Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Poison Pen

When food journalism turns bitter

During a conversation regarding food journalism I had with a friend recently, the name Gina Mallet came up. Gina Mallet is an Anglo-American who grew up in post-war rural England, moved to the United States and now lives in Toronto, where she is a food writer, restaurant critic and a James Beard award winner for her book “LAST CHANCE TO EAT, The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World” A tome dedicated to the dying art of Haute Cuisine and the taste experience missing from so much food today. Part memoir, part rant. Mallet reminisces fondly of dishes such as Coquille St. Jacques, Sole Veronique and a host of other Escoffieresque concoctions, and takes great pains in bemoaning the fate of our culinary resources. All well and good. However, why are some of her other writings so blatantly contradictory towards many of the sentiments put forth in her book? In an article published in Food Arts Magazine in May 2008 titled “Beware the Neo-Puritans!” she criticizes Michael Pollan for being a political writer who is just one of the critics that is making food a surrogate for everything they find rotten in our way of life, but claims in her book that cookery is being killed by industrialized food production. She also criticizes Alice Waters for making people think that organic food’s real mission is to protest the evils of industrial food, inorganic chemicals, toxins, genetically modified ingredients, which are a devil-driven shortcut to increasing our food supply. She believes that the treatment of animals, factory farmed chicken etc. comes second to taste, poking fun at Jamie Oliver and his campaign to improve the conditions in the chicken industry. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book is one of her favorites. Is it just the recipes and not the philosophy behind HFW’s take on meat production? A huge proponent of genetically engineered foods, synthetic pesticides and McDonalds, she also insists that farmed salmon farmed salmon is consistently better than wild. On one hand she states"I don't want to eat strawberries in January. I'd like to go back to the time when the seasons meant something", then gushes over this statement by her culinary idol:

“Hear, hear added the Queen, Delia Smith, Britain’s Julia Child, told the BBC that the taste of food mattered more than whether it was organic or environmentally friendly. She couldn’t get into the politics of food. The poor and pensioners needed cheap battery chicken. She was skeptical about food miles. She loved fresh shelled peas from Kenya in the winter".

On her blog, she recently took issue with a column by the N.Y. Times food writer Mark Bittman. Here it is Verbatim:

Stocking your kitchen may be controversial....
by Gina Mallet on Thu 08 Jan 2009 02:42 PM EST | Permanent Link | Cosmos
Mark Bittman of the NYT blogged his list of how to stock your kitchen!

He must have a very large kitchen and soooo much time and no weight problem....

Most egregious:

Use only dry beans. He claims they're more economical and better tasting.... Couldn't disagree more. Dry beans take time to cook and are rarely as reliably cooked and goodtasting than when canned. Tiny green Flageolets, chick peas, red beans, black beans.... and of course the cans are easy to keep.

Bittman nixes bouillon cubes. So easy to make your own bouillon, if you have the time. Fact is that chefs use bouillon cubes at home regularly.

OUT: Canned peas (and most other canned vegetables, come to think of it). Obviously Bittman has never tasted the great Cassegrain canned petit pois which is better than any fresh or frozen pea. Canned peaches are a lifesaver and better than fresh peaches picked unripe, their usual state.

OUT Minute Rice or boil-in-a-bag grains. Bittman says stores as many types of grains as you can - who has the space? The bagged mixed grains are a godsend, offering variety on a small and storable scale.

Canned Coconut milk? True it's good in v. small amounts. Unfortunately North Americans don't sell small cans that you find in British supermarkets. Canned coconut milk is very fattening and the lo-cal can tastes of milk of magnesia.

WALNUTS And/or other nuts: but how old are they? Once dried nuts do have a shelf life but you rarely know how old the nuts are when you buy them.

DRIED FRUIT For snacking!!! The drying process removes most of the useful vitamins and nutrients and leaves sugar and calories. Because dried fruit is condensed moreover, it also contains MORE sugar, calories and carbs per gram that its hydrated counterpart! For example, 100 grams of dried apricots contains 238 calories and 53 carbs, while 100 grams of fresh apricots weighs in at just 56 calories and 13 carbs.

