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.

Boulder Weekly Expands Dining Section

The new Boulder Weekly (January 11-17 edition)– the one with Jimmy Carter Photoshopped as if wearing Palestinian headgear on the front page — debuts an expansion of its dining coverage. In the wake of the departure of long-time restaurant reviewer Jessica Hersh, Clay Fong recently began reviewing restaurants. Judging from his first few weeks on the beat, he seems to favor economical and moderately priced places.

In this issue, a second writer, David Miller, debuted with a lengthy write-up of L’s, the new incarnation of Laudisio’s in the 29th Street development. Fong is more of a reviewer, commenting extensively on the food. Miller is more of a feature writer, having been toured around L’s by Antonio Laudisio himself and quoting the veteran restaurateur, the kitchen manager, a sous-chef, a manager and a hostess. Neither is better or worse than the other; they are just different approaches to writing about restaurants.

What I do miss is the useful nuts-and-bolts information that Jessica Hersh, herself a chef, used add to her reviews until near the end of her tenure: days and hours of operation, whether a place is vegetarian-friendly, whether it is wheelchair-accesible, the upside and downside of the place, and what is noteworthy (a weekly wine tasting, for instance). Neither Fong nor Miller bothers with that. Is it too much work? Do they (or the editors) think that readers don’t care?

The new section, called ‘Cuisine,’ also includes some shorter writeups. For the first issue, which included Fong’s review of a Japanese restaurant called Ichi Ban, there is a bit of background of sushi and sashimi. As a side note, I have observed that when sushi is suggested, many people say, “I don’t like raw fish.” Clarification between sushi and sashimi is therefore welcome.

Other short items include a brewpub review (Southern Sun), a ‘News Bites’ section with brief items of interest to local foodies and a short profile of a wine buyer (John Balliet of North Boulder Liquors) and his recommendations of three sparkling wines.

I welcome more food coverage in the Boulder media.

Best of Times – Worst of Times, Redux

A couple of days ago I cyber-ranted about chain restaurants in general and franchises in particular. Food writers and restaurant critics and I tend to be united in our chain disdain. The fresh-off-the-presses issue of Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly, includes restaurant critic Jason Sheehan’s opinion on the topic.

Sheehan wrote, “Solitudinem fecerunt, pacem appelunt: The legions created a desert and called it peace. Roman historian Gaius Tacitus said that, and though he was speaking of the tendency of the Roman legions to slaughter, then burn and salt the earth behind them, he might just as well have been describing the tactics of big chain-restaurant operators. Theirs is a strategy of total dominance, to move into a new location — a strip mall, a retail development, a community — and become the only Italian, the only pizza, the only Chinese. They win when they have created a desert of taste, a wasteland of unlimited breadsticks where all cuisine comes in a bag and all flavors are decided in a boardroom.”

Sheehan apparently paid more attention in Latin class than I did, and he therefore came up with a more erudite analogy about chain restaurants than I managed. He certainly doesn’t need my nodding agreement to validate his opinion, but I do believe that he’s right on target. Specifically, he praised diners for eschewing P.F. Chang’s near the Park Meadows Mall (one of more than 150 in the country) in favor of nearby John Holly’s Asian Bistro, locally owned by chef John Ye. But for the record, I heartily second Sheehan’s praise.

New Year’s (Kitchen) Resolutions

Shape-up suggestions for the cooking year ahead

In an article on the front page of the food section in today’s Denver Post, writers Ellen Sweets and Tucker Shaw and food editor Kristin Browning-Blas suggested that readers “spend a little energy now to get the kitchen back in tip-top shape” following a holiday season filled with cooking and baking. Their article is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a list of their good counsel — and what I’m resolving to do about them.

Sharpen Your Knives: They suggest having them professionally sharpened now and again — and I’ve done that, now and again. When the Cooking School of the Rockies (now the Culinary School of the Rockies) had a volunteer assistant program, I took advantage of the knife-sharpening services whenever I was working on a day that the truck rolled in. Coincidentally, the Post’s business section recently featured one such service in a front page business story.

