, I’ve seen it with the house red. In a funny little glass. Serve cheese with wines you like - refer to Rule Number 1. Think of cheese and wine pairing more from the standpoint of how robust is the particular cheese - BIG CHEESES need BIGGER WINES. I couldn’t imagine pairing a Chablis with a big Bleu d’Auvergne. The Chablis would loose. The cheese would loose.

    Number 7 - And speaking of glasses … Yes, it would be cool, I suppose, if we all had the money and cabinet space to house the ‘special’ glasses for each wine type. Here’s the reality: Have a half dozen white and a half dozen red stems. But if it seems right to pour an everyday red into that re-purposed jam jar or bistro glass, then do it. That’s what the French do at home. They kinda leave that fancy-schamancy glassware thing to the restaurants.

    Number 8 - Think thick. Think thin. Thick, fat foods go with thick, fat wines, and vice versa. I’d be careful - very careful - about serving a lovely, light carrot soup with a big, fat Cabernet. Weight and density are two things that you want to consider - more than the color of the wine. A big fat, juicy hamburger… well, you get the point.

    Number 9 - Temperature is important, but probably not in the way you’ve been taught. Wines generally don’t like warmer temperatures. Even the reds will benefit from a little chill - offering a more refreshing experience.  Get over that ‘room temperature’ goofiness.

    Number 10 - Consider the ‘style’ of cuisine. Sometimes opposites attract - as with sweet and salty. Sauternes are a classic with salty cheeses, spicy Asian cuisine, oysters and fatty fois gras. And, j’adore fois gras! 

    Wild Care Rule: Don’t force wine. As in don’t force a wine on people who just don’t enjoy that type of wine - despite all the so-called experts who say they should. Some people don’t like certain flavor compenents. Licorice is one that folks either love or despise. Some folks really don’t respond well to tart or sweet wines. Don’t force the issue.

    My French friends got me to understand that meals are to be enjoyed - the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. It’s about the place, the season, the food ( mais, oui!), the company, the whole joie de vivre thing. Don’t sacrifice any of that for outdated notions of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable in wine. Select the best wine that you can afford. Try to learn a bit of wine lingo, and the qualifyers that make wine one of the best guests a host can invite to dinner.

     

    Tuesday
    Sep032013

    Grilled lamb chops can't be beat, even if you don't like lamb

    If I don’t grill lambchops at least once during the summer grilling season, I consider it a complete wash. Really, they are so good and so simple, why wouldn’t you?

    I’m not sure that premium lambchops are available everywhere in the United States, but here in northern Nevada, where the Basque sheepherding tradition is still very alive and well, we have access to good supplies of locally produced lamb. And yet, you’ll still run into folks that declare they just don’t like lamb! Experience over the years has taught me that they don’t like mutton that has been passed off for lamb. 

    I really learned to cook lamb back in the 70’s when I worked for a Greek in Salt Lake City. He made it regularly and we loved it. Marinating the tiny tender loin and rib chops in a simple preparation of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, Greek Oregano, salt and pepper is all there needs to be on the way to lip-smacking good grilling.

    After I moved to Nevada, I got more comfortable with various preparations - many from Basque sheepherding neighbors. But even the Basque, French and Spanish traditions aren’t that far off from the Greek. A bit of fiddling around with different herbs, and different olive oils is all.

    Sheep in a pasture near my home in Reno

    Lamb can vary in tenderness and flavor, depending on where the cut comes from. I prefer the loin for purely perfect tender and flavorful meat. They’re small, and only provide a few bites, but those are good bites! Rib and leg chops can be a little larger and may be a bit more ‘strongly’ flavored. If you are trying to coax people to enjoy lamb for the first time, then go for the loin cuts.

    Lamb loin chops - which should be at least 3/4 inch thick ( one inch or a bit more is perfect) - cook fast on the grill, because they have little fat. Fast dry heat cooking preserves the tender, moist meat from drying out. That said, be very careful about overcooking these delicate morsels. Err on the side of slightly underdone, then remove them to a warm platter and tent loosely with foil while they reach perfection.

    I also don’t recommend marinating these small cuts for longer than about one hour - actually I believe 30 minutes to be optimal. The flavor of this chop meat is delicate and marinating for longer will result in very little of the wonderful lamb flavor and make it all about the marinade.

    You might think that one dried herb is pretty much like another, but I really do prefer the bright, lemony aroma of the Greek Oregano that I buy online from The Spice House. Another nifty spice to use with these chops is fennel pollen. Used wisely, it imparts an unmistakable fragrant sweetness that can be absolutely heavenly.

    In so far as olive oils are concerned, because we’re talking about quick cooking times, I’d break out a moderately good olive oil - such as the Spanish Nunez de Prado, which I like for it’s ‘grassy’ fragrance and flavor which seems to speak to the fresh nature of the lamb.

    If you’re wondering about wine pairing, then think bright, red fruit - like a Bordeaux, Zinfandel, Cabernet or Meritage.

    P.S. - and if you want to be even more adventurous, consider substituting goat loin chops for the lamb. The preparation and cooking are all the same.

     

    Bon appetite!

    Tuesday
    Sep032013

    Mint Layered Cappuccino, anyone?

    I’m on a quest that began last fall in a coffee bar in Venice. As in Italy. It was late September, a rainy and cold day - we had taken the boat over from the coast of incredible Istria, Croatia for the day. Remind me that I’m over Venice. It’s really a case of you ‘can’t go home again’. Having been there a couple times back in the 70s ( and had a great time!) I thought it would a fine idea to take my husband there. Not. Venice has become an aging theme-park version of itself, with hoards of people that now clog the entrances to anything you might want to see. Think Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond character from the movie, Sunset Boulevard

    It was getting us down a bit, so we opted for a  warm, dry corner in a coffee bar off the beaten path.

    That’s when I had an epiphany - over a rich, dark, lucious dream in a small glass. Mint, with espresso. And, I don’t much like anything messing with my beloved coffee - much less minty green. This was different. The heavens opened up and poured music …. well maybe not exactly. But I’ve decided to try and recreate it.

    First things first, I had to learn to pour a layered cappuccino, which seemed harder in theory than it really is. The first couple were a little less than layered by three as you see above. They were sorta, kinda two fairly distinct layers.

    Not exactly bad for a first try, but not what I was looking for.

    Layering the coffee, steamed milk and foam successfully requires some practice - the same thing that will get you to Carnegie Hall - and a steady hand to drizzle the hot espresso.

    As you probably already know, frothing milk is a pretty simple process using one of those pump frothers that resemble a French Press coffee pot, or the steaming nozzle on your espresso machine. I use the later, on my DeLonghi Magnifica. Holding the steaming pitcher at an angle, I get the ‘whirlpool’ going and slowly move the nozzle from the bottom of the pitcher up through the building foam. It’s hot and ready when the bottom of the pitcher is getting a little too hot for your hand.

    A brisk tap downward on the counter with the pitcher will set the foam layer on top of the hot milk.

    And, of course, you want to have your pretty glassware at the ready, along with some freshly brewed espresso. For this type of presentation, I’ll brew a double shot, strong - for the flavor and to have enough of a ‘pour’ to create the layers.

    The second try came out much better!

