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Friday, April 29, 2011

Trends in Food

I thought this article was very interesting. I remember when I was younger in the 1990s when being healthy meant eating processed foods that had the label "fat free" on the package. Of course, because people were thinking these items were fat free they ate larger portions than they would normally eat. Also, often more sugar (or corn syrup) was added to replace the fat. I remember Olestra and Snackwells, neither of which ever seemed that tasty or healthy. I am glad that according to that article people seem to be more focused on eating foods high in vitamins instead of just buying whatever has "fat free" on the label. Another problem when I was growing up seemed to be the label "reduced fat", as these items could still be relatively high in fat as long as they had less than the original version of the product.

All around this article has good news, including: "Last year, more than half (55 percent) of grocery shoppers prepared more meals at home than in 2009, approaching a 20-year high" and that "Two-thirds of consumers consider themselves knowledgeable and interested in food". This is also good news: "Whole grain was the most sought-after health claim on packages in 2010, followed by high fiber, low sodium, low fat, no trans fat, low sugar, low calorie, no chemical additives, no preservatives and low/lowers cholesterol".

I think part of good eating is making an effort, and making the decision to care about what one consumes and where those ingredients came from. It may take a bit of a commitment, but it is better to pay the grocer than the doctor. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fun with Rye

 Rittenhouse Rye is delicious. It is from Kentucky. We made a couple of cocktails with it.

 I love this bar whisk I got from Spoon and Whisk in Clifton Park. I used to just shake everything, until I realized what a smooth, luxurious texture you get from stirring Manhattans and Martinis with ice about 30 times. They don't get frothy, and that smooth texture really adds to the feeling of sophistication when it is consumed. First, I made some Old Fashioneds.
 Fill cocktail shaker with ice. Add 1 tablespoon simple syrup, 3 dashes Angostura bitters, 1/4 cup Rye, stir 30 times. Add 3 large ice cubes to an old fashioned glass, and rim edge with lemon twist. Throw twist into glass, and strain Rye mixture into glass. Refreshing, classy, delicious!

Manhattan (serves 2):

It is good to chill the glasses before hand. These were in the freezer, and you can tell by how frosty they look. Fill cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add 1/2 Rye, 1/4 cup Sweet Vermouth, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, and stir well. Strain into the chilled cocktail glasses, and garnish each with a maraschino cherry. Classic, and tasty!

Thank you, Ruth Reichl.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bellini's Italian Eatery

Last night we went to Bellini's in Slingerlands. It was actually the first restaurant that was ever recommended to us in Albany when we met our neighbors around the second day we moved in. They said "it is in a strip mall, doesn't look like anything special, very casual, actually pretty good". And we went and liked it, and went back many more times. Then, when we went last night we noticed they had changed their menu. They got rid of the daily specials (which I had only tried a couple of times anyway). It tasted like they added basil to the bread, which was a nice addition. They changed the pizzas slightly (no more shrimp and tomato, added zucchini to the Rustica pizza, and added an homemade meatball and ricotta pizza among other changes). They seem to have changed their salads slightly. The polenta croutons added to the Di Casa salad were actually really good, and we really enjoyed the dressing on this one too.

Their cocktails and wine list are pretty good. I like that the woman who works at the wine store next door picks some wines that are sold by the glass. I particularly enjoy the Irony from Monterrey, CA, and after trying it here I enjoyed bottles at home a couple of times. Also at Christmas time they do a candy cane martini, which even Scott admitted was good. It is vodka, white crème de menthe, and broken candy canes encrusted all around the rim. It is delicious and I probably made 10 of these at home between Thanksgiving and New Years this year. Last night I had a dirty martini with bleu cheese stuff olives and the proportions tasted right, and it wasn't too salty at all.