Frozen shrimp is "incredibly" convenient. Tasteless too.

Why all the Snarkiness towards Mr. Bittman? Is it because Mr. Bittman, today, is perhaps one of the most respected and well-liked food writers in the business? After reading Mallet’s response to his article, one cannot help but feel a sense of jealousy on her part. She states that “Fact is that chefs use bouillon cubes at home regularly”. This statement is not a fact but comes second hand from a N.Y. Times article that she read. I found this in one of her blog posts from 2007:

“A few years ago, the NYT had a funny article - which of course I can't find now - about how many chefs make their own stock in the restaurant but at home use stock cubes. I picked up a tip - I toss a cube into the water in which I cook pasta and into the water of the vegetable steamer”.
The Irony of this is that it is an article from 1999 by, of all people, Mr. Bittman. ( It is obvious that he has changed his opinion regarding bouillon cubes and, most likely will tell you so.)

In her book she states:

“unless consumers stick up for taste, there won’t be any” (p. 218).

If she genuinely believes that, why be an an advocate for canned foods, bouillon cubes and a host of other dubious crap and bad practices? Why lash out at some of the people who do truly seem to care about taste? And why does the writing, viewpoint and attitude of this person turn my pen poisonous and my writing bitter?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Valentines Day Wine and Food Pairing Dinner

We are now offering wine and food pairing dinners at the Boston Winery. The next one is on Valentines Day this coming February 14th. As opposed to a Valentines day restaurant setting, with cramped tables of 2, serviced by harried, overworked waitstaff, the dinner will be held in a rustic winery tasting room where participants will sit at tables of 10, enjoying the conviviality of friends and wine loving strangers alike. The dinner will begin at 7:00 PM and consist of 4 courses paired with 4 of Boston Winery’s handcrafted wines. During each course Scott Dahill, the Winery’s Sommelier, will give a detailed presentation on each wine served and Chef Mark DesLauriers will explain the food and the reason why it was paired with the accompanying wine.
The menu for this dinner will consist of the following courses and wines:

Mole Poblano Soup, Turkey Tortilla Dumplings
Barbera Syrah Blend

Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Terrine,
Pistachio Gelée
Unfiltered Sauvignon Blanc Prosecco

Raspberry Scented Roast Cornish Game Hen, Wild Rice Pecan Pancakes, Winter Greens with Bacon
Super Tuscan

Warm Chocolate Crepe, Chocolate Mousse,
Strawberry Rum Sauce
Moscotto Canelli

The cost of the dinner is $95.00 per person and includes tax and gratuity.

We are really excited about doing ArtEpicure Cooking School events with this winery. Housed in a pre Civil War stone and brick building, a former nail factory, the Boston winery is a state of the art wine making facility that, in addition to making and bottling their own wines, offers the wine enthusiast the opportunity to create their own fine wine in an authentic winemaking facility. Individuals or groups can sign on to make a barrel of wine and go through the wine making process from start to finish with award winning wine makers from California and Italy. Also, you can just select the grape varieties, participate as little or as much as you would like, or even let them do all the work. The winery offers the choice of American or French oak barrels and a wide variety of premium grapes from Napa and Sonoma.
This is what happens:

Crushing / De-stemming: Scheduled in September and October, you will learn to crush and de-stem your grapes. This is the first step in the start of fermentation.

· Pressing: Following fermentation, you will press your “crush” onsite at the Winery. Prepare and fill your barrels. Your barrels are then stored in their climate controlled cellar.

· Racking: Generally scheduled in January or February, you will learn to remove the lees (sediment), clean the barrels, and top them off.

· Finalization: The final step is usually scheduled in August. It is the filtering, bottling, corking, and labeling. The automated bottling and corking equipment makes this step simple. You will then place your personalized labels on your bottles in this final step.