    The secret? Slow, slow, slowly pouring the coffee down through the foam cap of your cappucino. I’m guessing that there are differing ‘densities’ going on here. The milk being the most dense, laying on the bottom. 

    I drizzled the coffee using another steel frothing pitcher with a small spout to better control the pour down the inside of the glass. Sure enough, it begins to build right in the middle, while lifting the cap of foam higher and higher.

    I reserved some foam in the milk foaming pitcher to ‘repair’ the little coffee colored drizzle hole, and topped it off to look pretty. With the mint version, I just added the Drillaud mint to the milk before steaming, and then grated a bit of dark chocolate over the top using a rasp grater.

    It isn’t exactly Venice perhaps, but it was pretty darned tasty, and will be just the ticket on colder autumn and winter evenings.

    Saturday
    Aug242013

    Dinner Tonight: Fresh Corn, Anybody?

    I almost couldn’t wait to get this beautiful corn and fat, juicy, sweet figs home from the farmer’s market today. We already had the home-grown tomatoes.

    This is how it all went together for tonights simple, but very satisfying, dinner. The bacon was baked, making it very crispy. The olives and a slice of really good cheese just seemed like a good idea. The butter for the corn was mixed with grated parmesan and a very traditional French spice blend - Epices Rabelais. Tres parfait! But you could use any number of spice blends - Italian, for example.


    Friday
    Aug232013

    What's Up Doc? Carrots!

    Whoops! It was 5:00 p.m. and I hadn’t even had a chance to think about what kind of salad I would take to my MahJong group in an hour. Yikes!. 

    So, I ran out to the garden. Yup. Plenty of the Zebra Stripe green tomatoes - super sweet and tasty. Then I dashed around to the raised bed and started rummaging throught the carrots. This one. That one - nope! Push that one back into the soil. But below, behold what I did get.

    Now for the salad. Hmmmm.

    Oh, yes! I had some spaghetti squash from last nights’ dinner (spaghetti squash marinara). Let’s see - spaghetti squash, red onion, carrots, tomatoes, fresh celery (with the leaves), big Italian parsley leaves and a light vinaigrette.

    Very fast, simple and healthy. Tasty too. And, yes, I had a photo. Somewhere. But tonight is one reason why I love having a garden - it’s like the grocery store in the yard.

     

    Whoops! Here’s the photo of the salad :

     

    I was surprised that it lasted well as a leftover, having retained much of the fresh texture and flavor into the next day for a quick snack. With a bit of good cheese, perhaps a boiled egg, it makes a nice light lunch. I’d even be alright having a good piece of crusty baguette with this - since the simple carbs are at a minimum with this meal.

    Thinking about it afterward, the spaghetti squash would have also been just as nice dressed with a very light pesto based vinaigrette, but note the emphasis on light. Anything heavy will overwhelm the delicate flavor of the squash strands.

     

     

     

    Wednesday
    Aug212013

    So-So SoDo in Reno?

    It has, hands down, one of the best locations in Reno - that isn’t on the river. The wraparound patio dining - on a quiet downtown side street - is something that a lot of other more established restaurants would kill for. The interior is stylish, welcoming and comfortable. The staff is friendly and seems fully engaged and ready to serve. Gee, lots of other people love SoDo - short, I believe, for South of Downtown? They rave about it. Five star ratings on Yelp are like fleas on a dog.

    So, why aren’t we going back?

    Our history with SoDo extends back to its previous incarnation as Hill Street Grill. As problematic as that got toward the end (with one truly “WTF?” moment that we’ll never forget - read about it here ),  I was looking forward to any and all improvements with some anticipation. But repeated visits just haven’t lived up.

    The SoDo menu is pretty solid and nicely balanced, actually. It ranges from Classics - like steak - to European, Latin American and Asian offerings like Coconut Curry Chicken. There’s pretty much something for everybody - which is surely part of their success. While not priced to appeal to budget concious diners, I don’t think their prices are particularly out of line for a fine dining restaurant. Entrees range from a $12 burger to $29 Filet. And, SoDo is one of those places where you can order the burger while your friends order something more swank, without feeling awkward.

    I love to try Pork Belly whenever I see it on menus - and I’ve had some iterations around that were da bomb. 

    When this beautiful plate came out, I was set to rock and roll. And, it came soooo close. But when the menu says ‘Crispy Pork Belly’, forgive me if that’s what I expect. No ‘Crispy’ to be found. No actual pork flavor either. The meat was tender and moist - just completely flavorless. The best parts of this meal were the accompaniments - the polenta was really good, but sorta like going home with the Miss Congeniality sash.

    Ron asked the waiter about the Jerk Chicken, and to his credit, the waiter seemed quite knowledgeable and eager to explain the preparation and portion size, and that it might be a bit on the spicy side. No faults with the waitstaff. They were on top of it. I even went on to expound on the wonders of Jerk seasoning in more detail. When Jerk is good, it’s heavenly. So when Ron later started tucking into his entree, I waited to see if extra mouth-cooling sips of wine or water were happening. It looked pretty darn yummy from where I sat - and being sort of disappointed with my own meal, I was wondering how I could gracefully snag some of this.

    “How is it? Spicy? Too spicy?”

    “Actually, not spicy at all. I can’t really figure out what makes this different from any other chicken with BBQ sauce.

    We seemed to be developing a theme that night. Flavor : missing in action. The chicken was perfectly cooked - juicy and tender but it’s like they forgot to season it. You can’t not season meat and then hope to make up the deficit with strategically drizzled sauce. It doesn’t work like that. The whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts. Layers of flavor that work together harmoniously. I just love good Red Beans and Rice - it’s one of the comfort foods I grew up on in Miami. But again, I began to hear the strains of “I ain’t got nuthin …” when it comes to flavor.

    Great venue. Great menu. Decent staff. Nice wine selection. Beautiful plating. No flavor. “There’s no ‘there’ there” came to mind.

    Damn! 

    I wish that I could just say that this might have been an ‘off night’, but I’ve had three ‘off night’ experiences in a row at this place. And it’s getting to me. And my wallet. If we’re going to spend $50 to $75 for a dinner out, I’d like some sort of reasonable expectation of liking it. Most of the time.

    Maybe some diners can be content with the atmosphere, their companions, the wine or whatever. But some of us are there for the food. Food first. A lovely, well appointed restaurant without food that is flavorful - whatever the price - could just as well be my kitchen, which is more convenient and nice to look at too.

    At least the wine was good.

    Sodo Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

    Wednesday
    Aug212013

    When is too little just too much? Cafe DeLuxe.

    We try to get out of our restaurant ruts at least once a month - so the other day we wandered a few blocks off Reno’s happening Midtown area to try Cafe Deluxe - housed artfully in the renovated 1940’s era Deluxe Laundry building on Wells Avenue and Colorado River Street. We’re both big believers in rehabing old buildings for new uses, as it preserves the character of urban spaces while providing sorely needed distance from the homogenized corporate sameness of modern American city life. So, we’d both been looking for any opportunity, so to speak.

    With Ron driving, I was checking out their website on the ipad - and getting all happy over the familiar favorites like egg salad and BLT sandwiches. 