Overall, it is not the greatest thing in the world, but it fills a niche for a casual weeknight. I think they are actually pretty skilled though. We had to wait a few minutes for our table, and we got a great view of the wood burning oven. They throw the pizza in with a pizza peel, rotate it around after a few minutes, and shield the cheese for the last minute or so to continue to crisp the crust a little bit more. They were actually really graceful with such a high heat oven (my burn from the last time I made pizza at home two weeks ago is just almost starting to heal completely). I also respect that they aren't afraid of just simple, classic combinations of ingredients like pizza Margherita.  And it is nice that you can order a pizza and get more than one meal out of it, so in that way it is a great value.

The flip side of it being a great value, is that we are usually not hungry enough for dessert. The fact that almost all of their desserts have nuts in them doesn't help Scott with his nut allergy. I don't really want a whole dessert to myself, so unfortunately I can't comment much on that. Though I think I tried the cannolis once, and they were delicious. Overall, casual, reliably tasty, and the pizza seems to have really improved lately (it was a good idea to add the zucchini to the eggplant pizza).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Repurposing Pollan

Most foodies have heard of Michael Pollan's dictum: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Even better is that it inspired this riff by the Awl, which hopes that applying calorie disclosure requirements to alcoholic beverages will work against the "ice cream, chocolate syrup and a spritz of Vodka/peach schnapps" drinks that chain restaurants try to pass off as "cocktails":
Drink alcohol. Quite a bit. Mostly bourbon.
Indeed. Now, if we can just get the FDA to prevent the abomination of drinks with vodka in them being called "martinis," we'll really have something...

Brideorexia

Today I would like to talk about "Brideorexia" as discussed in this article. According to this book "the way we marry is who we are". And I would like to think as a society we are better than expecting young women who are getting married to completely change themselves in many ways in order to make a commitment of love and unity, and to celebrate the merging of two families. This book makes the argument that modern brides freaking out about losing large amounts of weight is related to the much older traditions of bridal fasting(which can be found in several different religions and cultures), and cleansing, including the Jewish mikveh

A woman simply has to change her facebook status to "engaged" to get only ads related to losing weight for a year. I am so used to these ads, that once when Scott was logged into facebook I noticed that he had no ads for losing weight, and I was shocked. I am told it is worse when you change your status to "married" and all the ads basically say "have a kid, have a kid, did you have kids yet?"

In the first article I linked to above it states: "In the 1990s, there were relatively few entrepreneurial pushes to get women to lose weight. Of all the wedding magazines we could get our hands on, we only found one weight-loss ad," says Sobal. "That's changed since 2000. Now there's bridal boot camp, extreme makeovers, and they encourage bridal weight loss. There's a little more pressure by profitmaking groups and competition emphasis on thinness in the bridal community." In this book the author specifically made the choice not to go on a bridal diet, and one of her friends who was already very skinny said that she felt like people expected her to be a on crazy diet, and she thought she would engage in one. Of course, this is the woman's own choice, and the article states that "Such women, who are often already predisposed to developing an eating disorder, may be pushed over the edge by the stress of their impending wedding day, Sacker says."

Although the article states that most of the women who want to lose weight only end up losing about 7 lbs. and do so in a healthy way by eating fruits and vegetables, I really disagree with the expectation that women should be crazy about their weddings in general. The article also states that "dramatic weight loss and malnutrition can reduce levels of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being, while increasing levels of other chemicals that increase stress", which seems unfortunate because it is supposed to be a joyous time in one's life.

"One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding" makes the point that in other times in history the wedding marked a huge change in the lives of the newlyweds, but now many people are mature adults in many ways by the time they get engaged, and so as a society we make planning weddings very stressful to test the couple. One bride interviewed in the book said "If we can get through this we can get through anything".

But why should it possibly be such a miserable process? The woman who was good enough to get proposed to is not the woman who is good enough to walk down the aisle? There was a woman next to me at the salon where I got my bridal hair and makeup trial who said that she had only eaten celery for two months, and she was going crazy about her videographer. I am sure that only eating celery for two months does not help keeping track of a million little details.

