All posts by Claire Walter

Fondue? Fon-don’t

If you go to Tamarack, Idaho, you’ll love the skiing (I did, which you can read on my travel blog) or the golf, rafting, fishing and other activities on the Lake Cascade. But don’t sign up for fondue night. Set in the high-ceilinged Grange function room, the atmosphere is meeting-and-convention, not fondue-and-raclette. But I’ve had really good fondue in a sparsely decorated, modern restaurant in a shopping and dining mall in St. Mortiz-Bad, Switzerland, so it’s not the atmosphere that’s a problem.

Rather than sitting around a table chatting while waiting for a burbling fondue pot to be set in front of guests, this dinner was set up bufffet-style — odd because the Grange’s round tables really lend themselves to traditional fondue. Everyone got in line, cafeteria-style, picked up a large dinner plate, and moved slowly along the table.

First you come to an assortment of very cold vegetables — steamed and then refrigerated broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms and more. Next, you get to three baskets of bread cubes. Then, you reach three catering-service-style stainless steel chafing dishes with a trio of fondue flavors: plain cheese, garlic cheese and pepper cheese. Next is a bowl filled with unappealing chunks of pre-cooked meat (!!!!), with yet another chafing dish of au jus, a bowl of horseradish sauce and some other condiment.

As you slowly work your way through this dispiriting buffet, you load up your plate with veggies, bread and meat and then top it with the hot sauces. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think the cheese fondue might have come from a mix, and I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the provenance of those meat knots. In any case, the formerly hot components are cool by the time you return to the table, which does nothing to warm up the cold vegetables or meat. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s not fondue.

You return to the buffet for dessert, an assortment of fruit (slices of apple, pear, banana; orange segments and strawberries). Take some fruit and ladle out a puddle of hot chocolate sauce onto your plate. Again, I won’t swear to it, but it tasted like warmed-up Hershey’s chocolate syrup. With this comes one (1) glass of wine (Cabernet or Chardonnay).

Bottom line is that none of the “fondue” selections included congenial dipping and sipping, and there wasn’t a fondue pot or a fondue fork in sight.

At present, Tamarack charges $45 for a monthly full-moon ski or snowshoe guided excursion, use of equipment, pre-hike wine and appetizers and a “special” dinner afterwards. It would be a good value if the food is good. Last night’s offering was fond-don’t. I was told that other theme nights are Mexican, Thai and sushi. I don’t know what they are like, but I’d be wary and ask for details.

R.I.P., Sharon Tylor Herbst

When I need to check food terminology, spellings (including accent marks in other languages), definitions or ingredients or cooking and baking techniques (no matter how exotic), I turn to my little bible: The Food Lover’s Companion. Its creator, Sharon Taylor Herbst, passed away on January 26 after battling ovarian cancer for three years. Sadly, the cancer won. I never met her, and yet I mourn her.

The first edition of the Food Lovers Companion took her three years to research and write, and was published in 1990. The three editions printed thus far have sold more than a million copies. I bought two of them for myself and others for foodie friends. The current edition contains nearly 6,000 entries, organized alphabetically, like a dictionary or encyclopedia. Several on-line food sites use The Companion for their definition of terms sections. The fourth edition is due out in September.

Tara Duggan, the reporter who wrote Sharon’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, noted, “Part dictionary, part encyclopedia, the current edition of the book defines almost 6,000 food and wine terms. Many publications use it as a reference, including The Chronicle, for answering such questions as whether to capitalize Caesar salad or what goes into devils on horseback, for which the book provides two definitions. One is ‘wine-poached prunes stuffed with a whole almond and mango chutney, then wrapped in bacon and broiled.'” I sense that Duggan wrote that both with awe and admiration.

Her husband, Ron, wrote The New Wine Lover’s Companion. Individually and together, the Herbsts wrote 16 books on food and drink. They lived in Bodega Bay, CA, in the northern reaches of Marin County, but Sharon was born in Chicago, grew up in Denver and met her husband when they both worked at Denver hotel restaurant. She attended Colorado State University.

Valentine’s Day Alert: Terrific Truffles

Over the holidays, we became the fat and happy recipients of several boxes of candy from several sources. Belvedere, See’s, Godiva all landed under our tree or in our mailbox. Thanks (I think) to Santa and everyone else. Rationing ourselves to just one or two sweet treats each per day, we are just finishing the last of the lucious loot. It has been a great run.

Of all the wonderful candies we ate, the truffles from Joseph Schmidt Confections of San Francisco stood out. Their thick chocolate mantle (milk, to-die-for dark, two-tone) encase a silky smooth ganache. And did I mention that they are generously sized? It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but trust me, this picture doesn’t do justice to the taste of these award-winning treats.

These fabulous truffles are made in the European tradition of fine confections, so it surprised me to learn that although Joseph Schmidt, the man (seen left, relaxing at his desk), was born in 1939, Joseph Smith Confections, the store, has only been around since 1993. In addition to the original retail location at 3489 16th Street in San Francisco, there’s now a second store in San Jose at 356 Santana Row. If I lived within striking distance of either, I’d be the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. But I don’t, but luckily for the rest of us, Joseph Schmidt does ship.

Valentine’s Day is coming right up, and with it, the opportunity to treat someone special to candy and flowers and a romantic champagne dinner, the trio of classic Valentine’s Day indulgences. If you love someone enough to get the very best candy you can, consider Joseph Schmidt’s.