    The location of Cafe DeLuxe is nicely central, and not terribly difficult to get to. The first problem, however, was parking. It was kind of confusing to see No Parking signs all along the Colorado River St side of the building. I’m assuming these spaces are allocated to other inhabitants of the building’s loft spaces. We found a spot on the street pretty easily and strolled into a very well designed interior that evoked the charm of back-in-the-day diner layered with pleasantly functional booths, tables and counter space. It didn’t come across as the usual cheesy take on the 1950’s. We’re all so over the Johnny Rockets thing and poodle skirts, right? Please?

    The interior filled with natural light, is open and very inviting, and had a nice buzz of activity with a manageable hum of conversation that didn’t preclude our having a nice converstion. Being able to have a conversation - and hear each other - shouldn’t be an exception to the rule, but seems to be these days.

    We were seated promptly, and a young lady came over and took our drink order while we studied the limited menu. I say limited in a good way, however. It’s time for too many restaurants to step back and focus, maybe, on doing fewer things really well.

    Let me say that I LOVE KALE SALADS - and was excited to see it on the Cafe DeLuxe menu. My favorite version of this, in Reno, was Cafe Fresco on McCarran and Longely Lane. The salad was large ( but we’re talking greens after all ! ) and savory, with shaves of parmesan, a light dressing and some freshly house made focaccia to go with. They were happy to fry up an egg and add to the jumble for me. I’m writing in the past tense for a reason - it seems they’ve closed. Doesn’t surprise me, but that’s another story - and it had nada to do with the quality of their food or the portion sizes.

    Here’s what a Cafe Fresco Kale Salad looked like - and the sauteed mushrooms on it, in addition to the shaves of parmesan were Umami swoon heaven:

    The Cafe DeLuxe server told me that the $4.50 salad was small, but I’d noticed that a side scoop of quinoa was available for $2.00. It seemed reasonable that the whole grains would add the additional substance needed. Maybe not.

    Anybody who knows me, will tell you that I have a particularly small appetite. I am a light eater, no question. And salads are my game. But this was a case of too much of a ‘good’ thing. And, when I say good - it was really tasty! The dressing of fresh lemon, olive oil and salt was just right. It was all very fresh and ight. The quinoa was also really nice. The slices of avocado - nice.

    It was all really tasty but not enough even for this bird! The salad was in a diner sized ‘oatmeal’ bowl - I know dinerware as collectible dinerware has graced my kitchen for nearly 30 years. And as you can see, the Cafe DeLuxe Kale Salad was not exactly brimming over with leafy goodness. And, I would say that the quinoa amounted to about a third of a cup. Pairing this with a half sandwich might have been the answer, but the server didn’t suggest that.

    As I write this, I still can’t believe that I’m complaining about too little food. 99% of the time, it’s the other way around. Sheesh!

    Then we come to the BLT for Ron. His family and friends will probably be willing to testify, under oath, that the BLT is one of his major food groups. He seldom goes a week without - year round. The man knows a good one when he sees - and tastes - it.

    Here we go again. The bread tasted homemade, and that should be a good thing. A very good thing - especially for a $5.00 BLT. But we’re talking small slices. Not toasted. Shouldn’t BLT’s be on toast? And, the same as another Yelp reviewer - where’s the bacon? Ron shook his head as he munched. Sad, he said. “It’s really quite good but the presentation was totally lacking, and well, it’s very small.” I did notice that Cafe DeLuxe offers the option of adding avocado or a fried egg. Maybe coulda, shoulda.

    And just a half of a strawberry? Really? Seriously? We love the BLT’s at Peg’s Glorified Ham ‘n Eggs. And the BLT at Lakeside Bar and Grill. Both come with a side of your choice - fresh fruit cup, cole slaw, macaroni salad. For about the same price.

    It’s probably obvious to one and all by now, that for something so simple as a humble BLT, grilled cheese or egg salad, we won’t be making the trek into town to Cafe DeLuxe - when ‘just as good, maybe better’ is closer.

    Here’s what separates the ‘men’ from the ‘boys’ in the cut-throat world of restaurants: attention to the small things. The details. You know … where da devil lives. I can understand Cafe DeLuxe wanting to provide a meal at a price point that targets a broad cross-section of patrons in these, um, difficult times. The whole idea of a diner serving up the old familiar favorites, re-imagined, is a great idea in the Midtown/Wells area - and I want to see them succeed. But they really need to work out some of these issues of portion size and attention to details like presentation.

    Additionally, the servers could be helping both the patrons and bottom line by doing some selling. I was actually sitting there, waiting for Ron to finish, wishing like heck that I had just a little something else.As we paid and left, I noticed some baked goods by the cash register. Maybe coulda, woulda. An attentive, well-trained server might have seen an opportunity here - if only for a larger check and tip. As it was, we stopped by Whole Foods on the way home for an espresso and a mini-gelato.

    When Fred Lee, Jr. of Peg’s, and Cesar Aranas of Lakeside can bring these type of items onto a menu with their (just no other way to say it, guys!) … ‘penny-pinching’ ways born of decades of success in food business - then I think Cafe DeLuxe can do better.

     

    Tuesday
    Aug132013

    Staying fit and trim: It isn't rocket science.

    Just happened across this ‘fine print’ at the bottom of the Vichy pastilles website:

    Yeah, I know … it’s small. So, here it is bigger:

    For your health: avoid picking at food between meals, do not eat too fat ailments, eat at least 5 fruits and vegetables per day and have regular physical activity.

    1- Yes, the folks at Vichy need a better translator.

    2- Go try and find similar verbage on any American snack or candy website.

    Bravo, Vichy. Bravo.

    Now, you might have a better idea of why the French - generally speaking - don’t look like what I saw in the Las Vegas airport the other day. In fact, I’ve never … never, seen a person even approaching this size in France, or any other European country. Hmmmm.

    Okay, now I can go back to ordering some candy.

    Sheesh.

     

     

    Monday
    Aug122013

    Saint-Nectaire cheese? From Whole Foods? Peut-être. peut-être pas.

    I couldn’t believe my eyes today at the local Whole Foods. There before me was cheese labeled St Nectaire Berger du Dome. Quoi? Serait-ce vrai? Really? 

    Hmmmm.

    The wheels in the cheese case seemed rather small, and light colored. But I thought, perhaps simply indicative of a very young cheese. Could there be other differences? Tasting, and a bit of research, told me all I needed to know.

    You should first know that I’ve gotten to know real Saint-Nectaire cheese quite well - my French digs are just down the road from the village of Saint-Nectaire where the cheese hails from. And, of course, it is sold in prodigous quantities in every farmers market - from village to town - across the Auvergne region of France.

    The wheels of cheese in Whole Foods looked nothing like these mature and tasty wheels (my photograph) being sold at the farmers market in Champeix, France, around the corner from the little apartment at Petit Rue de Beauregard. The mystery deepens.

    For a bit of background, Saint-Nectaire is considered by many to be among the truly great French cheeses. Saint Nectaire is an Appellation d’Origine Protogée (AOP) semi-soft, washed-rind, cheese from the mountainous region of Auvergne, where the residents value their cheese somewhat more than their wives, husbands and lovers. Cheese - sigh - really does trump all in the Auvergne. My arteries will agree.

