Unhappy Meals

Michael Pollan, author of last year’s best food book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” wrote a good piece for the Sunday NYT about what he calls nutritionism — that as our dietary fads get more complicated, we get less healthy.

Here’s his eating plan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Read “Unhappy Meals”


Endangered Tortillas


Tortillas are in trouble, reports Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Washington Post Foreign Service.“Mexico is in the grip of the worst tortilla crisis in its modern history. Dramatically rising international corn prices, spurred by demand for the grain-based fuel ethanol, have led to expensive tortillas. That, in turn, has led to lower sales for vendors … and angry protests by consumers.

“The uproar is exposing this country’s outsize dependence on tortillas in its diet — especially among the poor — and testing the acumen of the new president, Felipe Calderón. It is also raising questions about the powerful businesses that dominate the Mexican corn market and are suspected by some lawmakers and regulators of unfair speculation and monopoly practices. “

Tortilla in Crisis

Wine and food at the Hilton

For high-end eating and drinking, the Hilton’s series of wine dinners may be the best bargain in town. Executive Chef John Reis has just released the schedule for winter and spring.

Also at the Hilton, the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association and the Pennsylvania Tourism and Lodging Association are hosting the first Pennsylvania Food and Beverage Conference. The keynote speaker will be Walter Scheib, former White House chef, who will recreate an official Head of State dinner on the 7th. On the 8th, there’ll be an Iron Chef Competition lunch.

Both events are open to the public. See the PRA website for registration info.

Spying on the CIA


Epicurious.com has come up with some real reality — following two cooks and two bakers through months of classes at the Culinary Institute of America.

Go to the website for the promo video and an outline of the project. Epicurious will run the student blogs and air the videos they make in class. Here’s Jared from Ontario on his dream job:

“I would like to work as a sous chef if possible, or a line cook in Toronto in one of Oliver Bonacini’s restaurants, such as Auberge du Pommier or Canoe. Then shortly after, I’d like to open my own fine-dining, 40-seat restaurant that serves Canadian Cuisine in an extremely artistic, scientific, contemporary, yet classic kind of way.”

There’s a Canadian cuisine? Who knew?

This looks to be an interesting series.

Coping in California

The deep freeze hit the Left Coast hard, and chefs are making quick citrus substitutions 

“Normally, top restaurants that lean heavily toward local, seasonal ingredients are awash with citrus this time of year, using both fruit and juice. ‘In winter, I love to make citrus vinaigrettes,’ says Bob Hurley of Hurley’s in Yountville, “but with this (anticipated) shortage, I’ll have to use vinegars instead.” He says guests shouldn’t notice the difference.”

Read the Chronicle piece

With Gloves On …

When we go to the Farmers’ Market in Lemoyne on Saturday morning, we usually get a turkey wrap for lunch. Sometimes we sit down at the market and eat, sometimes we save it for later when we go to Borders.

Lately we’ve noticed some interesting behavior by the Turkey Ladies. They wear gloves, the beige plastic ones. It’s required by the state of Pennsylvania for people handling food that will go to the customer without further cooking. The idea is that the gloves are safer than having people wash their hands frequently.

The thing is, they also make notes with a pen and paper when people order. And they make change. Maybe answer the phone. Then they make sandwiches, all with the same gloves on.

I wouldn’t bring this up, but I just started the Food Safety class at HACC with Chef Tim Harris.

One of the first things chef had us do was put on the gloves while he talked. Then he kept talking and led us through the first chapter of the textbook. We paged through, took notes, probably scratched out noses and so on. With gloves on.

At which point he made his point: Wearing gloves is not enough. You have to be mindful of what you’re doing and what safe food handling involves.

I love the market, and the variety of personalities there: the serious Fish People, the grumpy Chicken Man, the happy Meat Guy, the helpful Veggie Women, knowledgeable Mister Cheese and the snotty Bread Guy who sniffs at you if you’re just there to buy a baguette — as if he had something better to do than sell you one.