Of course it is important to be healthy, but I say if your betrothed really loves you, they'll still say "I do" after you load up on burritos and chips at your Bachelorette party. And I am sure the millions of couples getting married every year will be much happier if they focus on the inner changes of the process of actually becoming married rather than trying to change themselves to resemble models in bridal magazines.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whoopie Pies

I was first introduced to whoopie pies in Brooklyn where they have become really trendy. But now that I work in New England I have a whole other perspective. New Englanders I have met are just as crazy about whoopie pies as they are about fluffernutters. There seems to be some disagreement as to whether whoopie pies are from Pennsylvania Amish country or from Maine (both states claim to be the origin of this dessert). Here are even two different recipes from the different geographic regions. There seems to be two styles, the Pennsylvania style posseses more of a buttercream filling and the Maine style has with marshmallow fluff in the filling. My coworkers refuse to eat whoopie pies that do not have marshmallow fluff. They would consider these not real whoopie pies. My office had a bridal shower for me yesterday, and they ordered whoopie pies from the Big Y in North Adams, MA. They were really delicious. They were huge, and fluffy and had the right degree of sponginess in the texture of the cake. I remember when they were first becoming popular there was this interesting article about the in the New York Times. I just find it interesting though that what is trendy in Brooklyn is actually something that very traditional New Englanders view as an important part of their heritage, so much so that they literally refuse to eat one with buttercream filling.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lunch at Our Desks

I read an interesting article this weekend in the current issue of Every Day with Rachel Ray.  The article is called "What America Eats: The Lunch Edition". It discusses how half of Americans eat at their desks, but according to the magazine's polls one in two respondents eat homemade lunches every weekday, and the amount of women carrying in their own lunch has spiked 33 percent in 10 years. I would say that their polls are probably not that accurate because only a person who is already interested in food will buy a food magazine, but I think the sentiment is important to promote. The article mentions a shift in recent years from people thinking things are healthy simply because they are low in calories or low fat, to them actually becoming focused on the nutrients in healthy ingredients. The magazine polled readers and interviewed industry experts, and learned that respondents are bringing in more frequently fresh fruit, salads, and that men in particular are more likely in recent years to bring in their own sandwiches.

I think these are great trends. I think a lot of the salads she mentions in this article are really interesting, especially ones with ingredients that maintain their crunchiness throughout the morning. I previously discussed a crunchy type of salad I made which held up well for leftovers, and after reading this article I started thinking about healthy options for lunches that weren't just leftovers. One idea sounded really tasty: chopped salad with raw broccoli, ramen noodles, toasted almonds, and homemade vinaigrette.

According to the article, Men bring a sandwich about 47 percent of the time. Wheat is growing as the main choice for bread up from 34% of people who had it on hand 30 years ago to 77% now. Many healthier and more exotic condiments are also growing in popularity like chutneys. This sandwich mentioned in the article sounds really good and nutritious, it contains:  fresh turkey breast, seedy three grain bread, apple butter, mayo, sliced green apples and brie.

According to the article, 2 out of 3 American households plan dinners specifically with leftovers in mind. 80 percent of readers say they eat leftovers in order to save money. Women are more likely than men to take leftovers to work, and will sometimes cook meals large enough to last several days. Readers point out that they feel healthier when bringing food from home, and can be more aware which ingredients they are consuming.

I really enjoyed this article because I think it connects to a few more important issues. One is that it is important to not waste any ingredients you have, and I feel that if you cook all your ingredients and have extra for dinner, but eat it throughout the week that is better than your produce going bad. Also, it is usually not much more expensive at all to create a couple extra portions of a dish, but you can easily get a lunch from a restaurant that is $10 and not even that tasty. Another issue is portion control, you are measuring your lunch out in advance, and not after working all morning so you are more likely to have a reasonable portion than if you sat down at the Indian buffet and ate as much as you felt like. Another issue I agree with was mentioned by one of the readers - if you totally make something from scratch you are just not going to add the food coloring, preservatives, extra chemicals that some place like Subway might add. You know what you are eating, and I think that is important.