    This cheese is made from the milk of cows that only graze in this same beautifully lush region. The smell of a mature Saint Nectaire has been characterized at something between straw and damp basement. I’ve seen websites that say you’re not supposed to eat the wonderful rind of Saint-Nectaire. They should’ve sent the memo to the people who live there. The walnut flavored rind is the best part of a grand and mature Saint-Nectaire, especially when paired with a good fruity Bordeaux.

    I thought that all Saint-Nectaire came like these lovelies, but not so. There are, apparently, two types: the farm variety and the ‘dairy’ variety. Ah! The lightbulb comes on. That’s what this Whole Foods cheese must be! I got it home, and let it sit out on the countertop for a couple of hours before dinner. And since I had a perfectly wonderful white Burgundy open in the fridge - I thought I’d be in for a nostalgic treat. A little bit of France in Reno, Nevada. Meh. Peut-être pas. Maybe not.

    The cheese was so young that it lacked any real flavor or character. Bouncy to the bite, too - whereas a mature Saint-Nectaire is much softer, and more elastic. In fact, when left out at room temperature, it should almost flow. This cheese was not going there. 

    See the sign in the cheese? Saint-Nectaire Fermier? Farm Saint-Nectaire. Not dairy version.

    I carefully wrapped the ‘dairy’ version of Saint-Nectaire up in a cheese paper, and put it back into my cheese drawer of the fridge. I’m going to try and give it some time to become something that more closely resembles a true Saint-Nectaire Fermier.

    In the meantime, I suppose that I’ll need to send myself another ‘care package’ from Champeix when I’m back there this fall. It doesn’t look pretty by the time it gets to Reno, Nevada - but oh la la! It tastes divine and smells like the gates of heaven. Oh, BTW, the other wedge you see? That’s a Cantal from the same Auvergne region - and is a cow’s milk pressed cheese similar to farmhouse Cheddar. This particular wedge is an entre deux - one that is more mature, and more assertive in aroma and flavor. The way I like it.

    Yes, this is the same cheese from the source in Saint-Nectaire - after a week in a shipping box. I just took it out - ah, the aroma! - and placed it on wire racks for several days. Turning it often, the rind dried out and it became, once again, a delightful cheese full of French character.

    So, I guess that, in the end, if you really want to try a French cheese of character, you might sample a bit of the Whole Foods dairy version. But just remember, much like the young Camembert’s and Brie’s that are in the supermarkets here, they are very young, immature and pale comparisons to their older selves.

    C’est la vie. Use your imagination.

    Cheers.

    Sunday
    Aug042013

    SFChefs: A Tasty Gallery of Delights

    Oh, my my my. What a swell time it was. We blasted over the great and beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range from Reno, Nevada to the foggy and much cooler San Francisco Bay for a total foodie experience. Was it ever.

    I’m talking the SFChefs Festival.

    About two hours in, I told friend, Peg, that I simply could. not. eat. another. bite. I was done. Sated. Stuffed. Burp. All I could handle was sips of water. And, it was freaking FREE - I won the two tickets from Taunton Press, the publisher of Fine Cooking magazine. Who says you never win those things!

    Here were some of the best bites that the San Francisco restaurant, bar, wine, spirits and culinary scene has to offer. It’s all rather a blur now, so I’ll just load up some photos - with a few comments - and you can browse. If you have questions, ping me.

    Peg and I signed up for the DIY Cocktail Mixers session on the 36th floor of the Grand Hyatt.

    Yes, you can get all Popular Science for the bar. This was about using a cream whipper to make flash flavor essences.

     

    And a nifty way to get clear ice cubes

     

     We’re having fun now!

    These were the most succulent, meaty pork bites on a soft bun. Love. Love. Love.

     

    I could have easily done another one of these - the anchovy was killer, but the sformatino of sweet pepper was just lucious.

    Little cups of brittle candy - with tiny bits of cured pork embedded in it. Gawd.

    Seafood everywhere you turned. Fresh salmon, sushi bites, clams ….

    About every third tasting, I needed a more vegetable option to rest up … these were heirloom tomatoes with incredible artisan cheese and some other stuff that was tasty. I can’t help it. It was impossible to keep it all straight.

    The guy whipping up Shave Ice delights with Campari products was a real happy showman. Everybody was having a blast!

    I chose well - Roasted Cantaloupe and Campari Shave Ice with fresh mint. Just what I needed at this point.

    The folks from Chambord had these incredible tiny cupcakes dusted with gold. OMG.

    Waffles with pulled pork. You decide.

    This sweet corn bisque with cream fraiche from Palomino Restaurant and Bar was a standout. I could’ve slurped much more.

    And the deals for local eateries - and drinkeries (?) - were many. 

    Truffle Caramel Corn? Yup. Grab an extra for me on the way out, please!

     

    Sunday
    Aug042013

    Spirited websites for the tipsy amongst us

    Really. I don’t actually drink all that much anymore. Not like ‘back in the day’ (is that phrase becoming annoying now?). As I approach my 60th, I’ve simply found that I don’t process alcohol that well anymore, and it does have a negative impact on my waistline - as much as I’d like to believe otherwise.

    However.

    Every once in a while, sipping a well-crafted cocktail is just the right thing to do at the moment. And, sipping one that is made correctly, with attention to the details (“what this Manhattan needs is well, bitters?”) is the ‘only way to fly’. 

    As it was at @SFChefs in, of all places, San Francisco, yesterday. First we attended the DIY Bar Mixers module - strategically located on the 36th floor of the Grand Hyatt, with a tipple-worthy, dizzying view of Coit Tower and the Bay. Friend, Peg, and I kept nudging each other, whispering “gotta try that!” The idea of flash infusion using an iSi Cream Whipper was a winner. The possibilities extend well past the bar. I might never have wanted to try this myself, had I not actually seen it done - it’s bone simple. iSi infusion is technology that easily comes into the average kitchen.

    SFChefs presenter, Camper English, has a fascinating blog, Alcademics. He captured my attention with the blog post about Aperol, one of my favorites since becoming familiar with it in Istria last year. I’ve discovered a couple ideas on there which I intend to apply not to alcoholic libations, but instead to confiture. And, that’s all you’re going to hear until I work it out in the kitchen. 

    Having been a long-time fan of bitters, I recently discovered Bittered Sling. The beauty of their site - and they come from a culinary arts background - is the fusion of bar and cuisine. Bitters work magic in both arenas.

    There are many great cocktail, spirits and drinking related websites out there to keep the most ardent tippler intrigued for at least a month or two. The list below is hardly the last word. If you know of one that I’ve left out, then shout it out, please, but I will probably not include those sites that don’t seem to post regularly - or at all anymore. And, I won’t include sites that are primarily sales and advertising oriented. Wine sites aren’t featured here - that’s another post.

    A Dash of Bitters

    Art of Drink

    Beer Advocate

    Bourbon Dork

    Cocktailians

    Craft Beer Muses

    Diffords Guide

    Drink Spirits

    Imbibe Unfiltered 

    GazRegan

    Intoxicologist

    Intoxicated Zodiac

    Liquor.com

    Looka!

    Ministry of Rum

    The Cocktail Circuit

    The Santa Fe Barman

    The Liquid Muse

    The Rum Howler

    Whiskey Advocate

     

    Monday
    Jul292013

    Foodie Weekend: Now I need a palate reset.