Honolulu Dining Writer Seconds My Rumbi Comment

Back on October 11 — long ago in this blog’s lifetime — I posted my observations on Boulder’s newly opened Rumbi Island Grill, part of a Salt Lake City-based chain, and contrasted it with Rhumba, locally owned and very distinctive. Let’s just say I wasn’t enchanted by the Rumbi “concept” — neither the non-Hawaiian food nor the stereotypical decor.

It was truly gratifying to receive an E-mail from Erika Engle who covers restaurants for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “Inspired” by a less-than-accurate press release about the newest Rumbi down the road from here in Westminster, she devoted today’s column, “TheBuzz,” to everything she finds wrong with the place. In that column, titled ‘Hawaiian, schmawaiian,she took umbrage at the chain’s gratuitous confusion of Hawaiian, other Polynesian and even Caribbean foods and traditions, as did I. She was particularly irked by Hawaii “stereotypes [that] are usually exploited by outsiders with little to no understanding of the cultural and often spiritual origins of Hawaii icons. In other words, they know not what they do.”

Engle quoted some of the observations from my blog in her column and in letting me about it, she E-mailed that “a news release Rumbi sent out ‘raised eyebrows’ in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newsroom,” adding that she came across my blog entry while researching Rumbi. There’s satisfaction in learning that she agreed. She certainly should know.

Denver Restaurant Week Coming Up

Coming up a mere month from now is the second annual Denver Restaurant Week, from February 24 to March 2, 2007. This year, 150 restaurants are offering multi-course dinners for two for the mile-high price of $52.80 ($26.80 for one), plus tax and tip. That’s 59 restaurants more than in 2006. Each restaurant decides what it wishes to include in the offer. Many make up a special menu for the week, and 30 are including a glass or even a bottle of wine for that set-menu price.

Restaurant-goers use it to get a good deal at a pricey place they might not usually try. Some like to have a value dinner at a favorite eatery. Others just feel it’s a way of stretching the dining-out budget.

You can now check out menus of participating restaurants at the website. The Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau has counted and discovered that participating eateries include 21 Italian restaurants, 10 Mexican and Latin restaurants, eight seafood houses, 16 steakhouses, six Asian fusion places, four brewpubs and three Indian restaurants.

Inauguration Dinners, Redux

On January 10, before Gov. Bill Ritter’s inauguration dinner, I posted what I then knew about the festivities. Denver Post food writer Ellen Sweets hovered around the cavernous kitchens of the Denver Convention Center to tell us more. Her story, “Cooking for 7,000,” appeared in Wednesday’s paper. In addition to the Ritter banquet, meals had been ordered for one group of 2,500 and one of 300 meeting there. The convention center’s catering staff plus hired guns from out of town, culinary schools and the occasional retiree who comes in to help for such “monster events” prepared something like 7,000 meals for the Ritter banquet and for two groups, one of 2,500 and one of 300, who were meeting there.

In my earlier post, I wondered what non-meat-eaters would be served. “We usually figure that in a gathering this large, about 5 percent of the diners will be vegetarians,” executive sous-chef Carmen Callo told Sweets. Vegatable Wellingtons were available for them.

The paper also published recipes for the entree (Governor’s Beef Wellington with Cabernet Sauvignon Demi-Glace Sauce) and for the dessert (White Chocolate Winter Wonderland Parfait of Blackberry Swirl Mousse Topped with Biscotti Crunch). Mercifully, the beef Wellington recipe is broken down to serve six and the parfait serve three.

Tasteless Food? Blame Washington

Was I ever happy to read an op-ed piece called “Amber Fields of Bland” in today’s New York Times. It was written by chef Dan Barber, co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a utopian combination educational center, conservatory of natural food and restaurant in or near the hamlet of Pocantico Hills in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

Barber wrote: “Bad decisions about agriculture have defined government policy for the last century; 70 percent of our nation’s farms have been lost to bankruptcy or consolidation, creating an agricultural economy that looks more Wall Street than Main Street. Now, after the uprooting of a thousand years of agrarian wisdom, we chefs have discovered something really terrible — no, not that the agricultural system we help support hurts farmers and devastates farming communities, or that it harms the environment and our health. What we’ve discovered is that the food it produces just doesn’t taste very good.”

Hear! Hear! We are constantly assaulted by advice on “eating right” for good health, longevity, weight management and the like, but the bottom line, for many of us, is that food really does need to taste good if we are to bother eating for anything other than fuel. And food that comes from “food-growing factories,” as I think of them, often doesn’t taste very good.

As Barber sees it, “Who’s responsible for the blandness? Look no further than Washington: There you will meet not farmers, but the people determining how our farmers farm. They do it through the farm bill, a mammoth piece of legislation that designates American agricultural policy every five years and that Congress is preparing to take up in its new session.” This bill, he notes, covers nutrition, conservation, genetic engineering, food safety, school lunch programs, water quality, organic farming and much more. He calls it “a food and farm bill” that “determines what you eat and how what you eat is grown.”

Read his whole piece, and if you care, now would be the time to contact your Senators and your Representative, and perhaps the entire House and Senate agriculture committees, to encourage them to put crop diversification into the equation when drawing up and voting on the next legislation. Let’s vote with our palates. We do it whenever we buy at local farmers‘ markets. Let’s do it as a matter of public policy too.