A healthy, homemade lunch option combined with a good walk I think is a lot better than working through lunch and not eating, checking out facebook while eating your fast food sandwich, or sitting through a work meeting and calling it lunch. I think it is very important to take time out during one's work day, and also to actually bring something nutritious. I am inspired by the salad lunch ideas in this article, and look forward to finding some refreshing summer options.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bongiorno's Italian Restaurant

Last night we went to Bongiorno's. We really love it! First of all it looks like someone's living room and the space feels very charming and cozy. Second, the bar is great. Martinis, Manhattans, and everything we have tried from the bar has been exactly right. Plus the cocktail glasses are adorably old fashioned and not too huge or anything. The bread tastes really fresh, and the pesto is good. The salad dressings (we had the balsamic and the house dressing) were delicious. Every entrée we've had from there has been great. Last night I got the manicotti with ricotta, and Scott got the special which was scallops Provençale, with artichokes, tomatoes and white wine. In the past I have had the shrimp fra diavolo, and Scott has tried some veal and beef dishes that were really good. The first time we went he may have tried the chicken Cacciatorre, which I think he really enjoyed. Both of the owners came over to our table separately to see how things were. The staff was also really friendly with some really good recommendations. We didn't have any dessert (though I think we have tried the tiramisu and cannolis in the past and they were great), but I got some espresso and Scott got a cappuccino.    
As expected, the coffees were delicious. Then, the owners sent us over some free cocktails.
They call it "The Bongiorno". It was delicious. They wouldn't tell me what was in it, but I would guess grenadine, crème de cacao, and crème de menthe. It was a great time, like going over your old Italian aunt's house for dinner, if either of us actually had an old Italian aunt. We hadn't really been here in a while, but we have never been disappointed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Practice Makes Perfect

I was reading in Ad Hoc at Home last weekend Thomas Keller's tips for the home cook. He pointed out that being a good cook at home really comes down to knowing how to do a handful of things well: braising, making a pie crust, roasting a chicken, cooking eggs, making a pan sauce, and a few other tasks. He pointed out that many home cooks try a recipe once and move on to the next. But he pointed out that when a person makes a recipe for a second time is when they start to really understand how to make the dish. He recommends starting with these fundamental tasks and branching out from there.

I can agree that making the same recipes many times is what allows the cook to actually excel at certain things. I can make some really good chocolate chip cookies. Why? Because Scott loves them and always says "You never make us cookies". So since he encourages me to make the same type of dessert over and over again, I have a good grasp on what makes the process successful. Ice cream, on the other hand, which is very heavy, where the recipe produces more than we would want to eat, where we'd only really want on hot weather days, I have yet to master. I bet if I had a fiancé who was obsessed with ice cream, that I would be really competent at many different flavors.

That being said it is important to be able to on a weeknight walk in the grocery store and know a handful of dishes you can choose from where you know their ingredients by heart. I have a Brazilian shrimp stew from this book that I could make in my sleep. It is just shrimp, lemon, garlic, can of tomatoes, can of coconut milk, onion, parsley, maybe a red pepper. It is really easy takes about 20 minutes and impresses everyone I've made it for. Problem is it bores me. There is no act of discovery. There is no scientific experiment feeling to the project. There is no philosophizing on how and why the flavors in the ingredients interact. There is no surprise when it turns out delicious. Of course it is delicious, we've had it a hundred times. So on this a day when I have no idea what to have for dinner, do I go with an old standby and increase my skills further at something I find boring to make? Or do I pick something totally random where I can be surprised when it turns out well and feel fascinated by the process? Sure, Thomas Keller might think that home cooks don't repeat their recipes enough, but at some point you just have to go a little crazy. (Still not sure what to make for dinner, maybe I'll just go with the shrimp.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Knickerbocker Cocktail

From this great book comes the height of old New York elegance:

2 ounces gin (just used Beefeater, didn't want a whole lot of other complex flavors)
1 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
Dash of orange bitters
(recipe calls for lemon twist, and we were out unfortunately - it is delicious anyway)

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a martini glass.