    I’ve been nibbling on plain green salads, scrambled egg whites, and lots of soda water with lemon, the last few days. After the last week of ‘damn the torpedos, and don’t look at the prices’ fine dining experiences, both my tummy and taste buds need a bit of TLC. But, oh, it was grand.

    Last week, we started off toward Truckee, California, with reservations at Chef Jacob Burton’s well-regarded Stella. In the tradition of ‘best laid plans of mice and gluttons’, our plans were upset by a mudslide on I-80 that closed the westbound lanes of traffic. Sadly, I called Stella to offer our regrets. According to them, were the second group that evening to be waylaid by a sudden Sierra downpour.

    We played ‘blank look contest’ for a couple moments before friend, Frank’s, face lit up. Fourth St. Bistro. A quick call, and yes, they had a table for four. Whew. Tragedy narrowly averted.

    Thursday nights are Burger Nights, featuring the delectable Niman Ranch beef. And my better half, Ron, didn’t disappoint. After nearly 35 years together, yes, he ordered the burger. The element of surprise - at least in the food aisle of our marriage - is over. I went for the Niman Ranch lambchops, while Doris got the scallops, and Frankie Boy ordered the pork loin. We decided that a cheese plate and some pork belly would make a toothsome starter. And, it certainly was. 

    Some may say that bacon is the highest calling of pig meat. I disagree. It’s gotta be braised pork belly. And, I have to say that the Deconstructed Pork and Beans at Adele’s appetizer is one of those truly succulent, swoon inducing pig meat dishes that I can tuck into, with a side salad, and perfectly satiated. I’ve also had it at Moody’s Bistro, in Truckee, as part of their winter menu, and it was very toothsome, to say the least. The pork belly at Fourth St. Bistro runs a close second. The beautifully browned, lightly smoky portion was, perhaps, too much for one diner (even me) as their main protein, but for those in our party (who’d never tried it) to have a couple of nice juicy bites, it worked well.

    I thought that ordering the cheese plate as a starter was weird, but blame France for that. It should come later in the meal - ideally, just before dessert, or even as the dessert. But our party thought differently. However, it was nicely done, offering a well chosen - if limited - selection. Again, I have to remind myself that cheese plates are, perhaps, a new-ish concept in most American restaurants. Time and experience will help chefs find their way in this regard.

    Okay, people who dine with me: You have to give me a chance to get photographs. That’s the rule.

    Fortunately, my hubby ‘gets it’.

    I was able to pull my self away from my own meal long enough to take a couple nibbles. That’s what good American beef is supposed to taste like. Sweet. Juicy. Long on complex meaty flavor. I suppose the potatoes were good, since Ron inhaled them.

    Doris let me have a taste of her diver scallops and they were really lovely - impeccably fresh, plump and cooked perfectly, nestled in a bed of risotto.

    Fourth St. Bistro delivers a tasty product on a consistent basis, and that’s a nice thing for Reno, Nevada. Fourth St. Bistro was in the vanguard in offering locally sourced menu items. Is it still standout? Well … probably not anymore. I have a feeling that a bit of fresh thinking might be in order. And, some better attention to visuals - like plating of food. My lamb chops were really yummy, but notice that you don’t see a photograph here. I have one, but I’m not sharing.

    One part of the visual element might be the lighting in the dining room - it’s mostly supplied by the front window, which affords a view - but overall it seems dim and unfocused, and affords a shadowy view of one’s meal. I think this could be an opportunity for them. However, for a nice dinner with friends, or a date night, you’re going to get your money’s worth and have a very pleasant experience at Fourth St. Bistro.

    The next evening found us in Mill Valley, California, having dinner with our daughter and son-in-law, and our nephew-the-big-time-chef who was in the area on business. Really. He was. It was a serious buying trip with the photos to prove it - in the lettuce fields of California. There are a lot of places to go, but last minute ideas tend to mean you’ll be aced out of some of the choice spots - in this case, the fall-back was a winner. Piazza D’Angelo is one of our favorite Italian restaurants in the area, and one that I’ve written about before.

    The photo above is my Branzino with seasonal vegetables and yes, those are edible flowers. Branzino, also known as Barramundi, is one of those fish that I would love to love. If I could find a place that could prepare it. Problem solved - Piazza D’Angelo did a smackdown job. This was not just beautiful to look at, but absolutely delicious. The vegetables were the best possible supporting players - each hitting the right notes as strong ensemble players. The fish, roasted, was perfect - all tender inside a crispy skin.

    The service at Piazza D’Angelo is always top-notch. Our server on this evening was an attractive young woman with a charming Italian accent, who seemed to capture our mood right away. She recommended the special pizza as a starter, and it was scrumptious. I don’t remember there being any left on the platter.

    Yes, there were edible flowers on the pizza, too. Normally, I see this in restaurants and consider it either an annoying conceit, or a gimmick designed to divert my attention from sub-par food. Not in this case. The Chive blossoms really added to the whole - which included some savory anchovies. The crust didn’t have too much char, but just enough. It was thin crust in the best tradition.

    We inhaled this Caprese style salad with house made Burrata cheese - which seems to be the rage in so many Italian places these days. The only reason this didn’t get a 5 star rating? The less than ripe sliced tomatoes. But, on the whole we snagged every last bite, bathed in a basil infused olive oil and a drizzle of chili oil. In fact, there was a bite left when the waitress tried to retrieve the nearly empty plate, but Robert was quicker than she was.

    As always, we ended the meal, as is only correct, with a creamy espresso. Piazza D’Angelo uses the very best espresso beans from Graffeo in the city.

    Just when you think that you’ll never want to eat again (Ha!), the next day dawns in Marin County. The fog layer kept trying to spill over Mt. Tam, and we left the house about lunch time, each thinking that “yes, should probably be taking a jacket”. That’s the way it is in the Bay Area. Are you too hot in the summertime, then go to the Bay Area to get cooled off. Too cold in the wintertime? Go to the Bay Area to warm up.

    I asked my son-in-law, Michael, where we were headed, and he gave me that Cheshire Cat grin. 

    “Farmshop.

    Oh! Oh! Oh! I’ve been wanting to go there!” sez I.

    Yeah. He knew. We’ve been talking about going to Farmshop, at Larkspur Landing, across from the Ferry Terminal, for the longest time, and actually, the plan for Friday night was for dinner there. Reservations are needed …. two weeks in advance. Yikes! But today was a perfect opportunity for dining outdoors on the sunny patio.

    Like so many of the ‘serious’ restaurants these days, the menu at Farmstore has the following reminder:

    Cellphones, tweeting and emailing have proved harmful to other diners appetites. Please refrain.

    I love that. It’s not a bad thing to occasionally, and gently, remind people that we are there for a) the food, and b) to enjoy each other’s company. I have a dear friend who thinks nothing of actually calling somebody across the country at the table and then having a conversation - just to ask a simple question that could have been looked up later. If it were anybody else, I’d get up and leave her to her conversation.

    That said, I sometimes feel a little exposed taking photographs of food. I try to be quick about it and stay out of everybody’s way. But such is the responsibility of a food blogger. I mean, would this post be half as good without the pictures?

    It’s even more difficult to restrain oneself at Farmstore. Every damn thing on that menu looked good. No, not good … great. And once we got our food, we soon found that everybody’s else’s food was outstanding, too. I can see this is going to require many future trips to Farmstore.