Refresh Your Spices: Mine really need refreshing. I do cook through mainstream ground spices and herbs fairly quickly, but some of the exotic ethic seasonings — Indian, Chinese, Indonesian. Thai — linger and linger. In fact, I should probably be too embarrassed to admit that some of my Indian spices moved to Colorado with me from New Jersey in 1988 — but the fact that I am doing so publicly might motivate me to toss and replace them. We have wonderful Asian and Middle Eastern grocery stores, as well as a couple of dedicated spice shops in Denver, so there’s no reason for me to keep these almost-flavorless powders around….except I’m habitually too thrifty to throw them out.

Replace Your Sponges: I do replace them when they get too grody, but whenever they need a bath, I stick them in the dishwasher. The Post writers also suggest nuking them in the microwave as a maintenance tactic, but I’ve never tried that.

Clean Your Oven: I’m pretty conscientious about this, because I hate to bake in a dirty oven. My Viking range’s self-cleaning oven makes conscientiousness pretty easy. While it is self-cleaning, I soak the stainless steel racks in a strong ammonia solution and remove the residue with steel wool.

Toss the Live Stuff: The Post food team suggests replacing baking soda, baking powder, self-rising flour, yeast and such every few months. Of those, I only have baking soda and powder, and I’m afraid I’m not too good on keeping fresh products on hand.

Arm & Hammer in the Fridge: Sometimes a box is in there, but not right now. Thanks for reminding me.

Get Wired: They suggest the availability of music to listen to while cooking. We have a good radio with satellite reception in the next room, which I listen to mostly when preparing a big meal for a lot of people — Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. They also think an Internet hookup in the kitchen is useful. We have wireless networking in our house, so I wouldn’t need a hookup — but I also wouldn’t dare have my laptop in the kitchen. The potential for disaster is just too great.

Can the Jars: The writers remind readers to toss old and unrecognizable items that lurk in the back of the refrigerator. I’m pretty good at doing this anyway, but I’ll go through the shelves again.

Cull Your Cookbooks: They think a cookbook that hasn’t been used in a year or two should be off the shelves. I could no sooner do that than cut off my left arm. I always mark up the recipes that I’ve made, date them and note the changes — and how the dish turned out. I couldn’t part with any of them. Sorry.

Organize Those Loose Recipes: I keep them organized in looseleaf notebooks — a fat one with most of my recipes, one just with Asian and Mexican dishes and a third with Cooking School of the Rockies recipes (plus those from other cooking classes). I treat them like cookbooks, marking them up as I cook along.

Clean Out the Utensil Drawer: I last did this when my son got his own apartment a few years ago and outfitted him very well with extras. I do keep nostalgia utensils, some that were my late mother’s, that I’ve hung on the wall. I use just about everything that’s left.

Wash the Walls: I don’t think so! It might be necessary, but this is not a task that I will take on. I periodically take down the stuff that’s hung on the walls or perched on top of the cabinets, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

Get on Your Knees: The Posters remind us to “give thanks for the good meals you had in the past year and the ones yet to come.” While there, they suggest scrubbing the baseboards. I’m off the hook, because my kitchen cabinets go to the floor, and there’s hardly any additional wall or baseboard showing.

Fight Fire: They also remind readers to keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. We have one, and we’ve fortunately never had to use it. Another reason to get on our knees with gratitude.

Happy, healthy and delicious 2007 to all!

The Perfect Meal

New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote a feature for today’s paper on the mythical perfect meal in New York, in which he fantasized a mix-and-match menu from restaurants all over the city. I’m not going to give this too much thought, but off the top, my perfect Colorado meal from the past year might be something like this:

For the appetizer, chef Kevin Taylor’s remarkable Home Made Soft Egg Filled Ravioli with Ricotta, Parmesan and Truffle Oil, a signature dish served at his Prima restaurants in Boulder and Denver — and perhaps others in his culinary empire as well.

The soup course would be a tossup between The Kitchen’s renowned tomato soup, a signature at this divine Boulder eatery, and the Jerusalem artichoke soup at Mel’s in Denver that was as gorgeous as it was delicious.

The best salad, hands-down, was the Caesar salad prepared at tableside at the elegant Penrose Room in The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

In addition to flawless, thoughtful and careful service and drop-dead views, the Flagstaff House’s triple-header Ruby Red Trout, King Salmon and Diver Caught Scallop with Crisp Polenta Cake, Shiitake Mushrooms, Leeks and Caviar Butter Watercress Sauce, a one-plate feast, is my entree of choice for ’06.