Mmmm like a martini, but a little more complex. Tastes like sophistication in a glass.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Capital Q Smokehouse

I'll start out by pointing out that I hail from the suburbs in the upper Midwest, and that I've spent my young adult years in the state of New York. I visited Tennessee a bit as a child, and have probably been to the Carolinas about 3 times. The biggest connection I probably have to the south is being a Taylor Swift fan and being charmed by some wedding ideas from Southern Weddings Magazine. So what do I really know about BBQ?
Well, I know that Capital Q Smokehouse is delicious! They have several different styles of sauces and I have yet to try them all: Kansas City, Okie, Memphis Style, South Carolina, and a couple more. The Okie chicken in particular is really tasty. There's some depth and complexity to the flavors in the sauce. Their food is really high quality, and they have a catering menu and sell dishes by the pound. I could imagine a party in the summer with food from here that would be a lot less stressful than making everything ourselves and would be very satisfying. I've heard mixed reviews from some of our friends about the sides, but I have loved the ones we have tried: the cornbread (they might put a little maple in the whipped butter, not sure), green bean casserole (bit of Midwest cuisine nostalgia there), potato salad, collard greens (a nice vinegar flavor), and creamed spinach. It might be beneficial to take a look at the sides, and determine which ones look the freshest before ordering. I should mention that they only take cash, but that it is not expensive. It's a lot of food for $20, and perfect for an inspiration-lacking weeknight. The fact that we have places like this is part of why I have so much affection for Albany as a city.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Few Dissents

I love the idea of the Fussy Little Blog's alternative Times Union Best of Albany ballot, and I wholeheartedly endorse trying to ensure that the list isn't swamped by mediocre chains. Combined with the fact that we're relatively new to the area and lack the expertise to judge a lot of the categories, my presumption is to defer to Daniel's choices.

However! Being the kind of asshole individualist who proudly resists outings to event movies, I can't resist a few cranky exceptions, even though I know it works against the thrust of the exercise. The biggest one, as I point out in comments, refers to Trader Joe's. It's not that it wouldn't be useful to have one here. But I also find it really overrated, at least for my own purposes. It does have well-above-average frozen and pre-packaged meals, but essentially I never eat them. And if you don't, TJ's isn't terribly exciting; I do like the cheap house olive oil and quinoa and a few other things, but in general you have to go somewhere else to complete your shopping, and even the house stuff I like is far from exciting. Even in Brooklyn, where the neighborhood grocery options were much worse than Albany's, I rarely went -- the lines were insanely long, you never knew what produce they would have on a given day, the house brands vary in quality. The wine store was a major draw in Seattle, but given (in my order of preference) All-Star, Empire and Exit 9 plus several good neighborhood stores I'd like to see stay in business here, a TJ's wine store would be redundant-to-counterproductive. I find the Fresh Market a better compliment to PC/Hannaford and the Pioneer Food Market and Honest Weight Co-op, frankly.

So, anyway, here's my list of the few categories where I'll vote differently. I've tried to confine my dissents to cases where the result won't be to throw the election to a big national chain:

Best Local Grocery Store: Pioneer Food Market
Best Local Wine Store: All-Star
Best four-year college: College of Saint Rose, in my entirely unbiased opinion
Best Mexican/Central/South American: El Mariachi (Hamilton)
Best Italian: Cafe Capriccio
Best Band: Phantogram
Best Movie Theater: Spectrum 8
Best Museum: Williams College Museum of Art

Other than that, I endorse the collective ballot. Happy voting!

UPDATE: Daniel actually explains his TJ's decision further here. I still see it as working at cross-purposes with the whole project, in that it promotes a national chain at the expense of local businesses, a particular problem with respect to the wine store part given that they're substantially inferior to the independent local wine stores that would be denied recognition. But I opine, you decide...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Season to Taste

I was reading in Ad Hoc at Home this weekend about all the ways vinegar can be used. I never really thought of it, but Keller was saying how it is like salt and pepper and can be added to many dishes to lift up the flavors. You can add a bit to give a dish a little punch, but not too much that it tastes predominantly like vinegar. He says that about salt and pepper too, when you can taste them its too much. Keller was also saying that any food you add salt to yourself won't be tasty and so salty that it is a health concern. He says salt in your diet only becomes a concern if you are eating canned and processed foods that have incredibly high amounts. I added some champagne vinegar to my chicken dumplings soup, and I am now having the leftovers for lunch and I really notice how the vinegar brightens and lifts up the flavors.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Night Chicken Salad

This seems like a contradiction in terms, especially if you think of Sunday night as a time to do something a little fancier than you have time for on a weeknight. In this case, though, we tried it with a little elegance. We roasted a chicken with vegetables last night, and so the leftover chicken was the basis for the sandwich and the leftover veggies made a nice side.

