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Archive for January, 2008

Many people loathe brussels sprouts because they were force-fed them as a child or because they only know them as a gross, overcooked mess on their cafeteria lunch tray. And sadly, that is probably how most people will continue to encounter them since the vast majority of U.S. production winds up in the frozen section, where larger specimens are de rigeur.

But brussels sprouts really are delicious, and it is the sprouts that are too small to meet processed food standards that are the tastiest. Although all vegetables are better fresh, this is especially true of brussels sprouts. Fresh, they’re nutty, sweet and meltingly tender. Once they’ve been sitting around for too long, they become flatulent and flabby-tasting. I cannot warn you away from most supermarket sprouts strenuously enough. They’re usually too big, which means they’ll have leathery, slightly bitter outer leaves; and packed into a plastic-covered tub that’s been shipped however many miles it is to you from Monterey County, Ca, where most of the U.S. supply is grown.

So if you see them at the farmer’s market, snap them up. They’re quick and super-easy to cook. Here’s how I cooked a batch I got from Phan’s Farm at the Heart of the City Farmer’s Market:

Simple Brussels Sprouts:

1/2 – 3/4 lb smallish brussels sprouts
1 pat butter
1 tsp salt

Cut the bases off the sprouts, then slice them in half. Set them face-down in a shallow frying pan and put enough water in the pan to cover them just over half way. Cover the pan and put over high flame. Once the water is boiling, add salt and lower heat to medium. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and return to pan. Add 1 pat butter and swirl sprouts around in pan to coat. Done!

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but it is official, people. Americans just don’t have a monopoly on crap convenience food.

Yes. Your eyes do not deceive you. That is, in fact, a cheeseburger in a pop-top can, courtesy of the Germans. The ultimate in camping convenience – can’t bring a whole Mickey D’s with you on your hike? Toss one of these in your pack and you’re good to go.

And while we’re on the subject of things that just don’t belong in a single-serving can (and weird shit German people eat), how about this:

Get one! (Not to be confused with “get some”, which would imply that the Germans are selling sex in a can.) This is a trio of single-serving pickles, also in a pop-top can. I mean, maybe that cheeseburger doesn’t come with pickles. So there you go. You can just slice one of these babies up and slap it between the bun and the meat.

I also love the tagline on the can – “The pickle snack from the hometown of pickle fans”. Sounds very surreal. Can you imagine what a walk down Main Street in the “hometown of pickle fans” would be like? “O, Guten Tag, Achim. Vere iss ze neearest PICKL shop?” “Hi, Juergen. Vhy, ze next PICKL shop iss grad um die Ecke – right around ze kornah.”

The Spreewald actually is known for its scenic beauty and excellent pickles, although these days it’s all gone pretty downmarket. Kinda sad that a country so rich with history and culture would just throw it all into a can with a cheesy slogan, but there you have it.

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Is that a turd clone I see?
Image from the Advanced Cell Technology website (the mouse is actually a lab animal and not necessarily a clone)

I’m not going to weigh in on the cloned food announcement from the FDA. Many far more knowledgeable people have expressed their opinions about it here, here, here and elsewhere. What struck me in my daily blog troll was that the two big farmer lobbying groups, the American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union, have strikingly different positions on this issue. The AFB says, “Bring in the clones.” The NFU, on the other hand, calls the decision “troubling”.

That could very well be of extremely minor interest to people who aren’t as nerdy and pedantic about this stuff as I am – but it really made me wonder what could account for the difference. Of course, even though the percentage of the population that farms shrinks every year, there are still about 3 million people working directly in the farm sector – which is clearly not a monolithic bunch.

Still, it does make me wonder.

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WTF?


What happened to “Have it your way”?

What are the good people at Burger King trying to say here? Thanks to the 99 cent bacon cheeseburger, I can pay rent this month and still eat, too! Is this ironic? Am I a dick for thinking that this might be ironic? You know, because I’m an effete culinista, out of touch with the people, not eating the BK and telling people to buy a $15 chuck roast they can’t afford and don’t have the time to cook instead of a $1 cinnamon bun that is both affordable AND easily snarfable?

OK, so I’ll admit that I’d sooner blog about Burger King than actually eat there and that probably makes me an elitist asshole. And to top it off, I took the photo of the ad with my boyfriend’s iPhone! But self-flagellation and acknowledging the parody I’ve become is not the point. The point is that this ad is some weird shit.

Or actually, the point is this: Fast food (and processed food) is cheap. Cheaper than anything I’ve eaten in recent memory. There’s just no denying that. You can have a full meal at Burger King for around $3 if you order from their value menu. That’s a lot of calories for very little money. So hey, why *not* advertise that fact to people who might be interested in a little value?

There are actually a number of these ads around, one of which claims that you could have a meal at Burger King w/ the change you find in your sofa cushions – so maybe even $3 is off the mark. I can tell you that I haven’t dug around in the sofa cushions for change since I was about 7 – and that if I’d found that much money in there, then you can bet your ass I’d have gone to Burger King to celebrate. That, of course, was back when you could “have it your way” and I really, really wished my mom would feed me “real” (read: American) food like Fruit Roll-Ups instead of yucky rice and fish. Now that I’m being called a sadsack who can’t make rent by these venerable burger purveyors, I’m not so sure.

Of course, I *am* fortunate enough to be able to pay rent and not have to eat that crap, but that’s another story.

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I was never much of a playing-with-my-food type when I was little. That was before the age of purple ketchup (alas, that is not me in the picture), Go-Gurt and Lunchables, so maybe I was just lacking in intiative and creativity in the absence of corporate-formulated “kid food”. Either way, I now seem to be going through an extended phase of buying stuff basically just because it looks fun and I want to play with it.