Please contact the winery for pricing for the wine making program. It does vary depending on the varietal and origin of the fruit. Wines are also available by the case at the winery. To book tickets for the Valentine’s dinner please click here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bean Cookery

To soak or not to soak?
That is the question

While having my Sunday morning coffee I was looking through Diana Kennedy’s book “From My Mexican Kitchen, Techniques and Ingredients” and read her instructions for basic bean preparation:

“I do not agree with soaking beans over night, whether you discard the soaking water or not. To my taste the skins always develop an unpleasant flavor.”

I have always soaked dried beans overnight, so I went to the pantry and grabbed a bag of pinto beans, then followed her instructions. As always, pick through the beans for any stones or shriveled specimens. Then cover with cold water to clean and pick out any chaff. Drain and place the beans in your cooking vessel. She recommends a ceramic bean pot but any thick bottomed pot will do, I used a Le Creuset Dutch oven. Cover with hot water, making sure that it is at least 3 inches above the level of the beans. At this stage she states that some cooks like to add a little lard or maybe onion or garlic. I added nothing at this point. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and cover. Simmer for anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 hours. Age is a factor, the older the beans, the longer the cooking time, so, with store bought beans you can’t really be sure how long they are going to take. Add water as needed during the cooking process. When the beans are just tender add salt to taste and continue cooking until done. There is controversy as to the addition of salt at the start of cooking. Some people believe that it causes the beans to be tough and emphatically avoid early salting. Others disagree and find no difference in tenderness but insist that the beans are more flavorful. Ms. Kennedy waits to add the salt because that is the traditionally preferred method in Mexican cooking but does not find any difference in texture. I have to agree with her. One observation of note that I made during the cooking process was that the unsoaked beans did not produce the gigantic layer of white foamy scum on top that one has to skim off. I emailed Harold McGee and asked him what was up with that? He replied that during the soaking process proteins are dissolved out of the beans and then coagulated during the cooking. This leads me to believe that unsoaked beans would contain more protein and therefore be more nutritious. I haven’t found an answer to that question yet; can anyone reading this provide any information? The finished beans came out with an incredibly smooth and creamy texture and seemed significantly more tender than usual. I will have to try a side by side cooking test, soaked vs. unsoaked to get an accurate opinion. However, I have been sold on the unsoaked method and will not be soaking my beans prior to cooking.

Legumes, (the family of plants which beans belong to) are the third largest family of plants in the world (behind orchids and daisies) and second only to grains in importance to the human diet. Culturally they are perhaps the most significant, as they are the backbone of so many of the heavy hitters of cuisine in nearly every gastronomic region.
Cassoulet, Frijoles Negro, Gigantes Elephantes, Boston Baked Beans, Pasta Fagioli, Bohneneintopf, Hummus, Succotash, etc. When you think about these dishes a distinct, timeless cultural identity, associated with each, comes to mind. It is possible to even buy the correct legumes to prepare these various cultural culinary icons authentically. Localvore it is not, but there is no comparison for the taste and texture of Castelluccio or Puy lentils, Giant Lima beans from Kastoria or French Tarbais beans. If you can’t get them in a local shop many online suppliers have the right bean for the right job and you can expand your global legume repertoire.

So what did I do with my beans once they were cooked? I simmered chopped leeks and garlic in a skillet, in 3 cups of olive oil with fresh thyme and rosemary. I added this to the beans, but only with a half cup of the olive oil. Leaving the remaining 2 1/2 cups in the skillet. I then finished seasoning the beans with a healthy dose of Pimenton de la Vera, chopped flat leaf parsley and a final adjustment of salt and pepper. Next I simmered peas in 2 cups of chicken stock for 1 minute, added butter, olive oil, orange zest, chopped scallions, salt, pepper and 2 cups of whole wheat couscous, stirring, covering and then set aside. I reheated the olive oil remaining in the skillet to 150 ˚ F and placed salmon fillets in the oil, poaching until medium rare to medium, about 3 or 4 minutes per side. I brushed the salmon with Citrus Beurre Blanc and squeezed on a few drops of fresh basil oil. Plate rustically, serve and enjoy. Oh, and the wine? We had this with a 100% Petit Verdot 2006 from Boston Winery, made in Boston with premium Sonoma fruit.