But what made this "Sunday night" chicken salad was the homemade components. First, Ms. Garlic made fresh sandwich bread -- excellent (from the recipe in How to Cook Everything.) Then, for the first time, I made homemade mayo. Pretty easy if you have a decent food processor, actually. Put two eggs yolks in the bowl of a food processor, turn on the motor, and slowly pour in a cup of olive or canola oil. Run until it emulsifies, and then add a tablespoon of lemon juice, salt and pepper. Tasty! And can be used all week. We added the mayo to the chicken and some sliced scallions. It made a chicken salad sandwich seem elegant!

And, for the coup de gras, the leftover egg whites we used made a great cocktail. Tasty and frugal!

Very Delicious Cocktail

We were incredibly efficient this weekend. We made a roast chicken dish, and turned the chicken into chicken salad. We then used the egg whites leftover from the mayo from the chicken salad in a cocktail. And it is very delicious:

Acapulco

1 1/2 ounces light Rum (I used the Berkshire Mountain Distillery Rum)
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 egg white
1/2 ounce simple syrup

Shake the ingredients vigorously with ice. Strain over ice in an old fashioned glass.

The egg white gives the whole thing a really light and fluffy consistency, and the lime and Cointreau are really refreshing. Tasty! Also we didn't have to throw out the leftover egg whites!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Martha Knows Best

We sent away for tickets to the Martha Stewart Show taping in NYC. I can testify that she is very particular about what the studio audience wears during the taping (a lot of "Dress to impress!!!" in emails). The staff is also incredibly organized, more than I ever remember about attending David Letterman tapings when I was younger. Actor Ted Danson was there, and he is associated with an organization called Oceana. We got many free things from the show including his new book about saving our oceans . We were also given a chart to help us decide which type of fish were better to eat in terms of their risk of extinction in the oceans. There was also a segment on which products to buy that were more friendly to the rainforest, and how to decipher symbols in grocery stores on packages (like organic and fair trade products).

Ted Danson and Martha also made a salt-baked sea bass. I haven't used this technique before, but apparently it helps to cook the fish very evenly, and Thomas Keller has a very similar recipe in Ad Hoc at Home I noticed today. Martha also has a new line of cleaning products which is good for the environment and for pets (she gave us both a huge amount, and they were very heavy to carry during the rest of our day in the city), and a copy of her new magazine Whole Living which is about healthy living and has some good recipes.
(Kitchen:)
I was also really impressed by how elaborate the set was. There was a real kitchen (where they actually cooked everything), a kitchen that looked like it was in a suburban home, a craft room, a green house (which was where they had all the pets running around).
(Greenhouse: )
 (Martha had to prove her cleaning products were safe for pets by cleaning with a parrot on her shoulder:)
Actually I will say I was sort of impressed with her. At the end people asked her questions, and she actually gave everyone very good, specific answers. I saw in her magazine Whole Living that there are now "Martha Stewart" brand houses in Florida which are powered by solar power, and it seemed at a certain point what is she really doing? She is not an engineer or an architect so that seems just like sticking a brand name on someone else's work. But she seemed to feel very strongly that the audience member from Long Island with the high heating bills needed to replace her drafty doors, and seemed to have some very good composting advice (which I can't confirm, but it sounded authoritative). She was very chill the whole time and wholly unimpressed that everyone was cheering for her. She just sat there drinking her tea. And when Ted Danson said "this is hard, have you done this before?" even though she had a huge staff actually cooking the food in the next room she said to him very smugly "Of course I have done this before!" It was really fun, and I found her amusing.