    While we were waiting for our meals, Michael kept nudging me to go inside and take photographs of the swell exhibition kitchen to send to the young professional chef of the family. And it was advice well taken. It’s a very well-oil choreography that goes on in this stunning kitchen. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

     

    The premise is truly ‘farm to fork’. This isn’t a gimmick. We’re talkin’ the real deal. The origin of each item is known and communicated through the menu and the servers, so that I really felt like I was back in France - where the provenance of wine and food is so highly valued. Here, the French concept of ‘terroir’ - as a sense of place and the unique characteristics of place - comes through clearly, speaking in terms of soil types, weather or climate and topography. The interaction of terroir and climate is broken down into macroclimates, mesoclimates, and microclimates. Up until recently, terroir has been generally used when talking about French wines. Increasingly, however, the term has been expanded - as in France with the AOC (Appellation de Controlle system) - to food products such as cheese, olive and other oils, tea and coffee, and more.

    I welcome this when it’s used authentically - as it is here at Farmshop. The farmlands of California, and particularly of the Bay Area, truly are a hodge-podge of very distinctly different micro-climates. And, for foodies who can slow down long enough to enjoy the tasty ride, the perceived differences, as they are expressed on the plate and on the palate, can also be quite distinct.

    A perfect example? The Harissa and Honey Carrots, with Medjool Dates.

    This isn’t a terribly difficult dish to replicate at home, with heirloom carrots out of Whole Foods. Your home version, or mine actually, will be very good. But it won’t taste the same. I could have made an entire meal off of just these alone.

    There are many other great dishes that we tried and loved (and photographed), but these carrots rather sum up the Farmstore experience. If you really want to figure out what this whole locally-sourced, farm to fork thing is all about, and taste it at its ultimate expression, make a special effort to get to the Farmshop.

    You won’t be disappointed.

    BTW - If you are able to visit Farmshop, take a cooler and ice. You’ll want to buy some amazing meat over at Belcampo Meat at the Marin Country Market. And, give yourself time to wander around. It’s worth an afternoon.

    Cheers.

    Farmshop Marin on Urbanspoon

    Friday
    Jul192013

    Brat Hans Chicken Patties: Smoke, Mirrors and Deception

    The other night, my better half decided that we like the Brat Hans Chicken Florentine patties. I was sort of there before him - they are convenient, fast and easy to prepare, and taste pretty decent. You might ask, then, why is she hedging. Why the ‘sort of’?

    Brat Hans ‘review’ on one of the many ‘coupon mommy’ websites

    At first, it was just a matter of the 20% of our daily sodium in one 150 calorie patty. It’s not the end of the world as we know it, but we’re trying to keep it under 10% in line with the new thinking in nutrition and health circles. So, here’s where Maven becomes Meddler.

    I decided to send a little nudge to the Brat Hans company, and tell them their product would probably be just as good with less salt, and that - with changes in formulation - I might be inclined to buy the product on a regular basis, rather than as the occasional ‘treat’. Imagine my puzzlement when I couldn’t find a Brat Hans company, but just a Facebook page that hadn’t been posted to in ages. Huh? What’s that about? My further searches for a Brat Hans company website only turned up so-called reviews on *‘coupon mommy’ websites. 

    We like to think - although most of us know better, and choose to ignore it - that all the lovely products on the shelves in your local Whole Foods, or other high-end grocers featuring ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ (both ridiculously meaningless marketing words) items, fall into the broad category of food we can trust. As I’ve said, it’s all bushwah. Nonsense. Hogwash. Bullshit.

    Those shelves are lined with a diverse and motley collection of products, essentially mirroring the diverse (and when it’s time for events like Burning Man in the Nevada desert ) amazingly motley collection of customers cruising the aisles. Most are benign. Some are awesome in their goodness- particularly on the vegetable and fruit aisles. And, why should it surprise anybody that some are downright bad. But ‘bad’ - in terms of the fare at a Whole Foods type market - is a relative term and an elusive target. It’s usually just a case of dumbed down, vanity label products with more salt, sugar or fat than should be necessary. It’s how you make money in those unbelievably competitive, cut throat markets. I’ve had my toe in it, and know the score.

    I thought the same was true of the Brat Hans product. But, in reality, not so much.

    When I couldn’t Google an actual Brat Hans company, the internal ‘red flags’ went up. Pretty quickly I saw that Brat Hans was a product in the Coleman Natural lineup. So, off I went to the Coleman Natural website - there is one - with the idea of contacting their people. Easy, right?

    Not so fast. You can’t contact anybody on their website. Huh? So much for ‘Our Values’. Those values must really be about a total lack of transparency. I started tapping around the landing page - at headings that looked for all the world like they ought to be hyperlinks to additional ‘hidden’ pages chock full of useful information about their products. Nope.

    Then I found a little link on the bottom of the Coleman Natural page - just below the bullshit, silicon boob stock photo of a happy farmer family:

    Just another happy small-time American farmer - growing chicken or something?

    See that line - CA Transparency in Supply Chain? Open it up and read all about how Perdue Farms is happy to comply with California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010. Huh? WTF? Perdue Farms? The plot was thickening - with the distinct aroma of chicken shit. They own Coleman Natural, and by extension, Brat Hans.

    The Chicken Florentine Burgers are merely one more way that Perdue Farms covers their fowl factory farm tracks. But wait! Isn’t Perdue Farms just a family-owned and run business? You know, like former Perdue contractor, Carole Morison, who walked away from Perdue in disgust in the documentary, Food Inc? Well, actually no. Perdue Farms makes a very pretty attempt at ‘folksy’, but it’s as fake as … well, the silicone boobs of the coupon moms.

    See the nice cartoon image of the Perdue farmer? Yeah, they’re just that authentic.Respected professor and author, Marion Nestle, Ph.d, on her blog ‘Food Politics’ has even more to say about the dishonesty that seems to characterize the all American folksy, ersatz earnest persona of Perdue Farms and their marketing. She wrote about her response to New York Times reporter, Stuart Elliott’s, request for information on Perdue’s supposed USDA Process Verified label and ‘certification’. Again, it’s silicone boobs. There to deceive.

    As Ms. Nestle said in the New York Times article:

    The campaign “isn’t about safety or health,” said Professor Nestle, an outspoken critic of corporate food. “This is marketing hype.”

    “Food chickens are usually not caged,” she said, and are “fed grain.” Also, the commercials “say nothing about whether they’re fed antibiotics,” she added, concluding, “It’s hard not to be sarcastic about all this.”

    Yup. It’s hard for me not be sarcastic about it as well. And sarcastic about Coleman Natural and Brat Hans. And Whole Foods, the would be standard bearer for all things bearing the meaningless titles of “natural”.

    I won’t be buying any more Brat Hans products. Nor anything with the Coleman Natural stamp.

     

    *Coupon mom websites: websites run by ‘moms’, who are supposedly reviewing products and giving you the real scoop on them, and offering readers ‘special deals’ and coupons for products. Having actually dealt with some of these people as a social media manager, they’re the bottom feeders of social media. They’re as authentic as the silicone boobs they’re using the sites to pay for.