Dessert is a toughie. Again because it recently passed my palate, the Warm Flourless Chocolate Cake with Ginger Ice Cream, Passion Fruit Creme anglais and Nutmeg served at Boulder’s Black Cat Bistro was a particularly memorable dessert. I actually ordered another wonderful choice but tasted this one, which was even better. Or, the top dessert might have been the Crisp Dark Chocolate Dome with blackberry filling and blackberry sauce (photo right) at Q’s in Boulder’s Hotel Boulderado. A toss-up indeed.
Special mention has to go to the cioccolato caldo con frittelle, a glass mug of of hot chocolate (a blend of French and Mexican chocolates into a dark brew, not thick but extremely flavorful) topped with whipped cream and accompanied by small sugar-coated fritters, sort of Italian beignets. Boulder’s Trattoria on Pearl serves this unusual and totally fabulous drinkable dessert.

I can hardly believe 2006 passed without a visit to Boulder’s award-winning Frasca or to L’Atelier across the street. Both of them would surely have served contenders for every course. For wine choice, I’ll put myself in the capable hands of sommeliers at Frasca, The Penrose Room (or its sister restaurant, Summit, across the street from the hotel) or the Flagstaff House anytime — budget permitting — to recommend the perfect wines to go with the perfect meal.

For more on these and other restaurants I was privileged to try in ’06, go to my website and click on ‘Dining Diary.” Bon appetit!

Christmas Eve – Dinner Menu

I grew up with Austrian-born parents, for whom Christmas was always Christmas Eve. The 25th was always the day after. I have continued thinking of it that way. My husband and I invited a crowd over on the 24th, and below is what we served. I’ll be happy to post any of these recipes if anyone wants them, so just ask:

Hors d’Oeuvres

Cherry tomatoes filled with pesto
Marinated shrimp – Recipe that I once clipped from someplace and have in my looseleaf recipe notebook.
Mushrooms in phyllo cups, baked – An adapted version of the similar hors d’oeuvre I served at Thanksgiving
Home-made guacamole and blue corn chips

Dinner

Roasted Smithfield ham
Braised goose from The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman
Anise-Pear Cranberry Sauce from Sunset’s 2003 Recipe Annual
Roasted winter vegetables using whatever winter veggies were available in post-blizzard Colorado (see my travel blog’s December 23 posting for the strange shopping experience)
Sweet and sour red cabbage from a clipped recipe in my notebook
Vegetarian casserole brought by vegetarian friends

Desserts

Chocolate-poppyseed trifle made with cake from the Viennese Pastry Book by Lilly Joss Reich; I messed up the recipe (too much chocolate, not enough egg whites) and salvaged a hardly risen cake by crumbling it coarsely, adding some rum, and folding in whipped cream and rum-soaked raisins.
Friends brought several kinds of home-baked cookies, chocolate bundt cake and brownies

We uncorked several kinds of red and white wines — some that we had at the ready and others that guests brought — plus harder stuff and non-alcoholic drinks for those who prefer either of those.

Merry and Happy to All.

Fruit Salsa

I’m still working through the gift basket of ripening fruit and so whipped up the following salsa to bring to another party. Boulder continues recuperating from a major snowstorm (see the December 20 and 23 entries on my travel blog), so by the time I got to the supermarket, the shelves and produce bins were bare. Had I been able to buy fresh cilantro, I would have done so just in order to add it to this easy recipe. I bought Terra brand Sweet Potato and Beet Chips and Stacy’s brand Cinnamon and Sugar Pita Chips to dip into the salsa.

Fresh Fruit Salsa

1 ripe mango, peeled and diced
1 ripe kiwi, peeled and diced
1 ripe pear, peeled and diced
1/2 red onion, peeled and diced
Juice of 1/2 half fresh lemon
Grated lemon peel (I grated the peel off half a lemon, the pressed out the juice)
1 tbsp. +/- Balsamic vinegar
Pinch of sea salt

Combine and serve immediately or chill, covered, until ready to serve.

Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.