Me, I don’t care if any of them wear gloves. But if they’re going to, I want them to be clean gloves.

Pretty Savory


The grownups are playing with their food again.

It used to be about the oil, especially first-cold-press extra-virgin olive oil. Then it was vinegars, some with tarragon sprigs that seemed to be growing inside the bottle.

Now salt has moved to the center of the plate.

“It’s a new trend in high-end dinner party accoutrement,” said Jan Rumberger of Silver Spring Twp., a home cook and entrepreneur who does a lot of entertaining. Jan taught in the wine class at HACC during the fall semester. We got talking about food and wine one night, and he brought up salt.

This week, he invited me over for dinner and sizzled a ribeye steak with ranch fries and petit peas, all unseasoned, served with a Napa Valley Cabernet.

Then he brought out the salts.

The collection was from http://www.NapaStyle.com, and included a smoked salt and some herb-infused salts along with Hawaiian Red, Fleur de Sel and several others. I dropped some Hawaiian Red onto a clump of peas. It lit them up without the overwhelming salinity of table salt.

Then I sprinkled Savory Sundried Tomato Garlic Gray Salt on a piece of steak and inhaled an explosion of flavor. Had some wine and returned to my work.

So it went, and very successfully, salt after selt. Well, the ranch fries didn’t do so well. I think they need to be salted as they’re roasting. But the salts brought out the flavor of the steak and veggies and added a vigorous accent.

Jan suggested that a restaurant presentation of a half-dozen salts — a flight of salts? –with a dinner dish would be a lot of fun.

At Bricco, the teaching restaurant on Second Street, chef instructor Michael Finch takes a different approach to salt presentation.

“We actually do a compound butter that we blend the Peruvian pink salt crystals into, because they’re a large crystal. We’re using that as a finish for grilled or broiled fish. When you chill that down and slice your butter, you’re getting the flavor as well as the color and texture of the salt.”

Salt is a rock we eat. As the Canadian food writer Margaret Visser put it, “Salt is the only rock directly consumed by man. It corrodes but preserves. It desiccates but is wrested from the water. It has fascinated man for thousands of years.”

It’s more fascinating now that NapaStyle, Williams-Sonoma and other gourmet purveyors are putting pretty pictures of pink salt, black salt and red salt all over the web. Salts even made the short list of hot items for 2007 in a survey of American Culinary Federation members, the nation’s top chefs.

Tim Harris, president of the Harrisburg ACF chapter and head of the Culinary Arts program at HACC, said that salt brings a meal into focus by acting on the dish — but also on the diner. Literally, it makes your mouth water.

“People are relating to it as a finishing product because salt activates the glands in your mouth and saliva starts building. Salt pulls it out of the glands.”

The range of gourmet salts is worldwide, from the ancient salt marshes of France to the new Quoddy Mist Sea Salt taken from the Bay of Fundy, which has the greatest tidal range of any body of water on Earth.

Some far-flung salts include:

Hawaiian Sea Salt, baked in red clay both for color and flavor.
Smoked Sea Salt, sometimes done over exotic materials like coconut shells and kaffir lime leaves.
Cyprus Black Lava Flake Salt, salt from the Mediterranean combined with activated charcoal.

And there are dozens of others, with varied pricing. You can find a collection of a half-dozen salts for about $25.

Some other purveyors …


Most are finishing salts. Kosher is the major cooking salt in commercial kitchens.

David Kamen, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, told one interviewer that using sea salts in cooking is a waste. “If you spend a lot of money on a fancy French sea salt and you add it to a pot of soup that’s going to simmer for two hours, it’s going nowhere,” he said.

The one exception is smoked salt, which Harris says is awesome for cooking strong meat.

“To me this is like, barbaric,” he said, handling some smoked, black grains. “You want something that will stand up to this, like a heavy beef or a game meat — venison or elk or a caribou. I’d use it as a dry rub, to cook and melt in the salt.”