    Wednesday
    Jun192013

    Sodium: The dirty lie of processed foods and food labeling

    While making a quick trip through the grocery store yesterday - missing a couple essential items for dinner - my gaze happened to fall on a large-ish display of a new snack food in the chilled cabinet where the sliced and packaged cheese is kept. Although I’m not a snacker - preferring to eat actual meals - I know that many people are. Curious, I took a look and what I saw didn’t surprise me in the least.

    Disturbingly high sodium levels - among other things.

    Food industry giants have made billions of dollars by making ‘snack’ foods appear healthy or at least benign in their effects on the health of Americans. They have state-of-the-art testing laboratories, staffed with the best food scientists that money can buy - with the single goal of devising faux food components that will keep consumers hooked on unhealthy levels of fat, salt and sugar.

    Don’t believe me? Read Salt, Sugar and Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and New York Times writer, Michael Moss. Moss gained unprecedented access to the world’s largest food companies in researching the book. Once you’ve read this - there will no longer be any question why Americans are so fat and so unhealthy compared to other ‘Western’ countries … and even when compared to many developing countries.

    When Americans ‘snack’ they aren’t eating food. They’re eating the results of a win-at-all-costs business strategy that has actually caused some of their own top executives to walk away in disgust.

    But I digress.

    Here is the ‘nutrition information on this ‘snack’ (tap on the image to redirect to the website):

    This ‘snack’ has 960 mg of sodium. Dietary guidelines for American adults is now recommending no more than 2,300 mg - and 1,500 mg if you are 51 or over, or have any number of diseases like high blood pressure. Blacks are also at higher risk, and fall into this category.

    So, eat one of these ‘snacks’ and you’ve got nearly your entire days worth of sodium. Eat two - they’re actually quite small - and you’re in the danger zone. That’s not counting what else you might have during the day. So what?

    Here’s what the Mayo Clinic says about sodium:

    “Your kidneys naturally balance the amount of sodium stored in your body for optimal health. When your body sodium is low, your kidneys essentially hold on to the sodium. When body sodium is high, your kidneys excrete the excess in urine.

    But if for some reason your kidneys can’t eliminate enough sodium, the sodium starts to build up in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases, which makes your heart work harder and increases pressure in your arteries. Such diseases as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis and chronic kidney disease can make it hard for your kidneys to keep sodium levels balanced.

    Some people’s bodies are more sensitive to the effects of sodium than are others. If you’re sodium sensitive, you retain sodium more easily, leading to fluid retention and increased blood pressure. If this becomes chronic, it can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and congestive heart failure.”

    Most of us just don’t need this additional risk. Especially not for something so tastless as this faux food item.

    Have you been looking for lower sodium products? Like bacon? See if you can guess which bacon has less sodium:

    It isn’t the one touting Lower Sodium (300 mg). The catch? The Hormel product has less sodium than their regular bacon. Big deal. Buy the other brands’ regular product - with less sodium (260 mg).

    You’ve just got to read labels.

    Getting back to label reading- take another look at the label of that ‘snack’. Do you recognize even half of those ‘ingredients’? Do you think those ingredients are anything that you should be consuming?

    And people wonder why we have such high rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and more?

    It’s right there on the label.

     

     

     

    Saturday
    Jun152013

    Picking your fresh corn the right way

    I could easily have titled this: “Stop messing up my cobs!”

    Everytime I watch some well-meaning shopper stripping back the husk on an ear of corn, I would like to explain a couple things to them:

    You’re messing up ears for the next person - by opening the husk you’ve just exposed the tender, juicy kernals to air, which will promote dehydration and tasteless corn. It’s also a nice entryway for bugs and icky things.

    You’ve just given the vendor a cob that he can’t sell. Nobody else will buy it, now that you’ve messed it up.

    And, it’s just not necessary to do that.

    Look, buying fresh corn is actually pretty simple. Select ears that have a vibrant dark green husk that looks fresh - glistening with moisture. The silk coming out the end should be supple, bright and pretty and not dry looking. Finally, choose those cobs that feel heavy for their size, and in comparison to the rest.

    I give the end a gentle pressure around the tip - feeling for fully formed, fat (and that means juicy) kernals just under the husk. There shouldn’t be any ‘give’ or mushy feel. When I feel a cob that seems like the kernals didn’t form all the way to the end, I’ll put that one back - it’s fine, but perhaps for another use besides eating fresh off the grill where looks matter.

    Boiling is the favorite way to cook fresh corn, but actually, I prefer grilling on the BBQ. I think this really preserves the fresh taste.

    Cheers

    Thursday
    Jun132013

    The Stonehouse Cafe: Still the Girls Night Out Favorite

    Wow, I was amazed by the wonderful new website recently unveiled by Reno’s Stonehouse Cafe on Plumb and Arlington. The old website, was … well, old. And, the landing page music got annoying. The revamp is fresh, classy and speaks volumes about the place - elegantly showcasing the elements that make the Stonehouse Cafe such a favorite among locals: spot-on ambiance and quality food.

    The outdoor patio and gardens, at the beginning of the summer season, are so wonderfully thought out - it’s what I wish my urban backyard garden could be. Hmmm. Now, there’s an idea - go to the nursery and show them the Stonehouse website, saying “I want this”. While waiting for the rest of my party Tuesday night, I marvelled over the extraordinary cannas that were in riotous full bloom. Their gardens always make me think of an intersection of French villa and Tahoe rusticity. It’s truly lovely.

    Since, ahem … one of our group has some bigtime allergies, we waved farewell to the patio, choosing a cozy corner booth where our laughing wasn’t going to disturb too many patrons. ;-) Eventually, we got around to actually quieting down long enough to listen to the extensive list of specials which the server recited flawlessly - as always! Of course, Stonehouse has such a great selection of Small Plates, soups and salads, that we could order several different things to share.

    I seem to have Gazpacho on the brain. It’s the same every summer. Chilled soups are a warm weather passion of mine. The Stonehouse Gazpacho is deftly balanced - letting the fresh ingredients sing out clearly. The whole definitely is greater than the sum of the parts in this case. Served with slices of ripe avocado and a couple bite-sized grilled cheesy mini quesadillas - well, it was simply perfect.

    The fresh asparagus appetizer was a huge winner - everybody loved it. They loved it so much, in fact, that fingers got in there before I could whip out the camera to record the generous serving platter filled with fat, tender stalks of green, wrapped in smoky prosciutto, and perched above a creamy cheese sauce. With toasted bread on the side, we’re talking some serious finger food. Darn near ordered another plate of it.

    One of our group went for the grilled veggies and polenta - and of course, we all um, tasted some … sorry, Doris. I don’t think you really got very much of it. But the polenta was creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside, and served as the perfect foil for the savory grilled vegetables - eggplant, squash and peppers.

    The Stonehouse Cafe gets it - and gets it just right - when it comes to feeding a bunch of women who are watching their waistlines, but still want big flavors and creative, well-executed dishes that warrant coming back for again. You can get soul satisfying things like polenta and still feel like you’ve supped lightly and intelligently. You don’t have to go away feeling guilty.

    That is unless you also ate the birthday cake that came to the table - on the house. It was Chef and owner Paul Abowd’s 86th birthday. He’s such a sweet gentle man - and has guided his family in the restaurant business for decades. He has a lot to be proud of.