So I picked these mushrooms up yesterday from Far West Fungi, which I’d had in mind because I was going to make steak sandwiches for dinner. Of course, they do have a nice-sized basket of your standard white button mushrooms for $2, but these caught my eye instead. Why buy something that you see every day when instead, you can have a strange fungal mass that looks like a hedgehog crossed with a coral growing on top of a cauliflower?

It turns out that this mushroom goes by several different appellations including: bear’s head, monkey’s head, Pompom Blanc and satyr’s beard, among others. It also has a pretty wide range of different physical manifestations. Of course, if you buy the cultivated kind, you probably don’t have to worry overmuch about that.

The clerk at the store told me that this variety of mushroom tastes kind of like crab, which sounded too good to be true – and it was. It does definitely have a shellfish undertone to it and is not as aggressively mushroomy-tasting as your average button mushroom or portobello. The texture is also softer and juicier; these mushrooms give off quite a bit of liquid when they cook, which could make them a good candidate for mushroom stock or risotto.

Nothing quite as involved and grandiose as stock or risotto was in store yesterday, though. Instead, I just sliced and sauteed them with a little butter and tossed them into what was probably the most pretentious steak sandwich you could imagine: leftover roast beef slices w/ caramelized onions and Braeburn apples, Colston-Basset stilton, the aforementioned mushrooms and some German-style cole slaw on the side.

What can I say? That’s just what we had in the fridge. Not sure if I should be embarrassed by that, or just grateful that that’s the kind of food you can get this time of year in California.

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Every now and again, my weekly stroll through the farmers market gets interrupted by a sighting of something extraordinary that makes me stop in my tracks and think, “holy shit!”. This week, it was yuzu.

Yuzu is something that I’d tasted all my life in a processed form, but had never had fresh. It’s in a lot of Japanese seasonings, most commonly the ponzu dipping sauce served with shabu-shabu and sashimi; and it’s apparently also commonly consumed in Korea in yuja-cha, a honey-laden tea meant to ward off the winter cold.

The ones I bought tasted basically like a cross between an orange (without the sweetness) and a lemon (but without the puckering sourness). A glance through Harold McGee indicated that yuzu is composed of a pretty considerable medley of flavor notes: limonene (citrus), pinene (pine), terpinene (herbaceous), linalool (flowery), sulfur (musky), terpenoids (spicy).

My parents used to impress upon me how hard it is to find fresh yuzu every time they’d crack open a bottle of Mitsukan ponzu (which doesn’t even have any real yuzu in it), so I was eager to snatch up a couple from De’Santis Bella Frutta and try them out. The first thing that struck me about them was their heady, perfumy scent. The second thing that struck me was, unfortunately, how breathtakingly expensive they are – $20/lb (??!!). But my curiosity got the better of me and I bought them anyway.

Now, given that I’d now spent $18 on only a few fruits, I was determined to use every last bit of them. I sent two home to my parents, and then got to work on zesting the rest. The fresh bits of peel work very nicely in tsukemono, where they added a warm citrus undertone to an otherwise mundane batch of salt-pickled turnips. I dried the remainder of the zest for ginger-honey tea, which makes for a nice, cozy brew for the crumby, rainy weather we’ve been having of late. I reserved the juice (of which there wasn’t terribly much) and minced the rind to steep in about 2 cups of soy sauce for homemade ponzu – which is also a great accompaniment for tempura or fried fish in addition to shabu-shabu.

All in all, a decent purchase from my favorite fruit vendors at the Heart of the City Farmers Market (they also sell at the Sunday farmers market at the Civic Center in San Rafael). Can’t wait to see what surprises they’ll have in store next time around! In the meantime, I’ll have to try some other yuzu recipes I’ve come across, like this pork cutlet with yuzu miso and shiso.

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I first came across this extraordinary-looking vegetable a couple of years ago at New York’s Union Square farmers market, attracted by its chartreuse hue and mesmerizing fractal pattern. A sign at the stand proclaimed it to be “romanesco cauliflower”. When I bought it this past week from the Capay Organic store at the Ferry Building, I was told it was a kind of broccoli. I’ve also seen it sold as Broccoli Romanesco, Roman broccoli and Broccoflower. According to Elizabeth Schneider’s exhaustive reference, “Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini”, the consensus among plant breeders is that it’s a kind of cauliflower.

Regardless of what branch of brassica oleracea it most closely hews to, it’s delicious. It tastes like cauliflower, but with a distinct, pleasing nutty quality and a nubbly texture that sets it apart from both broccoli and cauliflower.

I cooked mine two ways – I blanched a batch of it just to see what the unadulterated taste of it was like; and I slow-cooked it in a variation of a recipe from Alice Waters’ new book. While it is very pleasant lightly cooked on its own, slow-cooking it turned it soft and meltingly velvety, which was a nice surprise.

Here are 2 ideas for what to do with this broccoli/cauliflower/whatever next time you can’t resist buying it:

Blanched Romanesco Cauliflower:

Bring 4 c of water to a rolling boil. Snap all the stems off from the central stalk and set aside. Then, quarter the stem crosswise. Salt the water; toss in the cauliflower and cover. Cook 3 minutes, or up to 5 if you prefer the end result to be a bit more tender.

Slow-cooked Romanesco Cauliflower:

1 head romanesco cauliflower (about 1 1/2 lbs)
3 medium cloves garlic
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp bacon fat (optional)
1/2 c vegetable or chicken stock

Cut the cauliflower into 1/4 inch slices crosswise, then mince. Mince the garlic. Heat the olive oil and bacon fat (if you’re using it) in a heavy-bottomed pan and sautee the garlic lightly. Add the cauliflower, stir to coat in oil, add stock, reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid as necessary. Salt to taste.

This makes a really nice omelette stuffing, and is also great over angel hair pasta with bits of bacon or prosciutto.

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