    Happy Birthday, Chef!

    Bon appetite!

     

    Thursday
    Jun132013

    Oh my, O Olive Oil (and vinegar) gift box is simply Outstanding!

    I’m always on the prowl for a great, unexpected gift for thoughtful friends - like my neighbor that baby-sat my old cat for two weeks while we were in France last month. Sometimes I do spices and herbs, or something from my travels. That’s a little more difficult - we’re ‘non-rev’ airline folks, and travel with the bare minimum of carry on luggage. It leaves very little room for bringing home goodies for everybody.

    That’s why it was so neat to discover that the fabulous O brand of olive oil, vinegars and more has an entire selection of nifty gifts for every occasion on their O Gifts page.

    Having got this one just the other day, I’m still in the process of admiring the box and it’s contents. That’s going to change this weekend, however, as I have ‘plans’ … in the culinary sense. Gazpacho keeps popping into my head now that the summer heat is here. And, could a fruit and veggie salad be just the vehicle for the Orange Blossom Champagne vinegar? Possibly, but then there’s the idea of simply sipping it.

    What? You haven’t sipped vinegar? Really? Then you’ve been missing out. Sheesh, we all have a SodaStream now, and a bit of this in with the sparkling H20 … well, that’s about as refreshing as it gets.

    Here’s the history: drinking vinegar has been around a very long time. Since, well, vinegar was invented probably. Actually, vinegar invents itself - when the sugars are exposed to air. The Babyonians used it to preserve foods, while Greek and Roman soldiers drank it on the march. It’s estimated that vinegar has been produced commercially by various cultures since about 2,000 B.C.E.!

    Drinking vinegar for health has been around since the time of Hippocrates, and has long been reputed to have healthful qualities. I’m not going there. I can only say, with certainty, that some well crafted vinegars are so delicious that I’ve been known to slurp a spoonful while making vinaigrettes!

    Where vinegars really shine as beverages are in ‘shrubs’ - a type of mixed drink that originated back in colonial times. Shrubs have seen a resurgence in popularity with mixologists in recent years, showing up on high toned bar menus. The Chicagoist talks about the renewed interest in Shrubs in greater depth. They are certainly worth your exploration - especially with the availability of great craft and artisan vinegars that are now available. Another one that I can heartily recommend? The Slide Ridge Honey Wine Vinegar from Utah, which is wonderfully sweet and tart all at the same time. If you haven’t tried it - oh, gee, you really ought to.

    But I digress. The vinegar is a delightful late afternoon ‘pick me up’ - especially when you’re trying to avoid caffeine.

    In this case, I plucked a few stems of fresh herbs from the garden - thyme, marjoram, tarragon, mint would all work! - and tucked those into the ice-filled glasses before topping the ice and vinegar off with sparkling water.

    Yum! I nibbled a tasty iced shortbread cookie as I sipped. 

    So, I would suggest adding this on your short list of great gifts - either to order online, or look for in your local foodie stores. Especially if you’re wondering what I might like - should a gifting occasion, um, come along in the future! Wink. Hint. 

    Cheers! 

    Monday
    May272013

    Luxurious coffee nirvana from Graffeo Coffee

    We took a break from shopping in the Mill Valley, California the other day to have a leisurely lunch at Piazza D’Angelo Italian Restaurant. The food is really very good there, and if you’re in the area, I suggest you give them a try - but that’s another post.

    This is really about the coffee that I finished up my meal with.

    Normally, I am a huge fan of Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend for my drip brewed morning coffee at home, and then when pressing the DeLonghi Magnifica into service - long about three in the afternoon - I’ll sip some wonderful Illy. One sugar. And, either a biscotti or a madeleine. Never both. Savored, dipped and nibbled.

    This is what being civilized is all about. it’s not so much about stopping to smell the roses, as it is slowing down to appreciate the luxurious liquor that a fine roasted coffee bean can provide. It’s heady. Sirupy. Sensual. Yes, Illy is rather expensive, I suppose - especially since I love the Illy Brazilian MonoArabica.  But really, a single? Occasionally a double? Certainly such a small cuppa love deserves putting the very best beans forward. No?

    I digress. 

    I have found a new love. Full-bodied. Not bitter. Bold yet silky smooth. Like a velvet glove being drawn lightly down one’s spine. By candlelight. Motioning the waiter over, I had to know what this magical elixer was.

    Huh? Graffeo? Never heard of it.

    That’s embarrassing, since I’m not exactly new to San Francisco. But Graffeo has been right there in North Beach since 1935 - roasting amazing dark, rich blends of Costa Rican, Guatamalan and New Guinea beans. Zagat knew about them, as did Wine Spectator! Sheesh. They positively swoon over Graffeo - gushing things like “best coffee around”, “Number 1 Coffee”, “best beans on the planet”, and something about it being served at the Oscars.

    This Graffeo outfit seems to be what companies like Peet’s used to be about: Family. Passion. Quality. Don’t get me wrong. I still drink Peet’s, but the family finally sold out to a larger company from Europe, and we’ll see what happens as the thing evolves.

    It didn’t take me long to check them out online - and get ordering. And, that’s when I noticed something very interesting - that differentiates Graffeo from all the rest. They don’t ‘do’ flavors. And they don’t ‘do’ every variation and version under the sun - trying to capture every taste and palate out there in the usual coffee marketing strategy. They keep it simple - and very high quality.

    Graffeo does dark, light and Swiss Water Process decaf. Period. They’ll combine some half dark/decaf, half light/decaf - and a 3/4 dark or light over the decaf.

    That’s as far as they’re going, thank you very much. Eight premium choices. If you need more, go get the floorsweep from that Seattle outfit. Come to think of it, I’m burnt out on the surplus of often mediocre choices that companies offer nowadays. Dozens of choices do not necessarily equate to quality.

    Well, I’m looking forward to my first shipment of Graffeo.

    I’ll keep you posted.

     

    Friday
    May172013

    Waste not! Don't toss those leaves. Eat them!

    It drives me a little nuts when I watch friends prep veggies and toss out some of the best parts. In addition to that, just a walk through the produce section in the local grocery store - looking at celery that has lost all the wonderful top leaves, for example - is saddening. All that goodness gone!

    Folks, when you toss this perfectly good leafy stuff, you’re throwing away nutrition, money and a ton of great texture and flavor! Would you rather pay a premium price for fancy designer greens to liven up salads? Hmmm?

    Ask your produce guy to consider not trimming the life out of what goes on the shelves. The leafy tops of celery, for an example, are absolutely glorious as a ‘green’ for salads, soups, tossed into pasta, whizzed into pesto and more. It dries wonderfully to use later on, too.

    As Americans, we’ve learned to like highly trimmed, perfect looking fruits and vegetables, arranged just so in the market. We don’t want to see a leaf out of place. Unfortunately, all that perfection has come at a high cost - and we are the poorer for it, both from a nutritional standpoint, adding to mountains of waste that should’ve been more productively utilized, and robbing our plates of really delicious, interesting foods.

    So the next time you browse through the produce aisle, or the farmers market, or receive your CSA delivery - consider the leaves. It’s a simple matter to harvest them, wash, spin and store them, right along with your other salad greens, spinach, kale and the rest.